U.S. poultry farmers and marketers know that in the food world of today, transparency isn’t a marketing luxury. It’s a necessity. Consumers want to know where their fresh chicken and turkey products come from, how they were raised, and as much as possible about the people and processes behind them.
For people throughout the food industry, transparency is merely the table stakes for getting into the marketing game.
But the definition of transparency has evolved over the years for suppliers, retailers and consumers. Poultry industry leaders must listen more closely than ever to consumers if they want to maintain, or establish, the trust that’s so essential to an industry where the food is perishable and the attention to animal and human health so vital.
For starters, says Don Steen, a Missouri turkey farmer and former director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, consumers need to go back to the farm. Most can’t literally go back, so it’s the job of farmers and their marketing partners to help them virtually go back.
“Only 2% of Americans live on farms,” Steen said at a workshop at the Annual Meat Conference 2019 in Dallas. “So many people are so far from the family farm, we need to educate them about what it’s all about.”
Misconceptions about poultry farmers are common, Steen says, and it can be an uphill battle to make sure those educational efforts are successful.
“Many consumers look at us as factories,” he said. “We have to a better job of getting that message out about who we are.”
Lauren Arbogast, a co-owner of Harrisonburg, Virginia-based broiler chicken farm Arbogast Farms and another panelist at the AMC workshop, agrees with Steen that a big part of industry professionals’ jobs these days is correcting misconceptions about where and how poultry is raised.
“Aren’t they in cages? Aren’t they one of top of the other?” are two of the many such questions Arbogast finds herself having to answer.
One answer, according to Steen and others in the turkey industry, is to produce what he calls a “traceable turkey” — a product with a code on the packaging that consumers can scan to connect them with the farm where the turkey was raised and, hopefully, tell a story about it.
And if you can get the word “family” in there, all the better.
“The term ‘family farm’ is very well received by consumers,” Steen said. “If you can trace that bird back to a family farm, you’ll get good results.”
Getting the word out
Arbogast is a firm believer in harnessing the power of social media to make the producer/retailer/consumer relationships as transparent as possible. “Social allows you to bring the human factor into the picture,” she said.
On her social media platforms, Arbogast Farms figures prominently. Photographs and videos show her and her family performing or explaining various tasks in the production process to give viewers an idea of exactly how the company’s chickens are raised.
Social media outreach doesn’t always work, of course, Arbogast said, and you can’t guarantee that consumers will get the right messages from it. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t play a big role in growers’ marketing.
“The risks of not stepping out are greater than the risks of stepping out,” she said. “We need to be far more proactive than reactive. We need to own who we are.”
Another great way to reach out directly to consumers, Arbogast said, is through the creation of “teaching farms” — poultry farms that open their doors to the community for tours, provide educational events for schoolchildren and other events and activities.
Bill Zucker, managing director of consultant Ketchum’s Food Industry Leader division, and the moderator of the AMC conference, touted the Washington, D.C.-based National Chicken Council’s online virtual tour of how chickens are raised in the U.S.
“Ninety percent of consumers want more information on how chickens are raised and 40% want to know more about how the birds are cared for,” Zucker said.
Transparency, Steen says, should not be perceived as something that’s only possible on small or medium-sized farms.
“We have four 10,000-bird flocks, but when it comes to transparency, it would be just as easy if you had 20,000-bird flocks.”
Small, medium or large, whatever the size of the farm, one key to making your transparency plan work, Steen says, is to keep it simple. “It’s more difficult to claim that you’re transparent when you’re claiming five or six different things about your product — that it’s organic, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, etc.”