Reconnecting farmers and consumers for sustainable futures

Kate: Bridge8 is currently working on a project looking at how farmers receive information. One aspect of farm communication that interests me is the information that passes directly between farmers and consumers. In modern agricultural systems where produce is sold via central distributors, processors and retailers there are rarely direct connections between consumers and the farmers who produce their food.      This can make it difficult for farmers to respond to consumer preferences for quality and diversity. It also favours larger producers able to maximise output of produce, often through more resource intensive (and therefore usually more environmentally harmful) methods. Lack of direct farm-consumer links also contributes to a general lack of understanding by many people of where their food comes from and how dependent therefore they are on things like healthy soils and river systems. Planet ARK’s recent STOP FOOD WASTE campaign urges supermarkets to reconnect consumers with farmers to encourage people to consider the hard work and resources that have gone into making their food.

Farm models and communication strategies that encourage closer links between farmers and consumers have been receiving increased attention in recent years. These are motivated both by farmers wishing to diversify, reach new markets and use more sustainable practices, as well as by consumers seeking quality produce and more direct links to their food. I’ve highlighted a number of strategies below. From the perspective of those interested in communication technologies it is interesting to note how many strategies involve Web-based communication.

Strategies and models promoting farmer-consumer links include:

  • Farm gate sales and farmers markets that allow frequent face-to-face communication with customers.
  • Direct selling to consumers via internet marketing. Some smaller wine companies in the US and Australia are surviving the GFC by using Facebook and Twitter to converse directly with consumers.
  • “Farm to Fork” arrangements where shops and restaurants buy direct from individual producers. These are often businesses wishing to sell quality produce with a commitment to buying fresh local, organic or fair trade.
  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) which is a global phenomenon (In Brisbane FoodConnect works in this manner) where city consumers aim to directly support local farmers by signing up to food delivery schemes. Buyers take on a degree of the risks of production by agreeing to pay for food deliveries regardless of seasonal supply variations. Direct communication between farmers and consumers occurs via websites, farm visits and often collective agreements on pricing.
  • Horticultural Auction Markets. Establishment or revival of regional produce markets (sometimes using online auctions) has been proposed as a way of supporting small scale farming.
  • Marketing strategies aimed at communicating the quality and place of origin of produce through labelling are also ways of promoting farm-consumer links. The EU has recently decided to extend country of origin labelling to increase protection of geographical indications (Expect more restrictions on produce like “Australian Champagne”) and to create more effective labelling for organic produce. Supermarkets in Australia are responding to demand for more information about the story behind products with labels carrying information down to the names of individual farms. In the US half of meat is now estimated to be supplier branded.

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