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Finding common ground
It's Saturday morning and Suzanne Shirbroun is at the grocery store –again. Today, instead of scanning a shopping list for husband Joe and their three sons, the Farmersburg, Iowa, farmer is scanning the faces of shoppers.
As the number of agriculture-dependent counties drops nationwide, Shirbroun and farmers Sara Ross and Jill Vander Veen have come to the West Lakes Hy-Vee in West Des Moines, Iowa, to cultivate a closer relationship with suburban and urban women.
“We're a little bit nervous. But we're also excited about the opportunity to share our ag stories with our consumers,” she says.
The new outreach is called CommonGround, and it's an initiative of the National Corn Growers and United Soybean Board. The Iowa event on February 5 was the kickoff for a pilot program also under way in Nebraska, South Dakota, Indiana, and Kentucky.
A survey by Boston Consulting Group reveals that 85% of women handle grocery shopping and meal preparation. So CommonGround's mom-driven approach is a natural venue for engaging women in discussions about food production, food safety, and farm life. Civic events and social media are also new inroads for discovering common ground.
“There's information reaching consumers, but it's not always the whole story,” says Ross, a Minden, Iowa, farmer. “Farmers are concerned about an increasing disconnect between consumers and the people who grow their food. “
The women spent two hours giving away recyclable grocery bags and helping shoppers sign up for the chance to receive gift cards and cookbooks during a drawing at the store event.
At the end of the morning, they gave away a grand prize Valentine's Treat Day for Mom, including flowers, chocolate, and a spa certificate. The event attracted live radio broadcast and TV coverage.
“When people go to the grocery store, many are in a hurry to get in and to get out,” Ross says. “But we were pleasantly surprised that quite a few stopped with questions and listened to our answers.”
Many were curious about Common-Ground. “Others asked about GMOs, organics, and the egg recall,” Ross says. “One woman asked why the eggs she buys locally have darker yolks.”
Ross and her husband, Kevin, grow corn and soybeans and have a cow-calf operation. Shirbroun and her husband are corn and soybean producers and have a seed dealership. Jill Vander Veen farms with her husband, Roger, near Hartley, Iowa. They have a cow-calf operation.
“Our message is that we put a lot of care into the food we grow,” Vander Veen says. “We're putting the same food on our tables that we're producing.”
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Near Edgar, Nebraska, Common-Ground spokesperson Dawn Caldwell and her husband, Matt, farm his family's farm just across the border in north-central Kansas.
Caldwell, who has an animal science degree, participated in a Hy-Vee grocery store event in Lincoln on February 26. The event coincided with National Food Check-Out Week.
“We tied it into the conversation that one reason food is so affordable in the U.S. is the efficiency of American farmers,” she says. “At the same time that it's affordable, we want consumers to know that farmers are careful about food safety.”
According to a recent Better Homes & Gardens Food Trends Survey, two thirds of U.S. women are “somewhat confident” that the food they buy is safe to eat.
The women recognize that conversations need to be a two-way exchange.
“We're not out to change anyone's mind about the food they eat. But we want them to know that the food we grow is safe and healthy,” Ross says.
Caldwell says one misperception is large farms aren't family operations. “An operation may have a large number of acres or livestock units, but it's farmed by a father and three sons,” she says.
Fifteen CommonGround spokespersons from the five states met in San Antonio for two days earlier this year. They gained valuable tips on answering difficult questions and avoiding farmer jargon.
“We're basically telling our story,” Caldwell says. “But I can't expect nonfarmers to understand if I talk about A.I.ing a cow.”
Each of the spokespersons writes a blog and is on Facebook and Twitter. Each makes individual efforts to reach out to women in local areas.
The goal is to expand to more than 20 states with 80 to 150 trained spokespersons by the end of 2011. “We want to get into other states and to speak to other moms,” Caldwell says. “Everyone cares about where his or her food comes from.”
Karen Smith agrees. She was shopping during the Iowa kickoff. “I didn't used to think much about where products came from,” she says. “But there's a trend to local food and I support it. I want to know what's in my food. So much is processed.”
She says she uses the NuVal Nutrit-ional scoring system posted at Hy-Vee to help her make better decisions.
USDA economists are predicting food inflation will accelerate in the first six months of 2011. This offers the CommonGround volunteers the opportunity to field a new crop of consumer questions. The women say they plan to be Consumer Ready.