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Consumers Drive Farmer Decisions

Cage-free. Organic. Grass-finished. Free range. Local. What does the consumer want? How long will they want it? 

As consumer preferences become an important driver in agriculture, more farmers are asking themselves that question. Unfortunately, the answer can be a moving target, and agriculture can’t always make the changes as fast as consumers change their mind.

During a visit to a North Carolina apple farm recently, I noticed the orchard right beside its packing house was being bulldozed. When I asked the farmer about the change, he said the trees were older and still producing apples, but that variety was no longer very popular and demand had dropped.  

New trees that produced a different variety were going to be planted.  He was also moving away from the traditional orchard to a trellis system, which many growers in our state have adopted and I talked about in this post.

This change was not cheap. The investment per acre was $10,000 to $20,000 to plant an orchard with a variety of apple consumers want. At least, a variety they want right now.

I heard a cattle farmer talk about the effect of consumer demand on his management decisions at a Feed the Dialogue NC event earlier this year. He was considering moving from grain-finished to grass-finished cattle, but he fears by the time he makes the investment to change his system, consumer preferences will have changed.  

His fears are well-founded in my opinion. In order to make the change to grass-finished cattle, he may have to change the grasses he plants, add fencing, develop a pasture rotation program, add wells or watering stations, and the list goes on. This is not a change he could make overnight and without investing time and money.

Sometimes agriculture changes in response to consumer preferences with unintended consequences. Several years ago I attended a session on pork at a conference for chefs. One chef asked why the pasture pork he purchased and cooked had a different flavor from meat from pigs raised in confinement.  

A pig farmer on the panel answered his question, saying the industry started selecting leaner animals when consumers began asking for less fat.  This change happened over years as leaner pigs were selected and bred to pass those genetics on to the next generation of piglets. Pigs became leaner. When cooking meat, fat affects flavor. In essence, flavor was sacrificed for leanness.  

Now, there are other factors that can affect flavor, but there is no denying that intramuscular marbling, or the fat within a cut of meat, does play a role in the flavor of cooked meat. I learned that in my meat science class in college. 

Many factors drive consumer preferences such as health concerns, income, and culture. As those preferences change, agriculture is trying to keep up. Some changes can be made in a growing season, but others can take years. 


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