New consumer research by a coalition of farm organizations confirms that Illinois consumers care about who produces their food, but are misinformed about the family farmers who really grow and raise the majority of food produced in Illinois.
Extensive research conducted from April to July show the Illinois farmer is still held in substantial esteem by the public. But it also showed consumers have reduced trust in modern farming techniques and profound doubts about how their food is produced.
Farm organizations in the coalition, calling themselves "Illinois Farmers," include the Illinois Beef Association, Illinois CornMarketing Board, Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Pork Producers Association, and Illinois Soybean Association. Their cooperative efforts were announced last week at the Illinois State Fair.
Research projects conducted on behalf of the group, supervised by Milwaukee-based agency Morgan & Myers, show a pervasive mistrust of farming practices that stems from consumer concerns about food safety and animal welfare on so-called "factory farms."
While having trouble clearly defining "factory farms," consumers uniformly feel that such farms dominate Illinois agriculture. In a statewide poll of more than 1,100 non-farm adults commissioned by the groups and conducted by GfK Roper, Illinois residents believe, on average, that 54% of Illinois farm products come from "corporate farms," versus 46% from family farming.
In reality, the most recent USDA statistics show that individual family farms and partnerships dominate farming in the state, representing 94% of all farms.
"The American family farm should be the most trusted food-producing enterprise in the world," says Ron Moore, ISA chairman and soybean farmer from Roseville. "But our customers think the family farm is passing from the scene. Nothing could be further from the truth. We may have larger farms with less diversity, but we are still farming together as a family, and often on the same land as previous generations."
Seventy-one percent of consumers in the poll said they felt more positive about farming when told the facts about the percentage of family-operated farms in the state.
"Farmers care deeply about our responsibility of raising safe and healthy food," adds Brent Scholl a farmer from Polo and current IPPA president. "We must look for every opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue with consumers and be a trusted source of information on questions about how our food is grown and raised."
Two-thirds of non-farmers say they are not knowledgeable about farming practices used on Illinois farms. But two-thirds also say they are personally concerned about "lax regulations of corporate farms." And an equal number are concerned about "the role of big business in farming."
"We are in an era when "Food, Inc." and The Omnivore's Dilemma are required viewing and reading in our nation's high schools and universities," notes Donna Jeschke, a corn farmer from Mazon and immediate past-chair of the ICMB.
"We who farm need to change the way we relate to consumers," concludes Philip Nelson, a Seneca farmer and IFB president. "We must listen to their concerns even more than in the past, and open the gates and doors of our farms to rebuild trust in the way we really farm today."