Marketing sustainable agriculture to farmers is a delicate process

A new ad campaign by Anheuser-Busch InBev touts a new program that ties purchases of Michelob Ultra with organic agriculture cropping systems and pushing the sustainable agriculture message to consumers. Instead of evoking “feels” however, it exposed a deep divide in agriculture. This raised the following question: how does sustainable agriculture marketing connect to farmers?

The ad communicates the idea that organic agriculture is sustainable agriculture—and sustainable agriculture makes a healthier planet. Therefore, beer drinkers can contribute to increasing organic crop production by picking up a six-pack of Michelob Ultra. Therefore, saving the planet—the applause from farmers was faint.

The two sides of the issue reacted strongly — cheers from one side and boos from the other. Unwittingly, the campaign added fuel to the fire of a generations-old organic vs. conventional farming argument. This showed how advertisers can still be quite tone-deaf in their agriculture marketing efforts relating to farmers.

AB InBev discovered the hard way marketing sustainability to farmers in the face of such a dichotomy today is no easy task. Yes, environmental sustainability is fundamental to all types and sizes of farms, otherwise, they’d have no future. As agriculture marketing pros pry at consumers’ idealism and relative naivete about organic production to sell beer however,  they do so at the expense of conventional producers. Those producers realistically share the same goals but may use fertilizer to raise crops to achieve them. Therefore, we remain in a cycle rooted in an argument that doesn’t really need to be happening in the first place.

Almost every farmer I’ve met in my career agrees that environmental sustainability is important but organic farming isn’t as simple as a desire. Farming is a business. If it’s going to be sustainable, it can’t be only environmentally sustainable. It must also be economically sustainable. While it’s true the environmental side helps sell beer, the economic part is the issue.

Farmers know they have to take care of the land if it’s going to take care of them. But there’s not a single way to do that. Ask a passionate proponent of large-scale organic farming about why they do what they do. The answer will inevitably be rooted in criticism for conventional practices.


Marketing Sustainable Agriculture To Farmers

With this tension as the backdrop, it’s vital for agriculture marketing folks to slow down. It’s necessary to understand how to truly connect to farmers. That process starts with the honest acknowledgment of the disagreement between these two sides. More importantly, embracing there is more common ground than either side will often admit. No one who identifies themselves as a farmer wants agriculture to fail.

The next step is honesty throughout the supply chain. Agriculture companies know the importance of sustainability to their customers, but they also have shareholders to keep happy and increasing consumer awareness to satiate. A marketing idea may resonate well among consumers and the corporate board room. But the sentiment may be much different in farm country. It’s the tightrope ag companies have to walk.

Agriculture marketing leaders must be transparent. They need to recognize while these constituencies have distinctly different interests, they all matter. Marketing sustainable agriculture successfully requires equal acknowledgment of them all.

That transparency is especially important given farmers’ general business acumen. They’re shrewd, results-oriented businesspeople who are sometimes naturally skeptical. They can also be cynical about the products and ideas agriculture marketing pushes on them. Because it’s an industry in which they are constantly the target of product marketing and promotion, they know if something sounds too good to be true, it is.

While most farmers know it takes money to make money, they’re also fiscally conservative. They have a bottom line to maintain and often won’t buy into a product or service until its value has been proven. And sometimes, the benefits of becoming more actively environmentally sustainable don’t cash-flow for years.

Of all the ideas that correlate with a particular product, sustainability is among the most difficult to successfully explore for agriculture companies. Get too idealist and you’ll come across as preachy—potentially appearing as though you are looking down on farmers. Don’t address the idea enough, and you run the risk of alienating shareholders and consumers to whom sustainability is increasingly important.

If you’re looking to start — or redirect — the conversation on environmental sustainability with farmers and the agribusiness community in general, here are a few ways to engage farmers and potential customers without walking the tightrope of agriculture marketing:

  1. Make it a business-first conversation.
    There are practices many would consider “sustainable” that isn’t economically feasible for many farmers. Determine who you want to have the conversation with. Lead off that conversation with acknowledgment of the economics underpinning so many of the decisions farmers make. All you need to do is show that it’s a smart business decision. Farmers will adopt a new practice or purchase a new product to become more environmentally sustainable. Remember: It’s every farmer’s goal to be sustainable.
  2. Don’t separate sustainability from productivity.
    The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and in many cases, what’s environmentally sustainable can also be economically sustainable. If a product is proven to be environmentally sustainable — even if it causes a slight dip in production — farmers are likely to give it strong consideration. This is especially true if that dip is temporary and revenue is strengthened in the long term. Successfully marketing sustainable agriculture to farmers starts by showing the two can and do coexist. Instead of creating a dichotomy, address it by first showing what environmental sustainability and productivity have in common.
  3. Speak high-level.
    Farmers not only know when they’re being sold something, but they also have a strong understanding of what works, and what doesn’t for their operations. Respect that knowledge and make it a high-level conversation that addresses environmental sustainability in a way that demonstrates that respect.
  4. Avoid “trigger” words and phrases.
    There are terms and turns of phrase specific to what farmers and consumers consider conventional and sustainable agriculture. Using them can sometimes alienate your target audience before you even speak a complete sentence. “Factory farm” is a good example; it’s a term commonly used by detractors of large, conventional farms today. Using it in any messaging to farmers about sustainable agriculture will have a chilling effect on any potential dialog on the topic. “Feeding 9 billion people” is another good example. It’s a rallying cry for maximum-output agriculture based on the idea that food demand will one day outpace production capacity if we don’t continue to grow the whole industry. It’s another phrase that sometimes has a similar effect.
  5. Don’t try to change the world all at once.
    Especially at times when markets are challenging farm profitability, farmers are much more receptive to integrating new sustainable practices or products. They may look to these and see if operations can quickly see the potential for incremental improvements. Don’t try to sell farmers on the idea that with your product, they’ll have the ultimate sustainable farm and revenues will skyrocket. Even if that’s true, they likely won’t believe you until it’s proven!
  6. Make it a two-way conversation.
    Start a sustainable agriculture conversation by listening. You might be surprised by what you learn, and it might yield common ground you didn’t think existed between “conventional” farmers and products and services normally labeled as sustainable agriculture. And farmers will be much more willing to collaborate on a sustainability effort if your first step is to listen.

Environmental sustainability has long been something of a lightning rod in agriculture. Pitting farmers against farmers because of different production practices and the products they use to produce what consumers demand. The resulting rift makes it a challenge for agriculture marketing leaders to reach the broadest agricultural audience and market potential.

By showing agriculture — though diverse in its scope and diversity — has a lot in common when it comes to preserving the environment, listening and finally using common language that will be widely accepted without feeding a generations-old divide. Marketing sustainability to farmers can happen much more effectively, one six-pack of beer at a time or otherwise.

About AgCast: Lessing-Flynn’s monthly AgCast is our look at the future of agriculture, how technology will shape the evolution of the industry and the implications of that change to agriculture marketing CMOs and leaders.

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