Stewards of the status quo no more

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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June 21, 2004: Last month the National Farm Products Council organized a forum on grocery and food service trends for poultry and egg sector leaders. We came from across Canada to meet with people who have made it their business to understand consumers and their needs.

We heard David Bell, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, say that we should stop this pattern of listening to consumers and then concluding that consumers obviously do not know what they are talking about. In his view we spend too much time understanding our products, and not enough time understanding our customers. He sees no point in participating in the who-can-deliver-it-to-me-for-less auctions run by some retailers: “If you compete separately you will fail separately.”

He recommends working towards partnerships based on cost plus, open books, trust, quick response to customer changes, traceability, innovation and storied food. He urged us to avoid marketing expenses between participants in a value chain: he was blunt--abandon the dream of windfall gains in return for a share of the profits.

Pollster Allan Gregg saw change just about everywhere. The aging baby boom is creating a new kind of old person. Public decision-making is being feminized by the impact of 12% more women in universities than men. High levels of immigration are creating new groups of consumers. Bad government has eroded confidence in public institutions as agencies for the public good. The generation gap has disappeared as adult children return home and create a new kind of extended family. Well-being consumes consumers, who in turn are predisposed to be concerned about new risks, especially those that are invisible and ingested.

Craig Watson, a quality assurance manager for a multi-billion dollar prepared-meals supplier, described customer focus as a story to tell that gives the sales associates of the firm an advantage in the marketplace. In addition to regulatory compliance his ingredients of choice for the story are: socially responsible, traceability, third party-audited animal welfare policies, nutritional information, niche products, uniquely prepared and locally procured. His agenda is not just food safety, but also food security.

Cora Tsouflidou described how she turned an abandoned snack barn into a franchised chain of 70 Chez Cora Restaurants in just 15 years. She serves only breakfast, combining fresh fruits, cheeses, cereal, omelets, crepes and French toast. The primary ingredient for her success? Quoting Cora: “We are more about exciting and delighting customers than about cooking eggs.”

Meanwhile the business of farming continues to emphasize produce, produce, produce. If I take the views of the speakers at the forum seriously there will be little room for stewards of this status quo on the farms of the future.

For more information about the National Farm Products Council visit http://nfpc-cnpa.gc.ca/english/index.html.



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