Thursday, September 13, 2007

Potato farmer learns valuable message: transformation needed

When farmers becomes involved with organizations, as members or perhaps serving on the executive level, usually they do it because they want to give back to an industry, or they believe in certain issues, or they hope they can help influence or change certain things the organization is doing.

Whether the organization concentrates on policy, or on improving markets for a certain commodity, it usually has a purpose and appreciates the farmers and ranchers who can help it meet its objectives.

For those farmers who accept the challenge to become more involved, usually they give a great deal than just their opinion: Time and cost can also be a factor. But the experience can be a valuable one, for many reasons.

In the May issue of Spudman magazine, the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Potato Board reflected on his year in the position.

Randy Hardy, who farms with his wife Karlene at Oakley, Idaho, knows potatoes — they grow 350 acres of potatoes. However, he shared that he has learned more about potatoes.

“I’ve logged more travel this year than in my entire adult life,” he wrote in Spudman. “I’ve visited cities and institutions I never thought I’d set foot in. Many of the places I traveled to gave me the opportunity to see potatoes through a different set of eyes — those of retailers, chefs and consumers, both domestic and foreign.”

So what was the main message he learned? He summed it up in one word — transformation — and then explained.

“Whether it is product innovation, packaging changes, new varieties or better handling, for consumers to increase their consumption of potatoes, the industry will have to change,” Hardy said. “Growers have to be on the bandwagon to connect with the consumer and find a niche — or be left behind.”

It’s an excellent message. Is it new? No. Farmers have heard from many experts that they need to figure out what the consumer wants and meet those needs. But it’s still important that farmers discuss the message, especially the farmers who play important roles in organizations. Hopefully they can help influence change within their industries and encourage their peers to discuss this more and figure out not just how to connect more with consumers, but how to understand better what they need and want.

It’s too bad not every farmer can experience the wide range of contacts Hardy made even beyond the consumer: the retailers, chefs, and others who decide what will happen next after a crop and animal leaves a farm. It really does give a different perspective and deeper understanding of what is happening in agriculture today.

In the past, too many agricultural commodity groups had the same mentality: just produce a crop or other bulk product, have someone else market and deliver it to the consumer, and the consumer should want what the farmer offers.

But consumers have changed during the last few decades, and don’t just expect but demand more. In some cases, they’re willing to pay more for what they want, but not always. Sometimes staying status quo by the commodity’s growers and processors means the loss of a market to someone else who understands and satisfies those customers better.

Hardy ended his message with encouraging every grower to “get involved in promoting and marketing our product.”

Hopefully other growers will take his message to heart and follow his footsteps.

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