by Tamara Scully

Every year, the food, beverage, restaurant and grocery industries release their top trends for the New Year. But do farmers need to pay attention? It certainly couldn’t hurt. Whether selling direct from your small farm to the consumer, working with institutions or restaurants, or selling wholesale to processors, distributors or supermarkets, consumer food trends are eventually going to have some impact down on the farm.

The Oklahoma State University Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center (FAPC) recently released their own top 10 food trends. Rodney B. Holcomb, Department of Agricultural Economics, explains what some of the trends might mean from the farmers’ perspective.

Small farmers selling directly to consumers can’t always fulfill all the desires of the consumer. Out of season produce, tropical fruit and processed food items aren’t grown on local farms. And even if the farm is growing an in-demand product, or using a preferred production practice, the big players in the food arena will take notice.

“Of course the large producers will continue to modify their production practices to meet consumer demands, and they will be able to do so with greater financial efficiency than small farms,” Holcomb said. “We’ve seen this pattern with organic production. That’s why now you can find several organic food products even under Walmart’s Great Value and Sam’s Choice labels. Granted, there are small farmers that find a niche in the local food arena and generate above-average returns.”

Some 2020 trends

That local food arena – along with the now ubiquitous word “sustainable” – means many different things, and consumers are rightly confused. Sustainability is a fluid concept, and often includes non-GMO, fair trade, or animal welfare labeling claims such as grassfed, no antibiotics, cage-free, or pastured. Sustainability claims are everywhere now, with large agricultural operations laying claim to terms that once were the lexicon of small farming.

Regenerative agriculture, with a focus on reduced carbon footprints, increased biodiversity, and a lessened negative impact on Mother Earth, will replace “sustainability” as the buzzword for 2020, and is number eight on the FAPC food trend list. The International food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) also forecasted regenerative agriculture as a top 2020 trend emerging from the sustainable label. The focus will be on agricultural practices which renew the land, not simply conserve its resources.

“Remember that these trends aren’t absolutes, nor do they stand alone with no influence from other trends,” Holcomb cautioned. “Concerns about sustainability do not trump every other taste, preference or demand of consumers. Price and convenience are still the key factors.”

While price is important, consumers are willing to pay more for products that reflect some of their values. Food grown in a given way, such as grassfed or organic, are typically priced higher than products that aren’t making such claims. But that pricing disparity tends to level out as the practice becomes normalized, Holcomb said.

Livestock production, including dairy, have suffered backlash from the sustainability focus, with some consumers adopting a more plant-based diet due to concerns about the environmental footprint of raising livestock for food. The rise of imitation meat and other food products made with plant-based proteins isn’t going to abate. The good news is that blends of meat protein and plant protein will gain appeal with consumers who aren’t totally sold on going meatless.

Healthy food

Along with other concerns about how food was produced, consumers are seeking less processed food options. While the trend to plant protein-based burgers defies this, as they are highly processed, the FAPC lists a focus on refrigerated snacks with minimal processing and few ingredients as trend number five. Vegetables with a dipping sauce and pickled vegetables are expected to soar in popularity, which may be good news for vegetable growers. The number two trend – increased demand for greens – is all about the vegetables, too, and vegetable consumption is expected to rise overall. Whether prepared fresh or processed into cauliflower pizza crust, vegetables will have a place at the 2020 table.

For those farmers who also make value-added foods, butters and spreads — particularly those made with nuts and seeds — are expected to trend. The demand for foods with probiotics are expected to surge too, as is the desire for exotic foods from foreign cuisines, meaning that ethnic vegetables might be in demand. Sugar is expected to lose its sweet spot, as sweetness will come from natural sugars found in fruits and reduced to a syrupy reduction.

Alcohol consumption will take a backseat to mocktails, with a variety of non-alcoholic concoctions growing in popularity as young adults take over the happy hour. And an even younger generation, being raised by millenial parents, will be developing into little foodies, as kids become food connoisseurs at a young age.

Small farming focus

While local food is still a thing, it isn’t a 2020 trend. But the push towards food transparency, clean eating and regenerative practices will allow small farmers to promote their products and appeal consumer demands.

“For some producers, geographic regions and marketing niches, a small farm may be able to capitalize on these trends by mimicking the tactics of major brands on a small scale,” Holcomb said. But when everyone is touting the same claims, “uniqueness, from a small farm standpoint, goes away.”

When the label becomes mainstream, the spoils go to the lowest price producer, which is normally the large brands. When this happens, the important question, said Holcomb, is “can you differentiate yourself in a way that has some value to the consumer?”

Holcomb sees potential in small producers banding together to capitalize on economies of scale. Incubator kitchens, farmers markets, food hubs and small producer-owned cooperatives can play a role. Sharing the cost of capital, distribution, marketing and branding can help small farmers capture more food dollars.

The food trends for 2020 will ripple down to the farm. How much influence they’ll have on any given operation depends on size, location, markets, branding and more. Knowing what those trends are, and focusing on capturing as much of the value inherent in your products as possible, isn’t a bad way to start the new year.