About 10 years ago, farmers started to feel this pressure, this need to pay attention and be involved in consumer engagement. “It’s a weird thing that we agreed consumer engagement is a thing we needed to focus on,” said Janice Person of Grounded and Rising, a community and training platform focused on bridging the rural/urban divide.

She presented “Consumer Engagement – A Decade In, What’s Shifting?” at the recent Farm Bureau Fusion event.

Person broke down how this shift came about. It started with the social media boom of 2005 – 2007. Agriculture was a bit behind the curve then and only began to organize around 2009 – 2010, but once farmers did, they began connecting with all kinds of people. Farmers were also reaching out to new venues (such as the South By Southwest festival, partnering with museums and with promotions at baseball games) – and reaching out to other farmers.

This big jump into the digital space was led by technological leaps happening with cell phone cameras and biotech. The need to engage more online was also catalyzed by the deterioration of trust and lack of shared experience – urbanization and misinformation about ag were happening rapidly. The beauty of social media is that it provides the ability to reach people directly without huge marketing budgets.

“We saw a very different reality than before,” Person said of this evolving shift. “There was a premium for ‘better.’ There was less farm knowledge and more connection to similar people, and authority was discounted if it was seen as a part of ‘they,’ the others.”

But things continue to change. Person said we can take a lot of cues from the young adults of Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012). “They are the most diverse generation ever and globally thinking and making money and hustling, and they are happy to share how they’re spending their money,” she said.

In general, Gen Z places a high value on education, are politically active, see their food as a part of themselves and have a food philosophy. (Want to learn more about food philosophy? Check out foodintegrity.org.)

Consumer engagement is easier now with these young adults thanks to changes in technology. Think of the ubiquitous QR codes, now often seen as shortcuts to payment options at farmers markets. People are continuing to purchase groceries online post-pandemic, because some consumers don’t mind paying for convenience.

For farmers, Person offered this tip: “With the social media explosion, focus on what works best for you instead of trying to do everything.” Rather than try to be on every app, use the three that result in the best return on your time investment.

What do all these changes mean for outreach though? “People are actively making changes in how they live, work and eat,” Person said. “There are lots of new opportunities out there; there is no single way to approach things.”

Being flexible can definitely be an advantage. For example, if a farmer offers a CSA but expects the entire share amount paid up front, try offering the cost in a few more manageable payments. Person noted that younger consumers tend to like smaller, regular payments versus using a credit card or carrying debt.

The culture will continue to shift, but what’s working right now for engagement is offering experiences/participation (either on-farm or off – Person said openness is a prerequisite for trust). Younger Millennials and older Gen Z’ers like to learn while enjoying the process.

Focus on being easily found in the social space too. Younger consumers tend to search for things to do and places to visit through social media apps and not search engines.

Person also recommended partnering with someone who is already more engaged on social media – perhaps an “influencer,” perhaps someone who just knows how to utilize it better than you do.

“You don’t have to do everything yourself. It may be worth it to get that one big experience [and have it go viral] rather than develop your own entire channel,” Person said.

by Courtney Llewellyn