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Finding common ground with consumers

By Staff | Feb 25, 2011

Jill Vander Veen, left, of Hartley, talks with an unidentified shopper about farming and food safety during an outreach at a West Des Moines Hy-Vee store. She is one of four Iowa women participating in a program called Common Ground.

HARTLEY – As the 2010 Census shows, Iowa is increasingly a more urban and suburban state as the size of farms continues to increase, while the numbers of farmers who live and work on those farms decrease.

That trend inevitably leads to a disconnect between consumers and the people who grow their food, according to two major Iowa farm groups. In an effort to close that gap, the Iowa Corn Growers Association and Iowa Soybean Association, have launched a grassroots program called Common Ground to help educate consumers and dispel misperceptions about Iowa agriculture and the food it produces.

The program features farm women from four corners of Iowa who volunteer to speak with consumers at forums ranging from grocery stores to schools to Bible studies.

Jill Vander Veen, of Hartley, is among the volunteers for Common Ground and will focus on meeting with groups of people in Northwest Iowa. Vander Veen said she views the Common Ground program as an extension of her passion for farming.

“I thought it sounded like a really great program. Farmers don’t get a chance to tell their story very often,” she said. Vander Veen said her main message to consumers is to put a face on agriculture and help them understand that their food is safe. “We’re very passionate about farming and we take a lot of care in the animals that we raise and the crops that we raise,” she said.

Jill and her husband, Roger, are fourth-generation farmers and manage the same ground her parents did. They grow corn and soybeans on 300 acres and have 700 head of cattle. In addition, Jill Vander Veen works as a grain buyer for the Valero ethanol plant in Hartley, while Roger Vander Veen is a sales representative for Pioneer.

Vander Veen said she was surprised to learn how few people, even in a rural areas like Hartley, have kept their connection to farming. She addressed a first-grade classroom in Hartley when students were learning about food.

She asked students to raise their hands if their parents farmed or if they had another connection to the farm. Only about a quarter of the students raised their hands. “I was amazed,” she said.

One of her first forums to address consumers for the Common Ground initiative was at a Hy-Vee grocery store in West Des Moines earlier this month. Vander Veen and three other farm women involved in the program in Iowa, met face-to-face with suburban shoppers. Vander Veen said the experience, while mostly positive, showed why such interaction is needed.

She said there is an obvious disconnect with many shoppers, particularly on how beef cattle are raised and whether meat products are safe. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there about how we raise our animals,” Vander Veen said.

Many shoppers she talked to in West Des Moines said they preferred organic-labeled beef over beef from what they called factory farms. “Our answer to them is. We’re putting the same things on our tables as we’re sending to yours,” Vander Veen said.

Another big concern Vander Veen heard from shoppers was their perception of the proliferation of factory farms. She reminded them that “over 98 percent are still family owned and operated.”

Consumers also want to know where their meat comes from. “They asked ‘How do I know my meat was grown in Iowa?’ Vander Veen said. “I couldn’t answer that question. I’d like to see a label that said Iowa grown. I don’t know how far we are away from something like that.”

Even though shoppers sometimes disagreed with her viewpoint, she said they seemed to appreciate the opportunity to discuss food safety directly with a farmer. “Overall, people were happy to have somebody there talking about their food and where it comes from,” she said.

Vander Veen said she is pleased to be part of the project and do anything she can to preserve her way of life. “We both love the farm. We love the values we’re teaching our son by being on a farm.

“The stuff he gets exposed to here he may not get exposed to in town,” Vander Veen said. “We’re teaching him responsibility and how to care for our creatures, stewardship of the land, and (how) hard work pays off.”

Mindy Williamson, director of communications for the Iowa Corn Growers Association, said the Common Ground consumer education program started in five Midwest states, will expand to other Midwest states this spring, and eventually reach out to major metropolitan markets.

“Our ultimate goal is to take these ladies and talk to consumers who are farther removed from the farm such as New York City, Los Angeles or Seattle or places that don’t have agriculture right in their backyard like we do,” Williamson said. The Common Ground program is ongoing and is expected to last several years, she said.

The Common Ground initiative, which is funded by checkoff programs, decided to use farm women to communicate their issues, Williamson said, rather than a large-scale advertising promotion because consumers don’t always trust the information they hear from advertising.

“As a whole, consumers trust farmers and trust what they do. There are a lot of (marketing) programs out there, but they haven’t taken it to a mom-to-mom level like this before,” Williamson said. She said women were selected for the Common Ground program because women have most of the purchasing power in the home and make most of the food purchases.

Contact Dave DeValois at dwdevalois@yahoo.com.

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