Ethan Crow feeds hay to his cattle after a fresh blanket of snow fell at his Marshalltown farm.
Iowa Food & Family Project creates long-term, pandemic-resistant consumer connections
January 20, 2021 | Kelly Visser
The pandemic has brought food into the headlines unlike ever before.
Local television news segments spotlight panic purchasing at the meat case, radio stations interview resilient restaurant owners and social media influencers jump on bread baking and canning trends.
The increased headlines and shared human experiences of COVID-19 have sparked consumer questions about the role of Iowa agriculture in feeding families, communities and nations.
“When things hit in March, I had people reaching out to see how they could buy beef, eggs and even wheat directly from my family,” says Ethan Crow, a farmer from Marshalltown. “What started as a simple transactional question grew into an opportunity to share my story as a farmer.”
Like Crow’s experience, harnessing consumer curiosity about food and building it into a larger conversation is a key strategy of the Iowa Food & Family Project (Iowa FFP). The agricultural awareness initiative was created by the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) and is dedicated to building consumer trust in modern agriculture.
Iowa FFP’s trust-building work centers on uniting farmers and food-minded consumers for open, honest and relevant conversations about today’s food system.
Over the past decade, Iowa FFP has seen consumer questions range from cooking tips and nutritional insights to an interest in environmental sustainability, biotechnology and farm business models. But in 2020, the consequences of COVID-19 dominated consumer queries.
According to the 2020 Consumer Pulse Survey, an annual poll conducted by Iowa FFP, 51% of Iowa grocery shoppers were surprised by the impact COVID-19 had on the food supply chain.
In the past nine months, Iowa FFP has fielded an influx of consumer questions ranging from “Why are dairies dumping milk?” to “How can I support Iowa farmers through this crisis?” on its social media channels and website.
“I think some of the headlines caused people to think more about where their food comes from,” says Crow.
Listening for questions
Any worthwhile conversation starts with a good question.
That’s why Iowa FFP works diligently to understand what food and farming topics are on the hearts and minds of Iowa consumers. All year long, Iowa FFP prompts consumers to share their opinions and questions in flash polls, focus groups and its Consumer Pulse Survey.
“I feel like my voice is heard,” says Anita McVey, a food blogger from Boone while reflecting on participating in an Iowa FFP focus group. “But it goes beyond the perspective I bring to a focus group. It amazes me how differently a group of people can view food … you don’t often realize it until you’re all around a table talking.”
Layering the qualitative data from focus groups with the quantitative findings from the annual Consumer Pulse Survey helps shape the issues, topics and themes Iowa FFP addresses.
With consumer questions in hand, Iowa FFP turns to farmers and industry experts for answers. It often taps on volunteers from the ISA Communications Squad or CommonGround Iowa networks to help lead the conversation.
Last spring, Iowa FFP coordinated with Crow to record a virtual soybean field tour, asking him to address the basics of planting, seed treatment and conservation practices.
“It’s pretty cool that people could get a close-up look at farming through a simple video. I think this kind of outreach can help clear up misconceptions or answer questions people might have as they drive by tractors in a field,” says Crow who is a member of ISA’s Communications Squad.
The real power of Iowa FFP is its ability to bring these types of thoughtful, relevant farmer insights to its consumer audience. The initiative has an opt-in audience of more than 135,000 food-minded consumers across its Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Fresh Pickings eNewsletter and quarterly Fresh Pickings magazine platforms.
“Working with Iowa FFP allows me to join the conversation on food and farming on a larger scale,” says Crow. The spring planting video Crow created received 4,100 views after being shared on Iowa FFP’s Facebook page.
Despite a year of social distancing, Iowa FFP’s powerful channels continued to spark meaningful conversations. Since the pandemic began, the initiative shifted from its traditional in-person events – like farm tours and Iowa State Fair outreach – to put an added focus on farm tour videos, radio promotions, Fresh Pickings magazine distribution and social media sharing.
“No matter if it’s a farm tour, interview or social media video, I am always so impressed with the farmers I meet through Iowa FFP,” says McVey. “They are so gracious to openly share about their livelihoods and family histories with consumers like me. Our conversations really stick with me.”
This story was originally published in the January 2021 issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.