Our communications world today is dominated by computers, i-phones, tablets and other forms of impersonal contact. Checkoff-funded farm-to-fork tours conducted by state beef councils, however, have shown that more face-to-face forms of interaction are a valuable tool in shifting perceptions about the beef industry.
State beef council managers who have been active in farm-to-fork tours over the past decade are unanimously enthusiastic about the ability of the tours to improve knowledge of and move attitudes about the industry. Ashley Hughes, executive director of the Florida Beef Council, says direct engagement through person-to-person contact is a great way to shift perceptions.
“It’s the chance to give influencers first-hand experience in beef production, and allow them to network with producers themselves,” she says. “They’ve never seen this science-based information in person, or experienced the process. They have no idea, for example, that there is so much involved with the care of animals, or in the production of beef.”
“Tour participants get to shake the hand of a producer, to talk to their family, to walk through their fields and their ranch,” says Jackie Madill, director of consumer information for the Washington State Beef Commission. “By conducting these tours, we’re helping to put a face on the industry itself. That experience is invaluable.”
“It’s a lot easier to change someone’s mind when they’re right there on the farm,” according to Angie Horkan, director of marketing for the Wisconsin Beef Council. “It’s just a more effective way of sharing information.
“Tour participants realize that producers are just like them,” adds Horkan. “They have families, concerns and are committed to what they do.”
The producer’s operation is often multi-generational, and this too connotes a positive message. “We can talk about stewardship and taking care of the land and animals, and making maximum utilization of the feed,” Horkan says. “They understand the very human, common sense, practical approaches taken by these producers.”
“This is one of the best returns on investment in the checkoff,” according to FBC’s Hughes. “We’re shifting opinions about our industry, and producing incredible results. Attitudes have significantly changed.”
Adam Wegner, director of marketing for the Nebraska Beef Council, agrees. “The time commitment is priceless, because when attendees go on these tours they become advocates for the industry. They can help tell the positive story for us,” he says. “It pays off for years and years down the road.”
Not for Everyone
Because they’re so effective, any consumer would benefit from these checkoff-funded farm-to-fork tours. But most of the time, they aren’t for everyone.
“We often say we would love to take every single beef-eating Washington consumer on one of these tours, but that’s obviously impossible,” says WSBC’s Madill. “Because we don’t have an unlimited budget, we have very targeted audiences.”
Wegner says from the beginning the NBC has focused on influencer targets as participants in Nebraska tour events. “They have the best opportunities to share their experiences with other people,” he says. For most state councils these individuals include chefs, bloggers, retail meat managers, dietitians, culinary instructors and students.
Each tour group in Nebraska involves about 20-25 people, Wegner says. “We figure that’s the most efficient size of group,” he says, factoring in budgets and tour logistics. In the state of Washington they have found that 30-35 people is “the optimum number to take to have quality, one-on-one conversations,” says Madill.
According to Nikki Richardson, who helps coordinate national farm-to-fork tours on behalf of the Beef Checkoff Program, the number on a tour is not nearly as important as the content. “We stress quality over quantity,” she says. “If you don’t have the time to follow up and foster a relationship, then you’re taking too many people.
“We try to take the right people on these events – ones who will influence their followers,” says Richardson, who is director of reputation management at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a beef checkoff contractor. She says tours coordinated nationally are referred to as “production immersion experiences,” because they give participants full exposure to the working of the beef cycle.
“These on-the-ground events are the most effective way to show how beef is raised,” she says. “It’s much more impactful than a fact sheet, for example, a person may or may not read.”
Significant Perception Changes
Surveys conducted both pre- and post-tours support that view. For instance, a survey of participants in a beef checkoff-funded tour coordinated at the national level showed that 92 percent of participants before the tour were somewhat or very concerned about humane treatment of cattle, and 8 percent were somewhat or very concerned afterward. Eighty two percent were somewhat or very concerned about environmental impact pre-tour, and 25 percent afterward.
States, too, conduct these kinds of surveys to assess their impact, and have demonstrated similar results. In one tour in Wisconsin last May, two of 19 tour participants thought themselves knowledgeable or somewhat knowledgeable about cattle raising. After the tour, 14 of the participants knew cattle raising well or somewhat well.
Many people have gone on these kinds of tours in states over the past decade. But tour participation isn’t measured in attendance, and the program doesn’t stop when the tour bus finishes its route.
According to Richardson, getting the right influencers to attend the tours is just the first step. “It’s not a one-and done,” she says. “If we do a good job, these people continue to use the beef industry as a resource. And they carry the impact much further than we could as third party advocates.”
Reach is extended through social media. “Participants share their own experiences, pictures and quotes, and these spread all over the country very quickly,” says Hughes of the Florida Beef Council.
WSBC’s Madill says the Washington program is starting to focus more on lifestyle, food and “mommy” bloggers. “Those on the tours can connect the dots, and share their story for us,” she says. “In one way, it’s creating an army of beef soldiers for us.
“Our goal isn’t just to change opinion,” she adds. “It’s to give these influencers an experience that would influence how they share their stories with those they reach. These tours provide an extremely effective method of doing that.”
Benefits to producer participants
Angie Horkan of the WBC says they choose a variety of operations and beef producers from all over the state to share the beef industry’s message. “It’s been very valuable to show producers that this is what their checkoff dollars are doing,” she says. “And the producers that get involved want to do it again. They’re proud of their operations.”
As NBC’s Wegner puts it, “They see it as a great way to tell their story.”
That isn’t always easy, says NCBA’s Richardson. “The tours often open up our industry to some tough conversations,” she says. “But (the questions) represent the reality we’re in. That’s beneficial. We need to hear what’s on their minds.”
According to FBC’s Hughes, producers chosen to participate are carefully selected in a range of specialties. They also reach out to the University of Florida to provide educators who are familiar with the industry. “We want to give (tour participants) not just one experience, but experiences in a wide range of industry segments,” she says.
Wegner says his organization looks for “ag leaders who are willing to spend the time with the groups and whose operations are easily accessible.” According to Wegner, it’s important that the visits not be too disruptive to regular ranch operations.
Farm-to-fork tours help build consumer trust in beef and beef production, which is one of four Core Strategies of the Beef Industry 2016-2020 Long Range Plan. Coordination between state beef council and the national beef checkoff teams provide cooperative momentum toward that goal.
For instance, checkoff-funded experts at the national level often assist state tour efforts in a number of ways. Beef checkoff-funded chef Dave Zino often will attend tours to deliver culinary instruction and insights, and Bridget Wasser, NCBA executive director of meat science and technology, sometimes shares information on meat cutting and cuts, for example.
State beef councils also get assistance from the national checkoff team in other ways, getting help in identifying appropriate tour participants, or providing spokesperson training for producers, developing materials and securing correct checkoff-funded information for delivery to appropriate audiences.
“We are really plugged into what’s going on nationally, and try to work together to make it all work,” says WSBC’s Madill. For tours conducted by the national checkoff-funded team, beef councils in states where the tours will be held give critical assistance and guidance. The Federation of State Beef Councils has also supported several state beef council-conducted tours financially.
Future of Program
“There will always be a place for in-person production experiences,” says NCBA’s Richardson. Nevertheless, the industry is building on these kinds of events to produce other types of communications programs, such as virtual experiences via video. “It can help us reach people who aren’t able to go on a tour,” Richardson says, “or who are in a geographical area of the country where one or another segment of the beef industry isn’t represented.
“There are only a couple of places we can go where we’re able to show the entire beef lifecycle,” she says. “And we always try to emphasize there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to raising cattle.”
Richardson says the checkoff is always trying to improve on ways of getting the right production images to the right people at the right time. Video shot in Nebraska and Texas in 2014 and 2015 is helping provide images that share a view of cattle production with consumers. Some of these images and additional information can be found on FactsAboutBeef.com.
Because of the value of face-to-face communications, however, the production immersion experiences will be at the very core of the program. “It’s an exercise in transparency,” says Richardson. “Those of us who work for state beef councils and the Beef Checkoff Program can do a lot to help gather the information, coordinate the events and manage the follow-up. But these first-hand visits and non-scripted conversations allow the producers themselves to be the story-tellers about how beef is raised.”
The Federation of State Beef Councils is a division of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which is a contractor to the Beef Checkoff Program. The program is administered by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, with oversight provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Beef Checkoff Program was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. The checkoff assesses $1 per head on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to a comparable assessment on imported beef and beef products. States retain up to 50 cents on the dollar and forward the other 50 cents per head to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board.
Photos compliments of the Nebraska Beef Council