WYOBRASKA – Continued demand for wholesome, high-quality food will drive economic and lifestyle health for agriculture producers into the future.
That’s what regional agriculture experts believe, anyway, going forward into a new decade.
“I think we’re going to continue to see a desire for safe, high-quality beef products,” Aaron Berger, beef systems specialist with the University of Nebraska Extension Service in Kimball County, Neb., said. “For ranchers who can identify and differentiate the product they have from what I’d call ‘commodity beef,’ there will be continued opportunities for them to find ways to market their product.”
Berger defined commodity beef as beef without a story. There’s nothing wrong with commodity beef, he said. It just doesn’t fulfill what Berger sees as a growing desire among consumers to know where their food comes from.
“Increasingly, there’s a segment of the population of consumers who want to know more about the source of where their food is coming from and the story behind it,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of stories told.”
In the future, the beef industry must acknowledge those consumer demands to tap into premium pricing for their product, Berger said. Some of those stories include grass-fed and grass-finished beef or branding, such as the Certified Angus Beef brand, that highlights a unique feature or background consumers can recognize.
“This is even more than country-of-origin,” he said. “It’s more about a story so the consumer can have confidence in the source and the protocols, processes, in terms of how the product was produced and delivered to the consumer.”
Consumer interest in the story behind the food isn’t limited to the feedlot. It also extends to the field, said Carrie Eberle, agronomy and cropping systems specialist with the University of Wyoming’s James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Lingle, Wyo.
There’s a company, for example, marketing an organic macaroni and cheese, she said. Consumer desire, though, extends past organic certification.
“Organic has been big for a long time,” Eberle said. “Now, we’re starting to see consumer trends transitioning into wanting to know not just that it’s organic, but it’s sustainably-farmed, comes from a small farm.
“My impression is that, yes, we are going to see consumer trends go toward wanting more information on where their food is coming from,” she said. “With that, there is potential for farmers and agriculture producers to capitalize on that demand, similar to what happened – and continues to trend – with organic markets.”
One UW project that highlights that growing trend – and consequent interest from consumers – is the ongoing Ancient Grains project SAREC is participating in. The project seeks to re-establish production of – and a market for – grains including spelt, farro and emmer, once-staple crops which haven’t been grown, in some cases, for decades or centuries.
“We have seen a lot of positive reaction to access to these First Grains and knowing where they came from, knowing our Wyoming farmers are growing them,” Eberle said. “A lot of it is Wyoming farmers are growing it, the story of the product – knowing it was grown by that farmer down the road. That connection is fueling some of that interest.”
The future isn’t going to be without challenges, particularly in the short term. Coming off what was, by any metric, a difficult production year, some producers will probably spend at least this coming season just getting back on their feet.
“It seems like, after this year, some guys are going to be in a recovery year,” Eberle said. “How do they mitigate any extra losses? How do they restore their fields from flooding, from crop loss, from drought damage?”
Weather is an ongoing challenge for producers, Berger said. But there are ways producers can prepare for – and lessen the impacts of – those weather vagaries.
“Weather has been a challenge to agriculture production as long as people have been growing food,” he said. “But having production systems, things in place to give resiliency to extreme weather events, is going to continue to be important for cattle producers. Having production systems that can manage or adjust to variation in weather events – it’s going to be important to have those in place.”
But that bright spot on the horizon remains – continued consumer demand.
“We’re seeing more diversity in the types of food we are willing to consume and how we’re willing to consume them,” Eberle said. “That means more diversity in the types of crops our farmers can potentially grow and make a profit off of.”
Berger agreed: “For me, if there’s an optimistic thing, it’s that consumers in the United States – and I’d say around the world – want to continue to eat animal-based protein. We’ll continue to navigate a lot of different things, but the bottom line is there’s still a lot of people who enjoy animal-based protein as part of their diet.”