Consumers R Us

I made vegan burgers for the first time ever. I’m not vegan, I’m not vegetarian, but these vegan burgers were right up my alley. They had wheat, oats, lentils and mushrooms – all of which were sourced from Western Canadian farms – and I wanted to try something different. I eat a diverse diet that includes meat, dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables of various colours, so much starch, pulses galore, ground flaxseed and canola oil. I think about Canada’s Food Guide and the half-my-plate vegetable objective, but I’m not even close on that score. I read labels like a weirdo, but I don’t read labels on my chips, pizza, Joe Louises and beer. Yeah, I’m a messed up consumer – and there are 7.8 billion of us.

We hear time and again that every farmer is different, and of course that’s true. So is every consumer. Consumers are quirky, unique and baffling in their decision-making, but in that chaos are trends. These days, all of us question-asking, healthy-minded-but-not-always-healthy-eating experimenters are stuck together on a cruise ship to Port How-was-that-grown.

Mike von Massow is a food economics prof at the University of Guelph and every year he posts a Trends Report at foodfocusguelph.ca. I gave von Massow a call to ask what he thought about my premise for this article: to understand consumers we first need to understand ourselves. He leapt right into a story about a presentation he made at a Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association meeting in Swift Current. A producer asked him, “Why won’t consumers just listen to the science and trust us?” Without missing a beat, von Massow asked the producer what truck he drives? And the truck before that? And the truck before that? And what colour of equipment do you have? Is it all the same colour? Then he said, “OK, show me the science you used to guide those decisions?”

Our decisions are often based on opinions and feelings, not science. That is why consumers are not always predictable or consistent. Some want this. Some want that. Some want this and that. And that is why we have so much choice. “Food stores offer far more choice now – but it’s not because we as individuals want more choice, it’s because we all want different things,” von Massow says.

This is a positive for farmers. “Within the population, groups of consumers are giving farmers the choice whether to meet their demands,” he says. “They’re not telling farmers how to farm. They’re saying, ‘This is what we want’.” Farmers can decide if they want to give it to them.

One demand that’s on the rise, according to von Massow’s trend analysis, is holistic eating. Consumers are making choices based not only on their own health, but also on the impact those choices have on the environment. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see food companies make claims about wetlands, ecosystems and soil health,” he says.

So how does a farmer keep up? Talk to the companies that buy crops and livestock. Ask what they’re hearing from the people up the chain of command in their company. Ask about specialized opportunities for this year or in the future. Ask about contracts. In the end, it’s pretty simple. Farmers keep up with consumer demand trends by going through these questions every year with every buyer.

“Markets send pretty clear signals to us,” von Massow says. “If you can sign a contract for it, then that’s what the market wants.”

There are many millions of consumers around the world who want and will keep buying Canadian canola oil and meal, the same way that farmers will keep buying the same colour of combine and the same brand of truck, but even loyal customers make demands. Out of the blue they’ll ask for four doors instead of two, for Bluetooth linkage to their phone instead of a CD player, for an electric engine instead of diesel, and we’ll come to realize that what they want today is quite a bit different from what they asked for 20 years ago. Consumers are like that. We are consumers. So we are like that.