The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Big Agriculture wants to reach millennials, but it started a food fight in the process

The poster accompanying the Animal Agriculture Alliance's summit. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)
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Late last week, hundreds of farmers -- or at least their representative trade groups -- gathered in a yawning Crystal City ballroom in Northern Virginia to figure out what to do about Kids These Days. "Cracking the Millennial Code," the Animal Agriculture Alliance had titled its 2014 conference. And speakers really took the mission to heart.

"Going to get a quick selfie in before the speech," chirped millennial marketing consultant Jeff Fromm, snapping a picture of himself at the podium. "Want to make sure we keep trending! Go ahead, we're at a millennial conference!" In the ensuing presentation, he tried to communicate that this generation is…different.

"You do not have a target audience with millennials!" he exhorted the room full of protein purveyors. "You have a consumer as a partner!"

But wait: Does the livestock industry really have a problem with the 20-something demographic? Are more of them becoming vegetarian than their parents? Do they eat fewer hamburgers and chicken sandwiches?

Probably not, according to recent polls. Young people like their steaks as much as their parents do, it seems.

"This is a generation that, studies would indicate, loves to grill," said John Sticka, president of Certified Angus Beef, which manages a brand supplied by 25,000 cattle breeders. "This could be the generation that solidifies the grill as a year-round cooking appliance."

However, they do want to know more about their food, now that the average person grows up with almost no understanding of how it's grown.

"We are three or four generations removed from the farm," said David Fikes, director of consumer affairs for the Food Marketing Institute. "There was a generation of people who said, 'I don't care where it comes from, I'm just glad that someone else is doing it.' That day is over and gone."

A panel of real, live Millennials -- who, along with many people under age 30 at the event, sported ribbons labeling them as such -- seemed to confirm the trend.

"We want to know where it comes from, and we want to be involved where we can," said Miles Milliken, a senior at George Washington University, where he serves as an "eco-rep."

"For a lot of kids, sustainability doesn't mean anything anymore. It's been green-washed," agreed Jesse Schaffer, another GWU senior wearing a bushy beard. "Real food needs to reflect negative externalities."

And here's the problem: A lot of modern food production isn't all that pretty. People have heard about "factory farms" and "frankenfood" made with genetically modified organisms, which has spurred labeling campaigns all over the country. Then there are marketing campaigns like Chipotle's, which cast industrial agriculture as a dystopian world in which cows explode after being fed "petropellets."

"A number of activists have seized the conversation. You have to do the same thing from your point of view and not wait for it to happen to you," food consultant Nancy Kruse admonished attendees. "You consistently have been ambushed, but now there's no excuse to be ambushed. All you have to do is take out your smartphone and look at what's being said."

But how to fight back? So far, the industry has mostly just given in. Already, consumer nervousness around the scientific method of protein production is forcing some companies to create "natural" options, even though they don't believe that using antibiotics, animal products or genetically modified crops in feed is in any way unsafe for consumers. In other words, just because you fundamentally disagree with your customer's beliefs, that doesn't mean you can brush them off.

"They're not fact-based, but they are important," said Joe Forsthoffer, director of communications at Perdue Farms, the gigantic chicken producer. "That can be frustrating to those of us in this room because we know why we do things. We can't speak to them as if we're arguing policy issues. Even if their feelings aren't rational, they're still rational as feelings."

Accordingly, Perdue runs ads about how its chickens eat an all-vegetarian diet, free of steroids and hormones (which are prohibited by federal law, anyway). "These decisions are driven by the desire to be trusted," Forsthoffer said.

That desire, however, might just exacerbate the problem it's trying to address. When food companies market their products as cleaner than others, it implies that everything else is somehow dirty. That's given rise to a focus on the word "choice," as if no one option were better than any other.

"Words matter," Dallas Hockman, vice president of industrial relations for the National Pork Producers Council, said  in a question to a panel on antibiotics. "How can you respond to choice without degrading other parts of the business? When we use the terms 'clean food,' or 'real food,' it's all sending a negative signal."

"It's fine to be different than your competition, but when you start saying you're better than the competition, that's the challenge," Hockman explained at the post-conference reception, where industry reps grazed on cuts of specialty beef. "Fundamentally, people want to feel good about what they eat. Don't make me feel bad about my decision."

The cleaner-and-better message is too much of a temptation for many farmers, though. And that's a tougher challenge than the one posed by anti-GMO activists, or even the Chipotles of the world.

"It's the war we never saw coming: farmer vs. farmer," said Ben Wilson, video production manager for the FarmOn Foundation, which seeks to support young farmers. "We're picking a stance because we're being asked to take a position: 'The way we're doing it is better, and therefore every other way of doing it must be bad or worse.'"

After showing a set of inspirational videos about the farming lifestyle, Wilson lodged an appeal for non-aggression. "If we want to make a difference in this industry, we're going to have to work together," he said. "Stop the fighting. It's not about us, anyway."

There was perhaps no greater evidence that peace was possible than the interaction between Emily Zweber, who runs a 100-cow operation in Minnesota that produces organic milk, and Janice Person, who does corporate engagement for the oft-maligned seed company Monsanto. They professed friendship, despite representing different sides of the industry, which they say aren't incompatible. The key, they agreed, is giving the consumer a connection to the people producing their food.

"People are buying meat, and they're looking for a relationship, or at least the feeling of a relationship," says Zweber, who notes that she mostly opted for organics because it's a way to increase the value of her product with a limited amount of land. She sells through the farmer-owned co-op Organic Valley, which gives her some price stability and puts the faces of its members on its marketing materials.

Person thinks that can work for industrial food production, as well. "I think what's really been interesting over the past few years is, people can put Big Ag as a logo on a building, but when you personalize it, and you're part of agriculture, that's where barriers get broken," she said. "I don't think millennials are that interested in the labels. They're interested in understanding."

If farmers can tweet their way to understanding, they're doing alright.