Determining what consumers want and what they think of your product is the challenge of every business and every industry; agriculture is no different.

A recent release from the Animal Welfare Institute gathered some research into those questions in “Consumer Perceptions of Farm Animal Welfare.” A few of the results:

• Seventy percent of consumers said their purchasing was influenced by how food is grown or raised, and 72 percent said they think about those issues while grocery shopping, according to the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
• More than 50 percent of consumers said that humane animal treatment was an important issue to them, according to Technomic.
• In a survey by Ohio State University, 59 percent of respondents said they would pay more for meat, poultry or dairy that came from humanely treated animals and was labeled as such. Among those respondents, 43 percent said they would pay 10 percent more, and 12 percent said they would pay 25 percent more.

• In other consumer news, Charlie Arnot, CEO for the Center for Food Integrity, said his organization found that many consumers felt disconnected from agriculture. Speaking at a conference called “Bringing it to the Table,” he said that consumers were saying, in essence, “We trust farmers, but we’re not sure what you’re doing anymore is farming — the size and scale makes us uncomfortable.”

Arnot suggests that this situation could be an opportunity for agriculture. “This helps us generate a level of interest,” he said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to help consumers reconnect.” After all, the size and scale of much of agriculture has changed, and it allows more food to be produced with fewer resources than ever before, creating a smaller environmental footprint. Arnot suggested more communication around that: “We’ve talked about benefits accruing to us, not to the environment or consumers,” he said.

But the conversation should not be all about data, because no amount of data will reassure consumers about practices they don’t understand or are uncomfortable with. “Can and should aren’t the same question,” he said. “They want to know, ‘Should we do this?’ And we answer that science and economics say we can. But we have to talk more about values and our commitment to doing what’s right.”

Tips for communicating all agricultural messages more effectively were the ultimate outcome of a recent study by the Center for Public Issues Education in Agriculture and Natural Resources, known as the PIE Center, in partnership with the Agriculture Institute of Florida. They looked at how agricultural messages are perceived, revealing, among other things, that participants felt the word “organic” was overused, and they didn’t really believe the phrase “farmers were the first environmentalists.” The PIE Center’s tips for improving communication with consumers:

1. Use actual people in photographs relating to agriculture; consumers are more likely to respond favorably to images of real people.

2. Shift communication from corporate/technical terms such as “best management practices” and “environmental stewardship” to more personal terms such as “family” and “farmer.”

3. Engage in agritourism. Consumers appreciate seeing where their food comes from.

4. When showing images of animals, use an easily identifiable behavior, such as grazing. Uninformed audiences may read negative associations into animal practices that are different from those they associate with good animal practices.

5. Use caution with words such as “organic,” “sustainable” and “green,” as consumers can be skeptical of these terms.