June 26, 2012

Campaign Takes Precision Ag Message Direct to Consumers

by Karol Aure-Flynn, Entira

Over the past 20 years, technology has revolutionized nearly every facet of agricultural production. From precision farming to biotech seeds to modern livestock production facilities, farmers have used technology to deliver higher quality products more efficiently with a smaller impact on the environment.

However, the average consumer's image of agriculture has likely not changed with the times. Say "farmer," and the average grocery shopper in a suburban supermarket will likely have images of her grandfather's farm with a red barn, 80 acres and a few pigs, complete with roaming cows and chickens. In fact, the words "technology" and "agriculture" often bring negative associations for many consumers.

That's why a campaign from Earthgrains bread a couple of years ago caught our attention. It was one of the first to take a positive message about agriculture, technology and sustainability direct to consumers.

Back in 2010, Earthgrains launched a campaign centered around its "Eco-Grain Wheat" grown by farmers and used in one line of its bread products. According to the company, Eco-Grain farmers "use satellite imagery to help determine fertilizer requirements in any given area of the field. This "precision agriculture" or "variable rate technology" helps apply precisely the right amount of fertilizer every time to maximize yield and grain quality, while protecting the environment."

The brand's web site and advertising materials caught consumers' attention with headlines and taglines like:  "Have you heard about the plot to save the Earth?" and "Helping to preserve the Earth, one field at a time." In addition to the web site, the campaign included traditional advertising, sponsorships and social media elements. One of the farmers growing Eco-Grain wheat was featured in his own blog.

The campaign of course was criticized from some environmental NGOs about the actual amount of Eco-grain wheat used in the bread (only 20 percent of the flour used to make the bread is actually made from Eco-Grain wheat), and the fact that the wheat is not organic. I also admit some skepticism knowing that the handful of farmers who were growing Eco-grain wheat was miniscule considering that the adoption of variable rate technologies has now reached critical mass according to industry sources.

However, we are marking 20 years of precision agriculture, and so far, the only people who know the benefits seem to be farmers. Perhaps Earthgrains was on to something. Maybe this campaign is evidence that we are in a brave new world where consumers are voting with their pocketbooks to support more sustainable agricultural and food production. If so, there are countless other opportunities for agriculture to tell its story.

If Earthgrains can take the efforts of a few farmers in one corner of the country into a major marketing campaign, what about the tens of thousands of farmers who have already adopted earth-friendly practices such as no-till, variable rate applications and planting?  What opportunities will there be in the future as technology continues to improve farmers' productivity while minimizing the impact on the environment? The Eco-Grain campaign may prove to be an important demonstration of technology as a bridge between the consuming public and farmers. It may be a good first step to move some consumers from the "red barn" perception of agriculture to a better understanding of modern food production.

In order to deliver these positive messages to consumers, we must better understand the full scope and impact of precision agriculture.  Entira's precision agriculture multi-client study examined how precision agriculture has shaped the industry over the past 20 years and what impact it could have in the future. Please contact Entira at info@entira.net if you'd like more information on the study or to read the prospectus.

This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of Strategic Agribusiness Review.