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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tailgate Lectures: The Customer Is Always Right

The customer is always right. I first learned this lesson when a pot load of feeder calves arrived in our yard, only to be greeted by a very stern voice that I rarely heard come out of grandpa’s mouth. He had a few choice words about the quality of calves with the truck driver and the semi pulled out of the yard just as quickly as it had pulled in. “That kids, is why the customer is always right,” my grandfather muttered as we followed him back into the house. We were only disappointed in missing out on the fun of unloading a new group of bawling calves. I didn’t understand what he had meant that day, but perhaps it was an idea I reviewed when the waitress at our local cafĂ© served a cold pot of coffee to a table of table of our bull buyers, this resulting in that stern voice again and ultimately a free meal.

I won’t go as far to disagree with the general concept of the customer always being right. After all, it is the idea that all good business practices were built upon, but I think it is a principle that could use some reflection. In the production agriculture industry, we have always looked at things from a more scientific perspective. I would say that some of our customers, or consumers, view things from more of an ethical standpoint. We all know how far apart the middle ground between science and ethics can seem.

Consumers today are identifying with a plethora of labels - the trends of organic, natural, locally owned, antibiotic and hormone free, sustainably produced and even the issues involved in animal welfare are trendy stickers in grocery store aisles. While these are all issues that consumers identify with and want to have an impact on how food is produced, they are also issues that consumers form opinions on that may not have sound foundations in science. There are reasons why corn is grown close to the cattle that consume it, why hormones and antibiotics are responsibly administered to livestock and why you don’t see rows of orange trees along the flint hills of Kansas. So we, as an industry are faced with a crossroad. Do we conform to what consumers demand and forgo the production practices that have built a safe, efficient, nutrient-dense food supply? Can we educate a growing population about the science and logic behind modern production practices? I could throw questions at the screen all day, but questions don’t lead us to solutions.

At the bottom line, today’s agriculture has created a safe, nutritious and affordable food source for our American consumers and populations outside of our country. At some point we have to realize that maybe the customer isn’t always right. I’m afraid that if we keep adhering to this concept while taking advantage of consumer (dare I say) misconceptions and the premiums available in these niche markets that we are going to find ourselves in a position of no opinion. In a place where we don’t have a say, and agriculture is controlled by these ideals that make it impossible to feed a hungry world.

Something to ponder,


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