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Brand storytelling is an extremely powerful tool. It sparks imagination and curiosity, provokes thought and emotion, and informs and educates. It has the power to make listeners believe in something or not, whether it is true or not. As stories get passed along, there is always a chance that some pieces will get lost along the way or that interpretation and personal belief systems blur or distort the facts.
It is our responsibility as food industry leaders to set forth our truthful narratives, so that consumers can make conscious decisions as they weigh their choices. The food we eat can be traced back to the farm that grows and produces it – plant, dairy and everything in between. But where does our food come from? What is the truth about what we’re eating? Who are the farmers that support our food system? How do our choices affect them?
At Clover Sonoma’s panel on the Nutritional and Environmental Impact of our Food Choices, we invited farmers to share their stories addressing common misperceptions consumers have about what dairy farmers, and all farmers alike do on a day-to-day basis.
The first to tell their story was Doug Beretta, a third generation dairy rancher. Doug grew up milking cows and driving feed wagons on his family’s oak-dotted land along the Laguna de Santa Rosa. His grandfather, Joe Beretta, purchased the land in 1948 and established the dairy, raising cows on pasture from the very beginning. When asked what he wanted the audience to learn more about, it was about the art and science behind his day-to-day life on the farm. There is a lack of information around what dairy farmers do and why they do it, which is why consumers are confused.
Jenny Lester Moffitt, a fifth generation California farmer and Undersecretary at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, grew up on an organic walnut farm where she played a large role in managing their processing operations. Through this experience, she learned firsthand the importance of taking care of the land and the people that farm it – and the value in fostering economic growth and well-being. When asked “how do we inform consumers?” she replied with a story. “When I went off to college and my freshman peers learned that I grew walnuts they asked, ‘Do those grow in the ground?’ To me, it was the ‘aha’ moment when I realized: I need to do a better job at educating others.”
Providing varied perspectives–both on the dairy side and on the plant side–our panelists shared their thoughts around why they believe consumers are confused.
To start, many consumers do not understand the science of farming or where their food comes from. Consumers may see a photo or read a headline in a news story, but in some cases those headlines and details may be inaccurate. What farmers want the public to know is that farmers take on many roles; they are stewards of the land, food producers, economic drivers, spouses, and parents. Most farmers also work seven days a week year round to tend to their land and animals. It’s a nonstop effort.
“I think we’re afraid sometimes to really tell our story. [People just want soundbites] or pictures tend to hit the Internet and people don’t understand the story behind it.” – Doug Beretta
“There’s a lot of really bad misinformation that gets replicated and then each blog takes the headline of the one they read before, so they’re not even reading the whole blog and then it gets turned into a news story.” – Rachel Scherr, PhD, UC Davis Dept. of Nutrition, Assistant Research Scientist and Director of the Center for Nutrition in Schools
“People don’t understand what the farmer has been doing for the environment for all these years. [For example], farmers reuse reclaimed water. There is not one dairy in Sonoma County using groundwater; we are all using recycled water.” – Doug Beretta
“The Internet is equally or more powerful than the Gutenberg Press. People think the Internet is not going to change, but every norm we’ve had — whether it’s how food is produced, how it’s consumed, or how we learn about it — it’s all changed, and we really aren’t appreciating that.” – Stephen Williamson, Forager Project Founder and CEO
“There is a huge disconnect in our food system right now. Milk doesn’t emanate from a package. I think so much of that truthful, interactive, meaningful dialogue we have with farmers is frankly filtered out. You’ve got to interface with people.”– Marcus Benedetti, Clover Sonoma CEO
“Two days ago I was interviewed by The New Yorker and this gentleman put in his article the notion that four pounds of beef equal the carbon footprint of a transatlantic flight. That’s just ridiculous. And I hear some people providing alternatives to meat and dairy, greatly exaggerating the environmental impact. There are larger societal issues, such as fossil fuels.” – Frank Mitloehner, Professor PhD, UC Davis Department of Animal Science
“It’s amazing what we do as farmers that nobody knows about, and nobody takes into consideration that we still have to make money to run our lives.” – Doug Beretta
Clearly farmers – plant and dairy – aren’t good at telling their stories so that consumers really understand what they do and this needs to change. How? Farmers need to share their truthful narratives, knowing that it may not be perfect, knowing that it’s not going to appeal to every consumer. But at least there’s a benchmark based on fact, a foundation of accurate information.
Clover Sonoma CEO Marcus Benedetti said it well, “You can’t check every box, but you have to draw a holistic, complete and accurate story.” It’s all about transparency. Consumers should ask those provocative questions and do their homework to learn more from trusted sources. From there, they can make educated decisions about products they purchase and learn more about where their food comes from.
If you are interested in hearing more about how dairy and plant-based foods impact the environment, check out our full panel discussion on YouTube.