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Producers must meet demands of customer
A few weeks ago my wife took me to the airport to catch an early morning flight. After sending me off into the security maze, she stopped by a fast food stand in the airport to order some breakfast.

She placed her order, which was delivered with the improper number of items. When she politely informed the young woman behind the counter that this is not what she ordered, the woman snared defiantly, “It is, too!”

With the patience born of raising three children, she calmly yet forcefully restated her original order. Even as her order was being fixed, the clerk continued to argue. Quite obviously the concept of the customer is always right was not part of this chain’s training program. The customer focus principle is also suffering in agricultural circles.

While on my trip I had the chance to have breakfast on a cattle breeder’s farm. After a great country breakfast, a group of us media windbags stood around with some cattlemen discussing the finer points of cattle genetics.

The conversation turned to the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The conversation became edgier and tension crept into voices. There is a growing rebellion to the system now being crafted by policymakers in Washington.

Some say the system is unfair to smaller producers and favors the large operator. Others resent sharing information in a national database. Some others resent the big hand of government reaching into their pastures; while others say the whole program is constitutionally illegal.

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns has called for a phase-in beginning in 2007 and culminating in full implementation by 2009. Yet he is having trouble getting Congress and the agricultural communities to cooperate and agree on a system.

While I do not have the answer to what system would or should work, the one phrase that I keep seeing come up in this debate is, “The system is unnecessary.” This is simply not true. The consumers have spoken; they want traceability. Foreign customers want traceability. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s want traceability. Even the average consumer, who can get traceability on almost every other product she buys, wants traceability on her food. It is a fact of life we are going to have to come to grips with if the U.S. livestock industry is to survive.

Another sector of agriculture that is facing consumer backlash is the ethanol industry. At the recent ethanol summit, held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, speaker after speaker stressed the need to focus on the real concerns of the motorist. The Live Green Go Yellow campaign is cute and catchy, and fueling Indy racecars on ethanol settles the performance question, but what motorists really want to know is, “Will it run in my car? It is cheaper than gas? And where can I buy it?”

Don Villwock, president of Indiana Farm Bureau and a corn farmer from southwest Indiana, told me corn producers have a role to play here, too. He suggested that corn checkoff dollars be used to help with consumer education about ethanol, a campaign that addresses the real issues facing today’s motorists.

While the needs and demands of the customer may not always be popular or fit into our idea of what producers should have to do or pay for, they are real market forces that will determine the ability of U.S. agriculture to complete. Like the girl at the airport, we can snarl and growl at the customer and tell them they are wrong. Though, in the end, if we want to sell our product, we are the ones who have to find a way to meet the demands of the customer.

This farm news was published in the June 7, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.