September 10, 2021 | Georgie Smith

Moving Beyond “Sustainability” as an Ag Marketing Buzzword

By Guest Author Georgie Smith

Mention the word “sustainability” and most farmers roll their eyes. I can’t blame them.

Sustainability doesn’t mean much to farmers — or actually, it means too much, but we’ll get to that later. Yet it is still ubiquitous in farm and food conversations – and much too overused.

This month, the United Nations is convening in New York for the Food Systems Summit 2021, part of U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The Union of Concerned Scientists has an online explainer — What is Sustainable Agriculture?  There are too-many-to-count marketing surveys asking consumers their opinions on supporting sustainable brands. And how many ag companies claim sustainability on their homepage?

From a broad level, sustainability imparts a meaning of doing our jobs better, faster and cheaper. That’s not a terrible thing. But think about it — can you define what sustainability means in the context of a farmer’s day-to-day?

Big, high-level concepts like “sustainability” don’t plow the fields, grow better habitat for songbirds, or pay off the seed bill.

Yet here we are — in a supply chain driven by consumers asking for more sustainable farmgate sourcing. And B2B ag brands claiming they have the magic ticket to help farmers become more sustainable — at a price.

Stuck in the middle are the farmers, wondering what in the heck everyone is talking about and who’s going to pay for it! That’s not the place agrimarketers and brands want farmers to be making decisions from.

It’s time to retire sustainability as a term and as a goal and dig deeper. A lot deeper.

Big, high-level concepts like “sustainability” don’t plow the fields, grow better habitat for songbirds, or pay off the seed bill. Click To Tweet

Sustainability is a “Fat” Word

Sustainability is what we in the marketing world call a “fat” word. As in, fat in multiple meanings — and no, that’s not a good thing when it comes to marketing!

Fat words like sustainability can get confusing quickly when it comes to product development and brand management, according to Maurice Allin, VP of Business Intelligence at WS. 

Are we talking about environmental sustainability? Or financial sustainability? If we mean environmental sustainability, to what extent? Soil health? Nutrient management? Greenhouse gas emissions? Carbon? All of the above?

If we discuss financial sustainability, does that mean making a living wage this year or in five? Is that sustaining the whole family? Or does the farm have a dual income? Maybe financial sustainability is building the farm business to support multiple family members and pass it down to the next generation.

We must not forget that farmers are humans first, not classic decision-making machines with an omniscient ability to predict their own profitability if they’d just do what we want, Allin says. They work in a biological system. It can take months — even years — for the consequences of their decisions to pan out. 

Individual farmers themselves carry about multiple contradictory and evolving definitions of sustainability. Click To Tweet

And, as Allin points out, farmers’ choices are not made within a controlled environment, where you can isolate one factor. 

“It’s devilishly tricky for farm management to understand the consequences of their actions,” Allin says. Or be convinced of your product’s benefits.

Because of this, individual farmers themselves carry about multiple contradictory and evolving definitions of sustainability. Within a single season, a farmer’s definition of “sustainable” for their farm may change as they react to seasonal weather events and crop market trends. What was sustainable for the farm in March can be very different in August.

Yet, your brand needs to convey its benefits despite a continually shifting decision-making landscape. Hence why Allin recommends staying away from something as undefinable as sustainability as a selling point.

Who Pays for Sustainability?

Allin says he has yet to meet a farmer that doesn’t believe their farm is already sustainable — at least as they define it. 

“When somebody approaches a farmer and says, ‘You need to undertake more sustainability practices,’ most farmers respond with a stern look and ask — “What, exactly, is it you want me to change?” Allin points out. Even if they are willing to consider they could do better, your conversation has started out on a sour point.

Clint Brauer, a Kansas farmer and co-founder of Greenfield Robotics, an ag robotic company, agrees.

“A lot of the farmers that are even willing to have a meeting about sustainability feel like they are already doing what they can, right?” Brauer tells me. Recently he attended a meeting with a fellow farmer approached by a company who wanted to pay him to do “all the things we’ve been doing for the last 20 years.”

Once they realized the farmer had beaten them to the punch, they withdrew the offer. One pissed-off farmer was left. The good news, Brauer says, is that at least these companies are starting to pay attention.

“Welcome to the club. Glad you finally woke up,” Brauer says.

Ontario farmer and ag-focused impact investor James Morin reminds B2B brands, especially tech-based solutions, not to make assumptions. Many agtech companies think that “farmers are just going to gobble up their idea without understanding some of the real fundamental challenges they have.”

Sometimes it isn’t that the brand needs to change its product. Instead, it may be as simple as their implementation, Morin says.

“If you want me to buy a six-figure piece of equipment or implement an expensive piece of software that I’m not going to see results on for four or five years, well, your financing for that better line up,” Morin says.

Sustainability Market Segmentation

With roughly 2.2 million farmers, there is no such thing as the average North American farmer with an average understanding of sustainability, Allin says. Market segmentation is key.

For Morin, “sustainability” doesn’t say nearly enough. Morin considers himself a regenerative farmer. As far as he is concerned, the solutions he’s interested in need to go beyond “sustaining” the status quo.

“The conversation needs to move beyond the idea that something is sustainable. That’s well past its due date and the terminology needs to be put back on the shelf,” Morin says.

But remember, Allin says, though sustainability is a high-level concept, a concept like regenerative is narrowly defined with the marketplace. Farmers like Morin have dug deep into the idea, but very few farmers have gotten to that level of specificity. Just in the last two weeks, Allin says he has talked to half a dozen farmers — many running large-scale row crop farms — who are vaguely interested in learning more about carbon credits but don’t know where to start. Or if they even trust it to be real.

To begin exploring market segmentation, Allin suggests creating a marketing decision-making tree.

If your product is about environmental sustainability, then put it at the top and go down a layer. Perhaps your product focuses on soil health. Okay, so now we’re talking about soil sustainability. 

The next layer down then under soil sustainability is soil health. What are the benefits — better yields and higher-quality crops? If you can show a clear ROI, you have a selling point and potential segment to target— one interested in growing better crops. 

That’s much more defined than a claim of “sustainability.”

Who Absorbs the Cost and Who Benefits?

It’s a generalization, but I think we can assume that all farmers are interested in improving the environmental impact of their practices. But at the end of the day, it can’t cost them money.

The challenge with the discussion around environmental sustainability throughout the supply chain, Allin says, is that the beneficiary of the sustainability claim is, in many cases, not the person (i.e. the farmer) that spent the dollars to make it happen.

We can assume that all farmers are interested in improving the environmental impact of their practices. But at the end of the day, it can’t cost them money. Click To Tweet

In many cases, transparency is what the food brands are shooting for. 

“The Krafts and Kelloggs of the world are anxious to see guided, transparent systems they can take to the consumer and say, ‘See, we have reduced our carbon footprint across the supply chain. Let’s show you how,” Allin says.  

Whether they can make a go of their sustainability transparency will depend on developing the systems to support it and ensuring that what defines sustainability is well-communicated at the farmgate through to the end-consumer.

But end-of-the-supply-chain brands need to find a way to transfer the costs upstream and the benefits downstream, or they won’t get far with farmers.

“What can you bring me?” Brauer asks food brands. “Just measuring stuff is not of value. Every farmer can do that on their own. I don’t understand all the food brands doing this. They will go nowhere with me. I have no time for this.”

Ultimately (and however you define it), sustainability starts at the farm. If the end-of-the-supply-chain brands want to benefit from that, they need to invest in helping the farmers do so.

Sustainability Isn’t Going Anywhere — But We Can Do a Better Job of Communicating It

Whether it’s a boon or a curse, we are living, farming and marketing in exciting times.

Allin predicts we will see more changes in the food production supply chain in the next five to 10 years than we had in the last 50. Whether that’s due to social pressures, demographic changes on the farm or technological innovation, it’s all ramping up.

At a high-level concept, sustainability is driving change. It’s up to us to better define — and communicate — what that means at the human level.

As we have these discussions in product development, brand management, and as agrimarketing professionals, let’s find our sustainability sweet spots, Allin says. Environmental and financial sustainability tend to operate in tension with one another. Whenever we can identify a product or process that enhances sustainability and has an economic benefit — or is at least financially neutral — is when we win, Allin says.

At the end of the day, marketing your ag brand as sustainable is easy — but inherently lazy and ineffective, Allin argues. Fifty-three new agtech companies were founded in the last year alone. Standing out from the pack demands more than a sustainability gold star.

Georgie Smith

Georgie Smith, aka “Farmer Georgie,” is a fourth-generation farmer, journalist and content marketer living on her family’s historic farm. When she’s not herding chickens or growing heirloom dry beans, Georgie writes about issues and opportunities facing today’s farmers as they adapt to shifting market demands, industry innovation and climate challenges.