Trusted: Ag wins community love as COVID's food realities hit home

Ag RDC trust study shows farms winning more community loyalty

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Australians feel the coronavirus pandemic has made them more aware of food security and increasingly trusting in farmers

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Australians are growing increasingly more trusting of farm sector industries, with latest findings from a multi-year study of community attitudes putting trust in our food producers well ahead of food retailers or governments.

Almost 90 per cent of the 5300 people interviewed for a special survey in the past year said they trusted rural industries.

That's a rise from 87pc expressing the same sentiment 12 months earlier.

Vegetable, grain and dairy farmers tended to be most trusted, but all farm sector, forestry and fishing industries rated strongly in the latest community trust study co-ordinated by AgriFutures in partnership with 10 other research and development corporations, the National Farmers Federation and NSW Department of Primary Industries.

About 80pc of respondents said the coronavirus pandemic made them more aware of food security and 88pc agreed they had been comforted during the pandemic by the availability of safe and reliable supplies of fresh food.

More than 60pc of Australians also felt farmers, fishers and foresters were responsible stewards of the land and the sea - up from 56pc a year ago.

Animals Australia alert

However, a potentially disturbing warning bell for agriculture was the revelation that activist group Animals Australia also rated relatively strongly and only 19pc of respondents had slight or significant distrust in the contentious animal welfare campaigner.

"They may not represent everybody's views, but they clearly have some standing in the community and can't be dismissed by farmers,'' said the study's lead researcher Dr Kieren Moffat.

The results - part of a three year initiative to monitor community trust - coincide with another survey from Roy Morgan Research which has rated Elders as the most trusted agribusiness brand in regional Australia.

The 182-year-old firm was ahead of its farm services rival Nutrien Ag Solutions; farm machinery giant, John Deere, and farmer-owned NSW-Queensland dairy co-operative, Norco.

Interestingly, respondents still rated the brand names Landmark and CRT, which became part of Nutrien in 2019, near the top of their trust list, as well as former West Australian agribusiness kingpin, turned retail and industrial conglomerate, Wesfarmers.

The CRT and Wesfarmers brands both remain prominent in agribusiness.

Trust and doubts

Roy Morgan's chief executive officer Michele Levine noted while ag sector businesses tended to enjoy generally high trust levels, exceptions were driven by perceptions some companies' industrial products were dangerous and causing environmental damage.

"There is also a belief among many in rural and regional Australia that some companies are more interested in profit and control rather than genuine safety and human welfare," she said.

At the wider community level, the Community Trust in Rural Industries' study found 48pc of Australians felt very much or extremely trusting of rural industries and 41pc were moderately trusting, when comparing them with others potentially associated with agriculture.

Only 11pc felt no trust or only slight levels of trust towards rural industries.

Farm representative bodies, such as the NFF, scored a similarly strong result.

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However, only 30pc had high trust levels in large food retailers, with 34pc of respondents feeling only slight trust, or none at all, for big name businesses such as Aldi, Coles or Woolworths.

The federal government rated only marginally better than supermarkets, although governments and food retailers had lifted their trust scores on the previous year's results.

Animals Australia was "very much" or "extremely" trusted by 41pc and moderately trusted by another 40pc.

"They don't necessarily represent views of Australians as a whole, but they are often able to push their views quite strongly and are noticed," said Dr Moffat, also CEO of the research business Voconiq which conducted the analysis for the 11 farm rural industries research and development corporations and their partners.

Own up to mistakes

Importantly, the community feedback also found 46pc of Australians felt rural industries had "something to hide" if they stayed silent on issues people cared about, including animal welfare and climate change.

On the other hand, if farm sector industries acknowledged mistakes after a public outcry, 54pc of respondents felt they could forgive them.

In fact, the research showed the strongest drivers of public trust in rural industries included the sector's responsiveness and ability to listen to community concerns and perspectives, plus a confidence in rural industries using land in a sustainable, responsible way without sacrificing the environment for profit.

Australians also highly valued the sector's food outputs, including their nutritional value and contribution to locally manufactured goods.

More than two thirds also agreed when they bought Australian rural industry products they felt connected to the farmers, fishers and foresters that produced them.

Connection brings trust 

Dr Moffat said the more community members felt a connection to the land themselves, the greater their level of trust in farm industries.

Currently that connection was mostly via food and fibre goods they recognised, particularly frequently purchased dairy, horticultural, meat and grain products.

"Feeling connected to producers through this exchange speaks to the power of a natural product and provides a clearer understanding of why industry products drive trust," he said.

Australian Pork Limited CEO Margo Andrae said in two years more than 14,000 Australians shared views on a wide range of topics and issues via the survey program, providing a deeper, clearer understanding of what led to trust in rural industries.

"The research tells us the community sees rural industries as one, not a collection of separate industries with unique challenges," she said.

"It also showed most Australians see fishers, farmers and foresters as responsible stewards."

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