Customers Want to Know More
Undoubtedly, throughout your involvement in agriculture, you have heard buzz words such as “sustainability”, “animal welfare”, and “predator friendly.” In fact, in today’s jump-to-conclusions world it is probably more than likely you haven’t been able to escape these themes in nearly everything you read or watch on TV.
To me, this is largely the result of a public who is uninformed about animal agriculture and has developed an opinion based on theoretical concepts and is limited in real-world application. Beneath the surface of these “this-is-how-you-should-do-it” declarations, we need to realize that folks want to know where their food and fiber is coming from and how it is produced. Unless we deliver that information first-hand, consumers will continue to seek information from a wide variety of outside sources. This is where Quality Assurance Program come in.
What are quality assurance programs? These programs are essentially a set of production and processing guidelines. When followed, a product can receive the program’s stamp of approval. This information can then be displayed at the retail level and folks can feel good knowing that they are buying something that was raised a certain way.
In the next year, I challenge you all to do some research into quality assurance programs and then to act on that information learned. Make a decision about whether to participate in a quality assurance program. If you choose not to participate, discuss your lack of participation with others in the industry to bring awareness of the need for small ruminant quality assurance program that fits your style of ranching.
These are touchy issues because most programs have a strict policy, which infers that there are right and wrong ways to do things. But most all long-time ranchers know that the real world isn’t “black and white” but rather “shades of gray.” So, how do we develop programs that allow good stewards the freedom to manage for the betterment of the people, animal, and natural resources?
To answer this, I think we must focus on why we need quality assurance programs. Ultimately, quality assurance programs exist to ensure consumer confidence in your product and how it is produced. I have had the great pleasure of meeting people from a wide variety of places and backgrounds. In my assessment, most consumers in the US would admire what you do at the ranch and they’d agree with 95% of what you do after you explain to them why it is necessary. However, if you watch the news, you don’t see the silent majority. You only hear from the highly vocal minority.
In my assessment, many quality assurance programs that are being promoted to American sheep producers are designed to please the minority, not the majority. Some ranchers may be able to accommodate the requirements of these strict assurance programs and benefit from the premiums (if they exist) associated with these programs. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need for more programs that are better aligned with the majority of ranchers and consumers.
It appears that many of the companies who market your products are looking for quality assurance programs to partner with because they don’t want to manage it themselves. If the only program that exist are quite restrictive, they are then forced to work with them. This puts our industry at risk if producers have to comply with a strict quality assurance program because the company marketing our product is our only outlet and their only assurance program is a strict one. Unfortunately, for mohair producers, this might become a reality.
Procrastination has served the sheep and goat industry well on a number of things. For instance, scientific research funded by other livestock species or sheep industries overseas has provided us answers to questions without the cost of doing it. But procrastinating on developing common sense quality assurance programs that are recognized by consumers may end up biting us in the rear.
We all believe that what we are doing is “sustainable” and “ethical”, but we need to realize there is a portion of our customers that do not think that because we haven’t bothered to show or tell them. In contrast, many of them think this because we have allowed someone else to inform them of what “good animal husbandry” is. Common sense quality assurance programs are a great first step to help us share our story of sustainable sheep and goat production.
Here is a short list of assurance programs to help get your research started. We are not promoting these programs. This list is simply to make you aware of their existence, nor is this an exhaustive list:
Available in the U.S.:
Overseas Sheep Programs:
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.