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What they want isn’t the same as what they say they want

When we first started growing Red Fife wheat local bakers pretty much went gaga. The opportunity to work with an heirloom wheat produced within what they called our “foodshed”, instead of being trucked from Saskatchewan, seemed too good to be true.  “Grow lots,” they said, “we’ll take it all.”

By planting Red Fife, we were responding to demand for a locally produced wheat of certain qualities — both historical (introduced in the 1800s, Red Fife was the first truly successful variety to mature in Canada’s growing season) and culinary (as an heirloom, Red Fife allegedly has health and taste properties that more modern varieties have lost).

The first year we sold all we grew. Come the end of the second year, with a larger harvest in the bin, we approached the same bakers. They’d take some Red Fife they said, but asked if we could supplement with more modern varieties too. Somewhat sheepishly, they said modern wheats were easier to work with; Red Fife could be cranky. We also had a hard-red spring wheat called Superb so we started shipping that. Before long, orders for Red Fife were lagging behind orders for Superb.

We now only raise modern varieties of milling wheat.

My point: what customers say they want is not the same as what they really want.

People say they want no-spray apples but then pick the impossibly perfect ones over the gnarly organic options. Customers demand grass fed beef but want the kind of fat that more often comes with a good finishing diet of grain.

The situation reminds me of something a flustered boss said to me years ago: “Do as I think, not as I say!”

We have recently seen the same dynamic with our pork. One of the reasons our farm has done well with pigs is that we’ve stocked with heritage breeds like Berkshire, Tamworth and Large Blacks. These breeds have a marbling that the chefs and butchers love to talk up; it helps distinguish their pork products from those of leaner, more modern breeds.

To be totally honest, I think there is a difference in taste — something is richer and more flavourful in the Berkshire chop. However, there is more fat too. Lots more. At some point a butcher doing his cut-out ratios has to square the superior taste/story of heritage pork with the highly marketable/more pedestrian pork of modern breeds.

And so, we now market both conventional and heritage breed pigs. A cynic might say there is deceit in all this but I don’t think so. As farmers, we raise animals but we deal with people. People want to eat well, but they want a good story too.

A seat at the digital cafe

I’m not sure whether I look at the farming sections of sites such as Kijiji, Craiglist or, in our area, a service called used — (as in usedvictoria, usedabbotsford etc.) because I might get a good deal or I enjoy the embedded stories. (Or maybe I just enjoy a laugh, as I did when an older Massey tractor went up for sale last year with the note that the owner had piled up his new girlfriend’s Audi and needed to find the funds for repairs. I think that is what is called a motivated seller.)

To wick out these stories you need to go online regularly and for a long time, years even. Here’s the kind of thing you’ll find. In March an ad is posted: wanted sows and boars. In the summer, the same person posts that they are taking orders for piglets. Farrowing and sales must go well because several months later more orders are being taken, but the cost of piglets is up. And so, it goes until, inevitably, an ad is posted by the same person: “Sows and boar for sale”. Why get out? Sometimes there’s a hint: “getting out of pigs and into vegetable production . . .”, or a post will appear elsewhere on a site that explains things: “Anyone know why a boar can’t do his business?” “Any way to stop a sow from laying on piglets?”

Over years, I’ve seen the same roosters, horses (always billed as “bombproof”), and oddball farm machinery (“state of the art in its time”) come and go — all online.

In the pre-Internet era, most of us did our trial-and-erroring in private. Not anymore.

Going online to get my ag gossip isn’t as collegial as sitting at the Table of Truth in our coffee shop. But I can walk away from the computer without offending anyone.