As our calendars transition to the Spring months, it is difficult to believe we find ourselves a year into the coronavirus pandemic. It was last March and April when COVID struck and many states placed restrictions on business capacity and travel. Many Americans found themselves working from home and were forced to cook most meals in the kitchen.

Food distribution channels experienced significant disruption, seemingly overnight, as foodservice and restaurants closed their doors. All of that food demand suddenly shifted to retail and grocery stores that were not equipped to handle the rapid change. For the first time in many American’s lives, we saw grocery store shelves empty of everyday essentials, especially our favorite cuts of beef.

Our industry organizations quickly came together working on public relations campaigns to address concerns of food shortages in media reports. Images of empty meat counters circulated social media stoking these fears. Demand for local freezer beef soared and it did not take long for local processors to fill their schedules for 18 months – even longer in many locations.

These impacts still linger into 2021 as we continue work to roll out a vaccine and struggle to find a timeline for when our food purchasing trends will resume to a pre-COVID normal.

COVID empty food shelves advocacy

Shifting Food Focus

In those early days of the pandemic, I vividly remember working with my team in Denver to toss all consumer messaging we had planned for the Spring months – normally a time to discuss beef’s sustainability and early grilling season. Instead, consumers were seeking information for cooking at home with items from pantries and freezers.

Online searches for “ground beef recipes” soared to all-time highs as consumers were looking for creative ways to prepare every meal at home.

This was a large shift for beef messaging and advocacy compared to what we have known for much of the past decade. While consumers had been asking about beef’s sustainability, animal welfare requirements, antibiotics, and food safety, purchasing decisions largely have been made on the factors of price, taste, and convenience.

With COVID restrictions and sparse options at the grocery stores, purchasing decisions, at least momentarily, were being made on the factors of price and availability.

Opportunities for Advocacy

On a positive note, recent surveys have shown that respect for the work of farmers and ranchers is at high levels for modern times. Consumers are more aware of the fragility of our food system and are seeking out more information on where food comes from and how it is grown.

This is a big opportunity for our beef community and you as a beef cattle producer to be the face of the industry for someone near you. While our industry organizations and Checkoff programs do great work to reach consumers, we also know that Americans are more likely to trust a person we know more than a brand.

Over the years, I have worked with many farmers and ranchers who think they have little to nothing in common with people in urban and suburban America. Maybe you are thinking that right now, but I would challenge you to reconsider.

Just as you miss a good meal out at a restaurant or an annual getaway to an industry event, many Americans are experiencing the same this year.

Being an advocate for our industry sometimes begins with nothing more than sharing those struggles we have in common. Connect with other people as a person first and you just might be surprised by their interest in learning more about your role in bringing beef to their plate.

While you are out in the pastures this Spring with young calves running around and watching the new growing season unfold, take a few moments to snap some photos and share them on your favorite online platform. Take the beef lifecycle online to share with those who are asking questions about our food supply chain after a year of disruptions and open new doors for conversations.

Social media and online communication can have a significant role in reaching consumers where they are seeking information, but do not overlook the people in your circles of influence. Maybe it is someone in your community not involved in agriculture who you interact with at school functions or sporting events. Chances are, at the very least, they would love a conversation about their favorite beef meal.

This article was originally published in the March 2021 edition of SimTalk from the American Simmental Association.