How much listening to farmers is okay?

"Fonterra on Twitter" by Digital Jungle

Excerpt from “Fonterra on Twitter” by Digital Jungle

I don’t need to tell you how much of a stir a report tracing Twitter conversations surrounding Fonterra made when it was tweeted by farmer Shelby Anderson (@cupslinga) yesterday. The extensive 54-page document monitored just one week of Twitter conversations and looked to be a sample of what the social monitoring service could provide rather than a commissioned routine report. Still, as Shelby tweeted, it was a veeeerrry interesting report all the same.

I asked Fonterra Australia’s national milk supply manager, Matt Watt, to answer a few questions about how it listens to farmers. Matt very promptly offered these answers yesterday afternoon:

MMM: How do farmer perceptions affect Fonterra Australia?

MW: Our partnership with our farmers is fundamental to our business strategy. Therefore, their perceptions are very important to us. If there are issues or opportunities that are impacting farm profitability or aspirations for growth, we need to know about them – if we don’t, we cannot assist in addressing them. Concerns from the farmer base around volatility were the catalyst for our Fixed Base Milk Price program, confusion around milk price structure was the reason for our simplification of our milk price are a couple of recent examples of how farmer perceptions have affected our actions. More broadly, farmer perceptions will impact farm production and farm production is the start of our business – how much milk is produced and of what quality impacts all the way through our business to the consumer at the other end.

MMM: How does Fonterra Australia gauge what matters to farmers and how they feel about Fonterra?

MW: There are lots of different ways by which we engage with our farmers and most of them give us the opportunity to gauge what is most important to farmers and how they feel about us. A key channel is our field team – I fundamentally believe that the most important connection is the conversation on farm, over the kitchen table. This is also where our Support Crew kicks in – if we identify a particular opportunity to assist on an individual farm, we utilise the relevant Support Crew expert to assist in HR, Nutrition, Finance, Milk Quality or Sustainability. Similarly our BSC board and supplier forum are a key channel in enabling us to better understand farmer priorities and sentiment. We often use this group to test our thinking in terms of new initiatives and priorities. We also have in place our Mooodmeter – this is 3 minute telephone or electronic survey that allows farmers to give us feedback on how we are performing in our partnership and also provide any specific feedback or points of action.

Beyond these there are opportunities to gauge through farmer meetings, discussion groups, market outlook cluster meetings, responses to the weekly Watt Matters emails,  industry body discussions and, of course, social media.

MMM:  Has this brief report been followed by a more comprehensive analysis of farmers’ social media interactions?

MW: No, since receiving Digital Jungle’s trial report we’ve had no further dealings with them. As mentioned earlier, our priority in terms of learning farmer perceptions of Fonterra is through direct engagement, through our field team, our supplier forums, Mooodmeter, farmer meetings, and other ways of engaging. Social media naturally plays a role in this – social media posts and discussions can act as a weathervane, indicating both farmer and broader community sentiment on key matters of concern – however it is only one method through which farmers engage with us.

MMM: How does Fonterra work to improve its relationships with farmers?

I think that being open in our communication is the first part of this. This means investing time in understanding what is important, acknowledging that and then being clear about what we can and can’t address. Following that, ensuring that you deliver on what you said you would is fundamental – whether that is as simple as a call back, making the payment on time through to adding genuine bottom line value to a farm business through the work of our Support Crew. Again, the variety of channels from our field team to our supplier forum to social media are key in this. The other aspect is recognising farmers for their hard work – we have had some successful site dairy rewards days where farmers come to site to get a pack of Fonterra product along with our recent Christmas functions which were really well attended.

MMM: Has Fonterra changed the way it communicates with farmers in the last two years?

MW: I think that we have become clearer in what it is that we can bring to the partnership with our farmers with our focus on leveraging our global strength for local benefit, supporting profitability and enabling growth. On the back of  that we have also sought to make communications simpler and clearer. The way in which we were able to present our new milk price structure was an example of that. Finally, we have looked at new channels – just before Christmas we did a video version of the weekly email Watt Matters which received some really positive feedback and a number of our team are on twitter and engage from time to time in discussions around the industry. However, there is more opportunity in this space – social and digital media is evolving incredibly rapidly so keeping pace with that and ensuring we have the capacity and capability to effectively engage in this is both a challenge and an opportunity.

MMM: Have perceptions changed over the last two years?

MW: In my view they have and our Mooodmeter information validates that. We have seen a significant development in the general understanding of factors effecting milk price through our Front Foot program. Farmers tell us now that they better understand where we are focussed and we have a number of really positive stories around improved profitability and growth that we have assisted in some way through our partnership. However, we still have a lot of work to do in this space – we should never take for granted our relationships with our farmers – they are in a tough, variable business and unless we are there understanding that every step of the way, we will quickly lose connection and relevance.

What do you think? How should milk processors interact with farmers?

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