Emily Meredith
Emily Meredith

You may have heard that 2014 was declared the “Year of the Family Farmer” by the United Nations. Well, if 2014 is the year of the family farmer, then it’s also the year of the Millennial--as will be 2015, and 2016 and likely 2020. Move over Baby Boomers, the Millennials are taking over. That shift will potentially change the food system as we know it--and it’s a trend that’s here to stay.

Millennials, or the generation born between 1982 and 2001, have had (and will continue to have) a profound effect on grocery markets, restaurant trends and food production as we in agriculture know it. Capturing Millennial’s interest in meat, milk and eggs will be crucial to securing new opportunities in food for the next 30-40 years.

At nearly 80 million strong, Millennials represent nearly 27 percent of our United States population today. Not only do Millennials represent almost a third of our total population, but they also will have the greatest influence on our nation’s children, as more and more Millennials become parents. That’s quite a hefty population of consumers tied to one demographic.

Most of us in agriculture have heard of Millennials, after all, they’re hard to ignore when large restaurants and retailers, including Chipotle, make no attempt to hide their advertisements specifically targeted towards “Gen Y” customers. But many in ag have not yet cracked the code on how to communicate to this complex generation. Make no mistake: It’s difficult to piece together the puzzle on what makes a Millennial tick. It’s a generation marked by contradictions unlike any previous age bracket.

Millennials are guided by competing principles including (1) being honest; (2) living life to the fullest; (3) taking responsibility for your own life; and (4) standing up for what you believe in. All this makes their relationship with food and agriculture even more complicated.

For Millennials, it’s all about the food. According to a recent study compiled by BBDO in Atlanta, five out of 10 Millennials consider themselves “foodies,” and food is not just a form of digestion, but also a form of self-expression.

Millennials have a fascination with food; for them food is entertainment, a means to share their personality and story with the world--and they do. Over 88 percent of Millennials admit that they use their phones at the table--many to take pictures of what they eat to share on Instagram or Twitter. Food is art; just check out the hashtag #foodporn if you don’t believe me.

And then there’s Millennial’s relationship with health, or as some call it, the guilt complex. For Millennials, while taste matters, so does health. Millennials are reading labels, looking for healthy alternatives, and doing their research about food production.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about Millennials, however, are the values that define their actions and interactions. In countless studies, Millennials nationwide identified honesty as what matters most in how they live their lives. Millennials want authenticity, transparency and integrity. Pretension need not apply.

For us in agriculture, we’ve long struggled with how to best “pull the trigger” on true transparency, but it’s becoming abundantly clear that the longer we wait to truly be transparent, the bigger the opportunity we’re wasting to connect with America’s most influential generation. The food they eat and the people they eat it with are integral to the life of a Millennial--and lucky for us, we’re in the business of producing food.

This fact alone should make us a natural “bestie” of the average Millennial, yet we just can’t seem to crack their code. We’re on the outside looking in; we haven’t quite mastered the secret handshake.

Perhaps we’re struggling to communicate with Millennials because they are--more than anything--a generation defined by contradictions.

They eat fast food more than any other age group, yet they care about health. They want value, yet are willing to pay more for perceived “higher quality” food products. They distrust corporations yet frequent large restaurants and retailers that appear trendy and eclectic (see: Chipotle). They care about themselves, but they also care about causes and are willing to contribute to campaigns they believe in.

Put simply, Millennials see the world differently--and in order to crack their code, we need to figure out not how to see the world as they see it, but rather to see food differently, to shake things up, to take the road less traveled.

We also, as an entire animal ag community, need to seize upon this opportunity to discuss the importance of protecting consumer choice. If there were ever a time for the entire industry to unite behind one message, that time is now. Millennials aren’t one size fits all, and neither is food production. Letting Millennials into food and agriculture can’t include canned rhetoric, fear and disparaging comments. Remember--pretension need not apply.

Cracking the Millennial code is all about authenticity, transparency and above all else, honesty. Put aside your frustration over competing trends, confusing research and the ever-complex consumer and remember that agriculture has always had truth on our side. Millennials may be storytellers, but so are farmers. And it’s time to share our story.

After all, telling a lie is hard; the truth is simple. I believe we crack this complex generation with simple honesty.

It’s a value we all share.

To learn more about how the “Crack the Millennial Code” don’t miss the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s 13th annual Stakeholders Summit: May 8-9, 2014 in Crystal City, VA. To learn more about the program or to register, please visit: www.animalagalliance.org/summit.