Drink a Beer, Save a Farmer? It’s Not Quite That Simple

Steve Cubbage writes "It is past time that food companies and the farmers who grow the food come together and truly define what sustainability really means."
( Bryan Purcell/USDA Foreign Ag Service )

A few months ago when finishing up my clothing purchase at Eddie Bauer the clerk casually popped a question on me. “Would you like to add a dollar today to plant a tree?” 

Well, I couldn’t say no. I mean I’m shopping in a store founded by a guy whose name is synonymous with the great outdoors. What would the great outdoors be without trees? The sarcastic answer to that is of course — a desert. Needless to say I happily donated my dollar and saved the world for another day.

But my saving the world did not end there. This past Christmas season I decided I wanted to do customized greeting cards to send to friends and family. So I got online and found a company called Paper Culture who had some really cool designs — and you guessed it — planted a tree in your name for every purchase you made. Who can argue with the spirit of giving — especially during the holidays?

We all know what this is about. It’s about the environment. It’s about clean air and water. And yes it’s about saving the planet for another day and another generation. I mean what kind of person are you if you can’t get behind something like that? And if you want to boil down to a single buzzword it’s all about — sustainability.

But what I find interesting is that in this “age of sustainability” is it seems to be much easier to save a forest than to save a farmer. 

That revelation or reiteration came to me while watching this year’s Super Bowl. As you know with any Super Bowl you have tons of high-priced commercials first and then there is a football game woven in there somewhere. Every year — at least lately — there seems to be one about farmers or one that affects farmers. A few years ago we had the nostalgic Ram Truck commercial overlaid with Paul Harvey’s iconic “So God Made a Farmer”. Last year you had Budweiser’s ill-advised medieval Bud Light ad attacking corn syrup. That led to a social media rebellion by modern day farmers and the ag industry. 

So this year in what almost seemed like an attempt to make amends Anheuser Busch rolled out another “farmer” beer commercial. This time it introduced their Michelob Ultra Pure Gold organic beer. This was “beer in its organic form” the high-priced celebrity voice told us. But the hype didn’t stop there. The rest of the message was that if you drank a 6-pack of this beer you would be saving a farmer — or at least their farm — 6 square feet at a time. The intent was simple. Help farmers transition to organic practices — a perceived better way of farming — by drinking our “organic” beer.

Nothing wrong with that message. And nothing against Anheuser Busch. But as a farmer sitting there dipping my Doritos chip into my bowlful of salsa I started doing the math. There are 43,560 square feet in a square acre of land. Michelob will have to sell 7,260 packs of beer to pay for the transition of just one acre of land to organic. This is going to be a very long row to hoe if this is how Anheuser Busch is going to meet its certain sustainability goals by 2025.

This is the point. How long until these multi-national, multi-billion dollar consumer product goods companies come to the realization that you cannot simply market your way to sustainability?Possibly the bigger question is how long the public — especially members of the Millennial and Gen Z generations — demand more than just the marketing Wizards of Oz behind the curtain tugging on our emotional heartstrings serve up?

The uncomfortable reality of all this is the fact that if you ask a farmer or better yet a consumer what the definition of sustainable is you’d get about 15 zillion different answers. The other important point to make here is farming organically and farming sustainably are two totally different things. Anheuser Busch’s Super Bowl ad only served to blur those lines in the minds of the consumer. So that’s where we are at today — a place where sustainability is defined more by emotions than real data, real science and real actions and yes I’m going to say it — common sense.

It is past time that food companies and the farmers who grow the food come together and truly define what sustainability really means. Both parties need to come together and lock themselves in the same room and figure it out. And make sure you leave the marketing people outside the room. It will mean having real metrics that are measurable with real data of what actually happened in the fields. Only with real actions, real numbers at the boots on the ground level that the public can trust will we have viable markets that will reward farmers for “doing the right thing” in the eyes of the consumer. Transitioning to sustainability has a cost so if that’s what the public demands they must be willing to pay for it and that has to reach all the way down to the individual farmer willing to make that change.

If we can do it for forests, let’s figure out how to do it for farmers before its too late.