Transparency versus the “Big is Bad” Mindset

Fair Oaks Fortune

When a national magazine does a feature-length article on a leading livestock producer and Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States is the first person to be quoted, the tendency might be to take cover.

That was precisely the situation this week when Fortune put the spotlight on one of the country’s leading dairies — Fair Oaks Farms. But instead of another assault on today’s agriculture, the article provides a clear example of how transparency can help overcome the “big is bad” mindset of the American public.

The magazine linked its two million followers to the article via its @FortuneMagazine Twitter account. The full article will appear in Fortune’s February issue.

The article by food writer Beth Kowitt spotlights Fair Oaks’ extensive efforts to utilize manure from its cows as an energy source — referred to as “entremanureship.” The story also discusses how the owners, Mike and Sue McCloskey, decided to let people see for themselves precisely what happens on a large-scale dairy.

“We lived all our lives being proud of what we do,” said Mike, “and we thought we should open our doors.” Fair Oaks opened to the public in 2004. A half-million people took bus tours through the farm last year.

“My doors are open, and you see everything I’m doing,” Mike told Fortune. As the article states, “Fair Oaks is challenging the assumption that big can’t be good.”

CCFI’s annual consumer trust research has consistently confirmed that Americans have a “big is bad” mindset. Whether comparing small farms to large farms or local food companies to national food companies, the results have been the same: a significant percentage of the public (in some cases a majority) feel smaller farms are more likely to share their values.

Farms perceived as “big” are susceptible to growing public perception that profit is being placed ahead of public interest. When this perception collides with a triggering event, such as an undercover video or a water quality controversy, social outrage that consumers express can have profound effects. But Fair Oaks, which has 36,000 cows and generates $2 billion in annual revenue, shows that being transparent can hep overcome the “big is bad” bias in the effort to build consumer trust.

CCFI’s 2015 research clearly shows that effectively demonstrating transparency will help those in the food system increase public trust in their products, processes, people and brands. Some farms and food companies, Fair Oaks Farms among them, have embraced this reality and pulled back the curtain.

Learn more about CCFI’s 2015 consumer trust research here, and register for our webinar series.