In the midst of a hectic wheat harvest, two Kansas farmers took time last month to visit with a group of food bloggers, some of whom had never seen a combine or walked through a field of wheat before.
“We are really lucky to have a great network of farmers who understand how important it is to tell their story,” said Jordan Hildebrand, a program assistant with Kansas Wheat who helped organize the tour.
Red Star Yeast, a company that reaches out to food bloggers as part of its marketing, was a co-sponsor of the trip and helped promote the opportunity.
Nine food bloggers from nine different states took the tour. Together they represent a combined readership of more than 5.4 million followers.
“It would take us a really long time to build that kind of relationship directly with consumers,” Hildebrand said. “They’ve already been building that relationship, some of them for up to a decade at this point. So we’re able to share our story with these influencers, and make them feel better about the food they’re eating, but we’re also able to reach their followers as well.”
Scott Van Allen, who farms near Clearwater in south central Kansas, patiently took turns giving the bloggers rides on his machine as he cut a swath of wheat still standing in one of his fields.
“He could see how interested they were and how enlightening it was for them,” Hildebrand said.
Jenny Goering, who is part of a farm family that grows wheat in Central Kansas near McPherson and also has an organic wheat farm in the Garden City area, took a couple of days away from harvest to ride along with the bloggers, answering their questions and forging personal relationships.
“We thought it would be a really great idea to have one farmer go along on the whole trip. It was really strategic on our part, and the stars aligned so that she was able to do it,” Hildebrand explained. “We worked really hard to give the bloggers an actual farm contact. We can answer questions, but it really means something different when it comes directly from a farmer.”
One thing unique about Goering’s situation is that her family farms both conventional and organic wheat.
“She was able to break it down and talk about why they make the production decisions they do, and the pros and cons of each production system,” Hildebrand noted. “On the way from Wichita to Manhattan, we were able to get off the interstate and drive by the fields her family was harvesting. She could stand at the front of the bus and say, ‘this is my field. I made all of the management decisions. And these are my family members who are in the combine or driving the grain cart,’ which was really, really cool.”
In addition, a registered dietitian, Jill Ladd, traveled with the group. Later on the bloggers had a chance to meet and bake with Julene DeRouchey, an assistant nutrition educator for Kansas Wheat.
Hildebrand admits the bloggers were probably most excited about getting to spend a day baking in the Kansas Wheat test kitchen with cookbook author, Zoë François, who wrote Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. (She also blogs at ZoeBakes and Breadin5.) But the tour of farms, the Farmer Direct Foods flour mill in New Cambria and the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center, where they learned about the research that goes into developing new varieties, were more enjoyable than many of the bloggers expected.
Standing in a sea of waving wheat for the first time proved to be a surprisingly transformative experience for many of them, Hildebrand said.
“The setting was beautiful,” wrote the Baltimore-based author of Sally’s Baking Addiction blog, in describing the visit to Van Allen’s 2,500-acre farm.
A blogger from Florida and author of Adriana’s Best Recipes called it “a true farm to table experience.” As an enthusiastic fan of King Arthur flour, she was thrilled by the chance to visit the mill “where ten million pounds of stone-ground King Arthur white whole wheat flour is milled.”
At the St. Louis-based Cupcake Project blog, author Stefani shared in-depth instructions on how to make fancy star-shaped bread, the difference between enriched and “lean” dough and various kinds of yeast. But she also recounted lessons on breeding advances in wheat production.
“We hear a lot about ancient varieties of fruits and vegetables being more nutritious than modern versions,” she wrote on her blog. “According to the Kansas Wheat Commission, studies have shown that the ancient wheat grains have the exact same nutritional content as modern versions. One of the main differences in ancient wheat versus modern wheat is its height.”
“Modern wheat has been bred (not through GMOs) to be shorter because the older varieties fall over in the fields from their own weight, making them really hard to harvest,” she continued. “We talked to some farmers who are growing older wheat varieties, due to public demand for them, and heard how difficult it was for them at harvest time. I had no idea!”
Other participating bloggers included the authors of The Kitchen Whisperer, based in Pittsburg; Baker Bettie, based in Chicago; Heart Of a Baker, based in Milwaukee; Love Bakes Good Cakes, based in Phoenix; Completely Delicious, based in Salt Lake City; and A Kitchen Addiction, based in Minneapolis.
Focusing on food influencers is part of a shift as commodity groups adapt to a changing marketing environment and try to stretch their promotional dollars further with fewer TV or magazine ads and more use of social media.
Hildebrand said change is a constant for food marketers, and agriculture in general hasn’t done enough to connect with their most important audience.
“I think the agriculture industry has started to realize over the last five to ten years that we’ve done a really crummy job of talking to the people who buy our food. There’s been a breakdown of trust in the food system, and people don’t know what to believe anymore,” she said. “They ‘google’ questions that they have because they don’t know any farmers and then they see all these scary headlines. There’s a real culture of fear around food for consumers. We need to step up to the plate and talk about what we do and why we do it and have an air of transparency around farming.”
In Kansas, the farm bureau, soybean growers and pork producers have all done similar tours targeted at bloggers, Hildebrand said.
For Kansas Wheat, the tour was an opportunity to promote the National Festival of Breads, a contest and promotional event held every other year in Manhattan, Kansas. Eight finalists are chosen to participate in a bake-off in front of a live audience but they also tour a wheat farm and flour mill.
For the next contest, which will be held in June of 2019, Kansas Wheat is adding a food blogger category, which they promoted during the recent tour.
Kansas Wheat hopes to continue holding a tour for food bloggers on alternate years with the Festival of Breads, she added.
Taking time away during harvest is a true sacrifice for farmers, Hildebrand said, but it’s also a rare opportunity.
“Sometimes it’s good for them to step out of their farmer shoes for a bit and look at what the end consumer is seeing,” she said.