Dr. Chris Calkins, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, argues that strong, sustainable trading relationships are based on fact. The key is having a genuinely distinctive product and effectively and credibly communicating what sets it apart. In this exclusive article for the U.S. Sustainability Alliance, Dr. Calkins explains how Nebraska’s focus on beef quality and the science behind it has resulted in continued commercial success. Read Dr. Calkins’ article to learn more. 

Good, sustainable trading relationships are built on trust. The buyer must have confidence that the seller can provide the desired products in the volume needed and at a price that works. There is also a presumption that some level of demand exists for the products in question. That demand can be based on price, quality, product uniqueness, and perceived value. 

I have first-hand experience with one particular strategy to support a good trading relationship. The approach is uncommon, not because it’s risky or because it seldom works. It’s uncommon because success requires a product that truly is distinctive. It relies on sound communication, not just between buyer and seller but also with the end user (consumer). Let me explain.

Consider your personal entry into the trade. There was, no doubt, a steep learning curve. You had to learn about the product you were selling as well as how to conduct the transaction while understanding the inherent risks. One could argue that risk management is the difference between long-term success and failure. It makes sense, then, to consider how to minimize risk. 

How much do you know about the product you are selling? Not just the description, but about the innate properties of the product itself? In many cases, that knowledge comes as a byproduct of experience. Formal education about the product is often lacking. 

What are some benefits of really knowing your product? Assessment of value becomes easier. You can have confidence in what you are saying, and selling, to your customers. And when properly educated, your customers themselves can have a better understanding of the value of the products they are buying. All of these things help to reduce risk. 

But education is a troubling word. We all have images of sitting in a classroom while the instructor delivers a boring lecture about whatever topic is being covered. To be effective, that knowledge needs to be delivered at the right time and in the right way. When done properly, there are many benefits to the process. 

Nebraska is known as The Beef State. Located in the central U.S., we are blessed with the natural resources and infrastructure to raise cattle and economically produce high-quality beef. We have the land, cattle, water, corn, feedlots, and infrastructure. In addition, Nebraska has developed and refined an accelerated beef production system that almost guarantees tender, flavorful beef. In other words, beef from Nebraska delivers on the quality promise. It’s not hype – it’s fact. 

I’m a retired professor of Animal Science from the University of Nebraska, with a specialty in meat science. I have spent the past 50 years learning, researching, and teaching aspects of meat quality, with a strong focus on beef. The subject is surprisingly complex. In many ways, it’s a combination of animal biology and consumer preference. Consumers help to define quality and biology can be used to enhance those attributes. 

Because agriculture and beef are so important to our state economy, Nebraska has a priority to educate our potential customers about the science behind quality beef and our commitment to excellence. That’s where I come in. For nearly 20 years I’ve traveled the world explaining our process and describing our products. I’ve spent time at trade shows, conducted numerous cutting demonstrations, and made countless presentations to corporate audiences and potential customers describing the science behind our beef quality. Years ago, there was a television company that had the advertising slogan “The quality goes in before the name goes on.” That accurately describes our product. It’s helpful to vendors and customers when they can hear the story from a credible source. I’ve never heard anyone say that they wish they’d bought an item of lower quality. People might have to make a decision based on price. But they always return to quality. 

What’s uncommon is to link this knowledge with promotional efforts. Our Nebraska Director of Agriculture and our Nebraska Secretary of State have ensured we continue to explain the science behind our beef quality. Together we’ve worked to attract distributors willing to keep our products separately identified from generic U.S. beef. Also, we engage with our distributors to communicate with their customers. Bluntly put, customers believe the science message when it’s delivered by a credible academic and the product performs. 

It’s rare to have an academic in such a role. But we’ve seen remarkable and continued success in doing so. Ultimately, science can be used to build better trading relationships based on fact.