Innovation Will Be the Ship that Gets us Through "Interesting Times"



With so much change and uncertainty surrounding us, the saying (curse?) “may you live in interesting times” is certainly appropriate this year among farmers. I’m hoping farmers are front and centre in everyone’s thoughts as Thanksgiving approaches and their efforts to feed us are remembered, particularly in a year in which they’ve had more than their usual share of challenges.

While the rest of us chow down during the upcoming holiday, many farmers in Ontario will be hunkered down, trying to get crops off their field. They’ve faced exceptionally unpredictable weather and growing conditions that made mincemeat out of so many of their production schedules. Some crops that would normally have been harvested by now are still standing in fields.

At the same time, they’ve had to deal with abnormal levels of plant disease, caused by incessant rain and dampness.

Then throw in a few other unexpected challenges, such as the Russian boycott of Canadian agricultural goods (which fortunately didn’t turn out to be as bad as expected) and the polarizing debate over bees and pesticides, and it’s a tumultuous time.

Farmers through the years have been subject to the whims of nature…and survived. But now, something’s different, something’s changed. Normal just doesn’t seem to exist.

And that’s prompting action. Enough people have bought into the idea of climate change that the province of Ontario specifically tacked it onto the name and mandate of its environment ministry.

Farmers want to be part of the policy making discussion around climate change. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture normally takes strong positions on matters affecting farmers, but it’s ramped up the intensity even more on this issue.

“Farmers owe their livelihoods to a six-inch layer of topsoil, along with sunshine and rain,” says federation president Mark Wales. “We depend on our environment more than any other industry to raise our animals and grow our crops. And as our global climate changes, including the environment on our farms…we want farmers called to the table when policies and programs are being developed to tackle climate change.”

Wales also recognizes the role of research. He says new technology, equipment, farming techniques and seed varieties are helping farmers adapt to new growing conditions and climates. Drought-tolerant crops, land drainage systems, irrigation and risk management practices are continually being adopted on farms across Ontario, he says, to minimize the effects of extreme and new weather patterns.

The University of Guelph has reinforced its role in helping address agri-food challenges and opportunities by making a pact with the province that going into the future, agriculture and food will be one of the university’s top areas of specialization. Farmers and the rest of the agri-food community, which understands and appreciates the role of research in a changing environment, breathed a sigh of relief at this news. They know the university and the founding colleges that came before it, in partnership particularly with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, have been major players in Canadian agricultural advancements for nearly 150 years.

Newly installed University of Guelph President Franco Vaccarino, the university’s eighth president and vice-chancellor, spoke of some of these achievements at his installation address recently, and to those gathered a few days later for Canada’s Good Food Innovation Awards.

He specifically mentioned breakthroughs, such as producing omega-3 eggs and milk, using crops to develop new materials for car parts, and creating the world’s first shipping fever vaccine. He noted how research can help us get through tough times – such as those facing farmers now – and find the upside of uncertainty.

“Luckily,” he said, “we have places in our society that help people address uncertainty and that provide hope…by bringing clarity and by providing the tools to navigate the complexities and dynamics of modern society. Those places are universities.”

I was also intrigued about his down-to-earth take on innovation.  He says it’s no longer a differentiator among universities – including his, which calls itself Canada’s Food University — it’s now what he calls the price of entry.

“If you were to review the values of the top 20 universities in Canada, you’d find that almost all of them claim ‘innovation’ as a core value,” he says. “We need to understand innovation as an ongoing creative process. Innovative thinking is quickly becoming a baseline expectation in a society where the shelf life of new information is shortening at an unprecedented pace.”

The new president says the spirit of innovation is alive and well in the region, and he’s right. It’s that way among farmers, as well. They never throw up their hands and give in, no matter what the challenge may be.

I’m considering their fortitude as the holiday approaches, and giving thanks for their determination.

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