Outreach and a History Lesson: The BSE Crisis, the Local Food Movement & Telling Our Story



Owen RobertsA media training exercise I do with some of my colleagues is to get farmers to pitch us agriculture stories, and we respond like journalists would.

It’s a bit exaggerated — the farmers don’t have much time to think about their stories, and we kick back when the pitch is made, to ensure they’ve covered all their bases.

But ultimately, it’s a real life scenario. After all, they’re farmers, and we’re journalists. Through the exercise, farmers get some idea of what it’s like to prepare to deal with the media, and we get a glimpse into topics they think are important, and should be told to a wide audience.

One pitch I heard lately concerned cattle prices.

The farmer was pleased prices had risen, and wanted other Canadians to share his joy.

After all, beef is big business in this country, contributing around $34 billion a year to the economy. And despite that sum, beef remains a family-farm stronghold, with the average beef herd numbering just 65 animals. We’re not talking “corporate” farming here, whatever that means.

So with this information in mind, shouldn’t we all feel positive about the good fortunes of an important local food sector?

To me, this was a challenge.

On one hand, reasons do indeed exist to rejoice, on many fronts. First, decent prices today mean beef farmers are finally getting a chance to dig out of the hole that swallowed them when BSE hit — when the US, prompted by an already wild-eyed anti-trade faction of militant beef farmers there, did its level best to rip our industry to shreds.

I believe consumers will remember that, when reminded.

BSE hit at about the same time the local food movement was taking hold. This, combined with bullying from the US, was actually a rallying point for consumers.

For example, remember the world’s longest BBQ, launched by Canadian culinary activist Anita Stewart? When conceived, its intent was to instill a sense of pride in quality Canadian beef, as farmers here struggled. Since then, it’s morphed into Food Day Canada, and earned Stewart the Order of Canada, the title of Food Laureate from the University of Guelph, and a boatload of other accolades. Canadian beef was pivotal in the importance people placed on local food, and still is.

That backdrop needs to be part of any and all beef price increase discussions today, with consumers and with the media. Journalists need to be made aware of it by their news sources – in this case, beef famers.

Maybe they’ll ignore it. But farmers can’t, and here’s why.

Today, people are lining up at food banks in droves. I don’t believe they place their unfortunate predicament at the feet of farmers, given that Canadians dedicate less of their income to food than do consumers in most countries.

But who wants to hear stories about prosperous farmers when you’re hungry?

And indeed, on the very day I was being pitched the beef price story in our media training exercise, news outlets everywhere in this country had lead stories about increased traffic at food banks. Reports said use is 25 per cent higher than in 2008, just before the recession hit. Worse, 37 per cent of food bank users here are children.

Editors can’t ignore this reality.

Now, I’ve also written stories about how rural Canada has not been immune to the kind of economic hardship that leads people to food banks, too. And I seen several stories about how during post-BSE tough times in particular, farmers were among food bank users. Talk about ironic.

But there’s nothing to be gained as a nation by having a weak farm sector. It’s certainly no guarantee that prices will come down, especially if we have to reply more on imports.

The news is not all gloomy. This week, the University of Guelph annual food price forecast showed consumer prices for meat will start tapering off next year.  Supply will catch up with demand, and inputs such as fuel have already dropped. Still, a jump of 3-5 per cent is anticipated.

Such is the long list of points to be consider in a story pitch. It can be complicated, but outreach is vital. All around us we’re seeing policy decisions being made outside agriculture that directly and significantly impact farmers, with little consideration for the consequences. Outreach needs to be part of any modern farming operation. And the media – conventional, social, consumer, whatever — is one of the most efficient ways to reach out, when approached properly. Once you’ve established a relationship with members of the media, it can be fulfilling to know you are helping get facts and the truth into other Canadians’ heads.

There are two ways forward. You can take the lead in proposing stories and controlling the public agenda. Or, you can wait until you’re on the receiving end of a phone call asking questions such as why prices for farmers should be rising when food bank use is growing.

Is there really any choice?

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