Change is good (and other lies we tell ourselves)



Recently, I was asked to speak at the Alberta Ag Services Board’s 70th annual meeting. The theme centered around change and all that agriculture had evolved through in the last 70 years. From horse-drawn implements, to variable rate, sectional control-equipped seeding equipment, the last 70 years has literally been a technological revolution in producing food.

The topic I was asked to cover centered on adapting to the “new normal,” and how to keep up with what feels like an exponential rate of change. It was a tall order, but I finally got whacked by some inspiration on a flight somewhere over northern Ontario.

I figured I’d put the pace of change in the context of my own still-young career — about 12 years or so — and look at it from the stories and coverage I’ve done in that time. What struck me was that there are certain articles I write over and over (usually about agronomic topics — like calculating 1,000 kernel weight, checking seeding depth, or right-timing fusarium head blight suppression). Then there’s the stuff I never thought I’d witness — the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, sectional control on seeders, and recent sky-high cull cow prices (I started my career just before BSE hit).

I asked farmers about some of the biggest changes they’d witnessed in the last 15 or so years. The run-up in land prices, the cost to operate, and the scale of equipment all factored in. Many things remained the same, too — like hours worked in a day, the crop mix, the “rule of thumb” bushels per acre seeding rates (ahem!).

food does not simply come from grocery stores
A meme, like this one, is visual, easy to share and evocative. Agriculture can use them to spark conversation, too!

As I see it, one of the driving forces in agriculture right now has been the incredible shift from farmers functioning and working away in isolation, to consumer’s wanting to meet their farmers, see their faces on food packaging, and the rise of the “natural, local, free-range, GMO-free” label-palooza we’ve waded into now. While variable rate technology is amazing, as is cloud computing and biotechnology, I’d argue it’s the incredible swing in consumer demands, perceptions and scrutiny that perhaps has changed most in the last decade.

Where does that leave us? Change is constant, and often sends us off in directions we never could have anticipated. That makes change scary — we can’t control it, it may add risk, and it may challenge our ideals and habits. What does it take to thrive in an ever-changing industry and marketplace?

I have a slide that, paraphrased, says: We want our consumers to challenge what they think they know; to ask questions; to seek out reputable sources; to not get snowed by hype and celebrities; and, to learn to distinguish good science from junk.

And that’s all well and good — but do we impose the same expectations on ourselves, as an industry? Agriculture can’t sit back and wag a finger at consumers for their unreasonable demands and lack of understanding without also holding ourselves accountable to the same measuring stick. Are farmers willing to evolve? Is the agriculture industry accepting of change? Can you honestly say you know junk science from sound science and are using the best resources to make decisions on your farm?

To be sure, that is happening in many pockets of the industry — farmers are adopting social media as their own megaphone to try and bridge the gap between farm gate and plate (or grocery store, chef’s kitchen, or dieticians office…). There are niche markets and direct-to-consumer value chains that farmers are developing and servicing to exploit the shift in consumer changes. Many farmers are cognizant of some of farming’s undesirable environmental impacts and are working to mitigate them.

But there’s more to be done. Here’s what I’d love to see: an understanding that consumers aren’t stupid just because they don’t know a dairy cow from a beef cow; farmers that park the “that won’t work on my farm” phrase, and try just one new thing this year (maybe it involves succession planning? Some help on that front, here).

I’d love to see agriculture take a good long look in the mirror before dismissing consumer’s concerns — they are our customers, after all. Does that mean you never challenge a myth or believed misconception? Absolutely not! But instead of being defensive and immediately balking at demands, take it as a challenge to understand consumers’ concerns — and see where you may be able to help lift some of their worry about how their food is produced. Consumers can’t be the only ones expected to change.


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