Noble efforts have been made to try bringing rural and urban Canadians closer. And now, with the Trans Pacific Partnership being signed, expect those efforts to intensify.
Agricultural journalists and communications professionals are paying attention to this imperative. “Fixing Fences: Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide” was the theme of the 60th annual Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation meeting in Calgary last month.
Organizers worked hard to build a quality two-day program that would offer up ways to draw city and country closer together, a challenge that greatly affects farmers, and one that the federation has watched grow steadily for decades.
When organizers were putting the program together, even towards the very end of it, they couldn’t have known the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations would be reaching a critical stage just a week later, in Atlanta.
Otherwise, they might have added an internal element that focussed on how the farm community will fix its own fences – the rural-rural divide, so to speak – once the negotiations are complete.
Both efforts are imperative. And it’s further fitting that they surfaced just prior to agriculture week in Ontario, the province that’s home of some of the most significant rural-urban-rural questions in this country.
Ideally, during Ontario Agriculture Week we’d be celebrating the uniqueness, diversification and success of agriculture here.
But at some levels, we’re having a hard time getting through the mire.
Journalists know this, and at many farm writers’ meetings there’s a collective spit about communication woes. Its broad membership includes writers, broadcasters and communications professionals who often interact with the public. Exchanging war stories about doing so can be good for the soul.
But as some of the participants noted to the conference speakers, it’s time to move their war stories off the podium and into the hospitality suite, or wherever casual conversations occur. No one wins when either farmers or consumers are made to look and sound uninformed publicly. It’s hostile.
And addressing this divide does indeed sounds like a classic fence-mending exercise. But to me, the main task at hand is not how to mend the fences, but rather, how to tear them down and get rid of them entirely.
Fences divide – in this case, they’re dividing farmers and consumers. There’s no mileage, though, in having farmers, farm communicators or farm organizations on one side being smug or feeling superior because they know something consumers don’t. And neither is there mileage in consumers vilifying farmers over agricultural practices and technologies they don’t understand. Fences need to come down.
To this end, the media can help. It’s one place where balanced perspectives have traditionally been found. I know this is a controversial perspective — the media is often accused of bias, when in fact it’s aiming for balance. The media is neither pro nor con, and needs to use its unique role – the one that people turn to when they really need to be informed, such as in times of a crisis, or in times of truly national matters such as the federal election – and deliver balanced perspectives.
One place media will look to for honesty is on Ontario farms. Media might be lead to them by self-interest groups, or they might find farmers independently, via social media. But even though farmers have a vested interest in seeing whatever status quo they’re involved in being maintained, at least they can offer the truth about what’s going on down the lane.
Openness and transparency won’t stop the critics of modern agriculture from railing against it. Still, there’s room in this scenario for much more than answering criticism. There’s room too for real education. Some farmers have embraced this role, using social media in particular to inform and educate people. These farmers need others to join them, to reach out to conventional media and employ new media to help inform those who truly want answers.
Indeed, the fences that used to separate neighbours have to come down. When it comes to information about agriculture, it’s a free-range world.
And finally, how about those fences being erected, reinforced or torn down with the Trans Pacific Partnership? The work-up to it has resulted in all kinds of strategic partnerships being created or mightily tested, as supply managed and non-supply managed groups lobbied the feds to do what they each considered to be the right thing.
From the public’s perspective, they’ll see more division in agriculture. One group or coalition of groups is popping champagne, others are crying in their beer. Maybe the tears aren’t flowing as much as anticipated; maybe the billions of dollars being offered up by the feds is making this an easier pill to swallow.
And maybe eventually this agreement will tear down fences, certainly international ones. But not right now.
As one Calgary panelist noted at the farm writers’ meeting, the need to help the public understand farming is eternal. It’s an endless journey.
And if Yogi Berra were alive, he’d say that’s just the beginning.