Don't Get Lulled by Quiet Times in Ag: Public Understanding is an Urgent Matter

Grain prices today are okay (thanks to the weak Canadian dollar). Crop yields last year were decent. Livestock prices are not what they were, but they’re not in the tank. Supply management looks to be secure for the time being. The Wheat Board is gone. COOL has been repealed. We don’t have a grain transportation disaster.

The list goes on…

As a reporter, I’ve been to many farm group annual meetings in the last month or two. Usually there’s lively debate over resolutions, but that hasn’t been the case this winter. Things are unusually quiet. There have been a lot of rather boring meetings.

Not sure I’d dare say it out loud, but you could argue Canadian agriculture is in a bit of a lull right now. There isn’t any specific issue firing a large group of people up.

But maybe there should be.

The break in the action could be a great opportunity to focus all the resting energy on a bigger picture challenge.

We’ve talked about it for years, but as some other clouds clear from the big picture, more farm leaders are realizing they need to make it a higher priority: the massive effort needed to maintain and build trust between the modern business of growing food and the rest of society. It’s already overused, but for lack of a better term, the idea of “maintaining social license.” And not just with a line in the “Other” part of a farm organization’s budget.

We’ve seen the rise of “agvocacy” over the last few years and specialized groups like Farm & Food Care and Ag in the Classroom have been doing great work in organized ag awareness efforts for more than a decade, but we’re finally starting to see larger traditional farm organizations and institutions realizing they also need to get involved, and in a big way. SaskCanola’s “License to Farm” documentary is an example of a concerted effort to share farmers’ perspectives to balance the public conversation.

People who in the past have spent tremendous amounts of energy figuring out how to destroy/save the Wheat Board or fighting against COOL have started to see they need to invest those resources helping Canadians understand what happens on farms. There has been so much energy used to put out fires that not enough people have paid attention to the oncoming storm from an unaware society. Improved yields, market access and risk management programs are all important, but having a public environment that makes modern farming possible also matters.

The rubber hits the road when we have people who don’t know anything about agriculture implementing policies that hurt agriculture because they don’t know any better.

Some other reasons to believe this idea of engaging the public on agriculture is cracking the upper echelons of ag policy: “maintaining trust in Canada’s food system” was given a high value spot on the agenda when agriculture ministers from across Canada met in PEI last summer. More provincial ag departments are starting to make it a priority. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has also ramped up its talk about maintaining social license. We’re starting to see traditional farm groups with leaders who are probably among the last to participate in social media realize this is critical.

So how to turn all this meeting buzz and talk into action?

There are many great ag awareness initiatives already underway that could be expanded. As with “License to Farm” or Ag More Than Ever there are opportunities for large-scale initiatives, but I think we’ve already seen that helping people understand how food is grown starts at a personal level (see Andrew Campbell’s #farm365 work). The most impact occurs when farmers’ tell their story, often informally, so they should be given tools to do this effectively. Tweeting, storytelling and communication skills aren’t usually seen as required abilities for farming, but maybe they should be.

Rather than coasting along, feeling like there aren’t any major fires to put out, farm groups and farmers must seize this opportunity to understand and foster dialogue with non-farming Canadians.

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