I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone from this industry lament that consumers just don’t understand them.
They don’t realize that agriculture produces some of the safest and most readily available food in human history, these ‘agvocates’ state, all on low margins, and at high risk.
From their positions of comfort in the cities and towns, they question and scoff instead of being supportive and grateful.
There’s probably a small grain of truth to that, but I would suggest that attitude is far from universal. A small cadre of food activists, formal and otherwise, certainly does have strong opinions.
- Read more: Editorial: Beggar thy neighbour
The vast majority, however, unlikely has the time or energy to have these thoughts. They are too busy earning a living, paying their bills and feeding their families to ponder it.
In their world, food really does come from the grocery store, because that’s who expects to be paid for it. The mechanics of how that food gets there may be of passing interest to them, but in terms of the day-to-day practicality of the question, that’s how it plays out.
As a sector, we might lament that, but there are also times it works just fine for us. After all, an informed consumer can quite quickly flip to become a consumer with an opinion. They may even want changes to how their food is produced.
So having the consumer understand you and your business is a double-edged sword. I personally still think it’s a worthwhile endeavour, but I don’t think it will be the simple, one-way or clean strategy many do.
There is another area, however, where the agriculture sector is sorely lacking in both focus and effort — understanding their fellow citizens and their perspective. After all, if we expect them to understand us, should we not at least try to understand them?
Let’s begin with some dollars-and-cents facts about how their lives are different from yours.
Probably the starkest difference is that they’re poorer than you, significantly so. In 2014, the last year for which full figures are available, StatsCan states that the average Manitoba family earned $74,790, and the average wage for an individual was $46,363.
By way of comparison, for the same year StatsCan pegged average Canadian farm income at $117,388. In Manitoba alone it was slightly lower, at $103,156. In other words, the average Manitoba farm family has annual earnings a third again higher than the average non-farm family.
Over the long term, those numbers really add up. In Manitoba, also from StatsCan, but this time for 2012, the average Manitoba family had a net worth of $224,800. More recent estimates put that at $342,779, mostly on more expensive housing.
Again by comparison, in an AAFC document released about a year ago, the average Canadian farmer was expected to have a net worth of $2.7 million, or close to eight times larger.
There is also the value farm programs bring to the farm. Take crop insurance as just one example. Here we’ll have to engage in a little back-of-the-envelope pencilling, but according to a recent statement by provincial Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler the federal and provincial governments are expected to be putting up $136.3 million as their share of the annual premiums for the 2017-18 crop year, which works out to 60 per cent of the total bill. In the industry it’s estimated there are about 10,000 commercial grain and oilseed operations in the province, so that would equate a further value to each farm in that sector of about $13,630 in just a single year.
In the face of these numbers it becomes a little difficult to understand the perpetual sense of grievance that many farmers feel.
How can an industry in the 90th percentile of both income and average family wealth feel that society has it in for them? If our society really is picking winners and losers, you’ve clearly been singled out as winners.
Perhaps what’s going on is selection bias. I suspect most farmers have more to do with the wealthy professionals in our society than the working class. That is, they’re more likely to be speaking to a lawyer or accountant or banker than the guy or gal at the factory who built their swather or tractor. That leaves them with a skewed view of just how well the average urbanite is doing.
I also suspect that the average lifestyle presented in our mass media also contributes to all of us having a poor understanding of how real people actually live.
If agriculture still wants the support of our broader society, we need to understand these figures and approach them with some level of sensitivity.
A lack of sensitivity could lead to punitive regulations and a rapid loss in public support.