It was nearly 10 o’clock this past Tuesday evening, when my phone quietly buzzed, indicating an email had arrived.
Despite what countless mental health experts have to say about not obsessively checking your work email during non-work hours, I couldn’t help but take a peek, as my curiosity got the better of me.
What I found was an article, and accompanying data charts, that summarized the MCVET winter cereals trials conducted around the province, courtesy of one of the provincial extension specialists. She and a number of her colleagues have of late been burning the midnight oil to get the numbers out to growers early enough to aid them in variety selection for this fall (see the full article).
I couldn’t help but pause and reflect on how this underlined the disconnect between public perception of civil servants and the reality — especially in the agriculture sector.
It’s become a tired cliché, complaining about lazy government bureaucrats with their fat salaries, generous pension plans and light workloads. I’ve never quite understood why.
I’ve watched first hand for quite a few years, as the folks with the provincial Agriculture Department and others like them go about their business.
I can report there are a lot of people working there, and in the other public sector organizations allied with your industry, that care deeply about farmers, their families, communities and businesses.
There are no absolutes of course — a very wise former colleague of mine once pointed out, when I was complaining about something being overly bureaucratic while working for a completely unrelated organization, that “You should always remember the problem with any human organization is that it is populated by humans.”
He was right. Humans have their foibles. Any group of people large enough will always contain the occasional bad apple, which of course is the one that’s remembered, not the much larger group of people that quietly gets the job done.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve spent plenty of time with Manitoba Agriculture staff, and other public servants, such as professors at the University of Manitoba, who also contributed to the MCVET project, or Agriculture Canada researchers working on important agronomic questions. That time has been almost universally positive.
This is an industry, particularly at the producer level, that’s made up of a whole bunch of small independent operators with interests that imperfectly overlap, and big issues that must be addressed. One avenue for this has been producer groups, but the important contribution of public servants can’t be ignored. They frequently act as informal advocates on your behalf, an important but unheralded role in the complex machinery that is modern Canadian agriculture.
They’ve patiently explained complex topics to us all, they’ve organized very important extension meetings and, time and again, I’ve seen them go the extra mile to serve you and your industry. They do the important background tasks like gathering the market intelligence data which appears in this publication and other venues every week, putting impartial hard numbers to a vague sense of what markets are doing. They advocate on your behalf in public policy discussions, such as the upcoming farm safety net negotiations that will result in Growing Forward 3. They do knowledge-based research that can’t be commercialized for profit by a private entity, but which gives you new and better ways to do your work, such as the zero-till production system.
Like your business, this work doesn’t hew to a nine-to-five schedule, and their lives reflect this reality. I’ve seen extension personnel and researchers make the same decisions you do about working long hours to complete seasonal tasks. They too frequently sacrifice free time and personal commitments to get the job done.
I’m sure there are many and varied reasons for this, but one of the most important is surely the nature of this business and the people attracted to it. Many come from farm backgrounds, either directly or not that far removed within their families. They understand, value and respect what you do, and that comes out very clearly in the quality of the work they do.
I suppose the worn-out stereotype of the out-of-touch bureaucrat provides a handy lightning rod for frustration, and makes for an easy target, but it’s unfair to the dedicated people who do this work.
In an era where impartial information is getting ever harder to find, they and what they do should be valued and protected.