Few would doubt the special nature of the agriculture industry.
After all, it’s the only sector I can think of that rates its own census, and one of the very few which has its own federal and provincial governmental departments.
There are programs such as AgriStability and provincial crop insurance and special dispensation in a number of areas such as labour law, which recognizes the seasonality of the business, and even some workplace health and safety requirements.
It also enjoys — though it may not feel like it at times — a lot of support from the general public. Farmers enjoy a lot of the much-ballyhooed ‘social licence’ from many other citizens, and periodic surveys reflect farmers continue to be trusted. But can this continue forever?
That might seem like a harsh question, but it’s one worth asking. Much of the general public clings to the outdated perception of farms and farmers. When they think farming, an idyllic vision of a small mixed farm comes to mind.
Anyone in the business could tell them that the section farm with grain and hay and cows and chickens that they’re imagining is, if not entirely extinct, certainly qualified for endangered status.
Personally, I don’t think they’re entirely to blame for this misunderstanding of what a farm looks like, however. How many of us know exactly what a modern train looks like, for example? We all know what a steam train looks like, thanks to generations of Hollywood film, but likely have a far less clear picture of what a diesel-electric train is all about. People form their understanding of a situation from the facts and impressions they have at hand.
Right now there’s a misalignment between the impression Canadians have of farms and the reality on the ground. That misalignment has come naturally as the business has changed. As farms have grown larger and more complex they have become, by necessity, very different-looking operations. They look less like the impressions consumers have of a ‘farm’ and more like something they’d classify as a ‘business’ or even, in the case of some operations, like a ‘factory.’
The agriculture industry has also been pretty reluctant to make it clear that this shift has been happening. While there’s a lot of pride in the growing efficiency of the operations, on some level I think everyone understands that outside observers find it harder to relate to the modern image.
That has led to entities like large sophisticated multinational agribusinesses wrapping themselves in the trappings of family farms. You can see this with a simple trip down the produce aisle, with colourful stereotype-filled packaging from such-and-such “farms” — farms that in all likelihood have hundreds and even thousands of employees, own processing and packing facilities and in some cases even dedicated truck fleets that fan out across the continent to make deliveries.
Closer to home, we have large operations that continue to operate under regulations designed as family farms, and industry associations of all types that embrace that image when it’s convenient.
The risk to this strategy is when it becomes apparent to consumers that the image they’ve been presented with, held and even perhaps defended, isn’t in fact accurate. Take the often-controversial release of barn videos from animal welfare groups. I won’t defend the tactics of these groups, especially the more ethically challenged groups that have been proven to present false images and cherry-picked video outtakes. I’ll just remind the industry it can’t control the actions of others. These sort of events are going to happen, and they work precisely because this misalignment exists.
Imagine you’re a consumer who’s buying a package of bacon, for example, with a happy hog and a gambrel-roofed barn on the label. Now suddenly you’re being shown video of perceived animal abuse in a wholly different environment. In all likelihood you’re going to react and not positively.
A consumer who feels misled or lied to is going to be hard, if not impossible, to win back.
With agriculture advocacy groups excitedly preparing for next February’s inaugural National Agriculture Day, I’d like to make my pitch for expanding the agenda.
Right now it’s being billed as a chance to celebrate the industry, which I think is appropriate — but in my opinion the real opportunity is to start a conversation.
A conversation, however, requires two-way communication and a willingness to tackle hard topics and even listen to consumers. It might even mean taking a hard look at some of the current practices and rethinking them.
Canadians, given the chance, still want to support farms and farmers — but it’s up to farmers to keep them on side.