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Editorial: Listen up

I spend a lot of time at farm meetings. It’s an occupational hazard.

After a while, one can blend into another, even as common themes emerge. Recently one of those common themes has been the need to engage the public, advocate for the industry and ‘educate’ consumers.

I agree the math is remorseless. The farm population is shrinking and with each passing generation people become more disconnected from food production. Yet at the same time, everyone still eats. Combine that with the consumer culture where there’s an expectation of product differentiation and it’s not going to be a good time for the business.

Where I do differ with so many of these “agvocates,” however, is in how this attempt at better communication should be carried out. Too often, there’s a tendency to want to make people see the light, rather than have a true two-way dialogue.

Dalhousie University Professor Sylvain Charlebois talked about this very topic at a recent meeting in Calgary with beef producers. In an article that appeared in our sister publication, the Alberta Farmer Express, Charlebois described a landscape where there was a powerful urge from the farm community to connect with consumers, but in reality, there was very little actual effective communication.

Instead, what happens is farmers and their families find each other on the Internet, and talk to each other, in the process reinforcing their existing beliefs. It’s a classic echo chamber, and it probably feels pretty good as an alternative to what feels like isolation and marginalization. As a strategy to actually overcome the problem however, it’s far less likely to be effective.

Getting the relationship to the consumer right is an important issue and it’s a mistake to think the agriculture community is going to be able to set those terms. It’s also a big error to assume that people will eventually get hungry enough that they’ll come around and consume what you produce.

A few years back I read a magazine article that made a few things pretty clear about the sociology of the agriculture industry, and it came from a very unlikely source — a late-1960s issue of Car & Driver magazine. The title of the piece was “The Grosse Point Myopians,” a reference to the wealthy Detroit suburb where virtually all of the U.S. auto executives lived at the time.

Brock Yates, the author, made a convincing case that the industry was stuck in its own echo chamber. The executives went to the same schools, worked for the same handful of companies, were members of the same country clubs where they socialized and their kids wound up meeting and marrying each other. The bubble was so complete almost nothing penetrated it, and when it did, it was met with hostility and ridicule.

Volkswagens? What good was an air-cooled engine? Datsuns and Toyotas? They start to rust right on the boat. The disdain was palpable. Rather than trying to figure out where the market failure was and why these potential customers were making these decisions, their response was to mock and deride them.

Yates hit the auto industry with both barrels, and essentially told them they had a brewing problem that they were too cloistered to even understand. Predictably, this article was not well received, but over the next few years Yates was vindicated.

Sales of small imports skyrocketed, and in the face of oil embargoes and skyrocketing energy prices, the sales of Detroit’s gas-guzzling land yachts and muscle cars fell off a cliff.

Detroit struggled to play catch-up, producing dud after dud in the small car sector — Pintos, Vegas and Gremlins, just to name a few better left to history. In the ensuing years there’s been a string of bailouts, the most recent following the 2008 financial crisis. Detroit never really has regained its mojo.

This example from another sector is one agriculture should heed. We’re similarly insulated from the opinions of others and insular in nature. Likewise, when consumers go another direction, many think they’re deluded. Alternatives like the organic sector and local food, just to name two examples, struggle with credibility with the industry establishment while at the same time they’re embraced by consumers.

If the business keeps down the track it’s on right now, I fear the end result will be similar. Consumers will vote with their wallets and be less supportive of commercial agriculture.

This won’t be pretty if it does unfold like this. After all, many of your customers are off shore and the voters who control your political environment are food secure.

Talking — and listening — to them now will be preferable to being regulated by them later.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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