Canadian Federation of Agriculture vice-president Ron Bonnett got a rare opportunity on May 18 to explain what agriculture in the 21st century is really all about. And it wasn’t to an ordinary gathering of city folk, but a roomful of young people who could well shape the country’s future.
A couple of hundred of the brightest high school and university students in Canada were in workshop-style competition to be selected as delegates to the G8 and G20 conferences in Canada next month.
Bonnett was asked to talk about improving productivity in agriculture. He wanted to expand his message that profitability and innovation are equally important. But before he got to speak to them in the faded splendour of Room 200 of the West Block on Parliament Hill, he was hit with a bombshell.
Laurent Pellerin, who 15 months earlier derailed his bid to be elected CFA president, was resigning to take a government post. The news about Pellerin was so fresh he couldn’t say more than the CFA board would discuss how executive responsibilities will be handled until elections can be held at next February’s annual meeting.
Then it was on to the students, bright eyed and dressed like they were applying for a dream job. They had already heard from Prime Minister Harper and representatives of other key sectors of the economy.
Bonnett started by acknowledging that most Canadians are too removed from the farm to have more than a cursory understanding of the challenges facing farmers.
“They don’t understand how we do it but they want it as cheap as possible.” He urged them to look at agriculture as a solution to climate change and many other of the world’s problems.
“We used to worry about whether we could feed all the world,” he said. “Now we think we can supply its food and energy needs.” However, to do that requires prices that support agriculture production. “Society needs to recognize what it will take to help us move forward.”
And understand how technology innovations such as genetically engineered crops and GPS systems can help farmers meet the world’s food and energy needs.
GPS can reduce the time spent in field preparation and improve fertilizer and pesticide application. He explained how farmers had learned to cope with droughts and dryland farming. The dairy sector is moving to robotic milking machines to ease the labour shortages in that field. Milk production per cow has risen to 30 kilograms from 10 kgs when Bonnett started farming.
Research could find ways to select breeding bulls with better feed conversion traits and identify whole plants that could be grown for biofuel use. Throughout, he kept returning to the need for profits to keep agriculture sustainable.
The students had plenty of questions. The one that brought out his philosophical side was on the future for family farms. They will survive but they’ll “be different from what we envisage as the family farm today. We will see new types of partnerships. There probably won’t be as many single-owner farms as in the past but farms composed of multifamily members will become a lot more common.”
Also young farmers want holidays and weekends off that they can’t get if only one person is doing all the work. “It will be a big structural shift and the result will be farming will be set up more like small business. They want the same kind of lifestyle as other Canadians.”