Given so­ci­etal changes, farm­ers can’t take their foot off the pedal

The Woolwich Observer - - NEWS - FIELD NOTES

FARM­ERS WANT THE PUB­LIC to make in­formed, re­search-based de­ci­sions. They don’t want con­sumers swayed by zeal­ous ac­tivists whose po­si­tions are founded on emo­tion and scare­mon­ger­ing, rather than facts and re­al­ity.

For ex­am­ple, farm­ers want ev­ery­one to un­der­stand that ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fy­ing food has never been proven to cause ill health.

They want peo­ple to know in­creased au­toma­tion is be­ing used on the farm not be­cause farm­ers are ea­ger to turn their op­er­a­tions into fac­to­ries, but rather, be­cause the labour pool is empty. Mem­bers of the work­force are not in­ter­ested in farm work.

Farm­ers want those con­cerned about the ris­ing cost of food – and that is in­deed an im­per­a­tive for the pub­lic – to know that they’ve long made ef­forts to keep their costs as low as pos­si­ble, and that in many cases they use tech­nol­ogy to help.

Farm­ers want peo­ple to know an­i­mal wel­fare is of the ut­most con­cern. Farm­ing is an oc­cu­pa­tion that must be prof­itable. For purely eco­nomic rea­sons, abused an­i­mals are not prof­itable. And that doesn’t even con­sider the emo­tional at­tach­ment farm­ers have to their live­stock.

And while they don’t like to talk about it much, farm­ers need peo­ple to un­der­stand that all the pres­sure they’re get­ting from ac­tivists – and from a so­ci­ety that has been turned against farm­ers by ac­tivists and in­er­tia – is tak­ing its toll.

Re­search by Dr. An­dria Jones-Bit­ton and her team at the Univer­sity of Guelph shows men­tal health is­sues are huge among Cana­dian farm­ers. One of the big­gest pres­sures they feel is neg­a­tive pub­lic per­cep­tion.

Fi­nally, here’s an­other re­search-based re­al­ity re­lated to farm­ing: farm­ers are los­ing in the court of pub­lic opin­ion, and ef­forts to stem that tide are not work­ing.

Re­sults this fall from the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Food In­tegrity showed only 36 per cent of con­sumers be­lieve the coun­try’s food sys­tem is headed in the right di­rec­tion. The per­cent­age of Cana­di­ans who hold a pos­i­tive to very pos­i­tive view of farm­ing fell to 55 per cent, down from 61 per cent in just two years.

And Cana­di­ans who felt they didn’t know enough to hold an opin­ion about food and agri­cul­ture’s di­rec­tion rose to 12 per cent, up from a scant two per cent in 2016, the last time the sur­vey was con­ducted.

No one can ac­cuse the agri-food sec­tor of sug­ar­coat­ing these find­ings. And no one is try­ing to put a happy face on it. This prob­lem is not only cen­tred on farm­ers, but rather the en­tire sys­tem, in­clud­ing pro­ces­sors and man­u­fac­tur­ers. But to most peo­ple, it’s farm­ers, not cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives, who come to mind when the topic is food pro­duc­tion.

As usual, the con­ver­sa­tion now cen­tres around the ques­tion “Now what?” – the an­swer to which is elu­sive.

So far, re­sponses I’ve seen in­clude a greater em­pha­sis on trans­parency. That’s good. Farm­ers need to counter the hid­den cam­eras of ac­tivists with their own video ac­counts of what goes on.

And su­perb ex­am­ples ex­ist, in­clud­ing in our own area dairy farmer Tim May, and a bit fur­ther away, sheep pro­ducer Sandi Brock. Fol­low them on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Peo­ple want to hear from farm­ers like May and Brock. They’re su­per busy farm­ing, but com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a mod­ern need that they’ve found time for.

What else? Com­mu­ni­ca­tions ef­forts by all the com­mod­ity groups are im­por­tant. Some crit­ics will dis­miss such ef­forts as ad­vo­cacy and bi­ased. But peo­ple in the mid­dle – those mak­ing up their minds about agri­cul­ture and food – need a place to go to learn.

That points to ed­u­ca­tion. Per­haps the Cana­dian Agri­cul­tural Trust Steer­ing Com­mit­tee, struck two years ago to af­ter ag groups de­cided pub­lic trust and so­cial li­cence needed more at­ten­tion, will get be­hind pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion ef­forts in 2019.

The fig­ures all point to the fact that it’s time.

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