Gov’ts need to pony up to tackle consumers’ lack of ag education

It’s been a longstanding concern of Canada’s farming community: Many Canadians appear to have only vague notions of where their food comes from. 


New polling data collected for the federal government confirms what farmers have known for years: for most Canadians, farming is a foreign concept. 


The data shows most consumers still imagine the picturesque, small mixed farms, with a few head of livestock and acres of rolling, golden wheat, which dotted rural Canada’s landscape over the course of the past century. 


And, despite the millions of dollars in modern investments into new equipment and technology, the general perception of Canadian agriculture (at least among those surveyed) is that the industry remains relatively low-tech.


The information was gathered last December via a series of focus groups held in eight communities across Canada (both rural and urban) with participants of both genders, 18 years or older.


Word of the growing disconnects between the farm and people’s forks aren’t new. Farmers have been lamenting the lack of general understanding of their industry for years. 


This, despite the fact Canada’s agriculture sector contributes $100 billion to the national economy every year and is a significant employer in this country. 


One in eight jobs are tied to agriculture, with the sector often sitting as the number one employer in a province.


Even so, the data found that Canadians don’t seem to get agriculture. So what is a farmer to do? 


In the service industry, there’s one golden rule: the customer is always right.


But what happens when the customer, or in the case of the agricultural world the consumer, has no idea what he or she is talking about? Does the golden rule still apply? Should it? 


The A&Ws of the world will likely tell you yes. In their view, it’s not their responsibility to teach Canadians about farm life. That’s a farmer’s job. 


It’s a task that’s easier said than done. After all, the number of farms in Canada is declining while the average age of a Canadian farmer is rising. 


And, while the industry isn’t necessarily shrinking, farms are typically just getting bigger, gaining access to a farm can be challenging. Most of those surveyed mentioned they had never visited a working farm.


Yet, the power of consumers to dictate what happens on Canadian farms seems to be soaring by the day. Animal welfare demands, general production management methods, feed changes, barn designs and crop types are all being challenged by consumer’s tastes and moral beliefs.


At what point do consumer rights trump a farmer’s right to make decisions that are in the best interest of his or her business?


At what point should consumers be responsible for the added costs that often accompany their demands? 


And, what happens if, heaven forbid, the consumer is actually right, despite farmers insistence the proposed change would prove devastating to industry? 


It’s a tricky dance and one that comes with few, if any, simple steps. 


One thing, though, is for certain. While farmers may take the lead on teaching Canadians about farm life, they shouldn’t have to do it alone. 


Government is as much, if not even more, responsible for educating its population as industry is. 


And, while some national programs that bring farming to city folk, have been given a funding boost, more needs to be done. 


Canadians are desperate to learn more about where their food comes from, a desire highlighted again in the government polling data. 


However industry, with help from the government, decides to bridge the divide (social media campaigns, farm tours, TV spots etc.) the appetite to learn is there.


Reducing the farm-to-fork divide is crucial. In the coming years, Canada’s agriculture sector will be positioned as a dominant economic player. Public scrutiny isn’t going to go away, nor should it. 


It’s time to even out the conversation. Otherwise, what might be a growing divide today, could be a source of major tension in the future. And that won’t help anyone.

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics, www.ipolitics.ca.