Expose yourself, embrace science – and tell people why you the farmer do what you do

All winter long – and it still seems like winter to me – I’ve been covering conventions and two topics have come up again and again and again and again:

1) Farming is surrounded by controversial issues and the public is getting seriously spun by opponents of modern agriculture;

2) Farmers are having trouble connecting with the public.

Actually, those two issues are flip sides of the same coin: Farmers are having trouble connecting with consumers so that they are more trusted than the activists who are focused on attacking contemporary conventional farming.

The amount of hostility being aimed against various agricultural practices is astounding in its breadth. The campaign against genetically modified organisms – which now covers most North American crop acreage – has been going on for almost 20 years but has reached new heights of intensity with U.S. state campaigns to force product labelling. Anti-pesticide campaigns are even longer lived, but have picked up traction with urban bans on lawn chemicals. Some European countries and even a politician in one Canadian province have attacked Kosher slaughter. Burger chain A+W has been pushing its “Better Beef” campaign, proclaiming its use of (added) steroid and hormone free beef that is “ethically and sustainably farmed.” Farmers are being blamed for devastating the bee population. Farmers are accused of deliberately abusing sows by putting them into gestation stalls.

And let’s not forget how farming is often blamed for water pollution, for carbon emissions, for being a drain on the taxpayer.

Somehow agriculture has become a very easy target for social ire and many farmers are at a loss in how to get their side of the story out to the public, just so they get a fair hearing.

All these issues have a legitimate side to them. We should all be worried about pesticides, GMOs, animal welfare, antibiotic resistance, environmental degradation, etc. (In this blog and in the paper I’ve supported the eventual phase-out of gestation stalls in the hog industry, since before it was a major public issue, so I don’t think I’m a knee-jerk defender of the agricultural status quo.) Any rational person wants to ensure that we as a society are not doing things that will have dire consequences. Having concerns about all these things is legitimate. But where the public goes with these issues is the worrisome bit. Even though in most of these areas there is rock solid science backing the use or system in question – generally overwhelming scientific validation – activist groups and networks have successfully convinced much of the public that these are matters in which there is “no proof” or that whatever evidence of safety exists is corruptly produced by vested interests and compliant governments uncaring about the public. Many people don’t trust and don’t want to know about the science, they don’t trust the regulators, and they appear to want to believe that they are being led down the Primrose Path.

This is hard to fight. Whatever companies and governments do in response won’t be believed by many. Whatever they say will be treated with skepticism. (There are exceptions: look at how well Maple Leaf Foods did with its listeria problem.)

Which leaves farmers in a uniquely good position to bridge that divide between science/industry and the consumer. Farmers are still generally believed, as long as they’re not speaking for a company. So if farmers want to avoid having crucial contemporary practices banned or circumscribed for non-scientifically-valid reasons, they’d better get out there and start chatting with the public. People might have negative views about a lot of stuff that you as a farmer do, and they might even picture you as a ruthless raper-of-the-land, but if they get to know you, I’d bet that would change.

I covered a good workshop on this topic last week, given by ag Twitter stars Michele Payn Knoper (@mpaynknoper) and Cami Ryan (@DocCamiRyan) and they encouraged farmers to get out there on social media and talk about what they do and why they farm. There are lots of ways to do this: YouTube, Twitter, websites, etc. They also encouraged farmers and people in agriculture to engage with the public in any other way they can think of. A key point they made that day, and that Ryan has made to me before, is that much of the public is open-minded and willing to consider farmers’ views on the various controversies, regardless of what their view is today. They’re willing to listen and communicate.

I’m writing stories on the workshop for this coming week’s paper, so I won’t belabour their main points here today. But I’ll add my own little take on what I think farmers should be doing.

Modern farming is a technological, managerial, human miracle. We have a vastly growing world population and we are able to feed it because of the stunning advancements being made by biotechnology companies, machinery manufacturers, public and private scientists, researchers, management experts, educational institutions – and farmers. I remember writing a story in the mid-1990s about average yields for canola in Saskatchewan. It was about 23 bushels per acre. We’re now up by about 50 percent, in the mid-30s. By 2025 the Canola Council of Canada is targeting an average of 52 bushels per acre across the Prairies. That’s more than doubling production on the same land, which is amazing.

And it’s being done with better protection of the soil and environment, probably with higher nutritional value, at a cheap price people can afford to pay.

That’s a heck of a story to tell. So go tell it.

Show people how you do zero-till, or how you inject manure rather than spray it onto fields, or how you use fertilizer so little ever escapes the field. People are far more open-minded than we give them credit for, so give them a chance to be reasonable. Don’t assume they’re going to hate you and what you do. Explain the high-tech stuff. Explain the complicated science behind fertilizer application rates and proper placement. Be proud of the advancements that place you at the forefront of our society’s technological progress.

But be ready for the haters. Some people are zealots on these issues and if what you’re saying doesn’t agree with what they’re preaching, they might lash out at you. You can see an example of that today, on the Western Producer website, where Cami Ryan – the one mentioned in this post – is having a few unpleasant comments cast at her for a pretty reasonably written opinion piece she wrote for our newspaper this week. (Not all of the critical comments are extreme, but some are rather hostile.)

To me, this highlights how effective it is if people in agriculture provide their side of the story, a side that doesn’t commonly get out there. Some folks get very rattled that the other side of the story might be heard. Hence the extreme reaction: it challenges their orthodoxy. That’s OK. I’ve had nasty stuff said about me over the years and had people flame me a few times and I just ignore it. If people don’t want to talk respectfully, they can be ignored.  There’s never much point arguing with people who aren’t open-minded.

But there are lots of people out there in our society who are probably honestly interested in what you do and why, and they’re the people you can talk with and develop a relationship with.

So why not go meet them?



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