Resist the urge to trash talk other parts of agriculture

I once rescued a car from a mechanic who was pushing much unnecessary “repair” work.

The ethical mechanic I took it to next, recommended by locals, found what needed fixing, fixed it, and gave me my car back for a fraction of what the other guy had proposed.

“We don’t talk-down our competition here,” he replied to me, when I told him about the first mechanic.

(The car was good for many thousand more kilometres.)

That’s a good approach for farmers to take when dealing with production and marketing systems that are different from their own. Trashing people who aren’t even your direct competitors achieves little, but it may raise suspicion and skepticism about farmers and farming among consumers. It tarnishes everybody.

I saw the talk-down reflex kick in occasionally when I covered some of the National Farmers Union convention last week, both from the alternative ag types who are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the NFU, and from conventional farmers who followed it via social media.

It wasn’t overwhelming, but critical or snide comments about other production systems sometimes popped up, as they do at many farm and food conferences and on Twitter. Claims of “unsustainable” are common from organic and conventional farmers talking about each other.

Livestock producers and veganism proponents don’t often have much nice to say about each other.

Free market farmers and those living inside supply management often speak unkind words about each other.

Some of this bad-mouthing might be inevitable because of the basis of product differentiation. People aren’t buying organic, pasture-raised, GMO-free, fair trade or animal-free products because they don’t think there’s a difference. But what kind of a difference? You don’t have to claim something is dangerous, unethical or risky to promote your own differently produced product.

That’s the problem with labels like “humane-raised” or “cruelty-free” slapped on animal products. It’s insinuating that the mainstream product is inhumane or cruel to animals.

A label like “cage-free” doesn’t do that. It’s factual statement, not an allegation.

Similarly, conventional farmers do themselves a disservice when they show disrespect for small, locally focused, direct-sales-to-consumer farmers who produce organic, pasture-raised or other specialty food products. Calling people “flakes,” “hippies” or “hobby farmers” isn’t achieving much if they have happy customers.

People making a living off this alternative marketing and production system have to be pretty smart and competent to make a go of it. They’ve found a market that wants what they can provide.

If the “alternative food system” people can hold themselves back from trashing conventional farming, conventional farmers should avoid denigrating them.

The danger of farmers badmouthing one another is that it raises the general suspicions about farming and agriculture in general. It’s not a zero-sum game. And increasing public skepticism about farming is likely to result in more regulations, a bigger burden or reporting requirements on everybody, and more red tape.

Conventional farmers already have to document what they do if they want to supply certain buyers to fit “sustainability” requirements. Imagine if organic growers had to get all their products tested and proven to be free from chemical and other residues?

Parallel production and marketing systems can exist in the vast expanses of Canada. One system doesn’t have to rule them all.

Let’s just doff our caps and pay respect to any farmer who has found a way to make a go of it. These days, that’s not so easy, and at the bottom of it all, everybody’s trying to do a good job of producing food and is proud of what they do.

That’s something we should all salute.

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