There is a chasm in Canada between many farmers and consumers.
The farmers don’t understand why so many consumers are wary or even contemptuous of the chemicals and genetically modified seeds that are considered valuable, even necessary, tools on so many farms.
More consumers are taking an interest in how their food is produced, but they are often fed a diet of inaccuracies, misconceptions and propaganda as they delve into the subject through the internet, food media, chefs and celebrity self-help opinions.
This irritates many farmers because they know the consumer is king and can dominate the discussion, even when misinformed.
However, Mike von Massow, an associate professor in the University of Guelph’s College of Business and Economics, recently presented an alternative view at a Canadian farm writers conference.
Von Massow recognized the frustrations in dealing with ill informed consumers, but he said consumers’ growing interest in food presents opportunities for producers to tell their story, forge relationships and have their efforts valued.
He believes it is a preferred alternative to being taken for granted and ignored.
Food has become abundant, safe and cheap in the decades since the Second World War, particularly in North America.
Receding memories of food rationing and growing confidence in food security meant people did not need to think about farmers or where their food came from.
As surely as flipping a switch would produce light and turning a tap would produce clean water, the public could go to the grocery store and get whatever food they needed or desired.
And that eroded the value of food production. Food became an undifferentiated commodity, and farmers, at the bottom of the chain, saw their incomes erode.
To survive, they had to cut costs and get bigger to become the cheapest producers. Their political influence declined, further separating them from the wider public.
However, as consumers rediscover an interest in food production, farmers can perhaps profit from the trend.
The most obvious examples come from direct-to-consumer operations such as farmers markets, on-farm stores and identity preserved production.
Direct relationships with the buyers create an opportunity to break away from the ups and downs of the commodity business and establish a more stable pricing process.
Most grain, oilseed and livestock are produced for the export market but it is still important to engage Canadian consumer because their attitudes can dictate production procedures on all farms, regardless of whether they are domestic or export oriented.
Consumers seek compelling stories in which they can believe.
Farmers are believable and compelling when they tell their own story. They need to step forward at every opportunity to tell their story.
Consumers are interested, they want information and if farmers don’t provide it, someone else will.