It’s getting tougher to be a farmer in a society that has fewer of them.
For those of us who are in our second century of life, memories are still fresh of times when farms dotted the Prairies and for people in the cities, everybody had family back on the farm.
The reality is very different these days — there are far fewer farms on the fields of Western Canada and it is easy to drive considerable patches of highway without seeing one.
In the cities, farm connections have faded for many. For the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have made up increasing proportions of the urban population, there never has been any connection to a pioneer farm on a quarter section.
That sometimes leaves older generations a bit confused by the ideas that urban and town people today have about farmers, whether those are romantic, antagonistic or just completely clued out.
It’s something many don’t know how to deal with.
Fortunately, today’s young farmers and people in agriculture understand the situation and want our society and farmers themselves to grapple with the challenge.
I saw that in a recent virtual meeting with University of Manitoba agriculture diploma students that I took part in. It followed their class’s participation in Keystone Agricultural Producers’ annual meeting, at which they put forward a resolution, which was passed, calling for extending basic agricultural education across Manitoba. The idea was to get at least a tiny amount of understanding about agriculture into town and urban populations to head off the kinds of misunderstandings that now plague farming.
Young people in agriculture realize they’re dealing today with people who know almost nothing about what they’re doing.
“I live in a rural town. I live just outside Winnipeg,” said Andrew Turski, one of the students who called for more agriculture education for Manitobans.
“I’d say 75 to 80 percent of people here don’t understand most of what agriculture is all about.”The students in the class could see that as a threat to the future of farming and agriculture because misunderstandings can lead to government regulations that hamstring farmers from doing what they need to do, without achieving anything.
The resolution was brought forward at KAP as part of that organization’s attempts to make it open to young people in agriculture and to better reflect the views of people beneath the average delegate’s age, which is in the 50s and 60s.
Most delegates who spoke to the resolution were supportive. Countering the ignorance of basic agricultural practices and realities before misunderstandings take over non-farmers’ minds is seen by many as a key way to defend farming’s much smaller population these days.
However, the students did face some skepticism. One delegate cautioned the students that a wide-reaching effort to educate the general population through the school system would be costly, and that money shouldn’t come from farmers.
“Just so (you) students are aware, that money doesn’t grow on trees, and you have to take it from one place in order to (fund) your project,” said one.
A few days after the resolution passed, Mackenzie Booker said she knew that attitude was something they had to deal with, but getting agricultural education out there into society was a strategic necessity for people in agriculture.
“We understand that money doesn’t grow on trees, but there are bigger social-cultural issues at hand with agriculture.… We’ve got to think about the future,” said Booker.
“We don’t want to let this issue grow completely out of hand. If we can nip it in the bud right now, why not?”
One KAP delegate inspired many of the students when he spoke to the resolution. He was Jake Ayre, KAP vice-president and a recent graduate of the diploma program. He told a story of speaking to a non-farming classroom as part of an Agriculture in the Classroom program and seeing a hostile teacher turn into a supporter.
The teacher told him, “before you came into my classroom I didn’t want you here. I thought that farmers were toxic. I thought they were bad for the environment. And I thought they didn’t care.
“Now, meeting people like you, I will always think of the faces behind my food,” said Ayre of the teacher.
I remember Ayre when he was a student in the program, and he seemed like ag-leadership-in-the-making at the time. That’s turned out to be true.
And with what I saw of the bright students in the program this year, there’s another cohort of young farm leaders coming up, ready to engage the public on farmers’ behalf.
There’s a lot of work to do with Canada’s steadily urbanizing/de-farming society as farmers grapple with public perceptions about agriculture’s impact on the environment, health and animal welfare.
But this new generation seems keen to engage, and that’s a good start.