Farm Country’s “Clash of Cultures”: Real Differences and Real Opinions

slide15 Over a period of 23 years writing this column I’ve heard from a lot of people.  For instance I learned once I started writing for DTN in 1994 and mentioned Canadian beef and the problems Canadian producers were having in the United States, I’d get a letter from Montana or North Dakota in a New York minute.  There are similar stories for different regions of North America.  The simple point being farmers across this continent are not a homogeneous group.  We are farmers but we are all different and many times because of that we have a “clash of cultures” when we try to get something done.

In my younger days I did my Master’s degree in Agricultural Economics and Business at the University of Guelph.  My master’s thesis at that time was farmer psychographics, which measured farmer’s attitudes interests and opinions in each province of Canada.  It was clear then how different farmers were in different regions of the country.  However I never knew then how different I would find farmers and their attitudes across North America until I started writing this column.  Sometimes we like to think as farmers we are one, but the truth is we are many, with many different attitudes, opinions and views.

This creates quite an animal.  For instance take the Canadian beef situation for example.  When the American cattle group R-Calf successfully held up the importation of Canadian cattle to the US market for several months, I got all kinds of mail from American cattle producers.  They simply didn’t have any time for Canadian producers.  At the same time Canadian producers didn’t have much time for them.  I wasn’t in the middle of the fight because I took the Canadian producers side.  However, I could count on almost within the hour I’d hear from American R-Calf members.   Simply put, feelings run high on these hot button issues.

It is one thing though to disagree between international borders.  We do that all the time because of the nature of our Canadian-American trading relationship.  What might be more difficult to understand though is the ” clash of cultures “that we have between ourselves, even between ourselves within certain provinces.  Sometimes it leads to tremendous disagreement and sometimes it leads to tremendous accomplishment.

For my American readers let me explain.  In Canada there are three distinct agricultural regions, which drive the agricultural debate in this country.  The one our American friends would hear about most of the time is Western Canada with its expansive fields of grains and oilseeds as well as lots of hogs and cattle.  However, there is also Ontario, which has a very rich agricultural area and tends to be the driving force at least in English Canada.  Then there is Quebec.  Québec agriculture actually drives Canadian agriculture and Québec farmers are the most aggressive, well-organized and most homogeneous group this side of France.  British Columbia and the Maritimes have their own distinct agricultural sector too, but they are small and not big players in the Canadian agricultural policy world.

These differences in Canada we are taught to celebrate.  Supposedly multiculturalism is a Canadian invention, however on the farm level it doesn’t quite work that way.  Québec farmers are the most aggressive and well organized, Ontario farmers are much more conservative and western Canadian farmers are not well organized and are thousands of kilometers away from Ottawa.  So when policy is made “one fits all policy” doesn’t quite add up.

These differences can also manifest themselves within provinces.  Ontario is a good example. A few years ago I got a call from a man named John Vanderspank.   I knew John to be a farmer from the Ottawa area who had a keen interest in farm activism but after that I didn’t know him very well.  So when he called me and asked if I would speak at a farm rally in Ottawa and that the “guys down here” were going to shut down Banks Street, I was a bit inquisitive.  “Where is Banks Street I asked “?  He then told me it was “right in front of the Parliament Buildings”.  I thought man these guys have guts.  John Vanderspank I grew to admire, became a friend, and is someone who I believe is a farm champion and a man of great integrity.

I have since learned that the farmers in Eastern Ontario call themselves “doers”.  At the same time there is a feeling in that area of alienation from western and southwestern Ontario.  So with farmers from both regions being involved in agricultural organizations sometimes disagreements might arise simply because there is a “clash of cultures “.   Currently there is a bit of a dustup in Ontario wheat country, which probably has something to do with these different cultures.  I think it would behoove everyone to not take themselves too seriously but at the same time respect the distinct differences and opinions of how we get things done in different parts of our country.

Three years ago on a cold February morning I spoke at a rally in front of the Sir John Carling building (Agriculture Canada’s Ottawa headquarters) near Ottawa.   It was my job to get the crowd going but this crowd was different from anything I’ve ever faced.  At one point I thought I had them going so strong they were about to rush the stage.  That taught me a few things. One was to measure my words and the other was to respect the distinct differences and different opinions we have in Canadian farm country.  I know as a farmer/journalist/evangelist not everybody is going to agree with me.   However, the key to a successful lobby is to respect everybody and not leave anybody out.  Despite our real differences as farmers, we can come together to make a difference. The challenge is to be inclusive.  Yes, we need to be on the same page.  Contributions from all farmers are welcome and appreciated.