Agriculture Talking to Agriculture Needs To Change


Each Thursday on Country 92.9 FM radio in Chatham Ontario, I hear my own voice.  That radio commentary is podcasted on www.philipshaw.ca each Thursday.  I listen not to hear my own voice, but to gauge the quality of the radio transmission.  At times I get to record at the radio station and at times I don’t.  So when I produce it myself in front of my Macintosh computer, I’m always a bit anxious to see how it sounds.

I’m illustrating that this week, because I want to bring up something, which needs to be said.  Simply put, farmers talk to themselves too much.  No, I’m not being a moron here.  We should talk to each other.  That’s a great way to learn and pass along important information, which makes our lives and businesses better.  However, what I’m referring to is the great Canadian agricultural fixation of “agriculture talking to agriculture.”  Or in other words, trying to get people to find religion, who have already found it.  Within Canadian agriculture it’s endemic.

I’m certainly guilty of it.  However, I’ve never been comfortable with it.  Everything goes along swimmingly until there is an issue, which transcends agriculture.  A good example of this is what’s happened over the last two years.  The run up in grain prices, increased biofuel production, higher food prices and all the related hype have raised agriculture into the consciousness of an urban public.

Many non-farm people don’t see the world the way farmers do.  For instance, the latest manifestations in the grain market only reinforce notions that food is not cheap anymore, mostly because of biofuel and to top it off, kids are dying in Africa and Asia because of it.  Over the past six months I’ve read many an urban commentary from those who are decrying just that.  Talking back to those commentators (which I’ve done many times) doesn’t work very well.  They simply don’t believe me and their voice is reaching some very receptive ears.

Part of our problem is our spokespeople and most of our agricultural organizations are geared to speak to farmers.  Much of it is because our adaptation has always been to inform farmers about technology transfer.  That has value but in 2008 it cannot remain the status quo.  Farm organizations, commodity groups and farmers themselves must reach out beyond the farm and regularly and consistently give the agricultural story in venues far from the farm gate, like downtown Mississauga, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Let me take you back to April 6th, 2006 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.  That was the day after the Ottawa Solidarity Farm Rally where 10,000 farmers massed.  However, the next day the few farmers who were left rallied again, with several speakers present, including myself.  Many things struck me that day but one of them was a guy heckling me.  I’m not sure what he was saying, but he was shouting as hard as he could.  It made some people uncomfortable, but it didn’t bother me.  However, if it had grown in intensity, it probably would have.  Simply put farmers aren’t used to overt criticism within Canadian society.  Nonetheless, if we put ourselves among the great unwashed who are generations from the farm, it might do them and us so much more good.

Take last week within the paragraphs of this column.  I was defending the integrity of Canada’s agricultural biofuels policy.  I was defending the sanctity of it for every Canadian farmer.  And I did receive a note from an ethanol supplier who appreciated the support.  I always appreciate that, but it would be better if I had made many of those statements at the Sierra Club in Toronto, the Canadian Club in Montreal or any Chamber of Commerce across Canada.  I would welcome that if it ever happens.

Other people and organizations need to do it too and if it makes everybody uncomfortable so be it.  The vitriol within the anti-biofuel lobby is real and its finding fertile ground.  At the same time we’ve been talking to each other, reassuring each other and nurturing each other that there will always be a Canadian sunrise behind the barn.  That might be the status quo, but with grain prices hitting new records and consumer’s lamenting the cheap food policy, a more aggressive, focused, and direct approach is needed.

In my own case I’ll continue to write, broadcast and speak about grain prices, marketing trends, biofuel initiatives, new agricultural technologies and whatever lands on my plate.  Yes, there is still lots of room for that.  However, agriculture talking to agriculture, farmers preaching to farmers, and food producers talking to food producers must change.  There is a world out there that doesn’t really know us.  In many ways it’s our fault.  However, the greater concern is most of them don’t care either.  In our current agricultural economic climate with outside voices becoming shriller everyday, we’d better wake up.  Our non-farm society has the ability to pound us right back to where we came from.