Listening and Learning Across the Table

matt in GlencoeBy Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

I had a mutually-educational supper with a friend recently.

It was a pre-planned date where I, being rewarded with barbecue and malted barley, gave a 101 on Canadian food and farming — a subject of great passion for me and great interest to my friend, though one she admitted to knowing very little about.

We hit on several common topics over the course of the evening: pesticides, GMOs, and the odd anecdote from my farm-kid childhood, just to name a few. But it was our discussions around “corporate agriculture” and what the ideal farm should be that stuck out the most. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised to discover that my view of the “ideal” farm was actually quite similar to hers.

I was however astounded to learn that my friend, whether she realized it or not, saw modern Canadian farms not as independent family-run businesses, but mere corporate franchises. In her mind, the modern farm was under the thumb of — and even directly controlled by — large agro-chemical corporations.

These ideas manifested themselves shortly after I described my family and our farm. After mentioning that we grow some GMO crops, my friend asked if we actually owned the land where we plant our crops. I said that we absolutely did, though we also rent land from neighbouring farmers. She then asked if we owned our own equipment, to which I explained that we did, though some farmers find it economical to hire others to plant, spray, or harvest.

Those questions were not asked just so she could learn about business structures, however. They were asked because she didn’t know how deep into my family’s livelihood the proverbial corporate tentacle reached. Without necessarily being conscious of the fact, she was questioning our sovereignty over our own business.

The fact that farms are independent businesses is a given to me, but it wasn’t to my friend.

Untrue as it is, the idea that farmers are under the thumb of large corporations is certainly not new. Many times I’ve responded to people asking if we are forced to use specific products, if we lived in fear of lawsuits, and other similar questions, but never had I encountered the idea that our land could be literally taken from us with such ease.

In this case, I realized that in order to connect with my friend starting with shared values was not enough. I had to one more step back and describe that the vast majority of Canadian farms (97%, in fact) actually are family businesses run by independent entrepreneurs who make decisions based on personal values, business goals, and what works best on their land.

With this in mind, I asked my friend what Canadian farming should be, and for comparison, followed her answer with my own conception of the ideal.

To paraphrase, my friend suggested Canadian agriculture should be comprised of more and smaller farms that are environmentally conscious and operate independently of large corporations. This was excellent to hear because I whole-heartedly agree with all her points, and better yet, I can say with certainty that much of what she idealized already exists.

DSC_0009I told her about Ontario’s long-running Environmental Farm Plan program, the seemingly-infinite number of crop varieties available to growers, some neat innovations I come across as a farm writer, and how an independent lifestyle is one of the most attractive characteristics of a farming career. 

Considering my friend has never been to a farm like my family’s — and the fact that, like the rest of us, she is continually bombarded by anti-modernity propaganda — it’s only logical that knowledge gaps exist. That was, after all, the entire point of our dinner date. Regardless of how close to the ideal we think modern agriculture is, though, we both discovered our idea of what was “right” was more similar than originally anticipated.

It was a good conversation, and to her credit, my friend was already quite knowledgeable on some subjects, and shared that knowledge with me. Where she knew little, though, the only real thing lacking was context, and that reminded me not to take the independent business aspect of farming for granted.

Answering Consumers’ Tough Questions

By Ian McKillop, Chair of Farm & Food Care Canada

Did you know that only 30% of Canadians believe that the Canadian food system is heading in the right direction? And that 93% of Canadians know little or nothing about Canadian farming practices? These findings, from recent research done by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, are alarming and should be of concern to everyone involved in the food system in Canada – from farmers, to processors, to retailers.

What can we do about it and how can we get our message out?  The good news is that while many Canadians know little about farming, over 60% indicated that they would like to know more. As farmers and the food industry, we have a huge opportunity to engage with Canadians and build trust in our food system.

Read more about the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity here

The task of getting our message out is extremely difficult. No one industry or organization can do the work that needs to be done; it has to be a collaborative effort. There are many excellent Canadian initiatives underway — each with a slightly different focus and mandate but each providing important tools to promote Canadian food, farmers, and agriculture.   

Farm & Food Care, Agriculture More than Ever, and Agriculture in the Classroom,  along with countless commodity specific programs all at various stages of their growth, are doing tremendous work in being agricultural advocates. 

Sign up for the Farm & Food Care Newsletter here

A few weeks ago I was honoured to become chair of Farm & Food Care Canada.  For those who haven’t heard of this organization, it’s a framework of farmers, food companies, input suppliers, and associations created in 2011 with a mandate to provide credible information about food and farming in this country. 

Where do consumers get their information? Source: Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, 2016

Where do consumers get their information? Source: Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, 2016

Farm & Food Care Canada is also home to the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI). The CCFI will be another source of credible information on food and farming related issues — information and research that has been compiled by trusted professionals within the Canadian and U.S. food industries.

One of the key elements related to the structure of Farm & Food Care Canada is the collaborative approach that it brings to the table. The ability to collaborate and work together with the groups mentioned above — and others — is unique and gives us a great opportunity to connect with consumers.

As we move forward, it is critical that all of us involved in the Canadian food industry (yes, that includes farmers) must put our personal agendas and biases aside and work together to get the good news story out about Canada’s food system.  If we don’t tell our story, who is going to talk to the 60% of Canadians that want to know more about farming?

Over the last few years, we have seen some common farm practices — practices that we as farmers think are normal — come into the spotlight.  As a result, some poultry and hog farmers are facing the fact that they’ll have to adopt new, costly housing methods for their livestock and some crop farmers will have to adopt alternative methods to protect the seeds they plant.

I can’t help but think that if there was a framework such as Farm & Food Care Canada 25 years ago, and if the average Canadian consumer had better access to accurate information, then maybe some of the challenges we face today could have been overcome. 

The work ahead is huge and we will not have success overnight.  However, the ground work that we lay together as a united agriculture and food industry today will help to ensure that the Canadian food system is trusted, healthy, sustainable, and robust for years to come. 

Some thoughts on the Food “Free” Frenzy

By Crystal Mackay, CEO Farm & Food Care Canada

Trends continue to snowball with labels about what’s in a food product being expanded to how that food was grown or processed. Gluten-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, cage-free, everything-else-free labels are multiplying. It seems almost every day I see a new announcement from a company or a grocery store ad or a label on something I go to buy that has a claim like this.

With so much noise, how does one cut through the clutter and make an informed decision about what to buy and eat? Here are a few principles I feel that need some attention:

1. Isn’t choice awesome?
Let’s start here. I think we are extremely fortunate in Canada with so much food that we can have all these choices. For example, the fact that the egg counter at the grocery store can be a 10 minute experience reading about all the options for types of eggs is awesome. Some people in other countries might be happy to have one egg. Continue reading