By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Editor, myWestman.ca
Canada is becoming increasingly urban and it’s having an unexpected impact on the agricultural community. The 2016 Census of Agriculture found that there were 271,935 farm operators across Canada in that year. For comparison’s sake, there are three times as many people who live in the City of Winnipeg. It’s not hard to see why Canadians are so poorly informed about agriculture, they have lost their first-hand connection.
For years, the number of Canadian farmers has been falling. In 2015, there were just over 193,000 farms, six percent less than recorded in the 2011 Census of Agriculture. From the 481,000 farms in 1961, this number has been falling each census cycle. The problem is compounded — not only are the majority of Canadians disconnected from the farm, but specialization has also meant that even among farmers, knowledge about other sectors beyond their own can be limited.
Because of, or in spite of, their lack of connection to the farm, consumers are becoming increasingly interested in knowing more about the food they eat. They want to know how it was produced and its health benefits. With so few Canadians having first-hand knowledge of food production and more information than ever being accessible over the internet, the farm sector is often finding itself playing catch up when it comes to consumer education. This includes both food trends and outright misinformation.
For a story in this week’s paper, I spoke to representatives from three farm organizations and they all talked about the increasing need to educate the broader public. This never used to be important but these days, it’s vital. These groups, and the farmers they represent, face misconceptions about their specific industries, as well as farming in general.
Part of the challenge is that the people who most need to know about agriculture don’t cross paths with farmers that often, that’s the whole problem. To rectify this, farm groups have been increasingly taking part in events aimed at the broader public — events like Ag in the City and Ag in the Classroom. These types of programs expose people who will probably never visit a farm, to not just the concept of agriculture in Canada, but also to individual farmers. It’s a step in the right direction when it comes to educating consumers who seldom think about where exactly their food comes from, beyond the supermarket shelf.
While these organized programs are helpful, many of the misconceptions the industry is battling are based on emotional arguments. This is why some of the best PR being undertaken by the industry is being done by farmers themselves. Today, the internet allows a farmer in rural Manitoba to connect to someone in downtown Toronto. It allows people without a connection to the farm, but an interest in knowing about how their food is produced, to reach out to an individual farmer actually working in the industry. Organized events are great for sparking interest, but people want real talk with real people, not to see a polished presentation, and social media has collapsed the distances, allowing for that to happen.
Agriculture does have a great story to tell, but farmers are vastly outnumbered. It’s more important than ever that those involved in agriculture, and the organizations that represent them, overcome their differences and tell the broader public and policymakers what they do, and why.