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Reporter’s Notebook: Communications confusion

People with different backgrounds, knowledge and attitudes see the world differently

A couple of years ago I took a few days to work on some fiction at Spring Valley Guest Ranch, a bed and breakfast a short ways from Ravenscrag, Saskatchewan. The B&B, run by Jim Saville, sits in a valley. It’s quite idyllic, as long as you like the Prairies (which I do). Jim even has an old church on site, where he holds concerts and other artsy events.

Jim also had (and as far as I know still has) dairy cows on site. They’re particularly charming, as they’re mostly heritage-bred bovines such as Irish Kerry. One cow in particular saw humans as walking salt licks.

Having cows means having a gate at the end of the driveway. Jim’s gate was a typical ranch-style gate — the kind where you have to push the gate post with your shoulder while lifting a loop of barbed wire over the other post to close it. Some of those gates can be real shoulder-bruisers, but Jim’s was relatively easy to close.

So when another guest mentioned that he found the gate very tough to close, I was confused at first. I mean, I’m not that much stronger than most men (that’s a little joke).

Of course, his difficulty with the gate had nothing to do with strength, but technique. I tried to explain to him that he had to put his shoulder to it (literally), but I think he was still confused. I think Jim either demonstrated proper gate-closing or he figured it out on his own.

Before that day, it had never occurred to me that someone wouldn’t know how to close those gates. In some ways it encompasses the rural-urban divide. Something that seems obvious to producers and others in the ag sector is a mystery to others.

But it’s also dangerous to make too many assumptions about someone based on what they know.

I have an urban friend who has a few serious food allergies (the anaphylactic kind). She is a pro at reading food labels, and is curious and open-minded. She has a friend who’s a commercial turkey producer, so I think she’s much better informed than most urban people, but we’ve had plenty of “this is how you close a gate” conversations.

She’s also a communications professional (we went to grad school together), so it’s fun to talk to her about how people talk about agriculture. Through her, I’ve learned that animal rights campaigns can have a big influence on consumers, partly because there’s still an information vacuum. Non-farming folk often don’t know who they can trust for straight-up information on these issues.

Strong opinions

I do have friends and acquaintances with stronger opinions on agriculture. They don’t trust GMOs and they don’t like Monsanto (and that extends to a lot of other corporations). Many of them would pass the gate-closing test, though, so it’s not that they’re ignorant. I think it stems from a general distrust of authority, and in a way, I can’t really fault them for that. After all, the tobacco industry twisted science for years to serve its own interests.

In October, my husband, Corey, and I spent a few days in Toronto hanging out with musicians and music industry people he knows, mainly as research for my next novel. We mostly talked about music, but I did have a few conversations about agriculture. Folks had heard about the terrible harvest conditions and were concerned about farmers, and malt barley quality. One of my husband’s music buddies works for an animal welfare organization, and so we started talking about Metacam and backgrounding calves and barn systems in the dairy industry over a couple of beers, while my husband and his other friend looked on in total confusion.

So what is the point of all this rambling? I suppose I just want to challenge the notion that people disagree with farming practices simply because they’re ill-informed. Or that everyone from the city is ill-informed. Or that people who struggle to find reliable information about farming are against all modern farming practices. Any of those statements might be true, or not, about any particular person. But the picture is much more complex.

Disagreement is not the end of the world. I grew up in a community where debating politics, religion, and everything under the sun was a good way to while away the winter. The point wasn’t necessarily to persuade someone, but to challenge each other’s arguments (civilly) and walk away better informed. It works pretty well as long as no one’s hell-bent on winning at any cost.

This isn’t to knock anyone’s attempts to channel reliable information to the public. But we need to avoid an us-vs.-them mentality. Sure, that city slicker might not know how to close a pasture gate, but if you listen to him, you might learn a thing or two.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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