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Concern about public concerns

Farmers don't generally trust urban views. This won't help us move forward

Recently I was elected president of the Stanley Agricultural Society. The nomination shocked me. The election results also shocked me. It was my first time being the subject of a vote.

I sat there, looking around at Society members cast their ballots. My leg was jumping. My heart was pounding. I was sweating. I already knew I’d take the loss hard. It would affect me for days, despite the cognitive prep work I was doing while the scrutineers were counting the small pieces of folded-up paper.

More than 50 per cent of the voters wanted me in, apparently. It’s an honour and it will be a challenge. The Society is in the throes of something I shouldn’t divulge here. But it’s something that will take clear communication to move past.

I remember my first Grainews column as if I wrote it yesterday. And I still tell people, “Yeah, my wife and I recently moved back to the farm.” This is not true anymore. We moved in 2012. I’m starting to catch and correct myself now. To be honest, it changes things.

Since I’ve been here, I have been astounded at the need in the agriculture sector for clear communication and clear communicators. It’s the missing element in many squabbles. And clear communication is what animates and steers hot-button agricultural issues that fall into the public trust and social license camps.

There’s a general distrust among producers about the public’s perception of agriculture and what it means to operate a farm. We think we know better. And we think that bridging this gap requires us to educate the city folk on things like GMOs, pesticide usage, and livestock handling procedures.

The tendency is to be blunt, almost impatient with their lack of understanding. We tolerate their ignorance.

Our agricultural practices change when trusted ag-news sources publish articles by specialists and agronomists informing us of a better way.

We can’t think about social license this way. If we do, we’ll find ourselves butting up against an unpredictable amount of regulatory roadblocks at some point down the line.

The notion that the public has a say in how we farm is on one level preposterous. But on another, not at all.

It’s a very outward, public-facing vocation, farming is. When I spray, everyone who drives be will see me. If I leave the booms on while driving through a drainage ditch, people see that, too.

The world is small. And we’re all connected.

We can’t participate in questionable practices on one hand, then assume all the public needs is a good old fashioned lecture on how farms need to make money to stay alive and this practice is a way of ensuring that. It’s weak, and it casts an unnecessarily dark shadow on what we do.

It’s not a concession to pause and think about what is causing cities across the country to implement pesticide bans.

When my wife and I moved into the farmhouse a few months ago, I discovered a stack of old The Farm Quarterly magazines from the 60s. The feature article in one of them talked about pesticides as a double-edged sword. It provided stats on the proliferation of synthetic chemicals since the late 30s early 40s. The numbers were staggering and brought you, as a reader, into the story.

The article was interesting. Despite its DDT focus, it could have been written today.

Has the science behind agricultural chemicals been allowed to grow and change without the appropriate checks and balances?

If you’re reading this as me being anti-pesticide, you’re missing the point. The point is we need to think harder about such things. We need to question what we do and allow others to do the same. We need to be critical about where research comes from and which companies are funding it.

We need to be able to defend what we do and why we do it.

And, yes, we need to listen to the public on agricultural issues. We don’t have to agree. We don’t have respond. But we should take a few minutes to dig beneath the surface and attempt to get at what exactly is fueling the comment or question or criticism.

We’ll be better farmers if we do, and, while there will always be a gap between what we as farmers concern ourselves with and what someone living in downtown Toronto concerns themselves with, we’re all rational people. I enjoy it when people listen to me, and I’ve been wrong many times.

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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