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Toban Dyck: Asking the hard questions of farmers

Don’t be afraid to be the one asking questions. You’re not the only one

He made the comment I was too scared to make. Farmers are required to know a lot and it’s generally assumed by our peers and colleagues that we know the things we’re supposed to. I assume other farmers know the things they’re supposed to know. And we walk on eggshells and implement evasive maneuvers to hide the fact that there are things that we never took the time to learn.

The lesson for both of us is that it’s OK not to know everything.

Sometimes, in my weaker moments, I will refrain from asking a question or making a comment because I fear it would expose what may be interpreted as a critically high level of ignorance.

I was recently participating in a business risk management, or, BRM, consultation. We were asked to list what we think are the most critical factors affecting our operations.

All the things you’re currently thinking about made the cut: unpredictable and inclement weather; the current trade war that seems just as unpredictable as the weather; Donald Trump; the shortage of skilled, dependable labour; access to capital; and many other things that wouldn’t stand out as odd in a farming crowd.

The gentleman sitting beside me leaned over and said, “I know this one isn’t going to be popular, but I think one of the biggest factors is our inability as farmers to live within our means.”

He wrote it down and it was treated equitably. It got posted to the wall, just like the others.

“Why do we expect so much from government?” he asked me, rhetorically, I presume, as there was no way for me to think of a response and whisper it back to him while listening to the in-progress consultation.

He is a seasoned farmer. He’s been to many consultations and understands the mechanics of BRM programming much better than I do.

His point, if I am to put additional words in his mouth, was not that BRM isn’t important to a healthy agricultural sector. Rather, his point was that in a sector such as ours there are a tremendous amount of opportunities to complain and pass responsibility down the line. We don’t set prices. We are forced to accept them. We don’t control weather and we certainly don’t control our lawmakers. We’re stuck in the middle of a value chain and we’ve become too accustomed to blaming the links down the line and the links up the line for the challenges we face. We do need government support. But we should never rule out the possibility that there’s room for each and every one of us to improve how we manage our farms.

His is a point worth thinking about. His is also a point I think many farmers are afraid to agree with, believing that doing so would mean sacrificing any political gains the sector has made in increasing agricultural supports from government.

The ag sector, in general, needs to be cognizant of just how tight its messaging has become. As much as it is important for ag to apply constant pressure to our lawmakers, it’s equally important that our messaging doesn’t omit the obvious. We need to be careful about this.

I would have made the comment. I’ve thought about this before, but I haven’t brought it up because I thought it would be perceived as silly or as something so wildly misguided that it would ultimately reflect on my credibility as a farmer. Extreme? Yes. But I’m willing to bet we’ve all experienced something similar when we’ve wanted to say something, but didn’t.

But it stood out as rare that in a room full of farmers someone had the gall to say something serious that was received with laughter. Even I laughed, and so did the person who made the comment. He knew how it would be taken. He said it anyway. And I am glad he did.

I’ve always been relatively comfortable asking seemingly naïve questions, but I have found this gets harder the more years I’m on the farm. The pressure I put on myself is that I should know these things.

At this consultation, I again learned something about assumptions. Hopefully, it’ll stick.

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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