In an article published in the current issue of Country Guide, Grainews’ sister publication, Lois Harris reported on the results of a survey conducted to gauge the public’s perception of Canadian agriculture. The survey she cited was commissioned by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), and it found that “consumers really don’t know much about agriculture”. That should be far from a surprise to anyone with a pulse. But what is a bit surprising is “they (also) think it is stuck in the past and is neither modern, innovative or progressive”.
When I read that last part, I sort of shrugged the idea off, kind of in the same way I do when I watch what some apparently intelligent people do to end up being featured on the TV show “The Science of Stupid”.
But it seems that survey may have accurately captured the general public’s perception. Today a press release showed up in my inbox with a link to an online video interview of a machinery company executive conducted at the Vancouver Resource Investment Conference. The interview was for Equities.com.
The interviewer led off the discussion by saying, “So you guys are doing something that hasn’t been done in quite some time, you’re modernizing the agricultural sector… for an industry that desperately needs it”.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not minimizing the technology that executive’s company has built into their new seed drill. It’s ultra modern and really impressive. But the interviewer seems to be implying—No. I take that back, he’s actually saying—modernization and technology is a new thing in agriculture.
Apparently, he doesn’t know the computer systems inside John Deere’s first S Series combines had more lines of software code than those in the first space shuttle. He obviously doesn’t know that while some Ford cars will now parallel park themselves, tractors have been using auto guidance for years. Nor is he likely aware robot feeders can be found in many dairy barns.
Maybe all those TV commercials with plaid-shirted farmers driving 1940s vintage tractors through picturesque farmyards have created the perception that farm families can still be found out in fields with pitchforks stooking sheaves of wheat.
But strangely, the AAFC report also found that consumers believe Canadian agriculture is moving toward fewer, larger “factory” farms. It’s hard to image how they could believe this and not understand the industry is constantly modernizing itself.
These seemingly contrasting ideas remind me of one of the classic lines spoken in the movie “Casablanca”. Peter Lorre’s character says this to Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart: “You despise me don’t you, Rick.” To which Bogey replies, “I don’t know. If I gave you any thought, I probably would.”
Clearly consumers aren’t giving farming any thought, which more than one survey confirms. And why should they? They don’t care any more about what we do than we think about what they do. But they do think about their food, a lot. And in the absence of knowledge, people are susceptible to all kinds of dumb information, often coming from those who really don’t know what they’re talking about.
A few weeks ago, I also watched a video interview of the noted livestock-handling expert Dr.Temple Grandin. She discussed the problem of consumers who now know very little about the origins of their food. And she especially focused on the “spy videos” that highlight a few seconds of improper handling or downright abuse of farm animals. The thing is, she said, those videos represent a few regrettable incidents to the exclusion of hundreds or even thousands of hours of video that could and would show very good farming practices.
So, why not start showing those good videos, she suggested. She believes there should be live online streaming of video from farms that anyone can tune into anytime to see a farm in operation. Consumers could then learn first-hand where their food comes from. I tend to agree.
For those farms who already have websites to direct market their produce or otherwise promote themselves, adding a live-streaming feature could help promote farming and show what kinds of practices really go on. Even those consumers who will never set foot outside the limits of a city have a smartphone and love to watch YouTube.
Such open access also helps promote trust and creates at least the perception of honesty. Quality, well-run farms offering to share that kind of information could help change the current general perception of agriculture for the better.