It seems that every day we are inundated with many opinions and ideas on what primary agricultural producers really need to do to improve the environment and serve our many masters. Based strictly on demographics, many of these intentions come from folks with little to no farm involvement or even those with an axe to grind against agriculture. Sometimes they even come from elected officials. It is enough to make a person angry, but here’s the rub: as producers and agvocates we have to channel that passion in a positive direction.
I can already hear the cries of “but we have to defend ourselves,” and I 100 per cent agree. However, we also need to realize as producers we represent a very small and declining public demographic. If you have a small army, you need to be very strategic in your battle plan. Agriculture is not going to overwhelm the internet with volume, and volume doesn’t win the hearts and minds of the public. Sometimes, one of the greatest challenges in the social media age is keeping our mouth shut.
I tend to believe the best defence is a good offence, and I don’t feel the need to defend myself. So what constitutes a good offence?
The first part of a good offence is inviting dissenting opinions to the discussion. It is very difficult to open a dialogue with someone after you have shouted them down. A good example of this may be the A&W program. Much of its advertising and messaging had producers and industry up in arms, however, some of your neighbours likely sold cattle into the A&W program at a premium. Things are rarely as black and white as they seem. Recently, A&W made an announcement of significant funding to the University of Saskatchewan Beef Centre of Excellence. I have read many opinions on this donation, however, I suggest having significant skin in the game should encourage A&W to participate in and learn as much about the industry as it can. That has to be a good thing going forward. We can’t create knowledge without engagement.
Learning about the industry is important for both direct and indirect participants. Facts constitute part of a good offence, and there are many fantastic sources of good information on what we do and how well we are doing it. The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) is a great place to start, as well as many of the farming advocate groups such as FarmOn, and Agriculture More Than Ever. In terms of offence, I think of facts as practice time. Knowing the facts and being able to use them intelligently or recognize falsehoods is important, but in the actual game spouting facts does not overcome deeply entrenched personal beliefs. People will believe information from others they trust, more than they will believe a peer-reviewed scientific study, or what they perceive to be a message from someone with a vested interest. A good offence is less about scoring fact points and more about building trust.
I have some strong opinions on this one, but generally speaking, trust is built from listening and empathy. There is an old adage we have two ears and one mouth as a clear sign that we need to listen twice as much as we talk. That is a pretty good rule. Sometimes I think we should probably have three or four ears. When we are approached or accosted by misinformation, sometimes the best response is to simply ask why they believe the things that they do. That immediately puts the misinformed into a position of being forced to think through their argument as well as creating an awareness we care what they think and why. If we don’t understand their “why,” then it is hard to have a discussion around “why do you have your why?”
It is often a challenge for those of us involved in everyday farming to realize that most Canadians (even rural ones) have never been on a farm or ranch in their lives, and further, their parents and even grandparents may have never been on a farm or ranch. As an analogy, I would ask as a farmer and rancher whether you can drive the space shuttle? Sure, you have seen pictures or video and you have some unrelated driving experience, but that level of knowledge does not make you an astronaut. The non-farming public may have a backyard garden and have likely seen pictures and videos, but that is often the limit of their direct or indirect farming knowledge. We need to respect where they are coming from and work on building interest and the search for true knowledge. That is a big, long term, non-reactionary task, particularly in this age where we can readily find information on our phone that supports any position or point we may already believe.
The last point is to be an example at home. Building trust requires being trustworthy yourself. It only takes one bad example to go public to put the good work of the rest of us at risk. It is really important to be a good example and more importantly to show an earnest effort to keep doing better. The public does not expect perfection, but they do expect an effort. We need to continually learn about humane animal care, nutrition, environmental stewardship and animal health. More importantly we need to deploy and demonstrate improvements in these areas on our farms and ranches and then talk about it.
Farmers and ranchers are people and often we have the same worries as the general public. This includes work, money, kids/grandkids and community. This common ground can be a very powerful connection point. We cannot forget the public we need to communicate with are just people, with the same worries as us and fewer blessings (if they had our blessings they would be farming and ranching).
In today’s black-and-white world, there are many shades of grey and being angered at the ongoing assault on primary agriculture is a reaction that may be either a bad habit or a response based on passion for the industry. This is true both inside and outside of the agriculture community. The next time you see a story that makes you want to exercise full on “Madvocacy,” remember we need to bridle that passion and pull in a good direction.
Some good resources on learning the facts :