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Those awkward conversations about food production

Talking to urban consumers about food can be more uncomfortable than political debate

Those awkward conversations about food production

By the time you read this, the 2015 federal election will be history. Maybe you will have even re-friended any politically-obnoxious people you dropped on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the big vote. Maybe.

As I write this, before the election, I’m filled with the smug satisfaction of a citizen who already cast her ballot at the advance polls. I headed to Glaslyn, as instructed by my voter information card. It was actually correct. I marked my X, then drove home, happy to know that I could complain about the government for however long it lasts until the next election.

There’s been a lot of talk about how long this election was, and how nasty some of the discussion got. I’m sure many of you suffered from election fatigue. Personally, I don’t mind a little political chatter. While in Australia this summer, I compared notes with quite a few Australians. And when I got back to Canada, I followed both the thoughtful and ridiculous election coverage like a true news junkie.

But I, too, am ready to close the book on this election. So here’s hoping that whoever takes over the Prime Minister’s office can hang onto it for four years. And here’s hoping our parliamentarians keep their rural and ag constituents in mind.

Other tricky things to talk about

In late September I headed to Calgary for the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation’s annual conference. Each year a different region organizes farm tours, professional development, and other activities for ag journalists and communications people from coast to coast. The Western Irrigation District story in this issue was part of that tour.

This year’s conference focused on the rural/urban divide and what it means to the agriculture industry. It’s a meaty topic, and it was interesting. But I have to confess, I don’t always enjoy talking about agriculture with consumers.

The main reason for my squeamishness is that I don’t always know what I’m going to get into with these conversations. Sometimes they’re interesting and productive. I have friends and acquaintances who are very well read, and even when I don’t agree with them, I respect their opinions.

But sometimes I feel like the other person is talking at me, rather than with me (and I sure hope I don’t do that to people).

Terry Church of Canadian Rocky Mountain Ranch nailed down that feeling during the Farm Writers’ conference.

Food is becoming the new religion, he told us. It’s not about science. It’s about trust and being able to answer questions about how that animal was raised, he said.

But people have a right to know about food production, whether they’re curious about canola or cattle. Many of my friends are only a generation removed from the farm, so they can just ask their country cousins. But few people have that luxury these days.

So whose job is it to have these conversations with consumers? I’m writing to you, as are many of my colleagues, and I doubt too many consumers are picking up copies of Grainews. I’m also reluctant to shove that communications burden onto farmers, or at least every farmer. I know farmers and ranchers who are good at what they do, but don’t want to talk about it.

And why should they? Most farmers are producing a commodity, Ray Price pointed out at the conference. Price is co-founder of Sunterra Farms and Sunterra Market. Sunterra focuses more on freshness and quality than price, based on my visits to their south Edmonton store years ago.

Farmers are already good at what they do, Price said, and besides, there are several links in the chain between them and consumers. Instead, we should be helping retailers educate consumers, Price said, by providing them with correct information.

Sunterra Markets may be unique among food companies, though, because the Price family still raises hogs. In fact, the farming side is still bigger than the retail, Ray Price said. And although they’ll bend to their customers’ wishes to some extent, there are things they won’t bend on philosophically, he told us. They don’t see any point in selling American beef or pork when there’s plenty right in Alberta, for example. And they won’t sell products with claims that Ray Price knows are wrong.

(I got the impression that Ray Price’s B.S. detector is still intact).

Give them what they want

I doubt most food companies are able or willing to draw those lines. Trish Sahlstrom, vice president of purchasing and distribution at A&W, told us very clearly that A&W’s focus is giving consumers what they want, not educating them. That it’s about consumer choice. And Mike Olson, vice president of fresh merchandising at Overwaitea Foods, also talked about consumer choice around GMOs.

Fair enough. They are in business to make money, after all. And it’s hard to argue with providing consumers with choice.

But I’m still not sure where that leaves consumers who truly want to know more about food production. The ag sector can provide retailers and restaurants with all the facts in the world, but most of them seem hesitant to contradict their customers’ romantic view of farming.

And while this divide may not affect the day-to-day operations on your farm yet, that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. A&W is sourcing most of its beef from the U.S. and Australia. The company is also sourcing eggs from vegetarian hens, in case you missed that one (Sahlstrom said it came down to traceability in the feed. And that Canadian chicken producers were onboard with the change).

Other quick service restaurants and retailers are pushing more requirements onto farmers. I’m not against improving animal welfare or environmental stewardship. After all, farmers have made huge improvements in the last 30 years in both those categories. But the worry is that all these requirements will make it very difficult for livestock producers (and potentially other farmers) to actually run their farms.

I think getting the urban media onto more farms is part of the solution, but that’s not a silver bullet. And you have to be willing to host them.

Sahlstrom told us that consumers value farmers telling their story. “There’s only one thing that consumers truly want and that is transparency,” she said.

So if you can talk about what you do without being condescending or hot-headed, you may want to check with your growers groups or provincial farm and food care group about speaker training.

Sure, it’s not really your job to talk to consumers about farming. But I’m not sure if anyone else is going to do it for you.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

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



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