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No excuse for ignorance; not today

Sept. 28, 2009 – Nearly 12 years ago, I learned an invaluable lesson about farming: people from outside of the agri-food industry just don’t get it. They haven’t managed to get it for quite some time, and without a massive shift in mind-set and a re-setting of priorities, it is unlikely they ever will.


September 28, 2009
By Ralph Pearce

Sept. 28, 2009 – Nearly 12 years ago, I learned an invaluable lesson about farming: people from outside of the agri-food industry just don’t get it. They haven’t managed to get it for quite some time, and without a massive shift in mind-set and a re-setting of priorities, it is unlikely they ever will.

And that’s truly disturbing.

My lesson back in 1998 came when I was interviewing the director of a local municipality’s tourism agency about its agri-tourism program. The Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, was looking for a way to keep tourists in town on Mondays, when there are no theatrical offerings. That’s where the agri-tourism idea was floated to the city and region, where the director would organize tours to area farms and perhaps build that proverbial bridge between urban and rural Canada.

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Well, one of the participating farmers was a dairy producer, and at his farm, the director fielded the same question time and again: How do the cows know when it’s the weekend? 

The first three or four times, the director dismissed the question, saying only, “They don’t!”, before continuing on with the next query. But she began to wonder if there was a reason for that particular question. The next time it came up, she countered with, “Why would the cows need to know it’s the weekend in the first place?”  “Well,” said the tourist, “the farmer doesn’t work every day, so how do the cows know it’s the weekend?”

The rationale had all the innocence of a child, yet it lacked the smile that comes with one of those “kids say the darnedest things” moments. Instead, it left me shaking my head, wondering how the disconnect between the city and the country had become so great that a grown adult would ask such a question.

No excuse today
Fast forward to 2009, and the disconnect is exponentially larger. Despite the presence of the internet and its myriad sources of information (and sadly, misinformation), I’d make the argument that where agriculture is concerned, the information void has deepened and widened considerably. In the late-1990s, Canada was the envy of the world when it came to food safety regulatory excellence. Today, thanks to a society that has come to take that exemplary record completely for granted, we have people who foolishly believe food safety and clean water should be guaranteed; to some, it should be ensconced in the Constitution or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, right along with “free” health care.

The latest example of this disconnect came Sept. 22nd at the opening day of the International Plowing Match (interesting how an event that is held only in Ontario can be billed as “international”; there’s that well-documented “Ontario arrogance” at play again). At the official opening, premier Dalton McGuinty suggested that the IPM is a testament to farmers and their families. What his executive assistants and other assorted peons failed to tell him is that the Plowing Match became irrelevant about 10 years ago, when those farmers who view themselves as professionals began concentrating on the business of farming, instead of attending an event that celebrates the rusticity of plowing the straightest furrow.

It’s not that I’m disrespecting the Plowing Match: it’s a nice, quaint pastime for those who remember the bygone days when farming entailed working 25 or 30 acres and tending to a backyard menagerie that included three hens, four hand-fed pigs and a moo cow named Bessy (or Daisy or Flossy). Simply put, the IPM no longer reflects well on modern farming. Instead, today’s business-oriented growers and producers attend conferences, workshops, field tours and events like Farm Progress or Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show, leaving only Mr. Beamer and his wife, Ms. Acura-Beamer, along with all the little Beamers and Acuras, believing that old country fairs are an accurate reflection of anything done on farms today.

Simply not funny anymore

If you think I’m being harsh, hang on to something solid. 

About this time last year, at a funeral, no less, a doctor’s wife I know asked me if wheat is used in any kind of food for humans (they were buying some land in the country). Staring back at her (briefly) in disbelief, I quickly ran down a short list of items containing wheat, like bread, cereal, cookies, cakes, pies, crackers, coating mixes…oh yeah….and flour! After hearing my quick rundown, she only said she had thought it was used as livestock feed.

That exchange shocked me then, and it saddens me to recall it now. That we can be surrounded by so much information, so many resources, and have food be such an integral part of our lives -and then have questions like that posed -and in all seriousness –is nothing short of staggering. Doctors’ wives, a provincial premier, a theatre goer: the disconnect is extraordinary.

Farmers do an amazing job, in spite of market volatility, increasing costs, ever-changing consumer demand and apathy, and trade issues. Yet they’re expected to understand and anticipate our needs as consumers, without us having to grasp any of the realities of what they do on a daily basis.

That so many people don’t even try to grasp those realities is not funny. Not at all.  In fact, it’s shameful.