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Things sure look good, but are they?

I have a confession to make. It’s nothing earth-shattering, and it certainly isn’t enough to make you give up your favourite single-malt beverage – if you happen to partake.


June 5, 2009
By Ralph Pearce

I have a confession to make. It’s nothing earth-shattering, and it certainly isn’t enough to make you give up your favourite single-malt beverage – if you happen to partake.

It’s just that I’ve always been something of a rebel, particularly where appearances are favoured instead of substance.

Since early adolescence, I have chafed at the idea of having to “dress the part” or that “clothes make the man.” To me, an idiot can put on a three-piece suit and still be an idiot (choose from most Members of Parliament, for example). That substance, knowledge and expertise could be waylaid or overlooked by a good tailor and a stylist worth her weight in hair cuttings has sickened me for several decades. By and large, I will admit that a university degree is a better start on a career than a high school diploma. Then again, I’ve met a lot of BScs and PhD candidates who are just plain stupid, while one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met (and had the honour of interviewing) had only a Grade 2 education.

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Like I said, appearances can be deceiving.

Knowledge more lasting than fashion
The same anger concerning appearances being the ultimate comes to mind while reading about “grow local, shop local” efforts, or news of recent agricultural innovation awards from Ontario’s premier. Seldom do news stories mention the challenges facing the award recipients, only that consumers are finding what they want, grown under conditions they find socially acceptable, all to a requisite amount of golf applause from attending journalists and well-heeled, vote-rich baby boomers. In these cases, it’s the appearance of doing good that is more important than the impact of the innovation, or the long-term effect of growing local on the local economy.

Where’s that sharp three-piece pin-stripe and handful of hair gel when I need them?

Instead, the government and the media put these farmers on a pedestal, clap them on the shoulder and snap photos of them holding a piece of paper or a plaque for their wall.

“Full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.” (I’ll get to the part about the “tale told by an idiot” in a second.)

The awards are a nice bit of window dressing, but for the most part, they tell little of the story behind improved market access or enhancing on-farm production or food safety and accountability. That’s substance and knowledge, and clearly, the media and the government are not interested in either. Instead, it’s a photo-op for those who know little about on-farm management practices or the impacts of higher input costs, and must buffer themselves against the staggering weight of their own ignorance and ineptness.

I’m not discounting the benefits of these opportunities that garner awards: I have said in the past that anything that derives a higher margin for growers is a good thing, and I still hold to that. If a grower in Saskatchewan harvests purple wheat that a miller wants for a novelty food product, and can reward the grower with $15 per bushel, then I applaud the whole scenario. Why? Because everyone wins. Just like organics, the grower is rewarded through a price premium that ultimately is paid by the consumer. That’s the way it should be: substance and expertise should always, always win out, and be rewarded.

Rewarding a grower with a government grant because he fills out the right forms or submits a CAIS application at the right time is not worth news coverage, in my mind. It’s all just camera flashes, sound bites and some quick gratification by self-serving politicians, rewarding the “what” without understanding the “why” or the “how.”

‘A tale told by an idiot’
This inherent arrogance reminds me of Dalton McGuinty. Ontario’s premier wants to be a “champ” to agriculture (among other sectors), but really, he’s missing the whole thing by one letter. To believe that awards of recognition are a suitable replacement for investment in infrastructure -– like processing plants – is just one more indication that he really does not understand agriculture at all. Across the country, we are only now beginning to streamline regulatory processes that will enable industry stakeholders to compete internationally. Along the way, they will likely call upon growers to help meet market demand. But that has taken the better part of a decade of convincing Ottawa to act before all is lost. The same is true for small-scale processing in Ontario. The province has forward-thinking, top-notch farm managers, but little government investment in infrastructure. Contrary to popular belief in and around Toronto, the Green Belt surrounding that city does not count as an investment in agriculture, since it does nothing to protect prime agricultural land, encourage growth in technology, research and development or processing and market access.

Instead, there are continued references to organics as a trend that helps sustain family farms or overlooking the fact that the grow-local, buy-local movement is severely limited by a crop’s viability under our climatic conditions. They look (and sound) impressive, yet both lack much in the way of credibility, not to mention accuracy.

Sound and fury…signifying nothing. 

Just like the government and the media: lots of spit and polish but little substance or knowledge to get the job done.