As the gap widens, farmers urged to reach out to consumers

The ag sector is better at both documenting its stewardship 
and communicating — but more is needed

Ever noticed you don’t hear the phrase ‘rural-urban gap’ as much these days?

A decade and a half ago, farmers and ranchers — realizing most Canadians were, at best, a couple of generations removed from farming — were reaching out to urbanites at events such as the Calgary Stampede or through programs such as Ag in the Classroom.

Crystal Mackay.
photo: Supplied

“Fifteen years ago, to help people realize that there was a gap, we called it the rural-urban gap and said, ‘The city people don’t understand what we’re doing,’” said Crystal Mackay, president of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity.

Those efforts still continue but this gap isn’t just limited to residents of cities: Many in small towns and rural areas also have no idea of what farming involves.

“We know today that 93 per cent of Canadians know little or nothing about farming,” said Mackay. “There’s no difference between rural or urban centres in terms of their awareness or level of support. There’s no difference between Alberta and Toronto in terms of their perceptions and views on agriculture.”

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These days, bridging the urban-rural gap is part of a much wider effort aimed at what Mackay and others call “the public trust envelope.”

“It has become a national melting pot of conversations with Canadians regardless of where they live,” she said. “We don’t need them to know about how to raise cattle, but we need them to have trust in beef.”

There are three pillars of this effort, of which communication is only one.

“The first pillar is actually doing the right thing and farmers and ranchers have been committed to doing the right thing,” she said. “They have continuous improvement.”

This is where time, energy, and money in the ag sector is being spent, said Mackay.

Twinned with this is being able to prove that you’re doing the right thing.

Mackay calls this second pillar “trusted assurance systems,” which includes things such as documenting practices, audits, and regulatory policy. For example, in livestock there’s the revamping of the national codes of practice, but also more high-profile efforts such as the one to create Certified Sustainable Beef. This has come out of a massive years-long, and ongoing, collaboration in the beef food chain that involves not only a host of measurable standards, but also audits of ranchers to packers and everyone in between.

“A lot of the trusted assurance system requires documentation or third party,” said Mackay. “You’re already doing the right thing, but there’s always room to do better. Now we have a quality assurance system.”

Tweeting up a storm

For years, John Kowalchuk has been trying to build public trust one person at a time, whether that’s participating in farm shows or chatting with someone he’s just met.

John Kowalchuk.
photo: File

“My kids always bug me because I’ll be talking to someone and the first thing I bring up is that I’m a farmer,” said the Rumsey-area grain producer and outgoing Alberta Pulse Growers director.

But these days, a lot of those conversations happen on social media — something that didn’t exist 15 years ago. Facebook was created in 2005 while the first tweet went out a year later. (Now, 500 million tweets go out every day.)

Kowalchuk didn’t sign up for Twitter until 2014, but he’s made up for lost time — tweeting nearly 13,000 times and attracting nearly 8,000 followers.

He’s not sure how many of them are non-farmers, and he’s noticed that consumers often don’t interact or ask questions. But many retweet his tweets, sometimes with a comment, which then prompts others to respond.

He likes that aspect.

“When I see that, it feels good, like you’re actually getting outside of your bubble and getting the word out,” said Kowalchuk.

“That’s a big thing on social media — getting outside of the bubble we have in ag. You can be preaching to the choir a lot. I watch and see who I do have involved.”

He also gets questions via Twitter’s direct messaging tool and was having on-and-off conversations with about 300 people when interviewed last month.

“People are interested in farming and do want to know farmers and find out where their food is coming from (although) I wouldn’t say all people,” he said.

Joining in

This is the type of interaction with consumers that experts like Mackay want to see more of.

Everyone in the food value chain, even those in the background (such as feed makers, animal health companies, and equipment suppliers), needs to be involved, she said.

“Whoever is in the food system is being challenged to step up and help with the communications pillar,” she said. “In general, in business, there is an expectation of transparency through a whole system. So whether you are buying jeans or beef, consumers feel it’s their right to ask questions of the whole food system. How the cow was treated, what it ate, how it was transported, and then the food safety protocols in the restaurant.

“Most people aren’t actively seeking out the information, but they want to know they’re able to find it out if they ask.”

But, it turns out, having a good answer isn’t nearly good enough.

Mackay’s organization regularly surveys consumers but its latest one, released in November, didn’t have good news. Only 36 per cent thought the food system was headed in the right direction — down from 43 per cent in its 2017 survey.

“That’s not even close to 50 (per cent),” Mackay said with a sigh. “We’ve lost some ground in the overall impression of agriculture. That’s the first time that number has gone down since 2006. I’m using it as a rallying cry to our industry to say that public trust needs to be earned. We can’t take it for granted.”

Things clearly need to change, she added.

“The status quo is not cutting it.”

Among her suggestions is to not only get all the players in the food chain involved, but also third parties from outside the sector. The ‘conversation’ about food also needs to start earlier — Mackay would like to see it begin in kindergarten — and also take different forms. Consumers are not a single group, and players in the food system need a better understanding of their wide range of interests, she said.

“As a farmer, you need to be aware of what your consumers expect. One of our challenges moving forward is embracing segmentation.”

Embracing change is also a given. The amount of information farmers now produce — whether in the form of tweets, social media posts, and YouTube videos or in documents and audit trails — has mushroomed.

But it can’t stop there, said Mackay.

“For the next 15 years, I think it’s a really good time for the farm sector in Alberta to regroup and put everything on the table and figure out where we are spending our time and how can we be more effective.”

Telling your story

Kowalchuk said being open and transparent has really benefited him as a producer and he wouldn’t do it otherwise.

“I try to be positive on Twitter, but still put the honest part of farming out there if I can,” he said. “It’s about wanting to portray us the way we are. A lot of times, we get portrayed by the media differently. We’re able to tell our story this way. Somebody else isn’t telling our story.

“It’s honestly hard to counteract the bad media against farming, because they’re very powerful and strong.”

But Kowalchuk hasn’t abandoned his old-school ways of engaging consumers face to face when he can. For example, he attends ‘A Seat At Our Table,’ an annual dinner that brings together social media influencers, chefs, farmers, and others to celebrate, and talk about, food.

He is also a “winter blogger” (www.johnkowalchuk.blogspot.com) and occasionally posts videos.

It may be a drop in the digital ocean, but like waves spreading, each interaction can have a carry-on effect, he said. And it’s important to raise your voice in an age where people have increasingly strong opinions about food.

“People are starting to question what they buy and what they eat,” said Kowalchuk. “We have to put it out there how we do things, so they can either trust us or make decisions if that’s not what they want. It’s important that we get that information out there.”

But never forget the human element, even if the conversation isn’t face to face, he said.

“One thing I’ve always said to people is that I’m a farmer. But I’m also a consumer and my family are consumers, and we trust this food. I feed it to my family. You can build a connection that way.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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