Emily Ritchie of Turner Valley was the senior winner in the first annual Alberta Young Speakers for Agriculture competition at the Calgary Stampede for her speech on the challenges facing the next generation of farmers.
How many of you have a cellphone in your pocket?
This is a new phenomenon but as times change, technology increases and every generation has access to new ideas and tools. In agriculture, technological advances are improving efficiencies and yields; reducing inputs; and improving welfare for animals.
It is really exciting for the next generation of farmers coming up through the ranks because we are now able to produce more food using fewer inputs. We are taking better care of our soil. We are improving the way we use water. We are better able to identify and rectify health concerns for our livestock.
Many of these improvements though come with a bit of a catch. As agriculture becomes more technologically advanced, so does the rest of society. People are becoming more interconnected and sharing ideas, pictures, videos, and information much faster than ever before, increasingly through social media.
The average consumer is three generations removed from the farm and people are asking questions about what goes into their food now more than ever. It is good that people are asking questions about their food but while their questions are being answered — those answers are not necessarily coming from farmers.
Misinformation spreads like wildfire on the Internet and we see that with topics such as GMOs, use of hormones or antibiotics, gluten free, the paleo diet, and certified humane. It is now so easy for misinformation to spread and with the use of social media, things spread even faster. It’s easy to take pictures and videos and post them. And while context is everything, this is often missing.
And the fact is that scary news is often more believable than positive stories. These are the stories that frequently get shared and they are shaping the views of the public, those people three generations removed from farms. This affects the social licence of farmers and ranchers. For example, there are increasing demands for certification programs (such as Certified Humane) even though most producers are meeting and surpassing the requirements without being certified. We’re also seeing more marketing campaigns built around these fears and concerns by companies such as A&W, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Earls as well as social media phenomenons such as the “Food Babe Army.”
This is what we are fighting against. As young farmers, not only do we go fist to fist with Mother Nature, volatile markets, and thin profit margins — we are now going up against our consumers.
GMOs have been proven to be safe for human consumption. All animals at the point of slaughter have to be antibiotic free. There is more naturally occurring estrogen in a pint of beer than there is in a burger from a conventionally raised steer.
But technology aside, the greatest thing that young farmers bring to the table is their tenacity, their drive, their pride, their passion for farming and ranching.
Our input and startup costs are higher than ever; land is expensive and machinery is ever changing; the natural risks are all the same as they were a generation ago; and now we have the increased pressure from consumers.
The odds are really stacked against us.
But we are still here. We are still passionate. The optimism and the drive from young farmers and ranchers is exciting and gives me hope!
We are willing to rise to the new challenges we are facing and look them in the eye. With this attitude and with technology, the next generation of farmers is going to feed the next generation of our planet.