Owen Roberts teaches communications at the University of Guelph where he's held the position of director of research communications for more than 25 years. He is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Animal Biosciences.
Blog: www.urbancowboy.ca // Twitter: @TheUrbanCowboy
With increasing regularity, farmers are coming to realize the importance of reaching out to consumers. And lately, they’ve taken to creating alliances to help them do so.
Retailers are farmers’ natural allies, being on the front line and connecting with consumers like they do. I’d like to think farmers are retailers’ natural allies too. Consumers continue to drive towards local food, and the source of all that goodness is indeed Ontario farms.
Ontario pork producers were among the earliest in the agriculture sector to realize the value of connecting with consumers, neighbours and decision makers. Agriculture itself depends on the support and cooperation of all those groups, before products ever appear on retailers’ shelves and display cases.
However, although many voices are speaking up for farmers these days, problems with understanding persist. And they seem to be escalating.
An underlying reason is that although Ontario has an impressive number of farmers – about 51,000, in fact, more than any other province – the numbers are small compared to the number of consumers here.
That makes alliances all the more important to agriculture.
Farmers are getting more creative in reaching out to stakeholders and those they see as allies. Most lately, that creativity has seen the development of a new alliance called Growing Ontario. It’s a coalition among 28,000 grain farmers, 50,000 forestry workers and northern and rural Ontario community representatives. Their mandate is to raise awareness of the importance of their industries to the rest of the province.
“Whether it’s the food we eat, the lumber that provides us shelter, the fuel that keeps us warm or moving, or the raw materials woven into the textiles that we wear, Ontario farmers and forestry workers are meeting the vital needs of Ontario families every day and providing those needs in a very sustainable fashion,” according to Growing Ontario.
Adds Grain Farmers of Ontario chair Mark Brock: “The numbers of farmers are dropping, and reaching out to others who are experiencing similar problems is one way to increase agriculture’s voice.”
I don’t remember any such alliances like this, at least not in Canada. In some other countries, such as Britain, sheer size brings agriculture and forestry closer together. Here, though, the two sectors have mostly been isolated from each other.
But that’s changing. The province is putting incentives in place to open up northern Ontario to more agriculture. The pressure on rural industries is heating up from competitors such as housing and transportation developers. And scurrilous activities are intensifying from the opponents of modern agriculture.
Indeed, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture says the number one challenge identified by federation members is poor understanding of farm practices and the realities of living near farming neighbours. It says municipal leaders have a responsibility to learn and understand what the agricultural industry is all about, given its importance to the economy – and, of course, agriculture’s pivotal value to your business.
The Grain Farmers of Ontario are the main agricultural drivers of Growing Ontario. They expect other farm groups will join Growing Ontario as its intentions and its issues become known.
For example, one of the first positions it’s taken is against proposed changes to Ontario’s road tax exemption for non-road users. Under current provincial rules, diesel-operated farm, forestry, mining and other resource sector equipment that does not operate on public roads is exempt from paying fuel taxes that are meant to preserve those roads. But it’s been suggested that this amounts to a subsidy of $215 million. Cancelling that exemption means someone has to pay… and those are the kinds of costs that get passed on to consumers.
Modern agriculture is multi-layered, sometimes controversial and always fascinating. And as the alliance-driven Growing Ontario initiative shows, it certainly provides no shortage of great conversation starters with your customers.