Don’t Tell Farmers How To Farm – Ask Them Instead

I recently attended a virtual conference, hosted by CityAge, called “Farming for the Future”. This digital event included discussions around regenerative agriculture, soil health, farming practices that reduce carbon emissions, and so on. Truth be told, it was an interesting and well-organized event, with many of the speakers and panelists taking thoughtful positions on the ideas surrounding regenerative agriculture. There were even a couple of farmers on the panels, who did a good job speaking about their experiences with trying newer “regenerative” practices. One of the panelists, a mixed cattle and grain farmer from Saskatchewan, spoke eloquently outlining the importance of livestock in sustainable agriculture, which got a rather surprising level of agreement from the panel he was on, given the times we’re in.

All the while, though, as I listened to the presenters and participated in the chat alongside, I got the same sinking feeling in my stomach that I get almost every time I’ve attended an event like this – so many of the people presenting at these have no actual experience in operating a real farm, and yet seem to think they should impose their ideas on how to farm on those of us who do. Too often, farmers are sidelined at these events, in lieu of academics, non-governmental organizations, regulators, and social media stars or celebrities. When I attended the World Food Prize in 2017, thanks to the Global Farmer Network, I could count on just a couple fingers how many farmers were asked to be presenters or even panelists. If it wasn’t for the Global Farmer Network, there wouldn’t have been farmers there at all.

At events like this, I often hear lots of questions like: how do we convince farmers to switch to “better” practices? How do we show them to reduce pesticide and fertilizer use? How do we convince them to grow more “sustainable” crops that are better for the environment? How do we switch farmers to organic or regenerative management? How do we get farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? So much dialogue is generated on how to convince farmers to switch practices with no farmers present to engage with, or even to explain why they do the things they do.

It’s not just at big events. Almost every time I log into Twitter or any other social media site, I see a lot of attacks on modern agriculture. People with little to no understanding of science are terrified by irresponsible news media articles and video claiming we’re all being poisoned, the environment is being destroyed, and the end of the world is nigh, all thanks to agriculture. People are, unsurprisingly, worried by all this, and wonder why farmers don’t change their practices.

In most of these cases, people are asking the wrong questions. In fact, they aren’t even listening to the right people. What they should have done instead was to actually speak with genuine farmers who make an authentic living off the land.

Farmers don’t need people to tell them how to farm more “sustainably” or “efficiently”. We don’t need people who have never set foot on a farm explain to us how to reduce pesticide and fertilizer use. We don’t need policy makers to “encourage” us to be more environmentally friendly. Why?

The incentives are already there.

Farming is hard. The two factors that have the largest degree of effect on our income – weather and commodity markets – are outside our control. I don’t know if it will rain enough this year, I certainly don’t know if it will rain enough (or too much) at the right times, and I can’t predict the commodity markets. No one can; they are driven by emotional human beings reacting to real world events. What this means is my job as a farmer, when it really comes down to it, is in managing risk.

Fertilizer is expensive. Pesticides are expensive. So are diesel fuel, natural gas, oil, machinery, and everything else I need to plant, manage, and harvest a crop, and to operate my farm for each year. If my crop can’t make use of the inputs I apply to it, I lose money. If I have more equipment than I need, I lose money. If I don’t manage my employees properly, I lose money. If I do everything right, and check every box perfectly on growing a crop, I can still lose money! There are absolutely no guarantees in farming. I am incentivized to invest only as much money into my crop, and into my farm, as I can reasonably expect to make a profit on. I can guess wrong on this, and often do, but every failure is another lesson I can use next time to tune my inputs more finely to my outputs.

The counter argument I often hear to this is that I don’t have exposure to the cost to the environment of my actions. Hence, the need for carbon taxes and emissions reduction regulations. This is inaccurate and has been since the foundation of property rights. The land that I farm, some of which I own myself, some of which I rent, intrinsically controls my future success. If I destroy and degrade the land I farm, I won’t be farming long.

One of the things I often say about farming is we stand on the shoulders of our grandparents to create a future for our children. What this speaks to is the generational nature of farming; I am a third-generation farmer with hopes of building a business strong enough to survive – no, to thrive – into the fourth generation. I am not unique in this. Most farmers have this very same goal.

Does this mean we’re perfect? No! Does this mean there aren’t better practices out there I haven’t discovered yet? Of course not. Farmers like me rely on scientists and experts to help me learn how to improve my practices, with research into agronomy, variety development, and so much more. The success of my farm, and all others, is driven to a significant degree by the success of brilliant scientists and technicians.

Given time, if scientists develop a better way to drive greater success for me and my family, it is in my best interest to seek those practices out. I rely not just on them, but also on experts in accounting, legal, family governance, business management, and much more to help me find the ideas and practices that can develop a brighter future for me and my family. My farm is in a constant state of update and change, and I spend hundreds of hours every year researching new and better ideas. But, when it’s time to try something new, I have to try it on my farm to see if it works here. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. And that is often different for every farm. The experts I look to realize this and regularly engage with farmers to ensure they’re on the right track with their new idea.

What this highlights is what I would call the hyper-locality of agriculture. What works on my farm may not work on a farm just 30 miles away; let alone for someone growing corn and soybeans in Ontario, or canola and wheat in Peace River, Alberta. Every area is different, with different soil and climatic conditions.

The campaigns multi-national companies like Wal-Mart and General Mills choose to employ often ignore this reality, and have a direct impact on the everyday consumer’s view of agriculture, which can sometimes lead to regulation. The regulations governments put in place directly impact our livelihoods. How is this a problem? Well, the reason these companies try to appear more environmentally friendly is to improve their profit margins, and even if they are well intentioned, they are usually misinformed. They rarely take the time to talk to farmers first, and to understand the hyper-locality of agriculture. They directly change our ability, good or bad, to be economically sustainable, which often creates the kinds of disincentives that discourage us from building multi-generation family farms.

Don’t get me wrong; regulation is often necessary and can be done well. Sometimes we need the government to protect against bad actors who don’t put the future in mind when making decisions. Sometimes it’s farmers who need protection from monopolies and oligopolies in the agriculture industry. But these regulations should be designed with the absolute minimum components necessary to achieve security against this.

Our federal government in Canada is embarking on a mission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (specifically, nitrous oxide emissions) from fertilizer by 30% by 2030 (read more here). This is an enormous undertaking; likely larger than the government has realized. If they want to succeed, they must talk to farmers, directly. They need to hear farmer’s concerns and fears. They also need to listen to their ideas – we have lots of them! Collaboration is the key to success – and collaboration only works if both sides can speak, and listen.

What all of this means is that when you feel you need to create change in farming systems to improve its impact on the environment, make your food safer, or even to protect farmers, make sure your first step is to actually talk to farmers. And not just one or two of them; talk to as many as you can. A grain farm like mine is very different from a vegetable farm in California, or a dairy farm in Ontario, or even a cattle ranch in southwest Saskatchewan. We all have our challenges and struggles. We all have had our great successes and terrible failures. We all have varying opinions on almost everything we do. But no one on this planet knows more about their farmland than farmers do. No one else spends thousands of hours going across the land, crawling over every little pothole and knoll, watching as the snow melts and rain falls, observing the waving of wheat heads in the wind, listening to the buzzing of millions of insects and animals in the calm of the evening. No one else understands how the water moves across the land, how this spot or that one dries out first, where the air drill is most likely to get stuck if it rains. No one else feels the deep connection that comes from farming the same piece of land for decades, even centuries, from one generation to the next. No one else cares for that piece of farmland like a farmer does.

So next time you think about farming, its impact on the environment, and how that could be improved, reach out to me or any of the other 193,000 farmers in Canada, or the farmers in whatever country you’re from. Next time you decide to put on a conference or digital event about agriculture, ask some farmers to be involved as presenters and panelists. Then give them the freedom to speak their minds. You might be surprised at what you hear, and what solutions might be beneficial for the people who actually make a living from the land.

The best way to move forward is to talk to each other. And listen.

13 Thoughts

  1. Hello Jake, I want to say thank you, you write so much mote eloquently than I do …. As a 4 th and likely last generation small tenant farmer in south west Scotland , much of what you write I also think and have been saying fir a whole … this to me shows .commonality I bet if you ask a farmer or grower pretty much anywhere in the world , you’d get a similar story . It’s goin to take monumental change in how we live modern life to fix many of societies problems … one thing is certain , whoever you are wherever you are we as humans need to eat to survive . Until they develop nutrition drinks and vitamin tablets specifically designed for each of our different bodies that will remain so. To that end farmers areny completely to blame for much of the problem , we are only trying to make our way the only way we know how , using the resources at our disposal to create a product that consumers demand . Is that why they think it should be up to the em how their food is produced rather than the folks who know how to produce it? I had reason to look into WTO a little recently … I didn’t get far before one of the key aims of the organisation jumped at me … wealth creation through trade … that might be part of the problem . Trading goods just because doesn’t seem to fit in with environmentally sustainable production ? Neither does food waste . We aren’t responsible for what happens to the food stuff once it leaves the farm and there will always be some losses but not to the degree it’s suggested we see. If folks valued that good more either through their responsibility to future generations or just because it represents a portion of their income , they might waste less.. those things sound like I’m shifting the blame away from farming and agriculture .. not really … as you said above we were told if getting to look after this land is ever your responsibility then do your best to leave it in better than you found it … that better has changed o er the years … in the 70’s and 80’s that may have been capable of maximum output , today it could be maximum output from minimum input with the wider environment taken into account and providing a place for nature .. when are regulators politicians and general public going to wake up to the fact the best people to look after food production are the producers . After all of you are ill you don’t ho to see a lawyer or your old school teacher do you ? … you consult a doctor , the gardener doesn’t fix your sore teeth… so why isn’t food production left to farmers … thank you and my very best wishes to you and your family

  2. Jake – this is such an important observation. The GFN mantra: Ask a farmer! Another important note: And listen! But Jake – that is only possible when farmers are willing to answer, engage, or start the conversation when necessary. Thank you!

    1. Mary, this highlights the importance of the Global Farmer Network. What your organization does is essential to getting farmers’ voices out there.

  3. Excellent analysis. We are fortunate to have a large community of small farmers here producing outstanding products, willing to share their knowledge.

  4. An excellently written article Jake. You eloquently articulated the pressures facing farmers from input costs to commodity pricing to so called “experts” trying to influence the farmer and regulation.

    Generational farmers are sustainable and want to continue in that trajectory. So the best solution for all is to consult the farmer to see what works for them, in their circumstance, for their product, in their region……I love it.

    As a fellow Canadian I’m proud of what you said so I shared it with my worldwide LinkedIn contacts.

    I personally love the idea of farming – working the land is pure and rugged but requires careful planning and intelligence too. I dream of being a farmer but my luck didn’t bend in that direction.

    Bless you Jake.

  5. Great article! At our events 90% of speakers are farmers! I long ago realized that as a soil scientist I cannot tell a farmer what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s not my skin in the game. I provide scientific information and the farmers talk farming. If more scientists would listen to farmers and ask how they want us to advocate for them the world would be a better place!

Leave a Reply