Have Farmers Failed to Tell Their Story?

Agriculture is in the news in a major way these days.

While just a couple of months ago, the big story in agriculture was mass hunger and even starvation due to Russia’s invasion of exporting powerhouse Ukraine, the story has changed in the last few weeks. While the threat of hunger hasn’t diminished in any meaningful way, the focus has shifted to climate policy instead. No longer is the focus on feeding the world; now, the focus has shifted to reducing carbon emissions.

The eye of this storm is in the agricultural powerhouse of the Netherlands, where farmer’s protests against such policies have been decisive and powerful. Legislation to slash nitrogen usage nationwide by 50% by 2030 could result in the permanent closure of over 11,000 farms, with a further 17,000 farms forced to reduce their livestock herds by more than a third. Some areas in the country could be required to reduce nitrogen use by up to 95% by 2030 – an unrealistic and untenable goal. Protests including more than 40,000 farmers have gathered to challenge the government’s plans, with some protesters even dumping manure and setting fire to major highways, blocking airports and major thoroughfares, and much more. The 94.5 billion Euro agricultural industry, providing nearly 54,000 jobs, is not accepting what the government is proposing.

Here in Canada, we have our own emissions reduction plan coming together, although with much less severe restrictions. Here, we are looking at a 30% reduction in emissions from fertilizers by 2030, a far cry from what the Dutch government is proposing. Yet, the backlash has already been strong. The year 2030 is only seven crops away from now. Seven. It may take that long just to get a basic understanding of what emissions currently are, let alone work towards reducing them. We simply do not have the research and information database right now to take on a goal like this. It will take time. In the short term, what the government is proposing will, in all likelihood, result in less food production, just when the world desperately needs more of it. Farmers’ incomes will be hurt. What other effects could we see? And will the government engage fully in consultation with the industry? One can hope.

All of this new climate change policy is seeing a dark contrast with what has happened in Sri Lanka, where their government didn’t just limit fertilizer use, but banned it altogether. In 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised in the election campaign that he would transition Sri Lankan farmers to organic within 10 years. In April of 2020, he rapidly fulfilled that campaign promise with the banning of any importation and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, ordering the country’s 2 million farmers to go organic. Within the first year, rice production fell 20%, forcing the government to import $450 million of rice. Losses in tea production are estimated at $425 million, from what was one of the top tea producers in the world. As inflation soared and the Sri Lankan currency collapsed, protests became angry and violent. A burgeoning middle-class population swiftly found themselves back in poverty. Unfathomably, President Rajapaksa continued to insist that his policies hadn’t yet failed, believing that establishing a committee to increase organic fertilizer production will be the next saviour (read more on this here). That was until the presidential palace was swarmed by protesters, after which he fled the country and resigned. The future of Sri Lankan agriculture, and its people, remains bleak.

The question many farmers, agriculture industry people, and observers keep asking is, why is this even happening? We know agriculture is a net carbon sink; at least, as it is practiced in the majority of Western Canada and many parts of the East as well, along with many other jurisdictions around the world. Eliminating tillage, growing better crops with great nutrient use efficiency, greater biomass growth, and stronger resistance to pests has been a boon for carbon capture and storage on farms in Canada and many other places in the world. Scientific research into genetic engineering, crop protection products, fertilizers, and all the other amazing technology farmers employ is decisively positive; the products we use are overwhelmingly safe, effective, more affordable than ever, and rarely harm off-target organisms. What about that is the public not understanding?

Unfortunately, most people still just don’t know that much about farming, despite the efforts of thousands of incredible farmers sharing their stories and practices on all forms of social media. Some farmers have amassed millions of followers on YouTube and Tik Tok, Instagram and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. Just by following people or websites like QuickDick McDick, High Heels & Canola Fields, The Global Farmer Network, or even just random farmers on Twitter, you can learn everything you need to know about agriculture and how farms are run (and have some fun with it, too). And yet, despite the success of these platforms, we have still been quite unable to move the needle on public policy.

Agriculture’s biggest problem isn’t a lack of farmers sharing their stories; there’s lots of that. It’s not a problem of quality, either, as the Internet is full of fantastic farmers sharing great information and stories.

Our biggest problem is scale.

As StatsCanada’s latest survey results have shown, there just aren’t that many of us left. We make up less than 2% of Canada’s population. Many other developed countries are in the same situation. This wasn’t caused by large “corporate” farms swallowing up the little guys; no, it was the continuation of the centuries-long mass exodus of farmers to the city. Farms grow because people leave, usually for an opportunity to do something else with their lives. Only recently has farming become a much more profitable and exciting lifestyle for people to return to. How in the world can 2% of Canada’s population explain detailed, complicated production practices for the average person to digest? How do we get that information out to 38 million Canadians? Even for the well-funded and aggressive dairy and poultry marketing organizations, this has been a monumental task.

For farmers like me, it can be easy to despair in the face of such an uphill battle to compete for people’s attention. To believe that governments will continue to bend towards what will get them reelected. But that isn’t a solution, either.

I don’t have the answers for how to solve this. But I bet someone out there does. If I’ve learned one thing from my years in the ag industry, it’s this: you can learn something from everyone, as long as you’re doing more listening than talking.

Right now, the majority of the populations in developed nations want action on climate change. But that may change. As farmers, we know that if we don’t think ahead, look to the next generation, and build farms that are economically and environmentally sustainable, we will not survive. It’s built into our DNA. We have the solutions to the problems consumers want us to address. Somehow, we just have to get these solutions in front of them, and show them that there is no straight path, no silver bullet. There is no magic answer for sustainable agriculture. Every solution depends on its area. Agriculture is inherently hyper-local.

Don’t give up on using real data and real science to inform the public, and politicians, on what we’re doing on our farms. Don’t stop sharing your stories: your family’s legacy, your agronomic solutions for your area, your trials and tribulations. Go to classrooms and talk to children about where their food comes from. Ag In The Classroom may just be one of our best advocacy avenues.

We need the broader industry, too. Farmers can’t do this alone. We need support from the agriculture industry, and lots of it.

If we’re going to succeed in helping people truly understand agriculture, we have to work together and collaborate wherever we can. We can’t get stuck in silos, be it grain and oilseed, dairy, vegetables, or beef. We must be one team wherever we can, while understanding we all have our differences. It’s worth remembering our politicians are elected, which means they do need to listen to their constituents. So, talk to them.

I wish I had the answer for how to solve the communication gap between farmers and consumers. I don’t. If I or someone else did, we wouldn’t have all these problems. But if we can work together, I bet we can figure it out.

4 Thoughts

  1. So much truth here Jake. Thank you for sharing here and for clearly doing your part to tell others the farming story you are living every day while keeping the foundation for the next generation of farmers firm and well grounded

  2. Jake, I always enjoy reading your blog. Great writing, balanced persepctive. Thanks also for providing the link to the AAFC Discussion Paper. A fair bit of that paper is dedicated to encouraging the implementation of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Strategy, which strives to improve the efficiency of the applied nutrients. Wouldn’t improvements in efficiency be a positive development? Especially in the light of increasing fertilizer costs. It’s similar to efforts to reduce spray drift. Yes, we do need to get low-drift tips. And we do need to watch boom height and travel speed. But the upside is better efficacy, more value from the effort.

    1. Hi Tom, I’m grateful you enjoy reading it. I really appreciate the comment. I think they have it wrong on the level of implementation of 4R. They think only a quarter of farms are using it, which is wrong. Most of us are. We just haven’t “certified”. And I think that encapsulates the issues with the paper quite well. A lot of assumptions are made about what’s happening on farms today, without real, ground-truthed data to back it up.

  3. The problem is these people who don’t work on a farm are the ones making the decisions. Ask a farmer how to grow crops without fertilizing, it can be done, many still know how. I would bet though the people making the decisions don’t actually care about what they say they care about.

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