By Connor Lynch
Farm country has taken a public relations beating lately. First, there were the undercover videos of farm practices on Canadian farms. Then, vandals broke into four Western Ontario mink farms and released hundreds of mink. Meanwhile, the extremist People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has handed out anti-farming posters in Toronto schools and recently Grade 1 students from an Eastern Ontario rural school went home with PETA’s anti-farming comic books.
The battle over public perception of livestock farming has intensified and it’s costing farm groups a lot more money than it used to. Farm and Food Care Canada is one example.
“The difference is the scale, the volume, and the money invested,” said CEO of Farm and Food Care Canada, Crystal Mackay. “Associations are realizing we need to invest in public trust as an investment, not as a nice thing we do.”
In 1988, the Ontario Farm Animal Council had an $80,000 budget for public outreach, said Mackay. That council amalgamated with a second group to form Farm and Food Care Ontario and its latest proposed budget for a three-year national public outreach program is $8-million. It used to be that the focus was largely on educating the public. “Now we’re trying to connect with the public, rather than even 10 years ago when we were more like ‘Here’s the top ten facts about farming.’”
Public trust is key, she said. That’s because the public 10 years ago was largely ignorant of how farming works, and that hasn’t really changed. “It’s been pretty consistently poor,” said Mackay.
The goal is to ensure that consumers trust farmers to produce healthy food. As an analogy, she said that a driver might not know anything about how cars are made but they trust the work of the people making the car.
That’s what farmers need with the public. And the most recent data suggests it’s going rather well despite more mainstream anti-farming attacks, including anti-farming documentaries on Netflix.
“The overall impression of farmers is at an all-time high,” she said, adding that their latest report card showed that the Canadian public trusts farmers even more than doctors.
Big budgets are far from the whole story, however. The organizations are stepping up their game. So are individual farmers. Andrew Campbell, who runs farm 365, a Twitter account where he posts photos and small updates daily about his farm, currently has 18,700 followers. “He can have a conversation with that many people in a day,” said Mackay.
With recent neonicotinoid-seed legislation, crop farmers are also seeing the battle intensify. Grain Farmers of Ontario’s communications manager Meghan Burke would not say how much the GFO budget has increased for public outreach but qualified that it is a priority. She said the feeling of a human connection is the key to building that public trust. “We learned over time, when people thought of grain farming, they thought of tractors and combines but not the people driving them.”
The GFO launched its dedicated public outreach program, Good in Every Grain, two years ago. It also invited farmer Chris Soules from the television show The Bachelor to events, and started an Instagram account, which has a new group of five farmers posting on it every year, with photos and videos of their farms.
“We have to stay up to date on the ways non-farming people are communicating, how they connect, and make sure that’s something we always do.”
But even with dedicated public outreach and an increasingly positive public impression of farmers, the level of knowledge about farming for the average Canadian hasn’t improved.
“If there’s a disconnect between consumer expectation and real farm practice, you can explain why you do it, and the public will either say that makes sense, or we still don’t agree.
“Sometimes farm practices need to evolve to be closer to consumer expectations. If it’s a conversation vs. a shouting match or a food fight, farmers will be better off in the end,” said Mackay.
“It’s an important context that the average Canadian hasn’t seen a calf being born, doesn’t know what it takes to grow food. You can’t try to give them a PhD in soil science in the first conversation.”