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Farm VS. City

on May 16 | in Ag News | by | with No Comments

Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario Commentary
By Marie Versteeg, CFFO Manager of Board & Committee Services

Most Ontarians remember the bright yellow T-shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned with the slogan “FARMERS FEED CITIES.” Darn right, you might be tempted to think if you happen to be a farmer.

A few weeks ago, though, a guest pastor speaking at the annual meeting of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario offered a different perspective on this loud and proud message. Having served for decades in rural communities, he commented that the bumper stickers had always struck him as [Quote] a “bit of an F.U.” to our urban neighbours.

His interpretation might surprise you. After all, the ten-year campaign was popular with the public. But it was born out of frustration, at a time when farmers felt ignored by government and left behind economically. That tinge of resentment rings quietly behind the attention-grabbing typeface.

The Farmers Feed Cities campaign was retired in 2014, but its sentiment was nothing new. The town versus country divide goes back centuries, though it’s never been particularly fruitful.

The disconnect between farm and city is a central concern for Farm and Food Care Ontario, and it was a major topic at their Speakers Program, held in Burlington on April 13. Keynote speakers parsed out today’s food myths, and a major concern of the day was the need for strategic communication.

Laura Daniels, president of Dairy Girl in Wisconsin, offered tips for tweaking our commonly used messages. For example, don’t bother telling people that farmers feed the world because people don’t really care that much. Instead, reach people on a personal level, telling your story in a way that helps others see themselves in it.

Don’t try to tell people that farmers are perfect stewards of the earth because they won’t believe you. Instead, tell them the truth—that farmers are constantly striving to be better stewards.

Fellow guest speaker Dr. Timothy Caulfield, author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything?, offered some more tips. He warned that scientific proof holds very little sway over public opinion. His research in public health policy shows that it doesn’t really matter what the science says about gluten-free foods or alkaline diets. If your favorite celebrity is tweeting about it, you’re more likely to try it, too.

In other words, using facts to explain how modern agriculture works can’t be our first resort. Instead, Caulfield suggested a blended approach—one that leads with narrative and then incorporates evidence in order to tell the real story of agriculture.

One hurdle we face is that general public opinion seems to be that science and the soy field should not mix. As Daniels of Dairy Girl suggested, what agriculturalists see as progress, the public considers “unnatural.” Agriculture must respectfully challenge and change this perception in order to support the needs and build the trust of our urban neighbours.

One of the overarching objectives of the next agricultural policy framework (aka Growing Forward 3) is to secure and grow public trust in agriculture. Permanently doing away with our standby “us vs. them” mentality will help. A healthy dose of perspective might be in order, too. I think of the example set a couple years ago at a CFFO district picnic in the Chatham-Kent area. Keeping company with bright yellow posters bearing that slogan we all know, were nearly matching posters gently reminding guests of the flip-side: “FARMERS NEED CITIES.”

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