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Are farmers suffering from too much information?

With today’s big data, it sure would help to have those provincial crop advisers back on the team

While agriculture in Canada has been evolving in the past 10 to 15 years, there has also been a curious evolution in the quantity and the quality of information available to farmers. In the late 1990s, at least in Ontario, the governing Conservative Party began scaling back on what was referred to as “bricks and mortar.” Instead of well-staffed offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) in each county, the government consolidated various ministry personnel into more centralized hub locations.

Gone were the days of branch representatives and their assistants, plus engineers, home economists and a bevy of crop specialists in each district.

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Further cutbacks came in waves. Many in government and outside of agriculture viewed it as a portfolio that could endure such austerity and accompanying attrition. After all, “agriculture represents less than two per cent of the population,” farmers were reminded.

But those attitudes have left the ranks of public-sector extension stretched thin across the province. Some see that as a significant drawback. Others see it as balanced by the wealth of information still available — and increasing every day — for growers, agronomists, retailers and other stakeholders.

Whichever side you come down on, at least now we are mostly agreed on how to measure the outcome. It’s the answer you get when farmers ask, “where do I get the best information to help me farm in this current environment?”

One person torn between the overabundance of information and resources versus the erosion of third-party perspectives is Mervyn Erb, a certified crop adviser (CCA) from Brucefield, Ont., north of London. On one hand, he’s inundated by the volume of information that he has to sort through and present to his clients — some of it on a daily basis. On the other, he’s fatalistic about the lack of public-sector input, feeling that since it was a government decision to cut back on services and personnel, there isn’t a lot anyone can do about it.

“That’s the way the government wants it,” says Erb, who is one of a handful of independent CCAs in Ontario. “They’re helping to foster the unease in society with industry-based research. Whether it’s agricultural or pharmaceutical, there’s suddenly a large amount of unease about it.”

Erb concedes there’s almost too much information on hand, and that a significant portion of it can come with an accompanying sales pitch for a product or service. In his case, he’s expected to stay current on the latest trends, but he — like others in agriculture — must also keep his eye on older technologies, chemistries and management practices. Just because Roundup Ready Xtend soybeans are set to launch, it doesn’t necessarily render Group 2 chemistries obsolete. Agriculture doesn’t get rid of its old information: if anything, it catalogues it for that day when it’ll be needed again.

“There’s no shortage of information but you have to know where it’s coming from,” says Erb. He agrees with the generalization that those over 60 may be slower in adapting newer technologies while those 30 or younger tend to be more computer adept and can operate a smartphone or an iPad. “But when it comes to agricultural science and research and recommendations, if we don’t have the likes of a Greg Stewart doing research, what do we do? Tune in to Emerson Nafziger or Fred Below at Illinois State University or somebody else at one of the land-grant universities in the U.S.?”

That can work as long as the situation in that particular state or region closely mirrors conditions in Ontario or Eastern Canada. But when news alerts concerning aflatoxin in corn or the spread of Palmer amaranth hit the pages of Corn&Soybean Digest or AgWeb Daily, farmers need a trusted source to tell them that neither of those issues is a major threat to farmers in Ontario (at least, not yet).

If that means they have to turn more to their dealers, advisers and agronomists to help them, however, in most cases, there’s not a problem.

The need to know

Even so, there are exceptions dotting the agricultural landscape. Towards the middle of this past summer, Erb had a conversation with one grower who was in the market to have some soil work on his farm, involving elements of precision agriculture and variable-rate technology.

“In all the literature he’d seen, there were sales attached to it and he knew it was going to cost a lot of money,” says Erb. “He wasn’t so sure of the benefit, yet it was touted as beneficial and all that good stuff. So he was looking for some independent thought on it.”

It’s not to say the private sector is incapable of providing that independent thought or an unbiased opinion. Most CCAs, dealers and retailers operate with the grower’s best interests at the forefront of their business dealings. But it also helps to adopt the precautionary approach, and the credo, “let the buyer beware.”

Peter Johnson understands, better than most, the push-pull relationship when it comes to distributing advice. The former provincial cereal specialist is now dividing his time between a variety of interests, including the University of Guelph and as an adviser for different companies. He agrees there’s far too much information out there available to growers.

“If you want more information, just boot up your computer, open your inbox and accept all the emails from the companies, but I don’t know when you’d get time to go to your field to do your work,” says Johnson. “We are in an information-overload world, and that’s why this new generation wants the five-second text. They don’t want to talk on the phone, they want the five-second text and it better say in that text what’s in it for them, or they ignore it and just keep going.”

The challenge with shortened attention spans is the same in extension and advisory services as it is with mainstream media reporting on agriculture: often the message requires more than just a five-second text on N rates or a 400-word summary on neonics. The devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and the current immediate-media world doesn’t always recognize that fact.

Where his concern lies pertaining to government extension isn’t so much guarding against biases —Johnson is quick to note that even he had his own biases as the cereal specialist for Ontario, and so does everyone else. Instead the government’s extension service, particularly crop extension, is in a reboot phase. As of late August 2015, four crop specialists had departed from the ranks of OMAFRA field crops extension, with the expectation that two will be refilled — for corn and cereals. The forage specialist’s portfolio, formerly Joel Bagg’s realm, and the integrated pest management specialist’s position, occupied by Gilles Quesnel, will remain unfilled.

And Johnson thinks that’s a mistake. Forage is one of the largest crops by area in the province, and to lump it in with pastures is misguided. The loss of the IPM specialist’s post is another confusing move given the government’s pledge to fight neonics and other chemistries, supposedly to adopt a stronger IPM focus.

“Is there attrition? Yes. Does it worry me? Absolutely,” says Johnson, adding that with fewer specialists and a greater focus on regulations, advisory services to the farmer will be affected. “I look at the direction, and this is not just neonicotinoids, it’s nutrient management plans, it’s livestock medicines, it’s this move towards increased regulation that’s concerning for an extension person because it’s liable to impact them. It doesn’t mean it will — that depends entirely on the marching orders given by management.”

Research cuts

The other facet that’s affected by the attrition and the refocusing of resources and information is research, something farmers and other industry stakeholders perhaps took for granted. Most in the agri-food sector are unaware of the amount of research conducted by the field crops team, and the loss of Stewart and Johnson, as well as Bagg and Quesnel, is a particular blow to that aspect of public-sector resources.

“Will the new corn specialist be able to do research the way Greg Stewart did?” asks Johnson, adding that it’s more than just the financial commitment that will be challenged. “They’ll have to figure a way around the ministry — you can’t do it through the ministry, you’ve never been able to do it through the ministry. That’s one. No. 2: Will they have enough credibility to get funding for good research? And three, will they be allowed to do it, or will they be so drawn into the vortex of regulation and administration that they just never bother?”

Agriculture is alone

It’s also worth noting that agriculture is unique in its public-sector, watchdog capacity. Forestry, mining, the automotive sector and many others are without a comparable, government-sanctioned arm that acts on behalf of its membership. And Johnson believes that service — which has been taken for granted for years — is part of the approach employed by the government when it came to securing those services.

“Maybe the farmer didn’t do enough to remind politicians that they appreciated that third-party voice and that that was the most valuable thing — the research and the third-party information,” explains Johnson. “They could say, ‘That’s the No. 1 thing we want you to do, Mr. Minister of Agriculture, and second to that, we want support programs or some other aspect.’”

It was always taken for granted that that’s what OMAFRA did, and if the minister went to a grower group or a farmer and asked, “What do you want from my ministry?” that would usually be the reply. But there were assumptions made on both sides of the discussions. Farmers assumed the first dollar from the government was going to extension and that government was asking for their input on where and how to spend the second dollar. But the government assumed farmers understood there was only going to be $1 made available.

So farmers said, “I’d like support programs,” and the government complied. Farmers thought third-party extension and research were considered default responsibilities of the government, but government was taking the farm community at its word without offering sufficient details.

What’s left is the retraction seen by the government in the past 15 years (at least in Ontario). The default position at Queen’s Park is to assume the private sector will pick up the slack and provide that advisory service to the farmers. Is there plenty of information available to them? No question. But is it a matter of quantity versus quality?

“And how much trust can you put in that information, because of its source?” poses Johnson.

Societal input

When it’s examined from all sides, there’s another component that Erb says is adding even more pressure to the situation. That’s the increasing involvement of special-interest groups outside of primary production. Non-farmers, political agendas and consumer activism are changing the landscape of the entire industry. The drive for information that’s unbiased and timely and that actually improves operations is now being diverted into sustainability and traceability, ideas that farmers support, but that are being driven by disconnected or even misinformed participants.

“There’s more going on, and not just with agricultural research and crop production science,” says Erb. “There’s also a whole other battle you’re continually waging with environmental activism and consumer group activism and climate change activism and conservation authority activism and infringement upon personal property rights. It’s no longer the art and science of farming — it’s this deluge of stuff that you have to deal with. Otherwise you get run over.”

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CG Production Editor

Ralph Pearce

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