Labels are a tricky business, especially in an agriculture where there is a dictionary full of words you can use to describe other farmers, or that you can use to call yourself.
Are you a farmer, or a producer? Or are you a grower, or a rancher?
More to the point, what do you call yourself that paints a clear picture of who you are for non-farmers and consumers? You’re proud to farm, after all, but you’re also proud that you produce the healthiest, highest-quality food that the world has ever seen, and that you do it in a sophisticated, successful, scaled-up and amazingly productive way.
So what’s wrong with “commercial farmer” as a way of differentiating yourself from New-Agers or from hobby farmers, or from farms that seem like overgrown gardens compared with the way you farm?
Maybe nothing is wrong with it. But maybe it’s time we at least put it through the mill to find out.
So I started asking farmers about it last summer. As you might expect, they don’t all agree.
Which term do farmers embrace?
First I caught Lane Stockbrugger before he headed back into the field in east-central Saskatchewan where he farms with brother Lance.
The Stockbrugger family has been farming that same land for over 100 years. But taking over the farm wasn’t a sure bet for the Stockbruggers when they were kids. A car accident claimed their father’s life in 1983. Their mother survived the accident and raised her two daughters and two sons on the farm.
Stockbrugger started farming his first quarter over 20 years ago, while in Grade 11. He also went on to work as a marketer, and Lance became a chartered accountant, creating a savvy management team that reflects the complexity of farming today.
Stockbrugger isn’t exactly a fan of “commercial farmer.” Farming isn’t entirely about size these days, he says, because production models are so diverse. For example, what kind of farm is a grain operation with 1,000 acres?
“We’ve no idea what his gross profit is per acre because he could be doing very different things than the farmer next to him who farms 10,000 acres,” says Stockbrugger. You run the risk of insulting someone if you call him a hobby farmer, or even insulting an entire industry, he adds.
Mary Jane Duncan was next on my list. She thinks of a commercial farmer as someone who runs the farm as a business, to make a living. Like many ag insiders, she doesn’t see commercial and family farms as conflicting categories.
“We’re watching markets and keeping on top of agronomy stuff. But we’re still all family,” she tells me one morning, just before she hops in the combine.
Duncan’s farm is near Regina, Sask. She shares labour with family, but has her own land and she markets her own grain.
Terminology matters in the beef industry, too. A commercial cow-calf producer differentiates that operation from a purebred herd, rather than separating hobby and business-oriented outfits. And outsiders shouldn’t assume that every beef producer embraces the descriptor “rancher.”
“We learned quickly that people in Ontario and even to some extent Manitoba don’t see themselves as ranchers. They’re farmers,” says Annemarie Pedersen, a public relations specialist specializing in agriculture.
Canada Beef and the Beef Advocacy Centre tend to stick to beef producer to be more inclusive, she says.
Thus the conversation around which label to embrace is complex enough within the agriculture industry. But it becomes even more nuanced once you involve consumers.
Commercial or factory farm?
Even farmers who see themselves as commercial farmers may not want to identify that way all the time, says Duncan.
There’s a trend right now for consumer-directed TV commercials to portray simple family farms. They aren’t exactly wearing bib overalls and holding pitch forks, but neither are they acting like the chief executive officers of multi-million dollar businesses, and there’s a reason for that discrepancy between image and reality, Duncan says. Friendly farmers sell better than those who are interested in profit.
There’s a perception that big is bad, she adds, “and that profit is bad. But really, to stay viable in an industry you have to be making some profit.”
Like other farmers, Stockbrugger often finds himself waving the flag as a sort of spokesperson for farmers, and he definitely sees a perception problem with the term “commercial farmer” when he’s talking to consumers.
To that audience, he says, commercial farm can sound “kind of factory-farmish, where accountability is out the window.” Yet the majority of farms are still family-run, he says, and they are highly productive without the negative connotations of factory farms.
The term “commercial farm” risks raising those issues without resolving them, Stockbrugger thinks.
It turns out Duncan and Stockbrugger may be right on the mark when it comes to consumer images of farms.
Based in Kansas City, the Centre for Food Integrity is an industry group that studies consumer trust in food, with a special focus on communication techniques, and it has found that consumers suspect large farms put profit ahead of principles.
This means that large family farms must spend more time talking about their values, the group says.
Canadian communications experts agree. “It’s mind-boggling these days how often food and food issues are in the press,” says Chris Forrest, public relations director with AdFarm.
Forrest doesn’t have a specific recommendation on whether producers should use the term “commercial farmer.” But he doesn’t want to lose sight of the fact that a commercial farm can be a family farm, too. The term commercial farmer “probably comes with an expected level of professionalism that you’re bringing to your career.”
Pederson agrees, yet points to a differentiation that could prove critical. Farmers are at the top of the list of the most trusted professions, she says. Yet when you talk about most trusted industries, agriculture becomes more of a grey area. In many consumers’ minds, the word agriculture triggers images of factory farms, multi-billion dollar companies, pollution, pesticides, and antibiotics.
It’s safe to conclude that the agriculture industry has a perception problem. But it’s not clear that farmers should embrace the “commercial farmer” label with consumers while having to explain at the same time that this doesn’t mean they’re factory farms.
Pedersen asks why it’s up to commercial farmers to differentiate themselves from hobby farmers in the first place. Commercial farmers produce most food.
It turns out, in fact, that none of these questions are easy. For instance, how do consumers perceive the term “rancher?” It should be simple, right?
After her work with organizations such as Canada Beef and her own experience talking with consumers, Pederson sees “rancher” a little like a Rorschach test — it reveals more about the person looking at the inkblot than the inkblot itself.
For some people, the idea of a rancher conveys a certain romanticism, Pedersen says. Yet other consumers see ranchers as lawless, and maybe even abusive towards their animals.
Whatever term producers use, part of the challenge will be pulling consumers past those stereotypes. And one model to look at is the Behind the Beef program, which was delivered by the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association.
Convincing consumers in cities such as Vancouver that the beef industry can be trusted with animal welfare and environmental issues is an uphill battle, says Pedersen. Behind the Beef hired and trained people to hand out recipes in grocery stores with information on beef production. Pedersen, who helped with the program, said they often chose ranchers. Consumers were more interested when they could get information on raising cattle straight from the source, Pedersen says.
Producers have to own their stories, she says. And although social media is great for interacting with some people, farmers need to expand their reach beyond Twitter, she adds. “I think the personal conversations are the hardest. But we have to win people over one person at a time.”
Forrest agrees that everyone in agriculture has a role to play in facilitating those conversations. At interview time, AdFarm was preparing to launch License to Farm. The film, funded by SaskCanola, along with the Saskatchewan and federal governments, looks at misperceptions around agriculture. Forrest hopes the film encourages individual farmers to join the conversation, but those conversations do need to be respectful and fact-based, he says. “Ignoring people or arguing with them isn’t going to accomplish much. It’s about sitting together at the table and sharing information.”
Duncan says she’d probably reserve “commercial farmer” for an ag audience, even though she identifies as one. With her friends, she doesn’t focus on explaining what a commercial farm is, as they don’t have a good grasp of the business side of farming.
As for Stockbrugger, he’s not going to be labeling himself a commercial farmer anytime soon for any audience. He doesn’t mind the term producer, he says, but there’s more to farming than producing.
The other day, though, he overheard his four-year-old son tell his sister “I’m going to be a farmer when I grow up.” That seemed to sum it up.