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Farmers are losing respect. Now is the time to win it back, before the costs get even worse

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Rodney Dangerfield built a comic career on his signature line: “I don’t get no respect.” But for the agricultural industry, loss of respect is no laughing matter. The public perception of agriculture is steadily eroding.

Last fall, Harris Interactive asked 2,537 Americans to name the most prestigious occupations. As you might guess, doctors topped the list. Farming didn’t make the top 10. In fact, only 14 per cent of those surveyed felt farming has a great deal of prestige. And 22 per cent of the respondents felt farming had no prestige at all.

Not surprisingly, the younger the respondent, the lower the prestige score given for farming.

In March of last year, AAFC commissioned the Strategic Council to conduct focus groups to determine the Canadian public’s perception of the agri-food industry. Among the study’s findings: “… a relatively low level of awareness, particularly among urban dwellers, of the current state of the sector and its contribution to provincial, regional and the national economy.”

Canadians seemed somewhat more pessimistic than optimistic about agriculture. Reasons included concerns about GMOs, factory farms, perceived unsustainable or environmentally damaging farming practices, and declining interest in the industry.

Participants did not feel agriculture is innovative, and they felt there has been little change in the last 10 to 20 years.

The only good news is that participants expressed a real desire to learn more about agriculture and food.

Robert Saik, founder and CEO of Agri-Trend, warns: “We have a real problem. Traditionally, farmers were trusted like doctors and firefighters. Today, if you ask people if you trust farmers, they answer yes. But if you ask, do you trust agriculture, they say no. The public has a romanticized view of farming and only trust the image they have in their minds. They do not trust the industry.”

According to Saik, there are a number of reasons for this disconnect. “Only 1.5 to two per cent of North Americans are farmers; the other 98 per cent are getting more removed.”

Saik believes social media is also leading the public to question the industry. Misinformation can spread rapidly and there are parties with vested interests that are using social media to sow seeds of doubt about the food sector. They are doing this for their own reasons, which can include their own gain.

Farmers and the industry simply cannot counter these messages on social media. Saik points out that one of the most popular agricultural Twitter accounts has 67,000 followers. This number pales in comparison to organic proponent Whole Foods with 4.4 million followers.

Academics Review recently released its study of the marketing of organic foods entitled “Organic Marketing Report” which found that food safety and health concerns are the primary drivers of organic sales and that without these, organic sector sales opportunities would be limited.

CEOs of organic companies routinely get quoted in news stories about food scares without anyone pointing out that the food scares drive their organic businesses, the review notes. “Some (organic execs) openly acknowledge that the industry should engage in fear-based marketing.”

There is no question companies are either implying or directly asserting there are food safety risks arising from conventional agricultural practices.  Saik suggests the A&W and Ben and Jerry’s ad campaigns prey on consumers’ fears of the food system.

Unfortunately, we are likely to see continued growth in such advertising. Academics Review estimates the combined annual budgets of anti-GMO and anti-pesticide advocacy groups promoting organics at over $2.5 billion.

With this much money questioning the quality and safety of our food and industry, is it any wonder trust in agriculture is diminishing?

What is being done?

The ag industry is waking up to the fact that modern farming and food-processing practices are under attack. Industry is responding with some very effective programming.

Ag in the Classroom now reaches over a million students in Canada. It is industry funded and strives to provide agricultural awareness through the school system.

Farm and Food Care has taken the trust-in-food message out of the school to the general public. It is working to build public confidence in agriculture through direct presentations to audiences, through hosting special agricultural events, and with the publication and distribution of the booklet Real Dirt, a fact-based look at both conventional and organic production.

Farm and Food Care is also producing “Know GMO,” a $1-million documentary that looks at the science behind GMOs and tackles the myths and misconceptions about genetically engineered crops.

Agriculture More Than Ever is an industry initiative which offers actual participants in the farm and food sector a forum where they can tell their own stories.

What must farmers do?

“Farmers are guility of not arming themselves to talk about how they produce food,” Saik says.

Saik feels farmers do not know how to respond to criticism of the industry. Many farmers will simply ignore misinformation about farming and agriculture instead of responding to it. Instead,
Saik says farmers need to use these moments as an opportunity to teach the person about farming.

To do this, Saik says a farmer needs to correct misinformation rather than blowing up.

Farmers also need to use the chances they get to explain why we use science in crop and livestock production.

And it is critical that farmers financially support the work that agricultural associations are doing to increase consumer awareness of farming and the agricultural industry.

Most importantly, Saik says farmers must advocate for the industry.

Saik has taken his own advice to heart and has become a leading advocate for farming: Earlier this year he produced a TedX talk entitled “Pushing Boundaries in Agriculture,” available on YouTube. It is an excellent resource for farmers wanting to equip themselves with facts and information to respond to attacks on our industry.

Nurse loves farmer

Sarah Schultz is a city girl turned farmwife and mother. She started her blog because “I was seeing a lot of concerns over how our food was raised and a lot of myths about agriculture regarding GMOs and pesticides.

“Consumers seem to put more faith and trust into celebrities like Dr. Oz and the Food Babe when it comes to nutrition and food production, instead of talking to the real experts in the agriculture industry,” Schultz says.

Schultz is worried. “Food activists can, will, and have changed agriculture policy already,” she says.

But at the same time, Schultz notes, “Consumers, especially the millennials and the young moms, want to know more about food production and farming. This is why I feel it is so important, perhaps now more than ever, for farmers to reach out to consumers to tell their farm-to-food stories and to answer consumers’ questions.”

“I would encourage farmers to be transparent and honest about what they do and why they do it on their farms. Find a common ground with consumers who have questions and sincerely listen to those questions and concerns. There are far more people in the “movable middle” who are skeptical of agriculture practices, but are open, willing and wanting to learn about what farmers do, than those of the activist mindset who already have their opinions formed and their minds likely won’t be changed.”

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