Three agriculture communications professionals discuss whether sector stakeholders are telling their own story often enough – and early enough.

Ben Graham 
With a family background that reaches back over 100 years in Alberta, Ben is a managing partner at AdFarm, an advertising agency specializing in agriculture and agribusiness with offices across North America. He has worked with clients ranging from Agrium to CHS to Dow AgroSciences, providing strategic direction to help their brands grow and succeed.

Lesley Kelly
Lesley grew up on a family farm and worked in various branding positions in the ag sector, before creating a snack food business using barley grown on her farm. In 2015 she started the blog High Heels & Canola Fields to dispel myths and bring consumers and producers together. She isn’t afraid to tackle tough conversations, and through storytelling and her love of ag, she has attracted a loyal fan base in the thousands.

Dennis Prouse
Dennis Prouse is vice president, government affairs at CropLife Canada, and has 26 years of experience in government relations and public affairs. He spent five years working on Parliament Hill, including three years in the Prime Minister’s Office. Dennis served on the board of directors of the Government Relations Institute of Canada for six years, and has been recognized for five consecutive years on The Hill Times annual list of the Top 100 Lobbyists in Ottawa.  

THE COMMUNICATOR: The recent discussion surrounding Earls restaurants’ “certified humane” beef supply caused many to question whether Canadian agriculture could be doing more to proactively promote its good practices. Do you think the Canadian ag sector is lagging behind in responding to changing consumer expectations?

Ben Graham: Yes, we are. We need to look at how we can be more proactive and more flexible in meeting the needs of consumers. Because the consumers buy our products, and if we aren’t producing what they want, we don’t have a market.

Dennis Prouse: There’s two elements here: there’s what Canadian farmers are producing, and there’s no question that what Canadian farmers are producing is world-class. The second element is how we are communicating about it. Obviously, we’ve gotten a bit behind.

However, we have found – at least from a CropLife perspective, and our Grow Canada partners – that things have improved over the last few years, once we all started singing from the same song sheet, if you will. We started talking about the strength and the benefits of Canadian ag.

BG: I think Dennis is bang-on. It’s not that our products aren’t good. Looking at the Earls example – it’s not that Canadian beef isn’t produced humane, the problem is that we haven’t got a program to validate and verify that our livestock is produced humanely. The reality is, we have a very humane system, but it’s just not certified as such for the markets like Earls who want that certification.

Lesley Kelly: From a producer’s perspective, we are trying our best. But it’s hard when consumers want certain products based on a fear of the alternative, or they’re trying to be more eco-friendly and sustainable, but the alternative that they’re choosing could actually be worse. It’s hard to drastically change our production methods in response to some consumer perceptions, especially when it’s not in the best interest of our farm, the environment and even the consumer.

THE COMMUNICATOR: By proactively looking at trends and issues in agriculture, could we have avoided issues like the pesticide bans in various provinces?

DP: I think our approach has evolved on that, in that when these pesticide bans first became an issue, we spent a lot of time talking about the science. What we eventually came to terms with was that this had nothing to do with science – it was politics, and local politics at that.

I think we’ve had more success in the last couple of years when we’ve started talking about benefits. For instance, there are benefits of pesticides for the preservation of urban green spaces, and the preservation of infrastructure and safety, and we never went down that road previously.

THE COMMUNICATOR: What are some potential issues that may affect Canadian agriculture that we should be addressing?

BG: Farm safety is becoming a very, very high priority, especially considering the challenges Alberta has had in the last while. We saw what happened with Bill 6: If we aren’t looking out for a trend ahead of time, government – or someone else – will come in and do it for us.

The other trend that’s coming fast is traceability. The food companies have a need to know where the food comes from, in order to limit their liability and ensure quality and quantity to meet the specs that they need. This will affect the retail sector in Canada, because growers rely on their retail partners for a lot of that information – whether it’s record-keeping, or product information.

DP: Sustainability and climate change – those are issues that aren’t going away. I think that any major industry in Canada will be asked right up front: “What are you doing to be sustainable and fight climate change?”

Agriculture has a great story to tell on this. If you look at the recent Helping Canada Grow study (a resource provided by Croplife Canada), we have a number of great examples and concrete evidence to show why agriculture is more sustainable than it’s ever been, and the positive contributions we are making to the efforts against climate change.

LK: Decisions or reactions, where we in the ag industry are not at the table, could end up worse off for the environment, for the animals and for consumers.

BG: That’s a good point. We produce a product a certain way, and ultimately we are looking out for the best interests of the animal or the crop, because it’s in our best interests to get the highest performance out of it – they’re linked. If someone invades the system or imposes a will, it can do a lot of things. It can impact the environment negatively, and it can impact the animal negatively.

THE COMMUNICATOR: Should producers and agri-retailers be thinking about updating any of their practices, before they become the next burning issue?

BG: Organization and record-keeping is going to become so important. Farmers rely on their retailer for information. Agri-retailers may need to evolve their record-keeping to ensure that they can meet the informational demand that’s coming down the food chain.

DP: Consumers are now demanding total transparency, so they’re asking a lot of questions of all of us that we’re probably not prepared to be asked. We all have to be prepared to answer those questions about the industry from beginning to end, and be an open book.

BG: Technology is going to help make this happen. If this was 20 years ago, and every farmer was using his pocket book to record how each crop was planted, to aggregate and create traceability data out of that would have been an absolute nightmare. Technology, apps, automation and the ability of equipment to talk to the cloud – all of these things are going to make it easier.

THE COMMUNICATOR: What are some ways that we can proactively get ahead of these conversations? How can an agri-retailer get involved in proactive ag conversations?

LK: Personally, I was scared out of my mind to start having those conversations. I started small – built a website, put myself out there and let myself be vulnerable. It’s one conversation at a time, and I’ve gained that confidence over time to be able to tackle those hard conversations about GMOs and pesticides.

It doesn’t matter if it’s on social media (though that’s a great platform that gets your message out to lots of people), at the dinner table, at the grocery store or in the boardroom. We have to do a better job of listening to consumers. They have really great questions, and we have to listen to them respectfully and open the door for each other. They want to hear from us, and we have a great story to tell.

BG: If producers’ operations are healthy and have good markets for their product, agri-retail will do well. So retailers need to join the conversation. It’s tough – as Lesley said, you have to learn and maybe use some tools you’re not used to using. Talk to other retailers that are doing it well, talk to organizations that can help and ask your producers how you can help them. We can’t just sit on the sidelines any more if we want to be successful in the long term.

LK: Growing food isn’t good enough anymore. It’s growing food, and speaking about it. There’s only two per cent of us, we’re growing food for the other 98 per cent, and they want to hear from us. We have to encourage consumers to choose not based on the fear of the alternative, but to make food choices based on taste, education and understanding. Reading labels is easy, but there’s so much more to the story than a feel-good label.

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