My trust in the group was beginning to erode, a process and trajectory that seemed entirely out of my control and a direct symptom of where I live and what I do. I was a farmer from southern Manitoba sitting at a butcher-block table drinking craft beer discussing things that were beginning to make me twitch.
I had spent the day hauling grain and chopping wood. I was tired, filthy and determined to make this meeting. It was in downtown Winnipeg. Which is about a one hour and thirty minute drive from my farm.
I sandwiched my ¾-ton diesel truck between two cars in front of the bar we were meeting at. I was late. I swung the door opened in a huff, and clomped over to where the group was waiting. Their craft beers were not full anymore. I was wearing — and for the column, this tableaux is important — large winter boots: Sorels. My plaid jacket had woodchips and grain dust all over it. And my jeans were stained with machine oil.
The contrast couldn’t have been more stark than it was at that moment when, just before I took a seat, I realized that I no longer had one finger on the pulse of Winnipeg and one on rural Manitoba. I realized that I no longer believed that the goings on of a few blocks in the heart of Winnipeg or any city were important enough to steal me from the farm.
And at that moment I also realized the immense amount of legwork that needs to be done to show the public that the agriculture industry functions like any other. Its powerful players need to be held in-check and us farmers do our best to make sure that happens. Trust us.
On the surface, I was one of the crew. Plaid, craft beer, beard; I checked all sorts of boxes. But I was a little too dirty. The plaid was a little too real. GMOs would come up at these meetings from time to time. Factory farming would, as well. As would phosphorus and nitrogen offloading into Lake Winnipeg. Hormones in meat would also reveal itself in the odd conversation. I haven’t had one of these meetings in a while, but I suspect carbon tax would have been on the table.
All of these topics are important, but all of these topics, when tackled around tables in downtown (name the city) are often treated with a cognitive dissonance — an aloofness — that paints farmers as irresponsible, biotech companies as evil, and the whole industry as one in need of an ivory-tower overhaul. It’s not this way. Trust us.
We know we can do better, and we’re working on it. But we’re also doing a lot of things right, and we’d like you to know that. Trust us.
Taking the opportunity to poll a bunch of farmers I barely knew at an ag conference, I asked what they thought the No. 1 issue facing agriculture in Canada is.
“Public perception,” said one.
“I agree. At some point the conversation surrounding the genetic modification of plants took a wrong turn,” said another. “That needs to change.”
His point was broader than GMOs. Somewhere along the way, distrust started to seep into public discourse about agriculture. And for many, this started with GMOs but soon after moved to other aspects surrounding agriculture: livestock, pesticide usage, and much more.
What once was a whisper grew louder. One yell became a groundswell, forcing policy change that, in some cases, is far removed from what’s really happening on farms across Canada.
I sit down, take a deep breath, order a beer, and mark the moment. Yes, my trust in them began to erode, but not totally. I could be a better listener. There’s always room to grow.