Rural Futures: Agriculture

By: William Ashton
Published: May 5th, 2020

If asked about the “future of farming” here in Canada, what might be the first topics that come to mind? This Note addresses this question based on the recent publication of sponsored content from various leaders in the agriculture and agri-food sector in the March 28, 2020, Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition).

What Canadians think of agriculture and food is highlighted in a recent survey (CCFI, 2019). While 1 in 3 Canadians think the food system is heading in the right direction, 91% know little or nothing about farming practices. Equally important, 3 in 5 Canadians are interested in knowing more about agriculture and farming practices. These results suggest that while there are opinions about the food system (where 2 in 3 Canadians may be thinking that farming is not headed in the right direction), 60% want to know more, which holds hope that once they do know more, they will be supportive of the direction of farming in Canada. 

With upwards of 90% of producers depending on agriculture and food export sales, amounting to $56B a year and constituting the 5th-largest food exporter in the world, the Canadian farming industry depends on a solid base of consumer confidence at home to continue, including across rural areas and throughout urban centres. Such widespread support is no easy task to achieve or maintain, and it is made more difficult with more people further removed from food production than ever before. 

There are also fewer producers in the field to talk about what they are doing on the farm. Only 2% of Canadians are farmers today. Meanwhile nearly four million Canadians live with food insecurity, largely due to poverty, says Gisele Yasmeen, director of Food Security Canada. Food is the fuel driving the economy, contributing to all our health, as Canadians recognize farmers as good stewards of the environment who are concerned about climate change. On another front, heart & stroke research estimates that diet-related disease costs the Canadian economy $26B a year (Yasmeen, 2020).

The public’s trust of our food in Canada is central to the future of farming. Internationally, the Canadian flag is a symbol for food that garners high regard, in part because of our performance on food safety. Much of where we are today is based on science, advances in technology, and the drive for continued improvement. Al Driver of Bayer Crop Science Canada points out in their section of the “Future of Farming” insert to the Globe and Mail: “… modern agriculture has enabled farmers to conserve water, protect soil, and grow more food on less land.” 

In 1950, Driver notes,  the average farmer fed 27 people compared to 150 today. Farmers know the future of farming is anchored in consumer preference, where there are many hundreds of preferences. Yet misleading information damages trust. Upwards of 90% of those surveyed (CCFI, 2019) expressed concern over misrepresentation on food labels, while the trust is also splintered by special interests that pit organics against conventional farming, against GMOs, as a representative of Agricultural Solutions of BASF noted in the “Future of Farming” (Sweat, 2020). 

Like most gardeners and farmers, these employees want healthy and productive plants in their fields and gardens, so BASF continues to improve canola through science. Exporting Canadian canola, in recent years amounts to $27B a year. Sweat (2020) reports that BASF is 

  • finding a way to control the release of seeds that prevents yield loss in canola plants;
  • addressing clubroot (which remains for years in the soil and restricts water and nutrients, causing stunting and premature death of the canola plant) by breeding resistant cultivars, for example; and
  • reducing insect infection and crop loss with gene-editing techniques.

Beyond the seeds and plants, the future of farming involves crop modelling with satellite data to predict time and place to plant crops and spray them, which allows for a more precise application and reduces environmental impact, claims Sweat (2020). Our understanding of soil health is creating more ways to respond to concerns. For example, growing and plowing under mustard plants in the soil can combat wireworm-attacking potatoes, says CEO Jamieson of CCFI. 

Moreover, Barry Friesen of Cleanfarms notes that farmers are recycling about 65% of small containers that pass the farm gate, and more can be done to advance a circular economy built on reduce, reuse, and recycle. The chicken egg industry in Canada is somewhat of an environmental poster child for improving the sector. 

Tim Lambert of Egg Farmers of Canada informs us that in the last 50 years producers have increased production by 50% while decreasing industry’s environmental footprint by 50% as farmers use 81% less land, 41% less energy, and 69% less water. These actions and more are responding to consumers who are asking for greater transparency, more disclosure. In terms of the use of technology and chemicals, Jamieson suggests, “They [consumers] want to hear from farmers…” to know the industry is open about mistakes and committed to improving practices.

In practical terms, the future of farming in Canada depends on our children. Producers are inviting city kids to the farm as a way to fight the tide of population flow from farm to city, connecting young people to the land and to discovery of plant life stages and forms. Farm camps are increasingly the preferred choice for schools and youth organizations, where kids pull a carrot from the ground, see honey bees collect pollen, and experience calm while eating vegetables they harvested. Such meaningful experiences send a message of caring and stewardship, helping close the gap between food production and consumption that many people experience. 

Also weighing in to the “Future of Farming”, Trevor Heck of Syngenta Canada (specialized in seeds, chemicals, and advice) writes about the need to attract more ideas stemming from a range of different interests as agriculturebecomes increasingly data-driven, which opens the door to digital experts, mathematicians, engineers, communications, analysts, robotics specialists, and more. Mark Vandenbosch of Western University sees agriculture leading in A.I. and autonomous vehicles, likely sooner in the fields than on the roads. These same messages are heard from farmers who have been on the land for years. Yet their future, the future of those 55 years and older, is an uncertain path forward. Bob Tosh of MNP (Myers, North, Penny) reports that of the 193,492 farmers in Canada (2018), only 16,200 or just over 8% have a succession or transition plan for continuity of the farm operation. While such a plan can describe a future of the family farm (at retirement), it also can be contentious, and so an important goal in preparing a plan is family harmony. Behind this general lack of formal preparation for the future, what seems to loom in the near future is a crisis in terms of food security, since there are insufficient successors of the farmers retiring and a necessity to integrate more experts and adopt higher levels of technology.

On a different tack, I want to examine this eight-page collection of sponsored content called the “Future of Farming”to see what other messages are evident. I do this by looking at the amount of space given to text, pictures, and advertisements (ads). Across these pages, 33% is text (much of it described above), 22% is pictures related to the story in the text, and 46% is advertisement. It seems that ads have been given the most important role according to space considerations, followed by text. With each of the six ads appearing as mini-info commercials, what are the key messages? 

  • 1/5th page ad by MNP on page 1, an accounting firm, stresses succession planning while picturing three generations of male farmers.
  • 2/3rds page ad on page 3 by Bayer features a traditional farm family, two parents and two kids in a field, with the message that farming always adopts the latest technology and innovation while making responsible choices based on science.
  • 1/5th page ad by MNP on page 4 presents pictures of traditional families, a cow, and a homestead, with claims of helping farmers prepare for the future via succession planning.
  • Full-page ad on page 5 by BASF (a chemical company and more) shows what appears to be a dad, son, and dog, in an open field with sun shining, and the headline claiming farming is a calling. (I know of only one other role in society that uses the word ‘calling’, a divine calling to priesthood. A provocative parallel possibility.)
  • Full-page ad by Egg Farmers of Canada on page 7 presents smiling men, women, and a child and a chicken, alongside words about innovation and efficiencies as the path to the future for the fresh, high-quality eggs for Canadians.
  • 2/3rds page ad by Syngenta on page 8, a science and innovation business, features pictures of: multi-ethnic woman in a lab coat and others in a field; hands holding a cereal crop; and the Canadian flag. The company claims to be building a trusted team to tackle the challenges of feeding a growing population.

Having presented an extended overview of this 8-page sponsored newspaper section on the future of farming, I offer three reflections about it, as a way to start a conversation. First, the Globe and Mail makes clear right at the top of page F1 that this is ‘Sponsored Content’ – clearly demarcating that this is not journalism, but more or less an advertisement, prepared and produced by a communications company. The organizations include family farmers, farmer organizations, centres of research and academics, consultants, and related companies like Bayer. The big message seems to be, at least from my view, that the agriculture and agri-food sector are actively responding to consumer interests with better and more environmentally sensitive practices, led by science. In many ways, we all need to hear this message. Where the medium is the message of Sponsor Content, it is included in this Globe and Mail on a Saturday. This suggests that their message is for corporate Canada and business-minded Canadians, likely those in an urban setting, as they have a relaxing read. Well placed.

Second, the range of topics shaping the future of farming include technology, plant and soil science, and the perennial need for each farm to be more efficient with water, energy, chemicals, and land. The social aspects of farming include the critically important transition of farm ownership, along with having kids experience the farm. Equally important, off the farm the future means producers becoming more digital, tapping into even more expertise from multiple disciplines in managing their macro issues and micro concerns. The future of farming is also placed in context: that of Canada’s role in feeding more than just Canadians, and helping feed the world. All are critical topics when discussing the future of farming and agriculture, and the related complexity. In short, farming and farmers are integrally connected to the future and benefit from a growing number of experts.

Third, what is meant by ‘modern agriculture’? Some might say it means presenting a balanced portrayal of the industry and challenges facing agriculture. Yes, public trust is central to the future of farming and this industry; such trust gives social license to continue. This Sponsored Content section lets Canadians know that this sector is responsive and adapting to climate changes, environmental concerns, and consumer demands. In terms of challenges, Sweat gives us a glimpse of a major challenge when he mentions that diminishing public trust is rooted in confusion and misunderstanding of modern farming practices. Questions arise about organic farming (and soil health) and GMOs in relation to current farming or industrial practices. Jamieson (CCFI) sees transparency as key to the future of farming, with producers needing to be open to mistakes and committed to improvement. 

On page F6 of this newspaper supplement, in talking about farming with nature – in particular, the natural pollinators, bees – Dr. Morandin of Simon Fraser University offers evidence of maximizing yields and profits when farmers left about 30% of their cropland uncultivated, $65,000 versus $27,000. That would be a significant change to modernize today’s practices. 

Futures of Farming is multiple groups pursuing different futures, giving a rich mosaic of positions and opinions. All make up modern agriculture. Consumers have grown accustom to food and a variety of it year-round. Do they also want a similar variety in when they read about agriculture – the many sides of it including different opinions and views existing among those under the same agriculture tent? Citizens may also want their modern agriculture sector organizations to be aware and be public about those who have a different view than the majority. This means being sufficiently transparent to encompass many voices all the time. I for one consider this notion of transparency equally important message of a Sponsor Content when speaking to a national audience about Futures of Farming. 

NOTE: The word ‘sustainable’ is not used in this Note, in large part because it is neither defined nor used consistently in the “Future of Farming” supplement, which also occurs more widely as well.

References Cited:

Driver, A. (2020). Bayer Crop Science Canada. In Future of Farming. Globe and Mail, F4. March 28, 2020.

Friesen, B. (2020). CEO, Cleanfarms. In Future of Farming. Globe and Mail, F4. March 28, 2020.

Jamieson, X. (2020). CEO, Canadian Centre for Food Integrity. In Future of Farming. Globe and Mail, F1. March 28, 2020.

Lambert, T. (2020). CEO, Egg Farmers of Canada. In Future of Farming. Globe and Mail, F6. March 28, 2020.

Morandin, L. (2020). Biologist, Simon Fraser University. In Future of Farming. Globe and Mail, F6. March 28, 2020. 

Sweat, J. (2020). VP Business Management, Agricultural Solutions, BASF Canada. In Future of Farming. Globe and Mail, F2. March 28, 2020.

Yasmeem, G. (2020). Exec Director, Food Security Canada. In Future of Farming. Globe and Mail, F1. March 28, 2020.