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Public suffers from 'Old MacDonald's farm syndrome'

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A recent study shows consumers may have a rather quaint view of the modern agriculture industry.

The study by the consulting firm Strategic Counsel and commissioned by the federal Department of Agriculture noted that consumers had a "low level of awareness" and their ideas about agriculture were based on "a rather idyllic and outdated view of the sector."

That public perception is known as the "Old MacDonald's Farm Syndrome," and refers to the children's story about a farmer and his wife raising animals and crops on a small imaginary farm. Unfortunately for the perception of agriculture, those story-book images seem to be the extent of most people's farming awareness.

The report also notes that most people's views on agriculture were "formed on the basis of their experience as consumers," with many consumer perceptions "heavily influenced by alarmist documentaries and media reports."

None of that comes as a surprise to many involved in primary agricultural production in Canada, who spend a lot time anguishing over how misguided consumers are about commercial agriculture and how it provides the cheapest and most abundant food supply in the world.

The days of small mixed farms producing a variety of crops and livestock are long gone from a commercial perspective. The average commercial crop farm on the Prairies nowadays involves at least 5,000 acres and a cash flow of millions of dollars per year.

This type of consolidation also means much of the food consumers buy is imported because it can be grown and processed somewhere else cheaper than in this country.

That's also something that came out in the report: Consumers were aware of the preponderance of food imports and were concerned with the future of agriculture in Canada. Although the high level of imported food is a reality, it is mainly due to the modern consumer wanting fresh fruit and vegetables available on a year around basis -- climatic impossibility in this country.

Like elsewhere, commercial primary production now focuses on growing specific crops that can be successful and profitable in different regions of Canada. That means vast acreages of grains and oilseeds, huge irrigated potato fields and highly efficient cattle feedlots.

The majority of the production from those enterprises is exported out of the country. Suffice to say that few consumers are aware of that export production, hence their concern that Canadian agriculture must be under pressure because of the large supply of imported food they see in their local grocery stores.

The study did note that consumers are also concerned about consolidation, urban encroachment on agricultural land, declining interest in agriculture and unsustainable farming practices. They also had concerns about genetically-modified organisms, but one suspects many of those views would have been formed by the anti-GMO campaigns of green lobby groups.

Participants in the study expressed interest in learning more about agriculture, particularly when they learned about the impact and contribution of the industry to the economy. Most citizens would be unaware the agriculture and food sector contributes $100 billion to the economy and accounts for $44 billion in exports and employs 2.1 million Canadians.

The mystery for the industry is how to get that economic contribution information to the consumer who, as the study has shown, continues to have a perception of the industry from a quaint by-gone era.

Those studied suggested constructing a better more understandable "story" using social media. Crafting of the story was stated as being important so that consumers could learn about the benefits of agriculture, although consumers seem to draw a line between information and self-promotion.

The challenge for agricultural groups involved in industry promotion is how to deal with that credibility concern. They have the additional challenge of having to deal with a skeptical urban media and vociferous green lobby groups who are masters at twisting food-related issues for their own purposes.

Observers of human nature like to note that the surest way for people to gain a new appreciation for agriculture and food production is to face a famine. That may be the extreme, but there must be a way for agriculture to "get some respect."

Will Verboven covers rural issues for Troy Media.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2014 A7

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