Most growers, producers and others believe that agriculture is the sector of the future. After all, where will humanity get the food it needs, if not from farms?
Well, asks agri-food strategist Christina Crowley-Arklie, founder of Crowley + Arklie Strategy & Co., how about getting food from a lab? Or from a pill? Or from another country?
These are cringe-worthy options for her and for most others in the sector. After all, Crowley-Arklie who now lives in Guelph with her husband and children, was raised on a family dairy farm near Peterborough, Ontario. She, as much as anyone, wants such operations to survive with more than a semblance of familiarity in the future.
But she’s concerned that the agri-food sector is not taking a lead role in setting the agenda for modern agriculture. Despite having such great stories to tell about food security, food safety and food production, she thinks the sector has yet to break away from the passive, reactive approach that made it nearly invisible for so many years. And that could jeopardize its advancement, as the public ponders the future of food.
She said so in a webinar she hosted last month, titled “Our Greatest Challenge Ahead in Canadian Agriculture and Food.” To Crowley-Arklie, former communications advisor to Jeff Leal, former Ontario minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs, confusion over the confluence of marketing, policy and identity is the sector’s greatest challenge.
Here’s what that means.
We know from research by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity that people have loads of trust in farmers, right up there with medical professionals and first responders. That’s kind of surprising, considering so few people actually know a farmer, and that farmers haven’t engaged in a concerted public relations blitz.
But that lofty vision of producers is a huge opportunity to reach the public and explain what the agri-food sector is doing to address hot-button issues. Growers are among the first to adopt technology and to see how it can work profitably and sustainably.
People, though, have a much more traditional view of producers, says Crowley-Arklie. So she says a marketing strategy is needed to bring the reality and the vision together – not to change people’s minds, but rather, to make them aware that modern agriculture is already immersed in the technology of food production. In that way, the sector can be regarded as a learned and logical opinion leader on matters consumers wonder about, such as robotics, artificial intelligence and lab-grown protein.
A strategy is also needed to influence policy, she says. A challenge truly exists when decision makers have little understanding of agriculture – especially decision makers whose portfolios concern agriculture.
That situation exists, and it’s not going to fix itself. It needs a combination of sustained, coordinated lobbying inside government at all levels, and public education to maintain growers’ trust status. Decision makers, especially those who are voted into office, listen to the public (don’t they?). And the public has thrown its trust behind farmers.
“I’d like us, as the agri-food sector, to be driving marketing and policy, not the other way around, where we’re reacting instead of taking the lead,” says Crowley-Arklie.
And trust leads to her final point about the need for a strategy to address the sector’s identity. Should we wring our hands that the public wants to think of farmers as traditionalists? I don’t think so. I believe most people are focussed on farmers’ traditional values rather than traditional approaches to farming. That’s particularly true when they see that growers, with their traditional values, are producing food in modern ways -- such as hydroponics or robotics -- that help address concerns about price and supply.
So she’s looking to the future, urging the sector to come together with an accessible strategy that stresses leadership and communications, so no Canadian has to wonder about food produced in their own country.
“I’m focussed on the office mom sitting at her desk at 3:30 in the afternoon trying to figure out what’s she’s going to serve for dinner,” says Crowley-Arklie, “With everything she has to deal with, how do we also get her to think Ontario-grown products first, grown by Ontario farmers?”