The Farmer's Role in Informing/Educating the Public

  Hort Snacks - September 2018
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 People in our society derive understanding and learn about various topics of interest to them from a range of sources. In some cases, they gather information through research (online, in-person, word-of-mouth, etc.) or they might learn through experience. I suppose that it depends on their personal preferences and the most convenient and available method.

When it comes to the public’s knowledge of agricultural production (for the purpose of this discussion, let’s drill that down to horticultural crop production), historically, there was a decent amount of applied or innate knowledge about the food that we eat. People had reasonably recent ties to the farm, or had some amount of personal experience with growing and/or harvesting various (seasonal) products. However, over time, we’ve seen a swift erosion in the amount of knowledge that people have about how the foods they enjoy come into being and arrive at the market or store that they frequent. Often, there are significant misunderstandings or misconceptions about production, which can influence (negatively) their purchases and their expectations.

As a farmer, what is your role in educating or informing the public? On the surface, the responsibility of the farmer is minimal. Historically, farmers grew what they grew and that was that. In the present day, the short answer is “it’s complicated”. Why is it complicated? Because, while educating the customer isn’t technically required, it is a foolish operator that shuts that door. Educating and connecting with the customer can increase your markets and, in this day of instant information, can mean the difference between acceptance and losing customers.

Depending on how you market, and the degrees of separation between you and your customer, the ability that you have to reach your customers in a meaningful way can vary. Direct connections or influence may entice customers to purchase your products, but it will give you a chance to increase their understanding of how and WHY you do what you do. Theoretically, every producer has the opportunity to re-educate the public on the industry and to re-ignite their interest in where their food comes from.

While all of this is lovely in theory, the practical application of taking a role in educating or informing the public can be challenging. The definition of INFORM is “to provide facts or information”, whereas EDUCATE means “to give instruction or training (in a particular area)”. There is no set formula for educating anyone, mainly because everyone is different. Generations of schoolchildren have effectively shown that you can throw plenty of facts, figures and information at someone, but that isn’t necessarily going to make them learn it, much less understand.

The ways of educating and informing are many. You can educate through conversations on-farm or at the market, tours, Open Farm Days, websites, social media, newsletters, newspaper articles, local presentations, product label design, and the list goes on. Personally, I think that growers today can really have a major impact on education/informing the public about WHY and WHO, through three focus areas.

First, producers can serve as a REALITY CHECK for the public. In the midst of global markets and everything available always (for a price), producers can show that they are real, living, breathing individuals, with families and a stake in the game. They can show the public that they face challenges and that there isn’t some sort magical vending machine that pumps out cheap, identical products, on demand. They can learn about the weather, seasons, pests, how hard it is to grow things and can just generally what it means to be a horticultural producer on the Canadian prairies.

Second, producers can educate through DEMONSTRATION. Show the public how things are grown. This requires a bit of a more hands-on approach and will certainly be easier if they are coming onto your farm. If you don’t have on-farm interactions, help them to visualize your operation through your website or through social media. When they picture the produce that you grow, you want them to picture you and your farm.

Lastly, producers can educate through their EXAMPLE. Much of the lack of knowledge in the public has resulted in trust issues (derived by internet searches). By showing the public what you do and why, they will gradually regain their trust in the industry, for the benefit of everyone. You will have to make the connection between your practices and the outcomes, but once you do it, things will improve.

In the end, as producers, you have the opportunity (and perhaps the responsibility) to interact and reclaim some of the ground that has been lost over the past several generations. It is a challenge, but I can think of many places that it is working.

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For more information about the content of this document, contact Robert Spencer.
This information published to the web on August 30, 2018.