For years the agriculture sector has tried to shed the image of the hayseed farmer with coveralls and a plaid shirt. Such apparel is associated with being hick. No one likes that label, and it doesn’t represent modern farming.
But new research shows most Canadians have not been moved by attempts to change farmers’ image.
According to the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity’s 2021 Public Trust Research Report, Canadians still think of farmers as male, older – and yes – dressed in plaid.
Respondents got one out of three right. The average Canadian farmer is indeed 55 years old. As an occupation, that’s getting right up there. And relative to other sectors, few are older. Statistics Canada says the runner up is female registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses. But only one in five of them are aged 55.
And it’s true that many farmers are indeed male. But an increasing number of women are identifying as farmers, too.
Finally, when it comes to plaid…well, a lot of people, farmers and non-farmers, wear plaid.
The big question is whether image really matters anymore. I believe people take some comfort from their vision of a trusted, traditional farmer. They want to think crops and livestock were grown and raised like they were ages ago, even though intrinsically they know that’s not the case, and that it’s mostly changed as the general population grew and the farm population shrunk.
In fact, the CCFI research also indicated “that respondents do not feel this [traditional image] is representative of the farming community today.” Still, they like the familiarity of it all.
So, what do Canadians care about these days when it comes to the food system, if not farmers’ image?
Well, there’s quite a list, packed with items you might not expect, and that the agri-food industry needs to heed.
For example, interest is high in what the CCFI calls “overarching matters of the food system,” such as food affordability, profit-driven systems and sustainability. People want more transparency.
And there’s been a decline in the proportion of Canadians who believe Canada’s food system is headed in the right direction.
“Respondents do not feel they can confidently say that the food system is moving in the right or wrong direction because they simply don’t know what information to trust,” says CEO John Jamieson. “The information doesn’t appear transparent due to the vast amount of conflicting misinformation.”
Here’s something else: The CCFI says that for the first time in the survey’s history, global warming and environmental issues have made the top five list of concerns for Canadians.
“This data demonstrates how environmental concerns influence consumers’ everyday lives and the importance of a sustainable food system to Canadians,” it says.
But interestingly, the global COVID-19 pandemic didn’t affect trust levels among Canadians. And rightly so – if anything, it should have improved it, given how food supplies were compromised very little during the whole thing.
The CCFI says Canadians are concerned about themes such as profit-driven markets, sustainability and affordability, that these need to be addressed in communication efforts moving forward. It says that the 2021 results provide action items for the food system to share their stories and be transparent to build public trust.
Agreed…trust, education and communication go hand in hand in hand. Why the cost of food has risen and why markets need to be profitable can be made understandable if sustained and serious efforts are made to explain them.
But on those topics, the food system is way behind. The CCFI’s recommendation of where communications efforts are needed is right on.