Showing posts tagged agriculture

Nothing New: Agriculture in Advertising

The past week or so has been a big week for agriculture in advertising - with two ads each generating quite a bit of talk. 

First, the Canadian Wheat Board’s “Still on the Fence” ad, which used a 50s pin up ‘cowgirl’ image, started to get quite a bit of negative momentum. The Globe & Mail picked up the story on Jan. 30 (“Wheat Board Raises Ire with Sexy Cowgirl Ad”:

Then, the Dodge Ram Trucks’ “God Made a Farmer” commercial ran during the Superbowl. Pretty notable given that Superbowl ads are famous for getting the most eyes - and requiring the most ambitious budgets. (See the ad here: Naturally this lengthy, high production ad has garnered lots of chatter too - lots of opinions, lots of mixed reviews.

To me, there are a few interesting things about these ads and the attention they’ve gained. 

First off, they are both taking a pretty old-fashioned approach. The image of farmers they portray is nostalgic. It’s ironic that the CWB representative told the Globe they are trying to prove they are “innovative” - because a 1950s pin up girl image seems pretty old school to me. Just because it might stand out in a farming publication does not make it innovative. In fact, it seems contrary to the message that other ag organizations and farming publications are trying to express, which is that farmers are savvy, forward-thinking businesspeople. Note: people, not just men.

Meanwhile, the Ram ad is based around the noble, nostalgic farming stereotype. Again, rather than portraying farmers as businesspeople (ahem *people*) and the role they play in important aspects of society like, say, the economy, it reinforces this notion that farming is done out of the goodness of one’s heart. Because farmers have somehow been invested, through God, with a sense of purpose and self-sacrifice. 

Don’t get me wrong - it’s nice to see an ode to farmers and all that they do. But it underscores a theme I see frequently: while urban people try to learn more about food and where food comes from, it is hard for them to move beyond the concept of a hard-working (but small-thinking) farmer who graciously does his duty to make food, and instead understand how agriculture works, and what it means to run a farming operation profitably and sustainably.

Besides the throw-back qualities to these advertisements, the ads and the response to them also underscore increasing mainstream interest in the ag industry. The Dodge Ram isn’t farm equipment - it’s a truck. Which says to me that not only did Dodge think they’d be reaching farmers with this ad - they also thought that the image of a farmer is one that their audience (even the non-farmers) would relate to. That the stereotypical farmer qualities would be considered admirable - something their customers would want to be associated with. 

Meanwhile the CWB ad got a lot of attention in the mainstream press. Why? there are tons of bad ads out every single day. Do most Globe readers even know what the CWB is or what its pool offerings are about? I think the mainstream media attention may signify more of a general interest and curiosity turned towards agriculture. The general public is trying to take notice. 

Conversations on Sustainability

A new online video series was recently launched by BASF AgSolutions, which brings farmers and people from cities together for conversations on farming and sustainability.

I like this series because it recognizes the gap between urban people and people in agriculture. It is based on around discussions, not debates. It isn’t condescending - it acknowledges that people who are unfamiliar with agriculture often find it mysterious, and many have intelligent, important questions to ask. After all, it’s not something that is generally taught in schools, and it’s hard to get an informative, objective take from the media. Consumers are right to have questions. 

I wish that the videos included follow-up interviews with the farm visitors - I’d like to hear directly from them what they took away from the experience. Do they see things differently? What do they want to learn more about? Did it answer their questions or concerns - or open up new ones?

However, it does provide insight into the farmers’ perspective on some hot button issues, plus it helps you see things from the farmers’ point of view - the kinds of decisions they have to make, how they make those decisions, their priorities, etc. They offer some explanation and some food for thought, no matter your viewpoint on sustainability, organics, etc. 

There are a lot of terms thrown around in these videos that will be unfamiliar to people outside of agriculture. But maybe that will inspire curiosity to learn more.

Out of the five videos to watch, here are my top 3:

Farming for the next generation. This video explores the meaning of sustainability in terms of a lasting business - including how farms are changing, the next generation of farmers, how and why pesticides are used, etc.

Meeting customer needs. This one is addresses how consumer needs are changing and understanding the connection between the farm and customer. The farm visitor (a banker from Toronto) asks some very straightforward questions about food safety, labelling, etc to a large-scale Manitoba producer.

Feeding the world. This one is about soil health, the meaning of sustainability vs the organic label, understanding the scale of grain production.

Also, if you need some background or context, here’s the intro video that explains the project:

Should you stop eating quinoa?

The Guardian recently published an article on the ugly truth about quinoa - i.e. that North America’s interest in the food is harming Peruvians and Bolivians. (The Globe & Mail published their take on it today.)

Stories like this are unsettling. They can make us feel powerless: like, if I can’t even feel good about eating a healthy, hippie grain like quinoa, what can I feel good about eating?

It seems like what is good for you one day is bad for you the next. First, soy was going to be our saving grace. But then we hear that too much of it is dangerous. For a while, whole grain bread was the right choice - with Oprah’s stamp of approval and everything - and now everyone seems to be allergic to it. 

One interpretation of the quinoa article could be that it’s another reason to eat local (something that I personally love to do). Of course, I’ve also heard some compelling arguments for the dangers of a local food diet, if taken to an extreme.

My take-aways from all of this are essentially as follows: first off, recognize the complexity of food production, and don’t be duped by people who bang the dichotomy drum of good and evil. Eating quinoa is not a free pass - but that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to it, either.

I’ve written before (and will write again) about the tendency to make food choices based on feelings rather than facts. And by that I mean - it “feels” like quinoa should be good. Not just good for you, but somehow, good for the world. Eating it identifies you as someone who is conscious of your food choices, who eschews, perhaps, the evils of junk food or meat or bread, and who, by extension, might make other good, conscientious, caring choices. I don’t mean to be too facetious here - really, I’m trying to tease apart the cultural semiotics and marketing messages surrounding our food. 

Essentially what I’m trying to say is that foods become symbols. Symbols for goodness. Or ‘badness’ - greed, stupidity, etc. And the reality is that food production, like most things in life, are complex. They are not black and white. And even things that do provide some forms of goodness can have a dark side. 

Secondly, it’s not very sexy or exciting, but I think moderation makes a lot of sense, and not just when it comes to guilty pleasures. A diverse, balanced diet can allow you to enjoy the foods you like, to get nutrients from a lot of different sources, help you escape the trap of overdoing certain foods that may have consequences in higher doses. It means you can enjoy local food but also appreciate the diversity that our world provides us. It means that to a degree, you may be a contributor to the unfortunate results of, say, quinoa importing, but probably in a very small way. In other words - you hedge your bets, you do the best you can, and you still get to eat food that is enjoyable and healthful. 

Is it perfect? No. But what is?

These are the (ag) days: the size & spectrum of Canadian agriculture

Just got back from a trip to Manitoba with my dad (who is also my boss), which included getting to meet some farmers and other ag industry professionals, as well as a quick visit to Ag Days - a huge (and I mean huge) agricultural trade show in Brandon. 

If there’s one main message I could convey from my experiences in this whirlwind trip - from chatting with high producing farmers, to market analysts, to elevator operators, to machinery salespeople, and others, along with simply observing and soaking it all in - is a reminder of the incredible size and spectrum of Canadian agriculture. 

Dynamism and drive; energy and entrepreneurial spirit - the industry is positively bursting with these qualities. It’s interesting because I think if you’re not connected to the ag world, it may be easy to miss. Instead what you might read about is worrisome - media reports about a smaller and aging population of farmers, food safety concerns, the daunting need for food production in a rapidly growing population, etc. But time spent with people who are entrenched in the industry, who eat sleep and breathe it, gives you a strong sense of enthusiasm, capability, forward-thinking, innovation, and opportunity.

Of course, sometimes that sense of movement and growth can raise eyebrows. There was an incredible amount of technology at the show - machinery and otherwise. In a room packed with the latest models of massive machinery equipped with high tech computers and screens and capabilities (stuff I really know nothing about), one farmer commented to me - “all this technology, sometimes I wonder whether we’re actually going backwards.” My dad had been reflecting on how different things were on the farm he grew up on - he wondered out loud whether some of the high tech tools actually make things easier, or more complicated, for today’s producers. In a different conversation, a machinery salesperson pondered, “how did we do it back then, before we had all this [machinery]? If you think about it, it was really the same dirt.” 

Above all, a drive through the Prairies reminds me, born and raised in Ontario, of just how big farming is in Canada. The scale of it is profound. It’s easy to forget how much of our country really is all about farming - in a very real and physical, geographic sense - until you’re driving on those flat, flat roads, watching the sun set on an endless horizon, passing field after field after field.

"That word, I do not think it means what you think it means…"

The other day I noticed a Twitter chat in which Chef Marcus Samuelsson (@MarcusCooks) was answering questions. One of the questions was: "do you use organically/humanely raised animal protein on your menus?"

Marcus responded “Always”! But here’s what gets me about this question - it’s the “/” between the words “organically” and “humanely.”

Maybe my inner grammar nerd is coming out here but the use of the slash indicates that organic and humane are interchangeable. A comma or an ampersand would have suggested these are different terms. And while Twitter is hardly a place to nit-pick over punctuation, this example shows off a larger issue: a trend towards grouping lots of terms to put forth a simplified image of “nice” agriculture. 

In other words - terms like local, organic, non-GMO, healthy, sustainable, humane, fair, ecological, small-scale, family run, free-range, I could go on…  - get grouped together. By failing to separate and understand these individual terms, their meaning and implications, we not only miss a chance to better our understanding of how agriculture works, we are also painting a picture that is limited to our own ideals.

That sort of approach frames farming in terms of ‘good and bad,’ ‘right and wrong,’ ‘positive or negative.’ I think that is dangerously dogmatic, and quite simply, flawed. Instead, I think there is more value in fostering an evolving, dynamic understanding of these terms. Recognizing that a single word cannot sum up the complexities of how food is produced.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” - Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Want to thank a farmer? Try learning from one.

There is a lot of talk about having gratitude for farmers these days. Be thankful. Recognize their contribution. 

For example, today I came across this article on the Huffington Post blog that talks about the value of farmland and the need to take a moment and recognize all that farmers contribute

What I find interesting about these conversations, though, is that they treat farming operations as if they are charities - producing food for us out of some nobel sense of service. Not to undermine the nobility or value of farming - certainly it is important to be aware of and grateful for all farmers do! - but this ignores the fact that farms are businesses

In my experience, urbanites who are not very connected with agriculture tend to either ignore farming or romanticize it. And this romanticization ignores the fact that farmers are businesspeople. If you take a closer look at the farming operations in Canada, whether they are small, niche farms or massive operations, you will see they are very often run by extremely smart, industrious, innovative businesspeople. They solve complex problems on a daily basis and are active in not only stewardship and production but also achieving profitability. Farming is not just a lifestyle - it is a business, and one of the pillars of our economy. 

I think if people want to learn more about agriculture and food in general, the conversation needs to move from “thank a farmer” to “learn from a farmer”. 

Obviously an ideal way to learn is to talk to someone one-on-one. You can do this by speaking with producers at your local farmers’ market - but keep in mind the perspective will be different from someone who owns/operates a big farming business. (Remember the bulk of farming in Canada is not the grower selling you organic carrots. It is large-scale production, such as major cash crops like wheat, canola, corn and soybeans.)

If you’re on Twitter, you might seek out and start following farmers and others involved in agribusiness. You will start to get a sense of the issues they are thinking and talking about, plus you’ll have a gateway for conversation. If you really want to understand what’s happening in agriculture and what farmers care about, start reading the same publications they read. One site I suggest is - it’s a great site with a free e-newsletter that covers a wide range of farming topics. If you aren’t in farming, you might not see the point in reading about things like club root or the beef market. But if you actually want to understand more about farming, this is the way to do it: scan the news and start to see the diversity of topics and issues that farmers navigate, ranging from pest control to commodities markets to politics and policy to industry culture. 

Gratitude is important, but appreciation is more than a quick thank you. It is also about respect and understanding. Taking it upon yourself to learn more, test your assumptions, and participate in conversations is a better way to show your support for farmers.

The organic food you’re eating might not be organic

If you’re interested in what organic certification really means, it’s worth taking a look at the executive summary of a study conducted by The Frontier Centre for Public Policy on the matter:

Did you know that certified organic foods are not tested to ensure that they are, in fact, organic?

That is what the study brings to light. It concludes that the certification is effectively meaningless - and that the industry needs objective, science-based testing. Regardless of whether or not you eat organic foods it is a good example of some of the complexities behind food labelling and food safety.

Weekly Food News Round-Up, September 28

The “OMG-what-would-we-do-without-bacon” freak out.

Last week I blogged about the flailing hog industry could have implications for everyone’s favourite food: bacon. About a week later, the news media was all over this issue. I liked this one from because they interviewed Michael Ruhlman (who I also referenced). In my mind, Ruhlman wins points for referring to the pig as “magical” (just like the Simpsons quote in my post), and for suggesting schmaltz and gribenes (from classic Jewish cooking) as possible substitutes.

Legislating local food in Ontario

Ontario’s Local Food Act, announced last week by Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin, would help “promote and celebrate the local things Ontarians grow, make, serve, sell or eat,” according to the provincial government. Interesting to see the intersection between provincial interests - help the provincial agri-food sector become more profitable and competitive - and the general public’s interest in eating more local and sustainable food.

New malting facility in Washington shows industry responding to local food interests

Comment: Speaking of local food - this is a highly localized article but an interesting one. I think it shows how the industry is responding to the local food and artisnal food movements - a local malting facility means microbreweries can use barley grown by nearby producers and get access to the type of grain and roast they want for a high-end product. Plus it explains the malting process so if you’re not familiar with it you can learn a little more about how your beer is made.

Is MSG bad for you?

Comment: In this video, celebrity chef/restaurateur David Chang (who just opened the Momofuku Noodle Bar in Toronto) challenges the assumption that MSG is the root of all evil. In the course of his discussion he poses some interesting notions about umami, American food culture/perceptions of Asian food, and the real meaning of taste. Even more importantly, he challenges people to think critically about our food assumptions - to stop and ask why.

Leslie Knope supports sugary drink ban

Comment: NYC’s experimental ban on sugary drinks is pretty interesting: it brings up a whole host of complex issues relating to health/obesity, consumer rights, the power of big food business, and the issue of using law to enforce better food choices. I picked this blog NYT blog post to include in today’s news items because it brings up a bunch of these issues using one of my favourite tv shows: Parks and Recreation. A reminder, too, how humour and satire can play such a valuable role in working through and dealing with important issues. I can’t wait to watch it.

Everyone’s favourite magical animal is at risk (no, not the unicorn)…

I’d like to start off this blog post with a Simpsons quote, because, as usual, Homer says it best:

Homer: Are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon? 

Lisa: No. 

Homer: Ham? 

Lisa: No. 

Homer: Pork chops? 

Lisa: Dad, those all come from the same animal. 

Homer: Ooh, yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal. 

A wonderful, magical animal indeed. Pork is continuing to enjoy its moment as a foodie favourite. A while ago it became trendy to eat every bit of it - everything from the tail to the feet to the snout. Restaurants like NYC’s The Spotted Pig and Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon (both seriously delicious hot spots) gained, and sustained, fame for what they could do with various pig parts. I think chefs partly enjoy it because the product is so transformable: take a cut of meat that is relatively cheap and humble, and turn it into something that people want to eat by the fist-full, and are happy to pay for. 

Meanwhile, the bacon craze took over just about everything, giving us all kinds of uncomfortably desirable creations like bacon doughnuts, bacon ice cream, bacon mayonnaise, bacon salt…

Just yesterday, someone tweeted cookbook author/food celeb Michael Ruhlman suggesting some other food was about to be the next “new bacon.” @Ruhlman responded, “no, bacon is the new bacon.”

But if you haven’t already heard, the hog industry is in crisis. It was already tough going, and now expensive feed is having serious effects. 

On September 10, Saskatchewan’s largest pork producer, Big Sky Farms, entered into receivership. The company indicated its financial problems are linked to drought in the U.S., which has led to high feed prices in Canada.

Then, on Sept 13, Manitoba’s third-largest hog producer, PuratoneCorp., filed for bankruptcy protection. The move has been taken as further proof that the industry is in deep danger.

According to Manitoba Pork there were close to 5,000 hog producers in the province 15 years ago, but now there are fewer than 500. In other words, only one in 10 producers is still operating. That number is expected to keep falling, as feed prices continue rising and hog prices remain low.

What will become of our beloved magical animal? Will pork start to be a rarity, even more of a specialty item - like well-aged steak? Will it remain the cool kid at the foodie table, or will something be forced to take its place?

Weekly Food News Round-Up, September 14

Pink Slime Defamation Suit (Canadian Business)

Comment: The whole “pink slime” debacle certainly says something about the problems in the American food system, but it also says something about how easy it is for complex food issues to turn into trends - i.e. decision making - with the help of a catch phrase and some mainstream media coverage. Especially when it’s fear based.  I appreciate the point in this article about the ‘pink slime’ term feeding an assumption that there was an evil ingredient being put into the meat; ironically, with all the trendiness of nose-to-tail eating these days, this process is actually making use of something that would go to waste. I’m not supporting the process, but I am skeptical of the media reporting and the public outcry. I personally read quite a bit of coverage of the issue that was just so obviously, blatantly false. The defamation suit adds another twist to the story.

Ontario Food Processing Bigger Than Auto Industry (London Free Press)

Comment: On Wednesday, the Alliance of Ontario Food Processors released a study that pointed to the size, growth and value of the food processing industry to the province. The report arrives at a time when more and more eyes are on the agriculture sector - including from an investment point of view. From a general interest standpoint, I think it’s neat to see just how big this industry is in Ontario, and I suspect more people will want to learn more about the agriculture sector(s) in the coming months. 

Food and Trade Laws (The Economist)

Comment: An interesting editorial on trade and protectionism. I think we’re also going to hear more about this in coming months, from various angles, as results from the US drought continue to settle in. 

The Crazy Candy Corn Oreo (Chicago Reader)

Obviously I had to include something on this crazy, day-glo Oreo cookie that went viral this week. I like this particular “review” because it is a reminder that a lot of “food” isn’t about food. It’s about other stuff - like nostalgia, a sense of who we are, and in this case, who we were. I’d go out on a limb and say these Oreos aren’t really targeted at kids, they’re targeted at adults, who want to feel that sense of being a ridiculous, free-spirited, sugar-crazed kid again. It almost makes me want to try them. Almost.  

Greepeace and Golden Rice (The Globe & Mail)

This is a commentary from Margaret Wente - a controversial columnist who, in my opinion, frequently gets things flat out wrong. But I appreciate her challenging perspective here. It points out some of the complexity in these issues that isn’t often brought up in the mainstream media.