Agriculture is getting dropped from our vocabulary

Each year my agricultural communications students prepare university-level speeches to compete with others from across the country in the Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture contest, held annually in early November at the Royal in Toronto.

Sometimes they win, and sometimes they don’t, but at the very least they get an all-too-rare platform to stand up and say what’s on their minds. Electronic ways exist to do so, through blogs and other means, in which they also engage. But for the most part, speaking opportunities are scarce.

Inevitably, horror stories surface in their speeches about consumers’ misunderstanding of agriculture. In fact, one of the most horrific this year concerned the Royal itself. Many of my students come from farms and are already leaders in some capacity, showing their livestock at the Royal for working there for some agriculture awareness cause.

One student told of an urban visitor to her livestock display who was mortified to learn meat came from farm animals. This new knowledge sent the visitor for a loop. “I’ll never eat meat again!” she declared.

Certainly there’s a strong temptation is to chide the consumer for her lack of worldliness and awareness. But there’s a bigger message here – despite sincere efforts in some camps to educate and inform people about farming, they still don’t get it.

Consider the recent Farmers Feed Cities survey report, headlined “Study finds not all food choices based on fact.” It underlines consumers’ misconceptions of farming still run deep. For example, more than four out five consumers who buy free-run eggs (that is, from chickens raised in a confined space indoors) think they’re buying free-range eggs, from chickens raised outdoors. Of course, they’re not. And almost 70 per cent of survey participants believe livestock have high levels of artificial hormones, antibiotics or vaccines. That perception is not fact-based — in reality, high levels don’t reach consumers.

And now, as the focus starts shifting to the Royal, agriculture’s image problem is magnified again. I continue to call the event an agricultural fair – and I suspect the overwhelmingly large contingent of farm-related businesses that exhibit there do too, or there’s little reason to show up — but the reality is the word agriculture is getting harder to find. Do what I did: check, and you’ll notice it appears there as a “horse show and winter fair.”

For agriculture, this is disturbing. It’s been the source of some heated online discussions. And while references to an agriculture show can indeed still be found in the drop down menu on the navigation bar, this is not a move forward for farming. It used to count on the Royal to promote, in name, agriculture coming to the city. It gave the public a venue to see commodities and farm animals…even, if for some of them such as the subject of my student’s speech, it turns them off.

At the very least, it gives consumers the opportunity to get a more educated perspective about agriculture. They never get to a farm, so the farm comes to them, in Canada’s most metropolitan centre. It’s a good deal all around.

I have no doubt agriculture will continue to be a big part of the Royal, if not in name. Livestock buyers from around the world come to the Royal in droves to see Canada’s top animals being shown there. As long as that continues, farm animals will be central to the show.

But it sends a message. If the Royal felt agriculture was a strong attraction, a big seller, a main motivator with attendees, it would be soft-pedaling it. After all, the Royal needs to make a buck, and I guess it thinks horses are where it’s at.

And sure, horses attract a crowd.

But honestly, the Royal without agriculture wouldn’t even be a winter fair.

The agri-food sector has many convincing arguments for skeptics who think it’s hick or insignificant. Report after report is surfacing about the sector’s vital and leading role in Ontario’s economy, how agriculture and food processing have become the number one industry in the province.

Agriculture simply needs to work harder to get that good news heard. It needs to re-enchant the Royal. It needs more profile. Blaming the public for being uninformed isn’t getting the job done.

— Owen Roberts blogs about agriculture topics for an urban audience as the Urban Cowboy at

An earlier version of this column originally appeared in the Guelph Mercury October 15.

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