Monday, October 20, 2014

Know Your Audience - Are Agvocates Missing The Mark?

Copyright: <a href=''>jumbo2010 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Photo credit: 123RF Stock Photo
Though agvocacy is one of the biggest buzzwords in the online ag community, it would appear it hasn't gained the traction most would desire. If you follow a handful of vocal farmers on Twitter or are an agvocate yourself, it's easy to start to feel overwhelmed with what many are calling 'attacks' on agriculture.

Have we not given agvocacy enough time? Is the content we're sharing not worth following and taking notice? Are we "preaching to the choir" too much? The possibly over-used metaphor often accompanies a challenge to tweeters, bloggers and writers, industry and farmers alike to appeal to the public and "tell our story".

But there is one problem. The public isn't listening. You can write the greatest literary work in the world, but if no one reads it, what has been accomplished?

Some are quick to point out, "we" (a reference that somehow is meant to encompass all of the vast, diverse and unique facets of the agriculture industry into one group) don't have the audience "they" (being anyone who might represent a different viewpoint) do. 

First off, this is true. But "they" didn't start with a million followers. They started with one or two, just like me and you, and the similarities don't stop there.

In fact, they are are us - they worry about the health of their children. They see a better future for the environment around them. They seek the highest value return for their money, even that which is spent on food. They are deeply passionate about their cause, to the point of emotional attachment and are driven to do something about it. Their audience is even the same as ours.

So then, the question becomes, how did they develop this mass appeal and apparent influence and what are we doing wrong?

The simple answer is to say it's fear mongering. I disagree with this, at least to the extent of explaining how these food bloggers got their start and developed a following. Fear mongering may aide the hype, but I don't think it has staying power. Fears are confronted and subside with time.

No, they simply understand the audience better than we do. They are part of it. They are the consumer and they don't even have to try to appreciate the challenges, concerns, hopes and desires of the audience we so desperately try to target. 

Our point of uniqueness is being a farmer, but our downfall is that we forget. We forget we are so unique, that while we are also consumers, we have a vantage 98% of consumers do not. Think like the ever-passionate and often-animated Crystal MacKay, Farm and Food Care Ontario Executive Director;  "if you've ever used the word "teat" in a sentence, you're not like them."

We don't need to do a better job explaining what we do. We are very good at that. Most people just don't care. They don't care because they can't relate and understand why they should care (and 'because we grow your food', is unfortunately not reason enough). We need to do a better job understanding consumers. 

Fortunately, this is pretty easy because they are everywhere! The challenge for most of us, myself included, is to stop agvocating long enough to hear what they have to say. Strike up conversations with people in the grocery story, "city friends" or the parents of your kids' friends about what they're purchasing and why. Then listen! Don't interject or try to counter or persuade. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason! You'll learn far more about what's on their minds and be better prepared to tell a more meaningful story. Not suggesting it didn't have meaning before, but 'getting in the consumers' head and removing that farmer bias is the only way we can start getting our message to the masses. Until then, we will only ever be preaching to the choir.   

Monday, October 6, 2014

Advice to a Young Aggie (Or insert your undergrad major here)

At some point, I crossed the threshold from being 'recently graduated' to a full-blown alumni. It's a little surreal, being invited back to Career Week to impart 'wisdom' when I'm still seeking it wherever I can find it myself. Nonetheless, these events always offer a chance to reflect on what you've learned and how far you've come. Here are my big three pieces of advice for today's Aggies (or any undergrad) + one bonus from my friend, Rebecca. 

1. Do something different.
You might be absolutely positive about the industry you want to work in, but even if you are passionate about nothing else, try to work outside it, just once. If this seems scary, then start by taking some courses that interest you but might be completely unrelated. As one of my coworkers and fellow speakers this evening put it, "college is your time to explore." Try summer jobs or course subjects that seem intriguing but your practical, 'left brain' tells you are not 'good experience'. Everything is an experience from which you can learn, related or not. This is probably my biggest regret. I was so set on my destination, I missed the scenery along the way... trips to Belize, history class, College Pro Painters. All experiences I regret missing.

2. Ask for opportunities.
For as many jobs that are posted, there always seemed to be just as many that are not. If there is a particular industry, firm or role you're interested in, seek out someone to talk to and ask about the opportunities that exist for summer students or recent graduates. They may not be hiring, but they may know someone who is and if you're particularly driven, they may even create an opportunity for you. What's the worst thing that can happen? 

3. Get your hands dirty.
I don't know how many tires I shined. In fact, I wore Eau d'Armorall for an entire fall. Luckily, I was never in one place long enough to worry if it was offensive. My point is, we all started there with the  'dirty jobs'. The boss doesn't care what you know (because honestly, you actually know nothing) but really wants to see if you're willing and a team player. It's a test of character no one teaches you in a textbook. These days, those stripes are no easier to earn but far fewer seem willing. Roll up your sleeves and pitch in. I guarantee it will not go unnoticed. Too few young people think they graduate to be the CEO. The lyrics are for a reason; "We started at the bottom now we're here."

Get to know your classmates.
More-so in a tight-knit industry, agriculture obviously being the example, there is a strong likelihood you will not only work with, but work for, support, collaborate with the people sitting around you in those AGR classes. Make an effort to get to know as many of them as you can. Down the road you'll not only be a hero when you know "X" at "that company" and can call them up, but you'll be relieved you remember their name when you stand behind them in the lunch line at the farm show.

Because someone has to make that hood sparkle and get that rubber shining! My first major "event" as Promotions Coordinator at John Deere. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Our 3-D World is Very Grey

There is only grey. Lots of it and all shades, but there really is no black and white. I found myself thinking this tonight after another supply management debate. People want to believe the world is either one way or it is the complete opposite. They think if its this way, then there is that effect and if not, then all hell will rain down.

It's so not that simple. Every issue is a complex and tangled web of connections and consequences, making no answer a clear 'right' or 'wrong'. It is all grey.

This is one thing my MBA has helped me understand. I am also consciously aware that I think in "layers", perhaps as a result of my MBA or I am just more aware of it today than I was two years ago. It also is the challenge many leaders face; you see the problem or opportunity at hand in 3 dimensions and people want to think it's one. Leaders need to hone not their persuasion skills, but their ability to converge these two vantage points into one that people can not only easily understand, but also want to engage in because they see a direct benefit in doing so. Often that benefit needs to be personal.

That takes great communication. According to Robert McKee, that takes a story. I don't think a story can be told in 140 characters either, so Twitter is a great communication channel but is it the place to engage and tell your story? If not, then how else are you going to capture that audience? 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Farmgirl Goes to the Big City

He kicked off the lecture, asking who had travelled the furthest.

In a theatre of 200-or-so eager professionals, a few shouts from the crowd revealed my challenging trip from SW Ontario paled by comparison; Vancouver, Newfoundland, California, Amsterdam, Brazil, Columbia! The Academy-award winning screenwriter truly drew a global crowd for his "Story In Business" seminar. 

"NO student of mine uses the word 'journey' to describe life," he continued. "A journey is when you get on the bus in Akron, Ohio & travel to Indianapolis. Life is not a journey. It's full of challenges." 

Well, okay then. With that, I shut my iPad and pulled out my notebook. This was going to be a good day.

The thing with journeys though, is they can also be challenging, even for a seasoned traveler like me. Nevermind the cancelled flight and last minute changes, a trip to the 'big city' always unnerves me a little; at least until my psyche can re-calibrate to the hustle and bustle. With every step I imagine every eye on me, wondering if they know how uncomfortable I am at that very moment. 

It also always seems the insignificant decisions I fretted so much over, I inevitably chose wrong.  This particular morning, as I dragged my roller-bag up Lexington Avenue from the subway station, I was cursing my decision to wear heels and wondering if my sweater was also going to be a burden on the warm, fall day. I broke my heel before I had even left the airport, so at my first opportunity I changed back into my cowboy boots. "Of course, flats were the obvious choice." I thought to myself gazing at every pair of feet around me. Of course, no one was paying any attention to me. I was just another bee in the hive going about my day like 8 million other people in New York. 

By noon, the desire to have "NY for Dummies" on immediate standby had faded away, and I was excited to enjoy the beautiful fall weather, admiring the people and life of the Upper East Side. I grabbed a sandwich at a small deli, and couldn't help but think of Red's grocery in Orange is the New Black. I was quite certain this deli was a family business, and the full tables of suits, construction workers and students told me I'd be happy with my selection. 

Unwrapping the sandwich, I thought about whether I'd ever walked into a similar place in Toronto. Or anywhere in Canada for that matter. There wasn't a familiar restaurant sign to be seen in the 10 blocks I'd walked from Hunter College, so void of other options I'd chosen this deli. It's not incredibly profound, but I realized that's what being out of your comfort zone is all about. Trying new things because there is no other option. As the afternoon concluded, I'd force myself to step outside that 'safe zone' at least once more, not knowing the result could be the start of an incredible opportunity. Proof that nothing worth pursuing comes without some risk, even if the peril is only feeling like a farmgirl in the city. 

Robert McKee on-stage, ready to begin his Story in Business lecture.

Farm fashion meets high fashion on Madison Avenue, NYC.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Our 6th Generation Family Farm; Poised for Growth & an Exciting Future

Trevor, Helen, Jim, Mike, Jenn, Jen, and Marie Christie - 6th Generation family farm
Our family - the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th generations to farm on the original homestead, settled around 1855.
This past year, my family embarked on a major milestone in the 155+ year history of Christhill Farms; we built a brand-new dairy barn, complete with robotic milking technology and a composting pack bed for the cows. (For a full account of the robot start-up, search #countdowntorobot on Twitter) This past week, we opened our doors to those who wanted to see the progress since the July 2 move-in. A special thank you goes out to the team at Avonbank Ag Solutions for their excellent efforts coordinating the open house; not a detail was missed! 

It has been exciting to follow the entire process from planning to construction to start-up, but for me (and likely our entire family) the real excitement has been seeing my parents reaction now.

When you meet my father, you know I come by my social nature honestly. We joke that he likes to talk, and he has never been able to give a full tour to a curious visitor in less than an hour. Even in the old tie-stall barn, whether they were interested in cows or not, he would ensure they knew who every cow was, her mother, grandmother and how many daughters she had in the heifer barn. For all the jokes we make, my dad has earned this verbal license. When my parents purchased the 200-acre century farm from my grandparents in 1980, they milked about 25 beef and grade Holstein cows in the original bank barn with a "Wondersteel" Quonset addition. His focus on genetics and balanced breeding, and I'm sure he would credit some good friends in the cow business, are why we enjoy working with a purebred Holstein herd today, over 3/4 of which are classified Excellent or Very Good cows.

My parents worked tirelessly when we were growing up, and often, we were right there alongside. I don't recall my mother, a seamstress who can boast the Stratford Festival on her resume, ever complaining. Growing up on a dairy farm herself, the daughter of Dutch emigrants, she knew what hard work was and she shared my father's dream of building a good herd of cows and a farm for future generations. 

They instilled this work ethic in us from a young age. Chores were always priority before friends' houses and during harvest, all other plans became tentative. Unloading hay and straw, my job was to push the bales down to my mom's reach on the wagon. When we were done, hot, sweating and hay stuck to every exposed part of our body, we’d be off the wagon, guzzling ice cold water from a blue Coleman cooler jug, before the clanging elevator chain had even come to stop. You could taste the minerals on your tongue as if the water was being slurped right off the limestone rock that cropped up in our fields every spring. Then we’d race down to the pool, throw off our clothes and jump into the water, enjoying the refreshing break before the next load was pulled into the lane and we’d have to shimmy our jeans and work shirt back over our bathing suits. The bits of hay on the water’s surface were excused and the air always smelled of sweet alfalfa. 

We rarely went on vacations, but once in a while we got away, though we almost never stayed in a hotel. I have fond memories of trips to Marineland, African Lion Safari, Alberta and Ontario's north. There was certainly never a trip to Disneyworld but I don't feel we ever missed out. Living in Bruce County, there was ample snow and snowmobiling afforded us an afternoon together as a family where we could be home by 5pm. My friends envied this, and as I got older, I realized that I wouldn't trade their brand-name clothing for the lifestyle my parents had worked hard to provide us for anything. 

After 34 years, pouring literally everything they had into the farm, my parents finally are able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour somewhat. "I never imagined we'd be milking cows with a robot," my mom said the week we moved the cows into the new barn. A few hours later, after finishing dinner she sat down in the chair in the kitchen and smiled. I realized it was the first time I had ever seen her sit down after dinner. There was no rush to clean up dinner. No cows waiting to be milked. They were already being milked. 

For my brothers, the next 30 years will bring a different kind of hard work. They'll hopefully get to more of their kids' soccer games and won't have small square bales to unload, and there will be new memories created feeding calves and riding in the tractor cab. There will also be new pressures with increased economic uncertainty and high operating costs, and they will make mistakes and learn just as my parents did. Hopefully though, the investment made today in new facilities and technologies will position them better to weather future storms and allow them to continue the legacy started by William Davis in 1855.

Arran Township Davis Family Farm
The Davis homestead - circa 1970. My Grandma, dad, brothers & I grew up in this house & milked cows in the barn.
Clearing land for the new barn - October 2013.
Foundations poured and buried under heavy snow - winter 2013.
John Ernewein Ltd dairy compost pack barn
Framed and the roof trusses going up - February 2014.
Lely A4 Astronaut Robot arriving from Avonbank Ag Solutions
The robot has arrived - June 2014 
John Ernewein Ltd compost dairy barn
Nearly complete and ready for move-in - June 2014
Compost pack dairy barn with Sun North fans
Cows getting familiar with the new barn - June 30, 2014
Milk cows tie stall
My mom milking for the last time in the original tie barn. 
Lely A4 Astronaut Robot
Getting milked for the first time in the new barn - July 2, 2014
Holstein cows eating
Feeding time! 
John Deere 2130 cultivating compost pack
My dad cultivating the composting pack. 
Happy Canadian dairy cows compost pack
Happy cows in their new home! July 2014

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Passion Where You Least Expect It

Passion is a powerful thing. Raw, unabridged passion that is so real and unmistakable, you become transfixed within it and only realize later you have been transformed.

I experienced this tonight. In a dinner conversation with a man nearly, if not totally, considered a legend among my industry circle, I was drawn into a conversation about a subject I know very little about and ordinarily pay minimal attention; paintings. While art, in a general sense, has been a topic of interest as of late, in its most physical form, I have certainly not spent much time pondering. Yet, amid a room of one hundred agri-marketers, where I could have a very fulfilling conversation with nearly anyone on any number of subjects pertaining to agriculture, food or farming, I was captivated by a conversation about paintings.

Though it is true, James is about as good a chap as you can find (and chap is fitting, seeing as he is English), his uncanny ability to grab my attention was by and large due to the passion he has for his collection and the sport of doing so. It was totally spellbinding, and I not only learned a little but I was utterly inspired. I left there thinking more about the conversation about paintings, then the entire meeting. Which is both unfortunate, but not. I am inspired by not only his love for collecting but the passion by which he recounted story after story, like they were great conquests. Of which, some absolutely were and the odd, inappropriate joke, which only a semi-retired Englishman can get away with, never hurts either.

Seriously though, it made me wonder; if I could be so spellbound by a conversation about a subject I ordinarily pay no attention, is that not really what passion is? Do we throw the "P" word around so much today it has almost lost its meaning entirely for most of us? We are all passionate about something or other, but are we really? And if it is true passion, do you convey it so it captivates the world? Especially if you don't have a clever-sounding accent?

It's honest and pure, ever-more fleeting passion that creates impact. It invites followers, evokes action, and literally changes the world. Or in this case, saves my Grandma's antique paintings from the township dump.

L.A.C. Panton painting Photo Credit:

Monday, September 8, 2014

Everything I Know I Learned From a Farm Show

Okay, that might be a stretch, but if there is ever a time when Murphy’s Law prevails, it seems to be during a farm show (or likely any trade show for that matter; recreational, home or farm show, they all seem to unfold in similar fashion).

With 5 solid years of farm show organization, set-up and tear-down under my belt, I transitioned into my current role at John Deere where still farm shows roll around twice a year. Undeniably, I enjoy these shows for the same reason I think farmers do, the social aspect. (I have been quoted more than once saying, "I LOVE the farm show!") In some ways, I also believe those 5 years on the ‘show circuit’ were character building; a right of passage even. 

When you’re the first one there in the morning, hauling in cases of water and bags of ice and the last one there in the evening, locking doors and picking up empty water bottles (why is the cup holder always the most inviting spot for trash when there is a can steps away?), you can’t help but earn some stripes. Though I sometimes questioned the value and wondered if anyone noticed these little details, I realize the importance of that role now. Even if I still tend to be the first to arrive and last to leave.

So, after pounding stakes for an afternoon, making last minute calls to track down a tractor, and testing my techy skills, here’s some quick reflection on what I’ve learned over the years; be it "at the show" or any other aspect of life, they seem to apply. 

1) Be prepared - Having the right tools literally means in this case, having the right physical tools in your toolbox. It seems there is always a need for a staple gun, a drill, an Allan key, zip ties or a Sharpie. Do you have the tools, are they organized so you can find them and be ready when you need them? And after 8 years, I’ve accepted my tool box will never have everything I need… I’m always learning and adding to it.  

2) You can never be too prepared - There will always be something last-last minute, so the more prepared you can be and the earlier, the better. It is never too soon to start planning, prepping, organizing, etc. The 24 hours before the show starts are never long enough.

3) Focus on what you can control - Farm shows are a team effort, and inevitably this means relying on others to get the work done. Delegation is good; you can’t do it all but it means you risk it not getting done the way you expect. You can try to prevent this by setting some expectations, but know it doesn’t always go as smooth as you’d hoped (or you maybe could’ve done), but getting frustrated or upset never solves the situation. Control your reaction and focus on what’s next. Things that can go wrong will so…

4) Don’t sweat the small stuff - People won’t notice if a product sign is missing, whether you forgot to book the carper or if a tractor just doesn’t show up. Sometimes things get missed or you just plain forget or run out of time. It’s never a big deal and likely, no one will ever notice except you.

5) Debrief, debrief, debrief - How many times have we ordered the same show furnishings at the last minute? Realized the day of set-up we’re missing flags, which we knew we could have ordered months ago? There is never enough time spent debriefing our successes and failures, reflecting on what we’ve learned and capturing that to improve in the future. 

If you're heading to the farm show in Woodstock this week, be sure to come visit, say hi and let me know what you think of the blog!

John Deere Canada booth at the 2014 Canada's Outdoor Farm Show

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Excellence Pursuit

I suppose the next time I commit to doing something daily, like blogging, I should consider a week when I'm home more than just to sleep. That being said, I did spend a considerable amount of time the past two days thinking about writing and while I didn't post, I did write. You'll hopefully see it someday but I can't share it just yet.

The challenge I've found, especially with trying to blog daily, is I am somewhat of a perfectionist. I have learned over the years that 80% is pretty good and if we can just get that far, then we can learn the rest as we go. Yet when it comes to writing, I am never happy with a post until I've pored over it for hours and feel I'd be proud to see it in print somewhere. In my mind, this was the pursuit of excellence. Or was it perfection? Is this what Godin speaks of as a downfall to producing art?

If I never post half of what I write because I don't believe it's 'good enough' or 'perfect enough', will I not improve at a slower rate than if I focus just on writing and sharing? After all, a good writer needs to be able to push something out fast do they not? I've never communicated full-time for a living but the journalists, bloggers and communications professionals I know are always following a story and striving to be first out the gate. No one wants to write about yesterday's news.

Blogging is somewhat this way although I tend to usually write about topics which may be ever-evolving, but rarely time-sensitive. That blogging daily would force me to come up first with something to write about, and then to accept it doesn't have to be perfect to be worth publishing is what the true value of this activity is about. Excellence is about continual improvement, trying and trying again, and always striving to be better next time.

After my first blog post, I got all sorts of recommendations for future Seth Godin and communications reading. One included Seth's blog and after scanning it briefly this morning, I think I am further understanding this concept. Some days, his blog posts are no more than an observation stated in a phrase or sentence. Is that not what I do on Twitter? Not everything fits in 140 characters though and maybe you don't have to write 500 words to have a worthy post?

Hmmm suddenly 4 more days of blogging seems quite reasonable.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Can I Blog Every Day For a Week?

I’m consuming books like crazy lately (reading isn’t accurate as half of them have been audio books in the car).  A little bit of non-fiction, some WWII-era and some personal development books – if that’s what the self-help section is now called? I don’t like either of those terms though because the books have been far more profound for me than any "be the best you can be" type books I've read in the past.

Perhaps subconsciously knowing it was the perfect compliment, I selected The Icarus Deception (SethGodin) off the library shelf when I picked up A Whole New Mind (Daniel Pink). The latter, recommended by a classmate was a light and uplifting read, er listen. There were many great anecdotes paralleling my day-to-day experiences, the odd "ah ha!" and several actionable takeaways to exercise the 'right' half of my brain. I was so intrigued, I copied many of the suggestions and references down as future homework.

The Icarus Deception has given me some homework too. Firstly, this blog post is the first in what will be an attempt to blog everyday, if only to write every day. I won't promise inspiration, but I will test the hypothesis that knowing you must 'create art' or write, leads you to look for more beauty and interpretation in your day. At a minimum, it'll be good practice.

So what is this book all about anyway? 

Albeit more deep and abstract than A Whole New Mind, the theme is not entirely different - flying higher, taking risks, ignoring the criticism and treating our work as art, in order to stand out and make a difference. Had I truly understood how challenging the book was when I read “[Godin's] most challenging book yet” on the jacket, I’m not sure I would’ve checked it out. But listening to it, I am enthralled by the underlying concepts and have replayed more than one section to ensure I am correctly hearing and interpreting Godin’s words.

It is one of those books I actually believe I'm wiser for hearing. It is just one trigger of several which is empowering me to embrace what makes me different, and not accept the mundanity of status quo. It is also a rally to challenge those who are continually seeking more, better and cheaper to look beyond the immediate and focus on long-term differentiation, which is only built through relationships and intimate understanding. Any argument against short-termism is always one I will favour.

I don't know if I could have clamoured through reading it, but if you can get your hands on an audio version and have several hours (its unabridged) The Icarus Deception is absolutely worth your time.   

Monday, August 4, 2014

Will $3.50 Corn Cool the Bruce County Land Grab?

Cattle graze in the rolling hills of the former Elderslie Township in Bruce County.
An old corral sits vacant in a pasture abandoned for corn, still waiting to be harvested this spring.
In a county where a young Aggie might get chuckled at by topsoil-rich neighbours in southern Ontario, the geologically challenged fields of Bruce County were once the domain of countless bovine creatures. Dubbed "Ontario's cattle country", the rolling hills, scrubby fence lines and tree-spattered pastures were dotted with deep black, rich red, rusty brown, and dirty white cows and calves. Every breed imaginable to a young 4-Her could be found roaming the hillsides.

After BSE wiped out much of the market in 2003, the subsequent run up in commodity prices in 2008 led to a landscape transformation. As herds began to dwindle, traditional cattle producers turned their pasture land over and planted corn. While land prices soared "south of 86", the "north" offered reasonably priced land with solid potential, causing the land wars to heat up here too. Where the competition was once maybe a neighbour, more and more cash croppers from the south are expanding into the central area of the county. While others, seeing the potential to earn a small fortune, are buying pasture farms, clearing them and reselling them. "Flip this field" is in full swing.

The latest dip in the commodities is sure to cool the market a little. Especially, in "the Bruce" where 200 bu/acre corn is more a record than the norm and there are still some cattle around to distract those who leaned heavily on corn and soybeans in recent years. It does lead me to wonder; when the market rebounds, how long before Ontario's 'natural escape' is cultivated under almost completely? 

To be fully transparent, my family is equally profiting, cleaning up our own land and recent acquisitions to make room for yellow gold. Canada needs new young farmers, and in order to make a living today in this business, some scale and the accompanying efficiencies are critical. The time, labour and investment required to clear new fields still outweighs skyrocketing land rent. But cropping takes just as heavy toll on the soil here as it does in any area, so my family is increasingly focusing on soil health to sustainably maximize fertility. 

With the completion of our new dairy barn, next spring we will have composted manure, which will add valuable humus to our fields rather than just organic matter and nitrogen in traditional manure. Hopefully we will also be able to graze our cows next summer. In this part of the world, the symbiotic relationship between cattle and crops is one we understood long before rotational grazing was ‘au du jour’. It yields environmental and production benefits, and for me serves as a constant reminder of our interconnectedness, something I sometimes think agriculture loses sight of in pursuit of the bottom line.  

Visitors are still awed by the vast amounts of untouched land, and without an urban centre, a variety of thriving, and diverse ag businesses compliment Bruce County’s tourism sector to keep the economy turning. When other areas are boasting protection of their grasslands and sustainable beef, does turning this marginal land over for corn make the most economic sense? 

I can’t help but feel a little sad everytime I see another unmistakable mountain of tangled tree roots, hawthorns, and rocks spring up. The market might be telling us to plant 'fencerow to fencerow’, but is this the most sustainable option? Maybe we need to keep a few of those fencerows.

Mountains of brush among land still to be cleared.
A neighbour's pasture after clearing and tiling for soybeans.
 A hillside cleared of shrubs, trees and rocks makes for tempting, yet somewhat treacherous, cropland.
The high-hoe is a familiar sight now in many fields around Ontario including Bruce County.
"Big Bruce", the symbol of the county's once dominant livestock sector still greets west-bound visitors on Highway 21.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sticky Production - Agriculture's Version of Sticky Wages?

"Last time we were asked to feed the world, everyone planted more until 1985, when they continued to plant more, even though the market told them not too. We don't do a very good job responding to when the market tells us not to plant." Cal Whewell, 
FC Stone Risk Management Consultant

Since hearing this comment at the Grain Farmers of Ontario March Classic, I have been unable to shake it from my consciousness. It speaks so much to the traditional character of farmers, hanging onto the hope of a price rally and committed to production growth even when the invisible hand of the market wants anything but. In some ways, it is like the economist's sticky wage theory. When economies slow down, and unemployment is high, employers are unable to reduce employee wages despite excess available labour, whereas during boom times, competition for labour often drives prices up. In agriculture, we are easily coerced into producing more, yet scaling back is much more difficult. 

In the '80's, the U.S. government ended up introducing the Conservation Reserve Program, essentially paying producers to take acres out of production and stop the plunge. The signals Whewell spoke of today were not only falling new crop corn prices, but also the ongoing strength of wheat and soybean contracts. I believe he could have just as easily been talking about dairy producers. 

With the future of our Canadian supply management system at risk, I am intrigued by the latest market explosion playing out south of the border. The fundamentals of record high prices, record exports and low feed prices are returning profits to a sector which was devastated only a few years ago when prices collapsed in 2009. 
Source: IFCN Milk Price Indicator
The run up in prices has little to do with American dairy consumption, and is more so due to strong global demand, particularly from China, which is driving the world milk price to new heights. U.S. dairies are responding by expanding their herds and ramping up production, partially through imported Canadian heifers, as anyone who has been to a sale barn lately will testify. 

For me, this raises some questions. First and most importantly, with this strong demand and world prices nearing $60/100 kg, how much market are Canadian farmers missing? Also, how reliable is the long-term forecast for this market and will this above-average pricing hold? It didn't in the corn markets, despite the "feed the 9 billion" security blanket. The past two months, the price has already softened (Global Dairy Trade). Developing nation demand for dairy products is growing a rate double that of the OECD nations (OECD FAO Ag Outlook Highlights, 2013), but we are talking about nations where food still costs more than 1/3 of an individuals' income and the number malnourished is alarmingly high. 
Source: Washington State Magazine 
Supply and demand theory would dictate prices will fall as production is increased. I believe this will be the case, because as Whewell states, farmers have proven illogical in responding to market signals when its time to reduce production. Only time will tell if American farmers learned from the last crash and will slow production soon enough to avoid a similar fate. The removal of dairy price supports from the farm bill leaves producers with a margin insurance program, instead of the highly contested and overturned market stabilization program which would curb production during trough periods (supply management). 

Though not hoped for, it is likely the Margin Protection Program will prove its effectiveness soon enough, and we will have to ask ourselves if not supply management, are these the types of programs we can expect? Without external interruption, will Canadian producers withhold production in low times any more than our American counterparts? The next generation of producers is armed with degrees, and marketing know-how, but somehow I doubt the voice of austerity will prevail anymore north of the border. Dairy farmers will produce more milk, because that is what farmers want to do.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Cost of Dirt Cheap Dairy

Discounted chocolate milk

There are many voices in the debate over whether supply management is good for Canadians. Reality is these predictions are just that; they are expected outcomes crafted using best and worst case scenarios depending on who is crafting the position. In Owen Robert's recent post on, he shares some of the dairy industry's common arguments. Without trying to create fear, I am taking this further as I think there are more questions consumers should consider in light of supply management's future and whether "dirt, cheap dairy", or any "cheap food policy" for that matter, is good for Canadians. 

1) What does a cheap food society look like? 

Contrary to popular belief, sustainable food systems need not always cost more but they do require farmers earn a comfortable living, which means netting a profit without working 20 hours a day. Most would consider this fair. While dairy farmers earn a good living compared to the average citizen, they are also running a business and often those returns must be reinvested in land, equipment or cattle. So, like any small business owner, they are often taking home more equity than cash.  

Furthermore, that return also allows them to use less intensive agriculture practices, resulting in less impact on the environment and cows (compare this to the large, super-dairies south of the border). Dairy farmers are very proud of their farms, putting great energy and time into their maintenance. One individual commented on Owen's blog pointed to the dismal New York rural landscape as an indicator of what 'cheap food' does to a rural society. I have heard this same comment from co-workers visiting Ontario; our well-kept fence rows mostly lack the rusty relics and vacant, blown over buildings commonly seen of rural American farmsteads. 

2) What is the cost of cheap food?

When margin is removed from the value chain, pretty quickly the entire value chain starts to feel the squeeze. As actions are taken to cut costs, the most critical element of the system is put at risk, food safety.

Frequent recalls in processed meats and produce could be partially attributed to the cheap food mentality. There should never be an excuse for actions which compromise human health and put lives at risk, yet we know large companies are under constant pressure to cut costs and increase production just to keep the lights on (and keep Canadians employed). It's not unreasonable to think in an environment where the bottom line is strained, less care may be taken or decisions which might otherwise seem inconsequential increase the risk of compromised safety. 

3) What does cheaper food solve?

As Owen already pointed out, it exists in Canada. Blessed to have never personally known the challenges facing low-income households, I do wonder if it's less a function of food prices and more about availability and proper education about healthy food preparation. 

The food desert is a well-documented issue in the U.S., and in Canada, we know there are also many regions, both within urban and rural areas where Canadians do not have access to fresh fruit and vegetables and healthy foods within walking distance. Compounding this, our schools no longer teach healthy cooking so while the edge of the supermarket is the cheapest route to the cash register, many resort to filling their cart with products from the centre aisles. Less nutrient dense and loaded with excess calories, fat, and sugar, these products may be more convenient, but are contributing to Canada’s tripling obesity rate. They are also more expensive.

You only need to watch one of the many food documentary trailers on YouTube to raise an eyebrow at the lengths the system has gone too to produce "cheap food". I believe the race to the bottom mentality with which our society has become obsessed is putting food production in a corner. Proper distribution of value, from farmer through the retailer and consumer ensures Canadians receive safe, healthy and sustainably produced food. Though great opportunity exists for reform in Canada’s dairy industry, sweeping changes intended to wipe out supply management may only hurt Canada in the long run.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Dairy Farmer's Pledge

A friend shared  The Grown Woman's Pledge this week, and as I read it, I couldn't help but hear a different pledge echoing back at me through Dr. F. Emelia Sam's words. This is a pledge for dairy farmers. Canadian dairy farmers specifically. It goes a little like this:

I'm tired.

Tired of being criticized to no end in the media. Tired of watching grown farmers act like helpless children. Tired of atrocious finger pointing. Tired of polarizing depictions of free trade utopia and family farm demise. Tired of the moral judgements. Tired of the  politicking. Tired of the overall dumbing down of dairy farmers.
But most of all, I'm tired of the way that far too many of us have come to view ourselves and subsequently treat each other.
Who's responsible?
Processors? Pizzerias? Media? Dairy leadership? The government?
We can challenge and change all the policies we want and hide from all the external threats we can imagine. But, at the end of the day, nothing matters if we don't address our internal beliefs. We all know that nothing really changes if we don't change ourselves and our selves are all we have control over, anyway.
Whether supply management "should" or "shouldn't" be changed, whatever. Shouldn't we leverage our strengths? Strengths like highest-in class quality, globally-sought after genetics and abundant arable land and freshwater? Shouldn't we claim a leadership position on the global dairy stage? Should we allow ourselves to be put in a corner by outsiders or stand-up and show the world we CAN do this? Shouldn't ALL Canadians have access to healthy, affordable dairy products whenever they want them, wherever they want them and however they want them? 
Yeah, yeah. I'm supposed to be firm in my position that our system doesn't rely on taxpayers' dollars, provides a fair return for farmers and ensures reliable and consistent milk supply... blah, blah, blah. Sometimes you just have to call it like you see it. 
There is dysfunction when it comes to any market in this world and no system is perfect. Yet, many have mistaken this reality for a raison d'etre -- they are so accustomed to the mantra, they have let it define who they think they are as a dairy farmer in Canada. It's time to stop internalizing the non-stop excuses and act like the leaders we are.
So, if you are a dairy farmer, take the pledge. If you aspire to be a dairy farmer in 10 years, take the pledge. If you couldn't care less what happens to your industry, you're the one who needs to take the pledge most of all.
Like it. Share it. Most all, live it. We can do better.
1. Other dairy farmers are not my competition.
Enough you/me, big/small, here/there. Until there is more demand for Canadian milk (re: market growth), there will be no more quota for you, me, him or her. It is up to us to create room for more farmers -- not elbow each other out. 
2. I admit that gossip is pointless. (This is verbatim from Dr. Sam, and it applies here too.)
"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt (a debated credit, but I'm going with Eleanor). Which mind do you have? Or are you just out of your mind? 
3. I acknowledge that dairy farming is self-defined.
Store feed in a silo or a bunk. Milk cows with robots or don't. Choose fancy cows or don't. There's a spectrum of dairy farmers and there will always be those with bigger and fancier. The only comparison you need to make is how you used to be and how far you've come. Do what you do. 
4. I recognize that farmers have value at every age.
Respect and learn from not only those who have gone before you but those who wish to come after you. This industry's strength was built on the grit and determination of thousands of great farmers, and it will soon be bore by far fewer, who are no less passionate.
5. I do not use my emotions as an excuse (to act the fool).
Emotions expose passion and sincerity. They can be shared, but don't use them to fight an economist. You'll lose every time. 
6. Take pride in your cows and land.
We have beautiful cows and farms. It has become part of who we are, and it sets us apart (along with a many other strengths). Never compromise looking after your cows and land.
7. I will show up.
There are no easy answers and tough decisions will be required. Read the reports, talk to fellow producers and attend your milk producers meeting to ask questions and learn. Understanding is participating. 
8. I always speak in my true voice.
Your voice is worthy of being heard. There is never any need to downplay the important job you do everyday, but remember you are owed nothing by consumers - they choose to to purchase dairy or not. 
9. I am a community hero.
Beneathe the coveralls you are a compassionate, determined, smart and generous being. You've donated over 10 million liters of milk to the food bank and countless hours to local service clubs, your kids' teams and agricultural organizations.
10. I will put my customer first
This means working with not only processors but retailers, restaurants and food service to get everyone the product they need so more people can enjoy dairy. All they need is cheese. So let's give it to them.

Do any of these resonate with you? Which parts of the oath have challenged or continue to challenge you? If you feel confident in your farmer status, feel free to share your wisdom. We need each other.

Adapted from Dr. F. Emelia Sam, "The Grown Woman's Pledge", The Third Metric, Huff Post, March 10, 2014

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How Do You Change a Nation? Through Education, One Child at a Time

I'm so excited to share the video our EMBA group produced for the Dream School Foundation! I shared my experience visiting India with my church last night, and I talked so much I ran out of time to show the video!

It was a great reminder to post it and share now that it's online. Enjoy and give this amazing cause a further look. They are changing lives, which will change the state of India's society going forward.


Monday, February 3, 2014

Agriculture Glass Ceiling - Why Is it Still There?

With the latest elections, the Dairy Farmers of Ontario now have a grand total of zero women on their Board of Directors. That's right - 0. As a young woman growing up in the industry and passionate about its future, this is not just disheartening but disappointing. Women are very involved at the local level in committees and breed associations, but few have sat around the provincial board table and even fewer at the national level.

Sadly, DFO is not unique in the demographics of their boardroom. After a quick, unscientific search, the results were dismal:

A recent Ivey Business Journel article cites a study which found at a minimum 3 women are required on a board for their participation to be effective. The article provides solid arguments why a minimum standard would not change the current, low levels of participation. In my opinion, all mandated minimum appointments achieve are representation. It will probably not entice more women to become involved nor will it ensure the best candidates, which this industry and all agriculture desperately need to direct the future.

If not mandated then, how can we get more women involved and close the gender gap around our board tables?

First, we need to start asking WHY they aren't there. This has been a recent topic of Twitter and Facebook conversation and my friend Sandi wrote about it just last week here. The common theme is often around time. There is only so much of it and only one parent can often be involved at an industry level. Hmmm sounds familiar.

But women are very involved in the local level, and another friend once said "all politics are local". Can the same not be said for our provincial and national associations? Perhaps not. Even IF a local committee has monthly meetings (fewer meetings is more common), there is less travel involved and it may require one weeknight with some weekend volunteering. Contrast this to the commitment of a DFO Director - at least 12 two-day meetings, plus various committees, the AGM and travel. It's daunting for anyone - young, old, man or woman.

In an age where Goto meeting and Webex are nearly free and individuals are doing business around the world through digital technology and never setting foot in the same room, is this archaic governing necessary or is it a hangover of the 'good ol days' where the real business was done in the hospitality suite? Don't get me wrong, I am no stranger to the hospitality suite and I place very high value on face-to-face meetings. I also place very high value on my time though, and in 2014, there seems like there may be more effective ways.

I consistently hear agricultural associations are looking for younger people to get involved in their board. Instead of trying to convince them why it's worth their time, maybe it's time to start looking at how your board could start leveraging the tools available to reduce the time required. Most youth know why board involvement is important and want to be involved.