A Calgary daily newspaper recently published an article from an individual who had recently discovered that farming is much more complicated than he ever imagined. He had recently attended an information field day organized by an agriculture group and was astounded by the sheer diversity and technological depth of the crop information being presented. His point being that modern day commercial farming was not simple. Then he noted that despite that reality there still is a deprecating attitude in the mainstream media, advertising and popular culture that agriculture is just a way of life that requires little education or expertise. Sadly, I expect many of us would agree with that perspective and that’s despite all the efforts of ag awareness organizations and government agencies to try and enlighten the urban public.
In my view, it all boils down to the present reality that the average urban consumer never has to worry about how and from where food comes from – it just always seems to appear every morning at local grocery stores and restaurants of every sort. Unfortunately, short of a famine that urban perception is unlikely to change.
One has to be bemused by some food advertisers who to this day try to portray farmers in a 1950s-time warp dressed in overalls with a red barn in the background and driving a 1956 Chevy pickup truck. Where do they find such settings and how come its always a pickup of 1956 vintage – those trucks are hard to find. On the other hand, I expect the stark reality of modern food production doesn’t have the bucolic charm of a time long ago when farm life was much simpler, serene and seemingly more wholesome. Advertisers after all are trying to weave a positive, mystical perception about their product in the mind of the gullible consumer, even if it is somewhat deceptive. But I digress.
What is clear as the aforementioned observer noted is that commercial agriculture has become incredibly complicated – so much so – that producers themselves have had to become skilled specialists in specific production sectors like crop production, livestock husbandry, intensive agriculture or special crops. The larger farming operations get, the less opportunity there is for production diversification. That’s mainly because of the sheer logistics and marketing involved in managing the massive production from large operations.
For example, since the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board cereal growers have had to become very marketing savvy, utilizing more contracting options and hedging strategies than ever before. Every year there are innovative technology developments to consider in agronomics, plant genetics and automation. All are designed to shave the ever-increasing cost of production. For instance, drone crop monitoring technology is a new production tool that wasn’t even thought of 10 years ago. Now producers are being confronted with the possibility of remotely-controlled tillage and even seeding with robot tractors.
Clearly it’s getting more complicated everyday just to manage and absorb the information deluge and that’s just in agriculture. The result of that information overload has seen the development of even more specialized specialists down to specific agronomic practices. Consulting companies have sprung up across the prairies that are offering highly focused technical advice on specific practices like seeding, tillage and chemical applications. They do complex analysis of existing production practices and soil nutrient structure and then make agronomic recommendations to increase yields and drive down costs. Interestingly providing such information harkens back to the days when Alberta Agriculture was the main source of such advice for farmers through its intricate web of extension services.
That peaked in the 1980s when the government employed an army of district agriculturists (DA) and commodity specialists. But even back then it was realized that with the flood of information that it was almost impossible for a DA to keep up to a level where they knew something about everything in ag production. It was also realized that those government folks were serving a declining number of smaller and medium-sized producers. The increasing number of large-scale commercial growers were already using the services of highly trained specialists provided by fertilizer and chemical companies. Many of those folks then struck out on their own and set up production and marketing consulting businesses. The result was that within about a 10-year time period the government had eliminated its DA service and is now down to providing advice on a call-in phone service. It’s no wonder that when urban folks look at modern agriculture they realize its not that simple.