Six seeds of separation: Communicating how agriculture connects Canada

Communicators in the agricultural sector face a paradox: the way food is grown and produced matters more than ever, and yet the urbanization of Canada means consumers are increasingly disconnected from the farm.

That was on my mind last week as I attended Canada’s Agriculture Day conference in Ottawa — a day of learning and sharing ideas about the future of food.

As the day progressed, it struck me that most of our livelihoods are directly linked to agriculture, beyond the food we eat. And if you are not directly involved, then you can very quickly identify someone within your network of family and friends who is. It could be called ‘six seeds of separation’ — and it makes agriculture relevant to every one of us.

So what kind of jobs were represented in the room? I started to take a tally, and quickly filled a page. There were farmers, educators, researchers, agricultural engineers, civil servants, politicians (the Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAulay spoke). I met lawyers, analysts, marketers, consultants and bankers. I had a conversation with a person who commented on the need for trained technicians to service not only the new technology in field and in plants, but also to maintain tried and true farm machinery.

Technology is leading to innovation and efficiencies with harvesting and processing. Did you know there is a machine that can gently vacuum pests from strawberry plants? There may be fewer people on the fields or in processing facilities, but the sector is hungry for new talent. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council predicts that by 2025, the industry will have more than 114,000 jobs that cannot be filled by the domestic labour force.

A representative of CN spoke about Canada’s network of rail and the importance of temperature-controlled rail cars to maintain product stability in Canada’s weather extremes. I considered the shippers, logistics companies, rail engineers and crew, warehouse operators, ports, airports, storage facilities and border agents. I can go on: basically, every dimension of our transportation and logistics sectors is linked to agriculture.

A woman from Cargill talked about cell-based meat. This is the emerging ability to grow meat from cells. In other words, synthetic meat that doesn’t involve an actual animal. This is just one of the alternative proteins being explored. This technology is in its infancy but is beyond theory and entering plausibility. This is one way science and biotechnology careers touch agriculture.

Representatives from Costco and Loblaws spoke to the group. Think about all the people involved in the grocery retail supply chain: procurement specialists, cashiers, store managers, brokers and distributors. Plus, the people who are innovating and considering new delivery and ordering channels to meet evolving needs of consumers.

Then I thought about the Agriculture and Trade team at Argyle. We have experienced so many parts of the agri-business supply chain. My colleagues and I have toured breweries, food processing plants, aquaculture operations, tropical fruit distribution warehouses, packaging plants, produce farms, livestock operations, ports and warehouses. We have counseled food companies on how to export to and sell their products in Canada. We have helped market food and beverage products nationwide. We have advised food and agriculture industries in times of crisis. We link buyers, retailers and distributors with food companies ready for export. What we do is broad, and always interesting.

The conference helped crystalize that there are many ways to link our food supply chain to Canadians in meaningful ways. The path may not be through the farm or grocery store but may be in customizing the story so consumers recognize their connection to agriculture — through those six seeds of separation.

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