Have you ever wondered what it would be like to step across the “conventional/organic divide”? During the first week of December, we (Jen Christie and Rob Wallbridge) did just that. Rob (an organic vegetable grower) had been invited to speak on a social media panel at Agri-trend’s Farm Forum Event in Saskatoon, SK; an annual gathering of hundreds of primarily large-scale Prairie farmers. Jen, (a conventional dairy farmer) attended the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario Conference in London, ON, a gathering of a couple hundred farmers from a wide variety of organic and ecological farms, mostly small-scale. A conversation on Twitter afterwards inspired this blog post where we share our thoughts and reflections in more detail.
What were your expectations before going to the event?
Jen: I had checked out the program in advance and I was intrigued by several of the session topics on rotational grazing and managing farm practices for better soil health, which is pertinent subject to all farmers, regardless of your size or system. I was curious as to how many producers would be there from larger farm operations, as I had the impression from the EFAO website and some previous member interactions their primary producer audience consisted of relatively new market-garden-type farmers. As such, I expected a more diverse crowd than the typical ag event. I already knew several women who were growing vegetables as organically as they could (without certification) and they were on average, much younger than the group of people I sat with at GrowCanada earlier in the week. My final expectation was the sessions would have a bias towards organic practices and if I’m honest with myself I expected this might mean some uncomfortable conversations. I expected some passionate positions on GMOs and conventional agriculture, but seeing it was a conference, I guess I also believed these would be presented in a professional manner.
Rob: I expected to see a primarily large-scale conventional grain growers and I expected the program to be heavily-weighted to their interests. The theme for the 2015 event was “The Biotech Connection” so I knew it would be pro-GMO. A quick glance at the program beforehand confirmed my suspicions, but I didn’t really look at the session topics in depth until I arrived – I was too busy worrying about what I was going to say during the panel discussion! I did expect to be one of very few, if not the only, organic producer at the event, and I wondered if I’d be openly challenged or made to feel uncomfortable as a result.
What surprised you most?
Jen: Despite expecting some bias, I was still taken aback by the hostility of the audience towards conventional agriculture practices. I was surprised by some producers in the breakout sessions, who would interrupt a presenter to comment on a point, challenge a finding, or try to lead the presenter to a conclusion, which may or may not be coming. In the process, references were made to “conventional farmers” and the “rest of Ontario farmers” like we were these villains destroying the planet. I expected these comments from the anti-GMO group set up in the trade show, not from the other farmers in attendance.
Interestingly though, as much as I had always considered organic to be ideological, it was very hard to not appreciate the science at this conference. Sessions on carbon sequestration and soil microbial health were very thought provoking and drew on multiple bodies of research, including some local from the University of Guelph. There may still have been an element of ideology but it was based on science first and foremost.
Rob: I was surprised by how similar the workshops I attended were to ones that I’d attend at an organic conference. Not that I expected a huge difference (crops are crops after all), but I was still impressed at how close the parallels were, particularly in the depth and breadth of the approach to soil and crop health and nutrition. Now granted, I intentionally selected breakout sessions that I thought would give me information I could take home and apply on my farm (“new and improved herbicides” and “nitrogen markets” weren’t my first priorities), but of the 8 choices in each session, there were always one or two that piqued my interest.
What also surprised me were many people’s assumptions that this wouldn’t be the case. More than one person commented on how out of my element I must have felt, or how little I’d be able to gain from the breakout sessions. To put it in a very stark contrast, a lot of organic advocates seem to assume that conventional farming is all about NPK and sprays, while many in the conventional farming world seem to assume organic farmers just spread a bunch of manure and take what they get at the end of the season. The reality is that everyone is engaged in a much more complex set of management practices with a much bigger set of tools!
What was your biggest takeaway?
Jen: I’m no soil scientist but I now think you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t look deeper at the science of soil and understand what impact your practices are having on its health. Farmers across the country are talking about soil health, regardless of size or system, but I don’t think it’s being taken seriously enough. We need to be willing to take risks to improve soil health, which could require us to try new ideas, even if they originated with someone who does not share our beliefs. As much as we worry about the public’s misunderstanding of farming, there is truly a misunderstanding among farmers which is more detrimental to agriculture. Judging other farmers by their practices is unproductive because it limits our capacity to open our minds and learn from one another.
Rob: There are big forces on both sides that are trying to shape everyone’s perceptions of food and farming to serve their own interests, and the collateral damage is a divided farm community.
Jon Entine’s keynote speech gave a lot of examples of how anti-GMO groups are using fear to influence consumers, and although he did acknowledge the complexity of the issues, his key message, and his call to action, was that conventional farmers, as individuals, were literally under attack from a “Big Organic” monster that represented a clearly inferior production system. The anxiety in the room after his talk was palpable, but I’m not sure how many people understood how effectively he had just used fear to influence their perception of the organic sector. My biggest concern is that the end result of this division is missed opportunities and strained relationships for the farmers involved.
Having said all that, none of the farmers at the event were rude or confrontational towards me in any way; throughout the conference, several people approached me with sincere questions, constructive comments and positive feedback. The general consensus seemed to be that farmers of all types need to spend more time talking with (or maybe more importantly listening to!) each other.
If you were to go again, what would you do different?
Jen: I do wonder how much my own bias influenced my discomfort and if I projected this onto the experience. Could I have had more open and honest conversations with the producers? Possibly, but I think we’d have to get to know each other on a level where we didn’t feel like we were being judged. I would have to give up what I hold and believe to be true to allow those who disagree to freely present their opinions. This is not an easy thing to do. I think back to a lunchtime conversation and wonder if I provoked the woman? Was my comment on the similarities of the soil health dialogue a challenge rather than an olive branch? Perhaps, I could’ve said nothing at all, asked questions and listened. Often, that’s the safest route and where learning resides.
Rob: I’d spend more time getting to know the other people there. (I met a lot of people I only know through social media and didn’t get to spend enough time with any of them!) I’d also encourage other open-minded organic producers to attend. We need to find more opportunities to talk about our common challenges and how we deal with them on our individual farms: being able to look at problems from different perspectives can inspire new solutions.
What’s your reaction to hearing about the other person’s experience?
Jen: It was very encouraging to learn Rob had a good experience. Thinking about this post, I realized I really don’t know many organic farmers “in real life” or online. Social media can be a real echo chamber if we let it and I’m thankful that Rob speaks up to clarify how organic “really works” when the rest of my Twitter feed is RT the same memes & assumptions in an effort to combat what they feel is an attack from “big organic”. This isn’t always received well, so I commend Rob for getting up in front of hundreds of conventional farmers to talk. I suspect there’s a lot of people who wouldn’t be so brave, and I’m so glad to hear the audience was receptive to his message.
Rob: I was really disappointed to hear the Jen felt uncomfortable and experienced some negative interactions. I know that organic producers tend to be passionate about what they do and not afraid to go against the grain, but I don’t think that’s any excuse for rudeness or hostility. I’ve been on the organizing committees for organic conferences and events, and trying to attract conventional farmers to learn more about the opportunities in the organic market is always a big consideration. I’m impressed (though not surprised, given her eagerness to embrace new ideas) that Jen was willing to take a chance and check out the EFAO conference. It’s disturbing to hear that people like her who do attend organic events may have experiences that make them think twice about coming back. The organic farmers I know tend to pride themselves on a sense of cooperation rather than competition and a willingness to share information with each other. I hope this discussion serves as a reminder that we’re all part of the same community.
Any final thoughts?
Jen: The EFOA Conference was far more diverse than most ag events, as I expected it would be. There were many new farmers present who will be sure to approach agriculture in a way which will be different than those of us who have farmed for six or seven generations. They will be innovators and will have ideas which fail and others which take off and change agriculture. I find this incredibly exciting and wish these young farmers much success. Like me, they were keen to learn and network, and I believe we will increasingly need to lean on each other in the future as we face climate change, labour shortages and other challenges. Wouldn’t it be great if the fenceline between us could be a meeting place instead of a divide?
Rob: The attendees of the Farm Forum Event represented an immense pool of practical, hard-earned, often multi-generational, knowledge of agriculture. Just as importantly, everyone recognized that they’ve still got things to learn. Though there will probably always be a dynamic tension between elements in both the EFAO and FFE crowds, it’s exciting to imagine how quickly we could drive progress on several fronts by sharing ideas and insights.
At the end of the day, Jen and Rob have proved you can cross the organic/conventional divide and return unharmed. Neither have decided to abandon their current method of farming, but they have a greater appreciation for how the other farms, and especially how much they have in common. So often, focus is given to differences which leads to disagreement. If farmers shifted their energy to what they share in common with each other, their voices could be much stronger and more credible because there is less tearing each other down. It may be uncomfortable but seeing the other side of agriculture is a worthwhile experience if you’re interested in shaking up your usual winter meeting schedule.