Bridging the two solitudes of the urban-rural divide
Canada’s Agriculture Day is here, and I’d like to share some thoughts that are on our minds at Sollio Agriculture. Agri-food is one of Canada’s main industries. It helps drive regional economies and provides numerous jobs. It’s also growing. However, it’s important to bear in mind that the life of farmers is becoming increasingly complex: they need to feed the population, remain competitive, keep investing in equipment and technology, be data driven, stay calm about their debt ratios, pollute less and adapt constantly to changing consumer needs.
I meet with farmers regularly; it’s my favourite part of the job. And, I’ve learned that there’s one thing that keeps them up at night:
How to make their farms prosper and feel more secure about their families’ futures.
One. Begin a true dialogue between Canada’s two solitudes. Though I’m borrowing the expression from Prime Minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, I’m not referring to Francophones and Anglophones, but rather rural and urban Canadians. Canadian cities have grown 50% in ten years, but the rural population has stayed flat. According to Rabobank, "the ‘greatest challenge’ in the industry is “the disconnect between farm and fork.”
Two. Challenge conventional wisdom. The world is changing. The world is in the streets: we need to change the way we think. Gradually, we have gotten used to consumers dictating certain choices and practices, and we have adapted to meet their needs. It was a matter of market share, positioning and competitiveness. Today, society wants a say in what we farm, how to farm it and who to farm it for. Everyone feels entitled to tell farmers what and how they should be farming. We have to ask ourselves how we want to respond if we want to be proactive in the face of this new business reality. What’s clear is that we need to stand up and join the conversation, because agriculture is much more complex than many think.
Three. Create value for farmers. How? By hitting the ground running and transforming social movements into business opportunities. Some companies are selling “pesticide residue-free” frozen vegetables, and others—who need no introduction—are offering “plant-based meat.” Another promising sign: new sustainability certifications are becoming more and more common, such as ISCC (International Sustainability & Carbon Certification) for cereals and RTRS (Round Table on Responsible Soy) for soy. These grain marketing certifications are already having an impact on what happens in the field.
Four. Accelerate precision agriculture. Technology is making it possible to collect increasing amounts of data on product use. However, new agricultural practices are slow to take hold on the ground. We need to accelerate the implementation of precision agriculture. To do so, we need to advance the digitization of agriculture. First, a tax credit program would help facilitate the process. Next, we need to facilitate targeted product application by making the Canadian market more attractive to manufacturers of precision farming machinery. We could also help farmers transition successfully through an equipment upgrade incentive program. Precise, smart agriculture means applying the right product in the right amount, in the right place and at the right time. We believe that this is the foundation of sustainable precision agriculture.
Five. We need to adopt innovative technologies and implement an ambitious skills acquisition program. In the August 2019 issue of RBC Thought Leadership – Farmer 4.0: How the Coming Skills Revolution Can Transform Agriculture, the financial institution stated that Canada’s share of global food exports has shrunk consistently over the past 20 years and its productivity growth rate has decreased to 1.8%. I wholeheartedly share RBC’s opinion that we need to rethink and transform our methods of production and marketing in agri-food. This is especially true in light of RBC’s study, which reveals that “Canada’s agricultural productivity can get back in line with the recent 10-year average of 3%. The payoff: another $11 billion of output” in the next 10 years.
Six. Large organizations—including farming businesses—must address the labour shortage. A shortage of 123,000 workers is forecasted in the agriculture sector over the next 10 years. Between now and 2025, 25% of farmers will be 65 or older. As a division of Canada’s largest agriculture co-op, Sollio Agriculture is guided by principles of respect and humanity in its business. I believe that younger generations are more attracted to organizations with alternative business models. I could say that co-ops are also destined to be both profitable and responsible: profitable because the co-op model is about making money for the greater good and responsible because the model focuses on caring for farming families, their health, and the quality of their environment.
We are in over 300 rural communities in Canada; we share their anxieties. A couple of farm closings can sometimes mean the closure of the town school. Farmers are concerned about international trade, ecology, the next generation, and citizens who don’t understand the realities of farming.
We have to get to know each other better. For city dwellers to understand what life is like for farmers, we need to begin a real dialogue that goes beyond our differences to find out what we have in common. If we want to develop prosperous agriculture and help put farmers at ease about their families’ futures, we need to transition to more sustainable agriculture. This transition is already under way, but we often lack the means and support to make it happen. We need to make sure the transition does not hinder productivity. We need to stay alert so that we can seize opportunities to leverage new knowledge and technology for the benefit of farming families.
- $6.5 billion in revenue in 2018–2019
- Over $433 million in member dividends since 2007
- Over 120,000 members in six provinces / over 14,000 employees
- 320 sites in rural Canada, in 9 provinces
- $2.1 billion in revenue in 2018–2019
- Over 1,100 employees
- Grain exports in 29 countries
 The agri-food sector accounts for 2.9% ($49.4 billion) of Canada’s GDP and 12% ($62.5 billion) of the country’s exports.It employs 575,800 people. Source: https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/098.nsf/eng/00015.html