Comment: Where agriculture fits in a world of constant change

Change isn’t anything new to agriculture, but the sector’s image doesn’t reflect that reality

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Stability was the benchmark word of success for not only our agri-food sector, but all of society.

It was the white picket fence, house with a yard and car marked as the iconic ‘American Dream’ everyone aspired to. Stability meant security — get a job, buy a house, stay with the same company for 25+ years and retire by freedom 55.

Stability now in our world marks a time where if you’re not changing, evolving, moving forward, or trying something new, you’re stagnating and slowly falling behind.

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The world is asking us to change every single day. We no longer have a choice as to whether we want to change. We know we have too.

It reminds me of when I first entered the workforce a decade ago. The idea of moving around in the corporate world — moving to a new company or trying a new role every few years — was still frowned upon and wasn’t yet the norm. I remember sitting on a hiring panel at the time, where someone critiqued a candidate at how quickly they had moved around organizations, wondering if there was something ‘wrong’ with their work ethic.

That moment was like looking into the future of the job market and deciding we weren’t ready as a company to embrace what was just around the corner. Change.

Is there another industry that can speak to evolution and change more than our agri-food sector?

We’re dealing with a culmination of ‘change’ factors right now as an industry — generational, leadership, technology, relevancy, efficiency and branding to name a few.

We’ve looked for ways to proactively evolve since the turn of the century when we went from horse-drawn plough to tractor. And yet, we’re still known for our stereotypical ‘farmer in overalls’ image outside of our agri-food circles.

We need our target audience, our consumers, to see we’ve evolved. The conversation around change isn’t just an age discussion either. This isn’t a millennial-baby boomer conversation. Every generation has experienced change, but when I hear industry leaders say they’ve never seen this much change happening all at once and at this rate, it makes me stop and think about the times we’re really living in.

That is the whole point of change — it is personal to each of us.

It reminds me of the technology-innovation adoption cycle I was first introduced to in one of my University of Guelph classes.

Some people see change and embrace it early on. These people are the ‘innovators or early adopters.’ Others are open to change but need the right encouragement or push forward to see that while change can be unknown and scary, it is necessary — these are the ‘early/late majority.’ The people who refuse change, they’re known as ‘laggards.’

I suspect that many consumers would think our sector is on the latter half of the innovation adoption cycle — strictly because of the image we portray.

For the money we’ve invested and spent in research, development and innovation as an industry, the same can’t be said for our marketing-communications budgets.

When we should have marketed ourselves out to consumers in one united voice, we’ve segmented how we promote our industry, which makes me wonder: What is the image we’re portraying to our consumers and more importantly, how should we portray our industry to consumers going forward?

We need this answer and we need it fast. And we need it in a more united way as an industry. We must harness the disruptive times we’re living in and harness the change collectively.

We need to be strategically planning years if not decades from now, to ensure our value chain evolves and remains relevant and effective for all involved – and we need to do this before a company like Amazon does this for us where it could upend our value chain.

More importantly, we need to show we’re changing and evolving to attract the right people to work for our agri-food industry. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council released a report this fall that said 37 per cent of the Canadian agriculture sector will retire by 2029. In 2014, Ontario’s agriculture sector employed 103,000 people while unable to fill 8,600 jobs. This cost the industry $436 million. By 2025, Ontario is expected to have the largest farm labour shortage with 46,600 more jobs than the domestic labour force can fill.

How will we ‘people proof’ our industry to ensure we’re not only sustainable and viable but that we’re here for many decades to come?

Acknowledging the change we’re experiencing and being open to change is the first step in the right direction.

Will millennials be the generation that succumbs to change or withstands change? As a millennial myself, I’ll be on this roller coaster to the end to find out #HoldOnTight.

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