It was the last place I would have imagined turning for answers.
A few years ago, my brother, sister-in-law and I developed a summer investment strategy. We bought day-old turkeys from the local co-op and fed them table scraps for months.
But as the turkeys grew, questions arose. Could turkeys eat watermelon? Did turkeys need to be moved inside during a thunderstorm? Were racoons a threat to turkeys?
For answers, we turned to a network of people who had embarked on small-scale turkey ventures before. They provided insight on the best way they thought turkeys could thrive. Still, some of our precise questions couldn’t be answered by those wisened by experience.
When we were left wanting more information, there was the Internet, of course, to search for answers. Yet, often the search results were overwhelming and it was hard to tell which sources were reliable.
Our little quest for answers was often abandoned and we were left to trial and error.
The way farmers search for information has driven dozens of researchers around the world for the last three decades.
Over the past few months, I’ve read many of their studies. I’m embarking on a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science and reading research studies that identify the way farmers look for information and the barriers they face when they pursue it.
Often, demographic and geographic context plays a huge role.
For instance, a study in southwestern Ontario in the 1990s looked specifically at the way female farmers gathered agricultural information. After interviewing 42 female farm owners, University of Western Ontario researcher Gloria Leckie found that women often faced social stigma when trying to get agricultural information in person. Male farmers had fewer problems when approaching fellow farmers or farm advisors for information or advice, Leckie stated. Women, on the other hand, were often met with raised eyebrows when seeking information in-person. Study participants reported their legitimacy as a farmer was often questioned as they were performing a non-traditional gender role. In order to avoid the social stigma, several female farmers relied on family members who were also farmers or a veterinarian, who was non-threatening and nonjudgemental, to provide in person information. When those sources couldn’t provide the information required, female farmers often read books, magazines or other print sources in an attempt to get new agricultural information. Sometimes, they, too, were simply left to trial and error.
Of course, Leckie’s study was conducted before the widespread use of the Internet and I imagine if it were conducted again, she would find something similar to what Julia Laforge of Lakehead University and Stephan McLachlan from the University of Manitoba found.
Laforge and McLachlan’s 2018 study looked at how new organic and ecological farmers in Manitoba and Ontario gained information. This group of farmers embracing “permaculture, organic, biodynamic, ecological and holistic management” farming often lacked readily -available information and were spread far apart. Laforge and McLachlan discovered that social media often enabled these farmers to form groups online to share information and experiences, ask questions, learn from one another and build a digital community of support. However, Laforge and MacLachlan highlighted that often answers weren’t available within social media groups. Agricultural questions needed to consider the type of crop grown, the precise geographical location of farmer and the length of time a farmer has his or her trade. Instead, the researchers highlighted the need for more in-person support in order for farmers to gain new information that may affect their farming practices.
Further away, a study in Australia looked at how remote farmers growing grain and cotton gained information. The researcher, Ann Starasts, stated that the Australian government was increasingly putting agricultural information online for farmers in an effort to support agricultural production. However, when farmers did access the information, it was often confusing, difficult to navigate and overwhelming for farmers.
On the other hand, in Thailand, researchers Unchasa Seenuankaew and Chollabhat Vongprasert highlighted how free, in-person training sessions led by government agricultural officials helped farmers gain new information that, once applied, later improved rice yields. Indeed, government support for farmers and the way they learn matters.
I could go on and on about studies in Tanzania, the Netherlands and Sri Lanka. What I could surmise was this: farmers rely on a network of fellow farmers to get new information. When that network of farmers can not provide the answers, farmers attempt to get information from the internet, from agricultural workers, from training events, from books or the media. When all else fails, farmers have to resort to trial and error.
In Canada, agronomists try to help farmers solve the quest for unknown information and make decisions to improve production. These agronomists work for feed companies, seed companies or banks and while much of this information is supported by evidence, there is also a profit-motivation behind the information being provided.
Instead, there is a need for scientific information that’s unbiased, easy to find and easy to understand, where farmers can interpret the information for themselves and make decisions about it. In my mind, that support should be provided more widely by various government agriculture offices.
Another idea: arm farmers with information skills to access quality information themselves.
In many communities, libraries run digital literacy workshops. The goal of these workshops is to help people identify reliable sources of information and to become aware of more effective routes to get reliable information online, instead of Google. You can request this service from your nearest library branch.
By developing our own skills, farmers like my brother, sister-in-law and I do not need to be left to their own devices when searching for information. We can find the reliable information ourselves and continue feeding our turkeys watermelon to their hearts’ content. ◊