Food for Thought: Influencers and Leaders in Canadian Agriculture

Andrew Campbell: 52 farms in 52 weeks

Farming is more of a lifestyle than a career. A commitment to working seven days a week as a steward of the land, being on-call twenty-four hours a day for any kind of emergency. But for farmers like Andrew Campbell, there’s always more that can be done.

His video series, 52 farms in 52 weeks, has him travelling around Canada profiling farms from every sector and giving an inside look at their day-to-day operations. From tulips to water buffalo to robot-run dairy farms, he’s seen them all. But growing up, Campbell didn’t think that farming would be his calling.

Campbell grew up on a dairy farm near London, Ontario, and after high-school he left the farm to study Journalism at Fanshaw College. Eventually this led to a job at CKNX, a country music station where he worked as a news anchor and reporter. Soon he moved to the position of Farm Director, responsible for covering agriculture issues, effectively merging his upbringing with his passion for journalism. But after a while, he was drawn back to the cows.

“I was talking to farmers a lot, keeping up with industry news and events and all that kind of stuff. There was a realization that the industry I had grown up in was a pretty neat one,” says Campbell.

“That idea of being that downtown Toronto news anchor wasn’t something that I really wanted to be. I was in a small town and that was too big-city for me as it was. I wanted to be out in the country and raise my kids in the same type of spot that I was fortunate enough to be raised in and so we headed to the farm.”

It wasn’t long before Campbell’s journalistic tendencies surfaced once again. He started a picture-a-day project on Twitter, #farm365, sharing pictures of his farm to his followers, showing them what the daily life and routine of a dairy farmer was like. It wasn’t long before the positive reception influenced Campbell to expand his idea into his current project, 52 Farms in 52 Weeks, where every week he visits a different type of farm, interviewing the owners and giving an authentic look into their operations.

“There’s so many other farms and operations and innovations that people should understand what goes on. Even if it’s a little farm or a big farm they’re all family farms with people trying to do their best every day. That was kind of the thing that made me think maybe it’s time to highlight more than just my own cows and step outside and highlight what other people are doing,” says Campbell. 

Andrew headshot.jpg

Since the project started, Campbell has visited a wide variety of farms, and there’s one thing he sees in every single farm he visits.

“There’s so much similarity down in the depths of why people farm. It’s about having your family around you, but also the mindset of challenging yourself to always do it a little better next time, no matter what the obstacles are. Farming is an all in type thing. They invest everything they have into it which is cool,” says Campbell.

This idea of constant improvement isn't foreign to Campbell's own dairy farm. He says that staying up to date on research and consulting with his team of nutritionists, vets and agronomists gives him the edge to stay sustainable while maximizing profits.

"We focus a lot on the cows - since they take up the most of our time. Little things like improving feed intakes, which typically translates into more milk production. By making little changes and then consistently tracking it to see what happens - we can know when we've done something better and then look for the next improvement. One little improvement may not look like a lot. But five little improvements working together can incredible effective," says Campbell.

Campbell’s video series doesn’t shy away from touchy subjects. He’s visited a veal farm, and more recently talked to farmers about neonics and the reasons why they are sprayed onto crops. In today’s world of social media outrage it can be a dangerous path to take, but Campbell believes these are issues that are best served by shining a light onto them instead of keeping them in the dark.

“People have an idea about what a veal farm looks like, and people aren’t going to get a different perception of it if we don’t show them,’ says Campbell.

“A lot of the negative perceptions of agriculture tend to come from fear or guilt. Those two emotions alone control probably most of the skepticism of agriculture. So let’s target those emotions. If we know that going in people are feeling guilty about a veal farm then let’s make them not feel guilty. Not by dressing it up but by showing them what it’s actually like. If it’s fear on pesticides lets target that emotion and say why is it the way it is. It’s not that they finish the video and all of a sudden they’re smiling and go buy RoundUp and everybody’s happy. That’s not the point. If you target that emotion you can start to hopefully have them think a little bit deeper on it than just that raw emotion that they’ve been dealing with up until that point.”

In fact, on the veal and pesticide videos mentioned, there are far more positive comments than negative. Some viewers mention that the farms are much better than what they pictured them to be. A step in the right direction for public opinion on agriculture.

Campbell notes that it isn’t only important to give the public an honest view of the things going within agriculture, but it’s also crucial that the government understands the complex aspects of agriculture if they want to meet the goal they set forth in the 2017 budget of increasing agriculture exports to $75 billion by 2025.

“I think it’s one of those challenges that shows the realities of what we face in the industry. Less and less people in Agriculture Canada or the civil service in general have any idea of some of the complicated policies in agriculture.” Says Campbell.

“It’s not a black and white business. I know people that say ‘Oh the government should only hire people with farm experience for those positions,” well that can’t happen. There just aren’t the people there anymore. What we have to do is make sure that all levels of government, including the bureaucracy itself, understand some of these more complex parts of ag policy.”

This comes after the federal government announced the reduction of annual contribution limits for AgriInvest, a move that has angered various farm groups around the country as it is in direct contradiction of their goal to raise exports. Campbell says in the past decades he has seen a slow “erosion” of support from the federal government, where they continue to pull back just a little bit of support every few years.

“You’re talking big dollars in some cases and people without a whole lot of experience or knowledge of the industry see that and say ‘Oh we need to cut some money in the budget and here’s a pretty easy spot,’ they see that only a couple thousand people will be impacted and they kind of trim it off. Like fuel tax redemptions. Little things like that where ten or fifteen years ago you would be crucified if you even mentioned that. Now they are always putting these issues up for discussion,” says Campbell.

“I think though that we’ve got to be very careful that they don’t erode some of those things that have helped us get to the point we’re at today. That don’t erode some of that competitiveness that we have here in Canada. And even if it’s not to be more competitive but to be as competitive as other countries in the world they have to be very careful as to how to address that so we can continue to build the industry as we all want to do.”