Choosing our words wisely – the impact of language in agriculture

Many groups and companies are working hard to promote agriculture and all the good that it does for our economy, food supply and environment. When communicating with others about our profession, I think we need to be careful with the words we use and how we use them. Sometimes, they don’t accurately reflect a modern farming operation, the people who work there or our practices. 

Here are a few words and phrases I think we should stop or limit the use of and some alternatives we should consider:

 

Genetic engineering  

Whoever came up with this term in the 1970s likely had no idea that it would be used against the agriculture industry. It freaks people out and when they don’t understand things, they get nervous. Public perception is huge and while people say they want “pure” and “natural” foods, they disregard the benefits that genetically modified foods have or can provide. A more accurate and perhaps more palatable term might be gene “editing.” Gene editing refers to very precise changes that can be made to the plant’s genome including simple edits or deletions of one or a few targeted letters in the genetic code. We need to do a better job of explaining this to the public and how it’s increasing our ability to grow things more sustainably – in some cases it allows farmers to grow crops closer together and reduce the amount of resources, like soil and water, required. 

Regenerative farming

Regenerative isn’t a bad term, but I feel like it’s confusing for the public. It leads them to think there’s a whole new type or class of farming that only a few are practicing when, in reality, I’d argue most farmers are already employing the majority of the 5 key aspects of regenerative farming which are: keeping soil covered, minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining living root year round (difficult in parts of Canada with freezing temperatures), maximizing crop diversity and integrating livestock. I like the terms climate-smart or climate-positive farming as it lets the public know that what we’re doing on the farm has a positive impact on the environment and climate change.  

Corporate Farm

The media, and therefore the public, has villainized this term when, in fact, it’s not a bad thing at all if you understand business. To incorporate a business is for tax, liability, or transition purposes – it has no change to the family ownership of the farm. So, to say that agriculture today consists largely of “corporate farms” is true; many family farms incorporate because it makes good business sense. Can we please stop using this term as if it has a negative connotation?

Sweat Equity

How many times have you heard this one? Growing up in a farming community it’s used all the time about family members contributing towards the operation. It’s the belief that they contribute time and skills, but not capital and as a family, need to “earn” their way into the family business without being paid for their work. We need to change this way of thinking. Whether it is calculated in wages or equity growth, we need to ensure we pay family members and ensure it is tracked and documented so it’s not just a promise that is never fulfilled.

I believe that all family should be paid fairly for their contributions whether it’s their time, brains or money. Sweat equity is a term used when owners don’t want to be fair to all family members when they sell or transition their business.

Legacy 

This is a tricky one. People use it with no ill intent; the older generation wants the land and the farm to stay in the family for future generations. At the same time, we must face the reality that not all kids want the responsibility or pressure of taking on the business. In our consulting business, we see the toll this added responsibility can take on people’s mental health. The guilt associated with not carrying on the family “legacy” can be soul-crushing to some and I think the weight of this word contributes to addiction and mental health issues in ag. 

Another point to make here is that other industries have family businesses but don’t seem to use the word legacy quite as often. Something about family farm dynamics in agriculture romanticizes this word.  We always discuss that our farm legacy is to leave the financials, the land, the community and the industry in a better position.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the next generation will take it over. I can hope they will, but it is part of my job description to build it into something they want to be part of, that is exciting and fun, not a stressful monster.

Hired Hand

For as long as there have been farms, people have been using the term hired hand.  I think it does a disservice to the professionals we have working on our farm. Typically, a hired hand refers to a person or general labourer who helps with day-to-day operations, planting, harvesting, tending to livestock and general maintenance.

While that may have been true years ago, the majority of our team today are professionals who have either degrees, diplomas, certifications, or to be honest great wisdom from the school of hard knocks. From accountants to red-seal heavy-duty mechanics, operators and business grads, our team is highly educated and sees their career at HGV as a professional with room to grow and advance. 

Employees 

This one is a pet peeve of mine. There’s nothing wrong with the word employee, it’s just a word that I choose not to use. Instead, you’ll hear me referring to our team and team members. Maybe it’s something about growing up playing hockey, but I do feel like people want to know they’re contributing to a collective goal. Like in hockey, we can’t win the game – or grow and harvest the crop – without every single individual on my team contributing.  As well, team members want to be part of the team, see value in strategy and filling a role for periods of time, not just everything being perfunctory for them. 

Every industry has its jargon and we all fall into the same bad habits. I think changing the way we use some of these words, or not using them at all, could help change the perception of our industry. What do you think? Any words you would add to the list?