For the first time in Canadian farming, the way a farm markets its products — or “ingredients,” as local food guru Anita Stewart calls them — is more important than how it produces them. That eye-opening comment is straight from the Agricultural Institute of Canada and its new report called “Sustaining Agriculture in Canada through Innovation and Diversification.” It may go down as a landmark study and, no doubt, one of the most controversial statements uttered in farming in years.

Traditionally, the agriculture sector has valued and emphasized production, particularly how to eek more out of existing land, crops or animals. But this study, aimed at starting what it calls an informed debate on redefining and sustaining agriculture in Canada, suggests something different. It says farmers who focus on innovation and diversification in both marketing and production at the farm level improve their profitability.

There’s a reason for this study’s timing, and there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

For one, profitability remains woefully low for many farms, despite bright spots on the horizon, such as biofuel feedstock production.

Second, the institute’s report was commissioned from the Saskatchewan Innovation Corporation, a coalition of farm, rural and business leaders along the supply chain continuum in that prairie province.

Saskatchewan is certainly a major farming force in Canada, but it’s never been particularly diverse or renowned for individual farmer marketing. Quite the opposite, in fact. Saskatchewan’s been a mainstay of support for the Canadian Wheat Board, the quasi-government organization that is the centre of a raging debate right now about farmers’ freedom to market their own grain. The federal conservative government wants to break up the board’s power as Canada’s sole export grain marketer; the board is rallying support to prevent it. Can farmers diversify their marketing plans if they can only sell export grain through one avenue? That’s a big question, and the institute seems to be offering an answer through this report.

But the institute has a pragmatic reason for commissioning the report, too. In January, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada announced an investment fund for innovation in agri-food. About $134 million is available for commercialization of new agri-based products, processes and services, to get ideas from what the institute describes as the drawing board to the marketplace.

In particular, funds under the program will be provided for projects aimed at increasing marketing opportunities and generating demand for agricultural products. The institute says it wants farmers to be thinking about ways they can use this money.

One of my favourite parts of the study is a statement from the organization’s president Dale Kelly. He says leading farmers are good communicators, and look to develop relationships that will assist them in improving their business and its profitability.

More and more, communications is seen as an essential part of farming. That’s certainly new. Farmers are busy farming. But they need to make sure their industry is represented well — by them, when they can, or by their professional organizations (federations and associations) when they can’t.

The institute will stir the pot with this report. It did so last year, too, with a study called “Big Farms, Small Farms,” which said farms big and small could be profitable with the right management. Unfortunately, for most small farms, part of that management includes having the owner work off farm to subsidize the farm, because profits are so slim. Other reports have likewise questioned how small farms can make it without off-farm help.

Marketing could be part of the answer. The organization says the top farmers develop new business models, understand the needs of the marketplace; and actively pursue innovation and diversification. You don’t need to be big to do that.

One of the best farm marketing initiatives that’s come along lately is the Buy Local, Buy Fresh campaign which features a map of area farms that sell directly to consumers. The 2007 map is being created now; the deadline for participation is the third week in March.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.