Farmers are starting to get people's attention. A wide-sweeping awakening is occurring among Canadians that agriculture significantly impacts the things they care about most, that is, health and the environment, as well as safe and reliable food.

That presents an opportunity for the marginalized farm sector to re-establish its rightful place in our country's culture, in ways that haven't been seen in decades.

But unless farmers mobilize themselves now and think strategically about how to make consumers really see the light, the opportunity will be lost.

That's the word from global farm leader Jack Wilkinson, in his retrospective year-end address to the 100 farm organizations and millions of farm families around the world represented by the International Federation of Agricultural Producers, of which he's president.

Wilkinson, a northern Ontario farmer, has over the years gone from being head of one of the most powerful provincial farm groups in Canada, the Guelph-based Ontario Federation of Agriculture, to lead the biggest farmers' group anywhere on the planet.

And when he looks at the plight of farmers around the world, he's not happy about what he sees.

He's not satisfied they're getting a fair shake, and he regularly says so, in clear terms. For example, in his year-end address, he wonders how anyone can expect world hunger to be reduced if farming isn't lucrative enough for farmers to produce food.

It's not unlike the position the Ontario federation has taken on profitable agriculture — that is, there's nothing wrong with farmers making some money. If people realized the many services farmers' provide, they'd be less cranky about paying the real cost of food production.

And that's what Wilkinson's onto.

Depleting world food stocks and growing hunger in underdeveloped countries are contributing to the fact that everywhere, the need to pay more attention to agriculture is registering in many peoples' minds.

In North America, Europe and developed countries, farming is seen as a conduit to better health, a cleaner environment and a sustainable food supply — mostly recently, meaning the pursuit of more local food. That gives the industry an open door to make headway in consumers' eyes. It has a big chance to take its image from respectable, where it now stands, to essential, which is where it should be.

In part, that means an increasing and immediate commitment to communications, says Wilkinson.

The international federation is pounding the table for not necessarily more news releases and stories, but rather, for more strategic messaging. It wants farmers to pay more attention to specifically what their organizations want to achieve, and proceed with the appropriate communications.

"More profile" is one approach, but a better one is "More profile specifically aimed at showing how Ontario farm produce is good for your health," or something similar reflecting the environmental or food safety advantages to consumers.

Again, this is all consistent with the provincial federation's drive for one voice for farming, so messages and campaigns targeted for stakeholders such as the public, politicians and the media are as efficient as possible. It's a lofty goal, given the fragmentation in farming, but if ever it was attainable, now's the time to try.

The clock is ticking.

You may remember last week's column about Ontario's grocery retail bloodbath, and how the Guelph-based George Morris Centre showed statistically that food buyers were warming up to big-box stores, not local food vendors.

That indicates many consumers are not aware that supporting farmers in their region is much better in the long term than giving their food business to giant chains.

The local food movement has a big job to do.

If farmers take Wilkinson's advice and capitalize on their new profile-raising potential, explaining the folly of bargain-basement food pricing may be one of their most useful strategic approaches.

But whatever route they choose, they need to take it now.