I haven’t shaken the hand of a stranger, or a friend for that matter, in more than a year, and neither have a lot of other Canadians.

This may not seem like a big sacrifice. The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of so much. Loved ones have died. Businesses have shuttered. Children have fallen behind in their schooling.

The loss of handshakes may be the least of our worries.

But we need them back. They’re more than gratuitous social gestures. They’re essential actions that forge relationships and build human connection.

They break the ice. They express sportsmanship at the end of games. They seal deals that allow us to buy and sell.

This is especially true for farmers. Even though we rely on cutting-edge science to produce and protect the seeds we plant and high-tech equipment to harvest the food we grow, we conduct a lot of our business the old-fashioned way. And that means shaking hands in the flesh, not waving to pixelated people on Zoom calls.

About 15 months ago, when the world was starting to recognize the challenge of COVID-19, I was at a farm conference in Vancouver—in other words, it was life as usual for me in the world of agriculture. Before the lockdowns, I’d speak at events such as this about ten times a year, and I’d attend even more.

The in-person connections of conferences and meetings are important to any industry, but they may matter more to farmers. We don’t congregate in offices. When we’re working in our fields, we’re isolated. Days can go by when we see only family members and maybe a few others within a small circle.

I’ve joked that on our farm in rural Saskatchewan, we haven’t had to adopt special pandemic practices because we were social distancing long before anybody had ever heard of COVID-19.

group of women sitting on chair while listeningSo farmers have a special reason to take advantage of gatherings where people can meet, learn, and improve. We have to seize opportunities for shaking hands.

When I was back from Vancouver, a couple of weeks after the lockdowns took effect, I was supposed to fly to Belgium to represent Canadian farmers at an agricultural trade conference. My purpose was to explain how and why we use crop-protection tools, allaying the fears of European consumers and regulators who squirm whenever they hear the word “glyphosate.”

Nobody is more persuasive about food and how it is grown than actual farmers—and our customers need to see us, ask questions, and hear what we have to say.

Ultimately, it will be very difficult to change the hearts and minds of skeptics who don’t know much about food production if we can’t look them in the eye and yes, shake their hands.

The event in Belgium was canceled, of course, and that was the right choice. More than a year later, however, we need to get back to normal because we need to start repairing 15 months of broken connections.

Before the pandemic, I thought Canadian trade was ready to boom. We had just negotiated the USMCA, our revised accord with the United States, Mexico, and Canada. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which links us to countries around the Pacific Rim, was gaining attention and momentum. The provincial government of Saskatchewan even opened a trade office in Singapore, so we could take advantage of TPP’s opportunities through in-person meetings.

Today, after more than a year of closed borders, our situation feels a lot different. While our trade pacts remain in effect, people have gotten used to looking inward—and I’m worried that we’re going to hear new calls for the protectionism that is the enemy of farmers, business and customers who depend on global markets.

Here’s a simple step in the right direction: Let’s start by allowing free movement between Canada and the United States. This would allow for an increase in the cross-border purchase and sale of crop inputs, machinery and grain. The increased competition among buyers and sellers would benefit farmers and businesses on both sides of the border.

Canadians and Americans both like to boast that the 49th parallel is the longest undefended border in the world, accessible to travelers in both directions. Let’s go back to leaving it undefended and accessible. We can meet at the Peace Bridge in the east and the Peace Arch in the west.

Free movement between Canada and the U.S. can be the precursor to free movement worldwide. I can’t wait to visit Belgium and talk about the importance of global trade and global connections—and shake hands once again.

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Nominations are being accepted for candidates to the 2021 Global Farmer Network Roundtable and Leadership Training. Tentatively scheduled to be held during summer 2021, the next Roundtable will include a virtual component prior to meeting in person in Brussels, Belgium. The face-to-face event date is dependent on when travel is allowed and people feel safe. Learn more about the event here.

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