Rethinking Policy and Research Communications While We Have the Chance

Lessons from an unexpected disaster

by Toban Dyck

We had just over 100 acres left to harvest when our combine caught fire becoming a mass of burnt steel and melted plastic. That mass is still sitting in the middle of my field today. 

It was getting dark. We were about to shut down for the night. My dad was on the combine harvesting our last field of soybeans. I was on grain truck detail, and I was just finishing unloading when I saw the fire. It was visible through the treeline. 

I lowered the hoist and headed back to the field. The fire came into view. It was not the neighbours having a bonfire, like I thought it might be. It was the combine Dad was driving. The entire machine was engulfed in flames. I couldn’t see Dad. If you know old grain trucks, you know that (a) they are not fast, and (b) they accelerate very slowly. I gunned it. Dad quickly came into view as I rounded the melting, crackling mess. He was standing outside the combine – his lunch bag on the ground beside him – shooting video of the burning machine he just exited.

Because we will need a combine for the next growing season, our farm now has an important decision to make. 

Do we go with the brand we know? Do we explore other options?

These are not simple questions. Sticking with the same brand is comfortable. It means a less-steep learning curve, and possibly, more confidence heading into the next growing season. 

However, I can’t help but think that this may be a swell and opportune time to take stock of the crops we grow, our farm’s needs, and then apply that information to research a machine that best suits our operation. 

Taking stock

In 2022, Burr Forest Group became the publisher of Pulse Beat, the official magazine of Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers (MPSG). 

Pulse Beat has been around for decades, and when we took over, we were confronted with a similar set of questions and challenges. What things should stay the same? What things should change? Is this an opportunity to take stock of MPSG’s core values and needs and apply those to a redesign? 

We made the decision to redesign Pulse Beat in partnership with MPSG. Together, we concluded that we would make small changes – tiny steps towards a larger vision – over a span of issues. 

While some changes like font changes are big for designers – as they should be – their impact may be too subtle for many of us to notice. 

Other changes will have more noticeable implications. One such change is the vision Burr Forest Group and MPSG have conceived for research and policy articles. 

Researchers, agronomists – let’s just call them scientists – have a way of writing. It’s often formulaic, a result of university instructors demanding a certain style of communication. Forgive me for saying this, but it is very hard to read. 

Even the graphs, charts, and data included in these pieces can be difficult to parse. I visualize the reader desperately trying to understand and stay interested, but failing, and then feeling bad for failing, and then putting the magazine down. 

This is an extreme example, and it certainly isn’t always the case, but I suspect it happens all too often. 

Our approach

We have chosen to address this challenge by working with MPSG on each science article, conceiving ways to make the subject matter as clear as possible without detracting from its rigour or reducing its message. 

If there’s an infographic that can accompany a piece, we’ll make it. If there are clear takeaways that can be pulled to the top of the article, we’ll make sure that happens. If there’s supplementary, side-bar information that could add value or context to the article, we’ll add that, too. 

If we can tie two articles together under one theme and create strong visual representations of their common message, we believe that adds tremendous value and makes them all the more interesting and effective. 

This includes policy articles, too. I believe farmers would engage more with provincial and national policy issues if they understood them better. Farmers are smart, but the issues relevant to their operations are often presented in unnecessarily complex or convoluted language. Agricultural groups want and need farmer engagement on core issues. They seek it out and they get it, whether the farmers understand the issues or not. 

We’re calling it policy extension. It’s taking the same principles the industry applies to research (think KTT – knowledge translation and transfer) and foisting it onto policy. 

This means creating strong visuals – flowcharts, infographics, etc. – that articulate complex policy issues. It means writing in ways that are interesting and engaging, and less formulaic and routine. 

This is our approach to publishing, and it is certainly my vision for a way Burr Forest Group can work with farmers to improve the agriculture industry. 

I’ll let you know which combine we choose.


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