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Canada’s food producers speaking up

Farmers on both sides of the Atlantic are scoring big wins with effective new consumer-outreach strategies

Jan VanderHout hosts a food tour at his greenhouses.

When I was in the Netherlands this past summer, I had the chance to visit a hog farm. That in itself is not unusual, but what stayed with me were the blunt comments of the farmer who hosted us that day.

“We need consumers to like us if we want them to buy our products,” said John Lorist, founder of Dutch pork producer Frievar.

It wasn’t so many decades ago that European consumers were more concerned about having enough food than about how and where that food was produced. Here at home, people felt good about their food and had a fair amount of knowledge about where it came from.

Sometime in the last 30 years, though, that tide began to turn, first in Europe and then also North America.

As modern agricultural practices saw livestock move indoors, and farms become larger and more specialized, anti-animal agriculture campaigns evolved along with pressure over pesticides and GMOs. Alongside that were shrinking farm numbers and a growing distance between consumers and the farm.

Today, agriculture on both sides of the Atlantic is working hard to re-establish those consumer connections and show that the food they’re producing is still safe and nutritious.

Events like the U.K.’s Open Farm Sunday, “Tag der Landwirtschaft” (Agriculture Day) in Germany, Belgium and France’s “Fermes Ouvertes” (Open Farms), and “Fattorie aperte” (Open Farms) in Italy encourage consumers to learn about where food comes from directly from farmers. A website in Switzerland lists over 300 farms where consumers can arrange a one-on-one visit.

Individual farmers, too, are engaged in their own outreach activities. John Lorist, for example, has a viewing gallery into his pig barn and regularly hosts school classes. German poultry farmer Stefan Teepker spent C$36,500 two years ago on a new on-farm visitor gallery complete with a food vending machine, video system and 24-hour viewing area on one of his farms in Lower Saxony.

“We have to show how we produce the meat people eat; people can come here any time to watch our birds,” Teepker explained. “Some farmers say we can’t do this job, someone else should — but who else would that be?”

In Canada, too, there are many outreach efforts by individual farmers, as well as larger, collective efforts driven by farm organizations like Farm & Food Care Ontario and its sister groups in Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island.

Top Saskatchewan chefs take part in the Taste of Saskatchewan competition in Saskatoon every year. photo: Supplied

It’s been 30 years since Ontario farm leaders first began noticing a need to speak up for agriculture, leading to creation of the Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC) and Agricultural Groups Concerned About Resources and the Environment (AGCare).

They were the predecessors of Farm & Food Care Ontario, whose mandate is to build and maintain public trust by providing credible information about food and farming. About 60 per cent of its activities focus on proactive consumer outreach.

“We’re not afraid to answer tough questions about GMOs, antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides. They were the top questions when I first started with OFAC (in 2005) and they still are today,” said Farm & Food Care Ontario executive director Kelly Daynard.

Among their leading activities:

  • Real Dirt on Farming, a publication about Canadian agriculture with over four million copies distributed nationwide, including a Globe and Mail insert in 2018.
  • Food influencer tours that have brought 3,400 members of the media, dietitians, culinary students and food professionals to farms and research facilities.
  • Breakfast on the Farm events that attract over 2,000 visitors per event.
  • Online farm and processing facility tours that reach over a million visitors a year.

Saskatchewan is involved in similar activities, but also hosts an annual Taste of Saskatchewan food event that includes a chef competition and farmers on hand to talk about food production.

“We have many different events happening to increase public trust, but what we feel resonates the most is the ability to talk to a farmer,” said Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan executive director Clinton Monchuk. “There’s such a small percentage of Canadians with a direct link to the farm so we want to create those opportunities.”

FFCSK’s Clinton Monchuk (right) lets a food tour participant get up close and personal with cattle feed during a farm visit. photo: Supplied

And farmers are certainly stepping up to help make that happen.

Jan VanderHout opened up his family’s 29-acre greenhouse cucumber operation near Hamilton to 43 Toronto-area food influencers armed with smartphones, social media accounts, and in-depth questions on everything from pest control, plant genetics and water use to the farm’s work force and how and where the cucumber crop is marketed.

“We have nothing to hide and it was a pleasure to tell them what we’re doing in our operation,” said VanderHout. “Taking misconceptions out of the picture is a big advantage for all of us.”

Sheep farmer Colleen Acres hosted food professionals on her Ottawa-area farm, and although she initially had some reservations about showing her visitors cute, cuddly lambs, it resulted in several new stores selling her products. Hosting people on the farm has also been a positive experience for her kids.

“The kids help us on the farm and we want them to have a sense of pride in what we do,” she says. “Having consumers on the farm and caring about what we do does that.”

For Ed Donkers, welcoming 2,700 people for breakfast on his London-area dairy goat farm was such a positive experience, he’s keen to do it again. A tragic barn fire on his farm and resulting attacks in the media convinced him of the need for farmers to tell their story.

“The best way for me to get my voice out is to show it to more people. I’m always promoting goats but one voice to one person isn’t the same as one to 2,700,” he says. “We have to show people animals are well cared for and we have to start promoting ourselves more.”

Ed Donkers became an advocate for agriculture after a tragic barn fire at his farm, hosting 2,700 people for Breakfast on the Farm at his modern, new dairy goat facility. photo: Supplied

Are the efforts making a difference, Canadian Centre for Food Integrity data shows an upswing in Canadians’ overall attitudes towards farming: 61 per cent had positive impressions of Canadian agriculture in 2016, compared to 41 per cent in 2006. The number of Canadians wanting to know more about Canadian farming practices is on the rise too, reaching 60 per cent in 2016 compared to around 40 per cent in 2001.

For Daynard and Monchuk, it can be hard to quantify change but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest it’s happening.

“We had the Chateau Laurier bring their kitchen staff to Breakfast on the Farm; a lot of this is intangible, but when this happens, you know you’re making a difference,” Daynard said.

“Without the engagement of groups like Farm & Food Care, we would be falling behind, but we are holding our own,” Monchuk added.

Foodies learn about hop plants. photo: Supplied

Guelph-based cookbook author, writer and culinary instructor Charmian Christie has been attending Farm & Food Care Ontario tours for several years, making her better able to answer questions about Canadian food, including those from her own family.

“I can add a layer of authority when I can talk about what I saw on the dairy farm, or that you don’t have to buy organic because I’ve heard from farmers about pesticide use,” she said. “I have a lot more respect for what farmers do; I feel better about our food than I did a few years ago.”

Sometimes she uses information from the tours right away for articles she’s writing or recipes she’s developing; other times, it might take a couple of years.

“If I do have a question, I now have access to authorities who can give me current, Canadian information in a non-jargon way,” she said. “It’s a small pebble that gets dropped, but those ripples go on for a very long time.”

As with so many things, budget is often the biggest limiting factor for agricultural advocacy groups who depend heavily on memberships, sponsorships and fundraising to support their activities.

“We’re good at doing a lot with a little, and the sky is the limit,” said Daynard. “Farmers will spend a million dollars on a barn renovation to improve cow comfort, but then people need to know about that. So if farmers don’t do it, give Farm & Food Care a $1,500 membership and let us do it.”

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