Thousands of Winnipeggers and non-farming Manitobans will leave their homes intent on seeing and smelling where their food comes from this weekend. For the last five years, the Manitoba government has organized and promoted an annual “Open Farm Day,” which will be held on Sunday (a similar event will also be held this weekend in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.) For people who care about farming and agriculture, it sounds like a great idea. It’s an opportunity to help more people understand what happens on farms, to paint a picture in their minds of what agriculture is like in 2014 – a good cause, right? It’s too bad the painting is incomplete. There’s a big piece missing.
From the perspective of someone involved in conventional farming, there’s a glaring absence when you scan the list of host “farms” participating in Open Farm Day. You’ll find corn mazes, exotic animals, pumpkin picking and organic greenhouses, among many other unique ventures. If you want to ride in a combine, good luck. While the list contains many businesses that market their products and experiences directly to their customers, farms that use modern technology and don’t rely on face-to-face contact with consumers are very under-represented.
It’s clear the landscape is changing, and there are some exciting opportunities in direct marketing and agritourism, but farms that produce crops and livestock that tend to end up heading to other countries — think wheat, canola, pigs, cattle — are still a huge part of agriculture in Manitoba (and Canada.)
So why don’t we see more of these conventional farms participate in an ag awareness event like Open Farm Day? There are probably a few reasons:
First of all, it’s in the middle of a chaotic harvest season. That’s a pretty good reason.
Biosecurity is an obvious issue, as hog and poultry producers don’t want to expose their animals (and their livelihoods) to pathogens carried by humans. Several producer organizations have taken steps to give the public better access to these animals.*
However, the underlying reason that we don’t see many conventional farms taking part is likely that these farmers just don’t see the incentive to participate — the perceived benefit of participating is smaller than the perceived cost of interrupting harvest or taking time to prepare the yard for visitors. If you’re selling locally-grown vegetables or fresh jam from your farm, of course you’ll want people to visit. If you’re selling canola that might end up in China, it’s harder to recognize any incentive that justifies parking the combine to host some random city people for a day.
But should ag awareness be a higher priority for the “average” farm? Is there a worthwhile return on investing in better ag awareness among customers? Are we accurately assessing the benefit? With the disconnect between modern farms and urban consumers, it seems conventional farmers are missing out on an opportunity to bridge that gap by not participating in Open Farm Day. Granted it might be tough to sell a load of pigs or oats to an urban family out for the day, but eventually, whether it’s with votes or dollars in the grocery store, these people influence how farms operate. In the big picture, farming practices will always be guided or restricted by the larger, less-informed public. When it comes to pesticide use, animal care or environmental stewardship, those “random city people” can quickly have a major impact on a farm’s operation.
Producer organizations are leading the way, largely because they can spread the cost of investing in ag awareness over a large number of farms. One example is the CanolaConnect event hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association this last weekend. A small group of people who hold positions where they can influence food decisions (urban media personalities, dieticians) spent a weekend touring farms and learning about many issues from the farmers’ perspective. (To see what the group saw, search the #CanolaConnect hashtag on Twitter).
So farmers who have a clear incentive to host visitors on their farm have figured out they need to participate in Open Farm Day to help their business. Maybe we need to re-think whether that incentive exists for conventional farms as well. Maybe there’s an opportunity to hold your own open farm day. Or volunteer with Ag in the Classroom. Maybe make it known to neighbours and non-farming friends that they’re welcome to come for a ride if they call ahead. Or sign up for Open Farm Day next year. As it stands, what many in the ag world think of as a typical Manitoba farm will be missing from the picture on Sunday.
*Kudos to Manitoba Chicken Producers, which for the first time will have a conventional chicken farm open to the public this year. Visitors to a farm near New Bothwell will be able to view broiler chicks through a window. There will also be market-ready . Visitors will also be allowed to walk among market-ready birds in a second barn. Manitoba Pork has invested in the Bruce Campbell Farm and Food Discovery Centre, which is participating in Open Farm Day and gives visitors a window view of different stages of hog production. Several dairy and beef farms — where biosecurity is less of a concern — will also be open on Sunday.