Farmers ready and willing to talk about food production

As printed in the Guelph Mercury, June 4 2009:

We have attempted to tell our story for years — but for the most part, people haven’t been interested in food and farming.

After all, from the average Canadian’s perspective, there was safe food and plenty of it, so what else was there to know?

But that was in the days before food scares, a misnamed influenza virus, and an increasing environmental awareness shifted the spotlight increasingly on to agriculture and food producers.

All of a sudden we’re seeing an increase in questions about our food.

Where does it come from? How is it produced? Who grows it? How is it processed? How does it get to our stores and to our tables?

These questions spring from many sources — issues such as the recent H1N1 influenza outbreak that was mistakenly attributed to pigs and pork, as well as food-borne illness caused by E.coli, or Ontario’s newly implemented pesticide ban.

But this new interest in food production is also influenced by incidents outside of our borders — such as tainted food products, food recalls, and production practices no longer deemed acceptable here at home.

Due to the global marketplace, a host of different countries are now supplying many of the food products now found on Canadian store shelves.

A newly released Harris/Decima poll about Canadian eating habits backs up what I’ve been hearing from farmers and following in the media — Canadians care about their food and they want to know more about it.

According to the Real Food Survey, which polled more than 2,200 Canadians, 86 per cent prefer to eat locally sourced foods.

And 71 per cent of respondents indicated they read labels and packages to learn more about their food and where it comes from.

So, that raises the obvious question: Where can Canadians go to get those answers?

After all, less than two per cent of Canada’s population is involved in farming and most are several generations removed from the farm.

A new virtual farm tour project spearheaded by AGCare, a Guelph-based farm organization, may help.

Four farm tours depicting real Ontario fruit, vegetable, grain and flower farms are being produced for a website called www.virtulfarmtours.ca.

It already hosts 17 different farm tours dedicated to livestock and poultry farming that receive close to two million hits per year.

At the site, visitors can click on various parts of an aerial farm photograph to view close up, panoramic views of the fields or barns and to meet the farmers who live and work there.

Once inside the barns or other buildings, pop-up screens explain what’s happening and answer commonly asked questions about farming.

Much like the online home tours used by real estate agents, the farm tours will let consumers learn about food and farming and farmers can demonstrate and explain what they do without having to invite visitors onto their farms.

Filming for the project is underway and the tours are expected to be ready for release next winter.

Another way to learn more about our food is to connect with farmers directly — at their on-farm markets, their roadside stands and the booths at farmers’ markets.

They’ll be more than happy to talk to you about what they do and the care they put into the animals they raise and the crops they grow.

Farmers live where they work and often also eat what they produce, so they have a strong interest and a vested stake in making sure they’re protecting the environment and growing healthy food.

For example, more than 70 per cent of Ontario’s farmers have completed the Environmental Farm Plan, and they’ve invested about $120 million over the last four years in making on-farm environmental improvements.

They’ve also voluntarily reduced their pesticide use by more than 50 per cent in the last 20 years.

There are many good news stories like these in Canadian agriculture that we should all be proud of.

Farmers are ready to tell those stories.

And Canadians, it seems, are ready and eager to listen.


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