Dispelling dispair about the future of food and farming

In Western Canada, student enrolment at various agricultural colleges is on the rise. And an increasing percentage of students flocking to programs in animal, food, life and environmental sciences are coming from urban areas, which spokespeople at these institutions attribute at least partly to the growing public interest in agriculture and food.

Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College hasn’t yet released its enrolment numbers for this year so I don’t know if this is purely a western phenomenon. I’m intrigued by it, however, especially in the face of a commonly used agricultural statistic — the average age of Canadian farmers. Statistics Canada tells us it’s approximately 52 years of age, which elicits hand-wringing and worry from some corners about agriculture’s future.

Yes, it’s a high number, but at the end of the day, it’s just that — a number. On its own, it does little to tell the real story of what’s going on in food and farming. So who is the farmer of the future?

Mid-September always marks a big event focused on the business of farming: Canada’s Outdoor Farm show at Woodstock. It’s a showcase of farming technology, innovation and vision — and there’s plenty of that happening in Ontario agriculture.

At the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, in Niagara Region, research is underway into growing ethnic vegetable crops — produce varieties new Canadians were used to consuming in their native countries. Approximately half of the population of Toronto is born outside of Canada and the fruit and vegetable sector sees real opportunity in being able to replace imported produce by growing it here at home. Three varieties each of five different vegetable crops — callaloo, fuzzy melon, okra, eggplant and yard long bean — are part of product trials at various Ontario locations in 2010.

In the livestock world, a handful of Ontario farmers have started milking water buffalo in place of the cows found on most dairy farms. This niche market of buffalo milk and specialty cheeses — such as buffalo mozzarella — appeals especially to a growing segment of consumers who are struggling with dietary intolerances toward traditional dairy products.

Our growing season is rather short compared to agricultural areas further south, but just this week I had the pleasure of eating fresh, Ontario grown strawberries — in September! This would have been unthinkable only a few years ago but farmers and researchers are constantly looking for new ways to bring products to market that consumers want.

There’s also a whole new crop segment that is emerging in Ontario — energy crops. These are plants, like specific types of grasses for example, that are grown specifically to provide us with green, renewable sources of fuel and fibre. Miscanthus is one such grass that is gaining fans in Ontario’s farming community. In Leamington, greenhouse growers are using it to heat their glass houses, but it could potentially also be used in ethanol production.

Farmers are also embracing other new energy sources, such as sun and wind. They’re installing wind turbines and solar panels on their land, contributing to a greener environment and helping all of us become less dependent on fossil fuel sources for our power.

The emergence of social media is also changing the face of agriculture. Tools such as Twitter and Facebook are helping farmers reach out and reconnect with consumers. They’re direct-marketing their products, looking for feedback, and talking to people about what they do on their farms and why — and based on the fans and followers I’m seeing online, Canadians are ready, willing and welcoming to these approaches. This type of direct interaction between farmer and shopper is one we’ve largely lost in our modern food consuming environment and I think it bodes well for the future of agriculture to see it make a comeback.

In the context of all of this interest and innovation, I’m less concerned than some about the relatively high average age of farmers. We’re in the midst of many exciting developments in food and farming — maybe age really is just a state of mind.

This article was originally published in the Guelph Mercury.

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