People could use a little reconnecting to the farm

The case of watermelons spontaneously exploding in Chinese fields made headlines recently. This coming weekend marks the annual Rural Romp in Wellington County – a county-wide food and farming open house of sorts. These two events are worlds apart, yet to me, they’re both part of the complex network our global food system has become.

Most Canadian farmers feel that agriculture is misunderstood and that the general public doesn’t “get” what they do. And they’re often a little amazed at how much people don’t know, especially about things that those of us in the food and farming world take for granted.

How could they not know that oranges don’t grow in Canada, why we spray to control weeds and pests, and that there’s a season for sweet corn and peaches? My response to that is often the opposite – how could they possibly know when there’s little chance to learn?

Most Canadians are several generations removed from the farm, meaning we have very little direct connection to the land, the crops that are grown on it and the hard work – and yes, science – that goes into coaxing, for example, a small seed potato to grow and ultimately end up on our plates as mashed potatoes or fries. Our schools generally don’t teach agriculture and most have eliminated any food or home economics classes that used to be a standard offering.

Our modern, globalized world means we have strawberries and asparagus year-round, and we enjoy a steady supply of citrus, bananas, mangos and all manner of other produce in our grocery stores — fruits and vegetables we used to only read about or see on special occasions.

Most Canadians do want to know more about where their food comes from. Consumer attitudes research by Ipsos Reid consistently shows that consumers have questions and that they are interested in answers to those questions.

For many farmers, it is enough to just keep up with the day-to-day responsibilities of running a farm and staying on top of the paperwork required to comply with the many rules, regulations and compliance programs that must be followed. Yet increasingly, more and more are taking the time to reach out and make that consumer connection in a variety of ways.

Spring means the re-opening of market gardens and farmers’ markets, of grown-in-Ontario produce at local food shops and of buy-direct opportunities offered by farmers. Local food maps provide the chance to visit farms and markets and experience food and farming (and farmers) up close.

Here are home, we have a unique chance to get up close and personal with agriculture this Saturday with the Rural Romp. It’s a self-guided annual tour of more than a dozen farms and local food markets throughout Wellington County — a perfect opportunity to ask food questions and learn why the exploding Chinese watermelon story is one we don’t really have to worry about here.

Other farmers are turning to social media to virtually throw open their farm gates to the public. Trevor Herrle-Braun, a Waterloo Region fruit and vegetable farmer, is one such example. Tweeting as @HerrlesMarket since March 2010, he became interested in social media as a way to connect with his customers outside of business hours, answer questions, respond to problems and be transparent in the community.

Twitter lets him put personal elements into his business, he told me recently, while educating customers and community about agriculture in a high-tech region, how vegetables grow, what’s in season, and sharing the stresses, triumphs and fails of being a farmer. He currently has over 1,300 followers.

One of my most frequent comments about food and farming is how lucky we are to live where we do and have access to such a wide array of great, locally produced food. And we’re just as lucky to have farmers in the region who are willing to let us re-connect with that food, learn how it is grown and are doing their best to ensure its safety.

This column originally appeared in the Guelph Mercury on May 26, 2011.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email