Reality Check: GMO vs. Non-GMO Crop Production

By now you may have stumbled across a recent New York Times article that outlined the “broken promises” of genetically modified crops (GMOs). This first-generation of transgenic crops was first introduced in to commercial production about 20 years ago. With traits such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, these GMOs were rapidly adopted by North America’s farmers.

(If you haven’t yet seen the New York Times article , you can read it here) 

In Europe, however, they don’t grow GM crops, though they do import products, such as meal or oil, from GMO crops. In the New York Times article, the author uses European vs. North American production and pesticide usage patterns to outline his argument that GMOs don’t offer the benefits they claim.

Stuart Smyth is an assistant professor in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan, and he wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the article (you can read it in its entirety here), correcting many of the falsehoods and half-truths of the above story.

As a quick summary, Smyth draws on actual research studies (not just data point comparisons) that quantify the economic and environmental impact of GM canola, corn, and even papaya. From, yes, reduced pesticide use, to a reduction in tillage (and thus diesel fuel use), and more, Smyth reiterates that GMO crops are safe to grow and eat, reduce the environmental impact of crop production, and benefit our farmers.

Still not sure? We’d be happy to connect you to an actual farmer who uses biotechnology on their farm so you can ask them first-hand how GMOs have changed (or not changed) how they farm. Just ask!

For more on biotechnology, GMOs, crop production, and more, read up in the Real Dirt on Farming.

Farming is Big Business with a Big Heart

By Serra McSymytz, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

Throughout October, we have been celebrating Agriculture Month in Saskatchewan, a province whose primary goods-producing sector is agriculture. The theme “Our Food Has a Story” has encouraged many farmers, ranchers, and industry employees to speak up and tell their farm stories. I grew up in the farming world and have worked in the industry and even I must admit I’ve been blown away by the caring and compassion laced through every tweet, post, and picture.

The people in this industry rely on the earth, plants, and animals to support their families, futures, and freedoms. Yes, agriculture has evolved over the last fifty years. Yes, fewer farmers are managing more land. Yes, when size dictates, it makes economic sense to incorporate your operation, but that doesn’t mean the family farm has been lost to history. 97% of all Canadian farms are still family owned and operated.1

big-business-image-2-farmingfood4uHere’s an alarming statistic: there are 60% fewer farmers in Canada today than in 1901 and 548% more people to feed.2 That’s just within our borders, not to mention the hundreds of millions of tonnes of product we export to developing countries each year to help feed their people too. Talk about pressure to perform!

“…there are 60% fewer farmers in Canada today than in 1901 and 548% more people to feed.”

Thankfully, we are fortunate enough to live in a country where science and innovation are encouraged and explored. Where farmers and ranchers have the knowledge, tools and technology to grow and raise safe, healthy and affordable food in an environmentally responsible manner. Today’s farming is big business, not the simple lifestyle our grandparents grew up with. Yet, Ben Parker had it right, with great power comes great responsibility.

big-business-image-1-a-iveyWe live in the age of science and technology, where information travels far and wide and everyone has access to the latest diet craze or scientific study. Unfortunately, despite agriculture’s enormous technological advancements in the last quarter century, we haven’t put much time or energy into promoting our impressive new tools and now we need to defend them.

To the 98% of our population that has no direct connection to the farm and no way of understanding what a Flexi-Coil 5000-57FT Air Drill is, why we use ivermectin on our livestock, or spray our crops with unpronounceable chemicals like difenoconazole or saflufenacil, farming sounds scary. But, to the remaining 2%, it means no top soil loss, healthy animals, higher yields and a cleaner environment!

You’d be hard pressed to find a cattle rancher who doesn’t feed their family with meat from their herd, or a farmer who doesn’t bring his children along to check crops for disease and pests. That’s because farmers believe in the technology and production practices they use to grow our food and they want consumers to have confidence in them too.

When asked what they would like to say to non-farmers, the consensus was, “We care about our livestock, land and about producing safe food for you and your family. Wherever you’re from and whatever you do, everyone is dependent on food, so take the time to learn about how your food is really produced, from many different sources. Appreciate the efforts of farmers everywhere.”

Despite the new state of agriculture and the ever-evolving landscape of farming, our food still comes from families who care about their animals, land and growing safe, healthy, and affordable food.

1, 2 The Real Dirt on Farming, (Toronto: Farm & Food Care Foundation, 2014), 2-3.

A turkey farmer’s voice: How much do you want to know about turkey farming?

By Clair Doan, turkey farmer

As a turkey farmer it is important to be able to share our family farm story. Talking about how we grow and care for our turkeys is important to me because I am proud of what we do and, most of all, love eating turkey with my family. With the likes of social media,  it is not hard to be a part of the conversation or see the many posts about our birds and farm. However, last night I took the opportunity to view the W5 program on CTV called “Fowl Business” where our industry has been criticized for our handling of live turkeys from the farm to plate, mostly through the shackling and live stunning process at slaughter. My initial reaction was more mixed than I had anticipated, given our industry is directly impacted by consumer perceptions and influenced by media — perhaps there was some truth to this story.

I encourage you to watch this footage where the program relies on a “whistle blower” from Mercy for Animals, an organization whose main purpose is to convert people to veganism. I could focus on the inaccuracies and clear bias presented by this organization (as there were many). W5 counterbalanced this with the famous Temple Grandin. I could focus on the food itself and how consumers connect to their meals which I think is more effective, long term. As a farmer, the company implicated in the report was Lilydale, a Sofina Foods owned company, a sister firm to the buyer of most of our birds.

To clarify a couple of points first: I take great issue with undercover employees, with direct motives to identify irregularities in meat processing systems while knowingly being supported by Mercy For Animals. As well, the Lilydale employee, who was referenced a number of times, should most certainly be reprimanded and I am sure no longer works for the firm based on his actions and general lack of concern for the animals. However, in reality, we are always looking for the exception where rules are broken and people are not respecting the care and compassion for the animals.

Photo credit: Clair Doan

Photo credit: Clair Doan

The reality is the entire meat sector suffers from a similar crisis — their business of transforming a living animal into food, which for most part, people, is not a nice process to watch! Sure, we all love the end product on the BBQ, but connecting consumers to where their food comes from stops short of the animal leaving the farm.

Even as a farmer, after my turkeys are loaded off the truck, it is truly not my responsibility to what happens to them afterwards. What I do consider is ensuring that as close to 100% of the birds and meat were of superior quality as possible. As turkey farmers, I have personally undergone safe handling and loading of turkeys. We employ on-farm food safety protocols, which include all animals be respected and those suffering must be immediately and humanly euthanized on farm.

Recently, farm commodity boards have asked farmers to share their stories, to bring consumers, the media and influencers to their farm to share real stories of the people that truly care about our food system. I truly believe that we have a great story to tell on farm, but it begs the question, how much information is enough and how much is too much?

As a farmer, my primary goal is to raise healthy and productive turkeys. I do everything possible to maintain a positive environment for them including, fine-tuned nutrition, safe housing, ample bedding and medication, if it is required. The last thing I like seeing on my farm are sick or dead birds. So when it comes to slaughtering the turkeys, it is a difficult sight to watch. I don’t like blood in general and there are different sights, smells, movement and noises that come with the slaughter and processing of livestock. So like other consumers, the slaughter part of food production is never talked about, let alone seeing video footage of this stage. To me, the “Fowl Business” highlights the fact that living animals die for us to eat them, regardless of the perceived mishandling.

This past April, I had the privilege of visiting the largest turkey processors in Germany. It is estimated that 60,000 turkeys are handled per day, which equates to the entire Canadian production in about seven months at this one facility. Through using controlled atmospheric stunning, the facilities operated with utmost efficiency. When I spoke to the marketing manager, I asked “What message do you want me leaving the visit with?” His response was simple, that we value animal welfare from farm to plate and that their facility employs the latest technology which promotes efficient output of quality meat products. The visit in Germany left me with one on the most positive feelings regarding turkey meat, in that it was not a stomach turning, ethically questioning experience!

As an industry, I am interested to learn how Lilydale/Sofina will react to this news report, at the same time look forward to an overall industry reaction as I do believe it may be turkey today, but can easily be hogs or beef or chicken tomorrow. Yet at the same time, as a farmer, I am proud of our accomplishments on farm, yet we will only be successful in the future if we are part of an entire value chain that is effective at communicating our standards and expectations to all consumers, at the same time respecting their potential views on humane treatment of animals through the entire lifecycle.

The CTV show W5 called “Fowl Business” continues to irritate me by relying animal rights group spies and unfortunate employees that either lack training and demonstrate unacceptable behaviours to speak about the humane issues of turkey. At the same time there are reasons we pay for Canadian Food Inspection Agency, work within organized marketing boards, and abide by every increasing animal welfare protocols on farm that must work as succinct systems. I willingly continue to share our farm story in efforts of helping connect people with their food. Unfortunately delivering the message around the transformation from alive to dead is a difficult story to comprehend, but we must remember our food story does not end at the farm nor start at the grocery store.

This blog post first appeared on www.clairdoan.com

Our Food Has a Story

By Serra McSymytz and Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

kids-and-vegetable-patchAs agribusiness professionals we’ve had the opportunity to talk to farmers about why and how they farm.

Just twenty five years ago, this wasn’t even a conversation. Farmers just got on with the business of working the land or tending to their animals.

Today it’s different. Consumers also want to know why and how farmers carry out their duties, growing and raising the food we sometimes take for granted. But how do you explain what farming is?

Well, there are a lot of things it isn’t.

It isn’t a 40 hour work week, sleeping in on the weekends or even through the night, at times. It isn’t a guaranteed paycheque. It isn’t easy or cheap, low risk, or low stress.

So why? Why would someone gladly raise their hand and say “I want to be a farmer”? Generation after generation?

farmers-by-the-tractorFor many, farming is a place to raise their children where they’ll learn the value of hard work, build strong principles, strengthen their character and intellect, and earn a sense of responsibility.

Farming is rewarding and challenging. It is the opportunity to give back, to do more and be better. Farming is often part of a family’s history and their children’s future. It is satisfaction, seeing something you have sewn and tended grow and thrive. It is reaping the reward of a nutritious meal prepared using ingredients you yourself have nurtured.

Farming is technical and constantly evolving; an industry always on the verge of the next advancement. It is the chance to earn a living from a passion rather than an employer. Farming is the fulfillment of feeding your family, your neighbours, and our world. Farming is a measure of who the farmer is.

The thing about farming though, is that its product is so much bigger than just one person, one family one cow, one field, one farm.

It is our food. It is our story.

farmer-in-the-tractorThere is a narrative woven through our long history. Each chapter is unique and told by the stewards who contribute to it. The rancher, beekeeper, miller, baker, berry picker, processor, butcher, grocer and, in the end, the consumer.

It is the food choices you make for yourself and your family. Farming touches each and every one of our lives because it provides one of the most basic necessities. Whether you buy local, conventional, organic, free range, with or without added hormones, we are all a part of the same story.

Join us in October during Agriculture Month in Saskatchewan and share your food story. #OurFoodHasAStory #AgMonth16

For more on events in Saskatchewan for Agriculture Month, click here.

10 Reasons to Love (and Trust) Your Food

Guest Post by Patricia Chuey

I always embrace any opportunity to visit my home province. In addition to getting back to see family a few times each year, every so often I’m fortunate that my work also takes me there.

I recently had the opportunity to attend an agricultural tour sponsored by Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan and a number of groups representing many of the main foods grown or raised in Saskatchewan including flax, pulses, lentilsmustard (and Frenchs), barley, canola, chicken, eggs,beef, pork along with tourism Saskatchewan and Crop Life Canada. This type of tour came at a very important point in my professional life in regularly facing questions and grave concerns from consumers about quality in the food supply. I wish I could have magically had every person whose ever asked me about organic, free range, hormones, steroids, animal welfare, genetic modification and related issues by my side as our group of food writers, media dietitians and chefs from North America met many farmers on their farms, toured an egg processing plant, visited agriculture and bioresource greenhouses and the University of Saskatchewan Grains Innovation Laboratory. (We toured a prairie brewery too!) But, having them all join me wasn’t possible.

farm-collageBecause I couldn’t do that, I want to share 10 thoughts from many critical conversations on the tour. I left feeling renewed and more confident than ever in the quality of the food our Canadian farmers provide to the marketplace. Although I still feel heavy-hearted for the many people I’ve met who feel completely confused about what to eat or to safely feed their family, in many ways I felt both ‘cured’ of mass confusion and energized to continue sharing the truth of what I witnessed. Our group also left very well fed and richer in spirit for having experienced the passion and commitment these food producers put into the food they feed their families and share with Canada and the world.

There were countless reminders of the conscientious commitment farmers make to providing safe food to consumers and the challenges they face from often misinformed, yet vocal, adversaries. Here are few points I encourage thinking about:

  1. Less than 2% of Canadians are directly involved in farming to provide food for the remaining 98%. Typically, the more removed a person is from the farm, the more critical they are of farming. So unfortunate and a source of mass confusion and misinformation. It’s worth finding out the farm experience and background from the person who may be criticizing farming. Asking questions is great and very strongly encouraged. Unqualified folks scaring people about farm-raised food, isn’t.
  2. Canadian farmers are very open to talking about their operations and have nothing to hide. The industry is strictly regulated and uses the latest SAFE technology to produce food that is nutritious and affordable. Big corporations have NOT taken over Canadian farms. More than 97% of Canadian farms are family owned and operated.
  3. There is zero difference nutritionally between white and brown eggs. The difference lies in the feather colour of the hens they come from. Brown are perceived as healthier. What applies to brown bread or brown rice versus white with fibre content, is NOT relevant to eggs. If you buy free range or free run eggs and the shells happen to be brown, know that isn’t a characteristic indicating a free range egg, but simply a brown-feathered hen. Free range eggs also come in white shells. There’s actually more risk of contamination in free range eggs as the conditions in which the chickens are raised can’t be monitored quite as carefully as indoor operations. Egg farmers are committed to providing a variety of egg choices in the marketplace in response to consumer demand. I suggested the egg producers start selling a dozen odd-shaped or non-uniform eggs if we really want to see “natural” eggs. Consumers want ‘natural’ yet also want 12 eggs that look the same. Go figure?! Maybe someday NUeggs (Non-uniform eggs) will be a thing! #HeardItHereFirst
  4. Egg yolk colour is determined by the type of feed a hen eats. Wheat-based diets produce pale yolks while corn or alfalfa-based produce darker yellow. Yolk colour is not an indication of freshness or nutritional value. Organic eggs are fed certified organic grains which cost more.
  5. It is ILLEGAL in Canada to use hormones or antibiotics in chickens. “Ads promoting hormone-free chicken are like adds promoting water that is wet”. No pigs, chickens, turkeys or egg-laying hens in our country are fed hormones. It has been illegal for decades. And they’re not used in milk production in Canada either. Some beef farmers do use approved hormones in cattle. Hormone levels in beef from cattle treated with hormones are virtually the same as beef from untreated cattle once in the food system. Any hormones are administered to cattle in safe time before they are made available for food. Calves are immunized for the same reasons we immunize children – to keep them healthy.
  6. Why the heck don’t we eat even more lentils and other pulses? If we are truly serious about food sustainability let’s eat more of these affordable, nutritious legumes from our home country – the world’s largest EXPORTER of pulses!
  7. Farmers follow strict federal laws for humane animal treatment. A Canadian farmer is not keeping you out of his or her egg operation housing 60,000 hens because anything controversial is going on, but rather for strict biosecurity to protect the chickens. Farmers are as shocked and enraged as everyone else, if not more so, when situations of animal cruelty happen. I chatted with passionate, professional egg farmers who are considering taking on the expense of having large viewing windows and video cameras in the next barns they build to reassure consumers. These kind of measures becoming standard will increase egg prices. (I don’t require a web cam on my dentist’s office or other professional I trust.)
  8. Farmers are the original active environmentalists. Their livelihood depends on healthy soil, water and air to grow crops and raise livestock. We met sixth generation farmers, farmers whose healthy 87 and 91 year old parents still live and work on the farm, rugged male farmers who tear up when talking about the damage misinformation is doing to food security in Canada, strong, young female farmers who wrangle cattle and much more. The common thread: a deep commitment to the environment, passion, hard work ethic and a safe, healthy food supply for all. We were humbled when the combine drivers actually stopped during active harvest to talk to us (VERY expensive to their operation to do so) and saddened to hear farmers say that MISINFORMATION IS MORE OF A THREAT and worry to today’s farmers than crop-destruction from pests or the weather conditions. Crazy and very disturbing. We should all be concerned about that.
  9. Canadians pay a mere 10% of their available income for food, one of the lowest percentages in the world yet for top quality domestic food. Without the use of APPROVED pesticides to prevent complete crop destruction we’d risk complete crop devastation and food shortages. If no approved, regulated pesticides and GMOs were ever used, Canadian farmers would need 37 million more acres to grow the same amount of food as today.
  10. There is more risk in food raised by people who “dabble” in farming as a sideline than food produced on regulated, inspected large farm operations. That said, farmers are very happy to share gardening tips and encourage us to use any available land to grow at least some of our own food.

We have a WORLD CLASS food system that is envied around the world. We need to understand it, celebrate and support it. Absolutely learn and make informed decisions about crop spraying, GMOs, organic vs conventional and where food comes from but avoid information from unreliable, misinformed people that is negatively impacting the very food system that feeds us and many others on our planet.  I remain 100% confident that it makes more sense to question unrecognizable ingredients in packaged food (even the organic ones) with lengthy ingredients lists and long shelf lives than the wholesome home grown WHOLE food from Canadian farms.

Thank you Saskatchewan!

(Sincere thanks also to the chefs and hosts at the Delta Bessborough, Wilbar Farms, Wilbar Cattle Company, Agar’s Corner, Riverside Country Club, Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Boffins Public House and the University of Saskatchewan)

Reference: The Real Dirt on Farming

 

This post first appeared on Patricia Chuey’s blog, and is used with permission.

Diverse Prince Edward County Farm Featured as September Faces of Farming

By Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care 

If there’s one example of a diversified farm business, Sandy Vader and her family are it. From their farm near Picton, they grow a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and other crops for a local farmers’ market, raise sheep for wool and meat, and have even diversified into seasonal decorative arrangements.

Sandy Vader's page is sponsored by the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association. She is joined in the photo by daughters Kelsey and Kaitlyn

Sandy Vader’s page is sponsored by the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association. She is joined in the photo by daughters Kelsey and Kaitlyn

Sandy and her daughters are the faces for September in the 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar, published by Farm & Food Care Ontario.

“We are always trying to diversify,” says Sandy Vader, mother of three and avid market gardener. “I like the animals, and the people from the market. It’s a very family oriented business.”

Sandy started farming with her father-in-law in 1987. At that time, she says, they were growing about 180 acres of crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat, and producing vegetables and fruits for canning companies, “but those companies eventually left Prince Edward County,” she says. The loss of the local processing meant she had to make some major changes to the family business.

Since taking over most of the market-garden side of the farm in 2000, Sandy has expanded her crop portfolio to include — take a deep breath — asparagus, lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, beefsteak tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, beets, and various varieties of flowers, among other crops. All the produce generated by Sandy and her family is sold at the Belleville farmers’ market.

“We used to go to more farmers’ markets, but it can be pretty tiring. We like to stick with one that we enjoy and works for us best,” she says.

Sandy’s youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, has been actively helping run the business since she was five years old. She helps Sandy on a regular basis, and in addition, keeps a small number of sheep and goats. Sandy’s other daughter, Kelsey, has also been involved on the farm from a very early age, and continues to help on occasion despite working full-time at an off-farm job.

Kaitlyn and Kelsey’s brother, Cody, has a farm of his own where he keeps 200 ewes. When required, though, he does help in the day-to-day operations of the farm, the market, as well as any other task that “needs to be done.”

Several years ago, Sandy also began creating a kind of value-added product for sale at her market stand. Using some of the flowers produced in her greenhouse, she creates centre pieces and other seasonal decorative arrangements for Thanksgiving and other occasions. So far, she says, they have proven to be quite popular, and have done a lot for the business when vegetables and fruits are not in season. Consequently, she plans on expanding that side of her business.

“The decorations help make going to market in the winter useful, plus there’s something about working in a greenhouse that makes the winter shorter,” she says.

With the exception of flowers and a select few others, says Sandy, all their crops are started in a greenhouse before being moved to a field to finish growing. Lettuce and sweet corn, she says, are their most popular crops, with fresh-cut lettuce being available from April to December. That two-step process works well for them, but it is labour intensive and one of the reasons Sandy values the help she receives from her family.

In her limited spare time – and she does emphasize limited – Sandy enjoys sports of all kinds, but says she is particularly happy that she had the privilege of playing hockey with her girls when they were younger. She was also an active volunteer when Cody, Kelsey, and Kaitlyn were still in school.

Whether sports or farming, though, the key theme that repeatedly crops up in Sandy’s mind is her family. For her, working with her son, two daughters is the most rewarding career she could have, and it’s the cornerstone of their success.

“The farm is a team effort,” she says. “That’s a farm family – we’re always helping each other out.”

Be Wary of People Preying on Fear

By Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

No, this isn't how a GMO is made (and no, there are no commercially available GMO tomatoes, anyway)

No, this isn’t how a GMO is made (and no, there are no commercially available GMO tomatoes, anyway)

Do you see pictures like this from time to time? If so, do society a service and call rubbish.

Contrary to what such images imply, our food didn’t drop out of the comic book universe. It may have been produced in part with science — and some pretty incredible science at that — but such science hardly looks as controversial as sticking a tomato with a needle of malignant looking kool-aid.

I don’t know who takes the time to make these images, but the purpose behind doing so is, without a shadow of doubt, to misinform and frighten. I’d like to think that the designers genuinely don’t understand the science against which they rail, but it is perfectly plausible, of course, that they are well aware of how misleading such visual creations can be.

These pictures reduce food science technology to a level akin with antagonists from the Resident Evil franchise – you know, the Umbrella Corporation’s cronies and their zombie-spawning pharmaceuticals.

Assuming, then, that there is some kind of article or information accompanying the picture, can a person trust it? Likely not.

Here’s a typical example of something I see on an all-to-frequent basis. It’s titled “FDA finally admits 70 per cent of chicken contains arsenic,” and there are some major issues right from the start.

First, the article appears on what is, essentially, a blog site and not a legitimate news source. Second, the article features an image of a chicken being injected with some kind of tan liquid — a practice which exists solely in the mind of the image creator. Third, the very title of the article implies a distinct slant on the part of the author which, coincidently, seems to be a New York media production company with some very strong views on many science-y things.

Upon reading, we learn that a treatment for chickens produced by Pfizer – one of those pharmaceutical companies – is leaving traces of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens; the Food and Drug Administration in the United States has, as it says, “finally admitted” to the problem, and somehow manages to simultaneously condemn water companies by saying “the level of inorganic arsenic found in the chicken livers is equivalent to the amount of inorganic arsenic found in an eight-ounce glass of drinking water.”

The easy (and wrong) conclusion? Americans must be ingesting dangerous levels of arsenic whenever they eat chicken or drink water.

Of course, this conclusion is completely contrary to what the Food and Drug Administration said on the issue – there’s really nothing wrong with chicken, or water for that matter – but that’s almost beside the point. With so many things initially wrong with the piece – multiple misleading and fabricated pictures, a clear slant in the title, and an unaccredited information source – a person should, theoretically, never even get as far as the first paragraph.

If that were the case, though, I wouldn’t be writing this.

People read, and people listen. And not just disconnected, uneducated folks either — articles and images like this do nothing but perpetuate ignorance. Stemming the spread of this type of visual drivel comes down, at least in part, to critical thinking.

We live in a fast-paced world, and often don’t have the time or mental energy to research every issue in depth. Images of syringes sticking food products, though, should be an automatic red flag declaring “approach with caution.” They are ridiculous pictures, these things, and people employing them as fact should not be trusted.

Teach Me How to Agriculture

By Toni Anne Sarlo, Farm & Food Care

I never had a doubt in my mind that farming was hard work, but that was about the extent of my agricultural knowledge before joining the team at Farm & Food Care.

Toni Anne SarloI don’t want to say that I was ignorant —  let’s go with uninformed. I have lived my entire life in Toronto, or the Greater Toronto Area, and the closest I came to a farm was our annual family visit to Chudleigh’s Apple Farm. Granted, I do love fresh, crisp apples when they are in season, but it didn’t exactly show me what farming entails.

I think I speak on behalf of most city folk when I say that we are not educated about farming truths, enlightened about its multi-layered issues/workings, taught about the challenges or exposed to the lifestyle. Living in the city, we are not aware of the path our food has travelled to get to us. 

We follow what’s trending, not always what’s right. Is it hormone free? Is it organic? Does it have GMOs? These are questions with preferred responses suggested by the media or marketing professionals. Our decisions are influenced by advertisers far too often, it’s true.

I recently started working in agriculture, and it has changed my life.  My former perspective of the agricultural industry and its complexity could not have been more wrong. I used to be skeptical about farming practises and was deterred by negative publicity often associated with farming, but I no longer have that impression. I am conscious about the intricacies of farming and am able to make decisions based on my own experience. 

I have been given the opportunity to visit varying farm types.  Subsequently, I have toured, observed and spoken to farmers and family members while in their element. These are the people with real knowledge who live and breathe farming in all capacities. They know firsthand what the daily challenges are and what techniques are best utilized to improve sustainability. Agriculture is forever changing and progressing, and embracing innovation.

Conversations with farmers and those who represent the farming community have opened my eyes to a culture that I was only vaguely aware of previously.  The passion and heart that drives this industry is overwhelming and exciting.  I have learned that it’s so important to dig for the facts, and one of the best ways is to go directly to the source. 

What I’ve learned, is that there is no black and white, rather a large grey canvas for us to draw our own conclusions. The difference for me, now, is that I feel more informed as a consumer and can avoid blindly following trends.  I have developed a new found enthusiasm and appreciation for farming, and look forward to learning more.

Leaving the Barn Door Open 24/7

By Kelly Daynard, Farm & Food Care

At the turn of the 20th century, farmers made up 60 percent of the Canadian population. Today, that number has dropped to less than two percent.

This move from farms into towns and cities has led to a growing disconnect between rural and urban areas, with Canadians now often three or four generations removed from any ancestors that farmed. The agricultural industry knows from polling data that non farming Canadians want to know more about food and farming – they just often don’t know where to source accurate information. And that’s why a growing number of Canadian farmers are increasing their communications efforts – many are turning to social media to share their stories.

The issue isn’t unique to Canada or North America, though. 

Stefan Teepker

German farmer Stefan Teepker and his daughter Marit in front of the windows in the new viewing gallery he’s built on the side of his chicken barn

Stefan Teepker is a chicken, grain, and hog farmer in Northern Germany. He recently opened his farm to delegates at the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ congress (an event that’s held in a different country each year).

The 35-year-old farms in cooperation with his brother Matthias, and he’s also the honourary chairman of the “Young DLG” – a division of the German Agricultural Society for farmers aged 35 and under. Teepker is increasingly concerned about the misconceptions that exist about modern farming practices and he’s determined to do his part to change that.

“There are big discussions happening about animal welfare in this country. We have to be able to show how we produce the majority of the meat. We have to start the discussion,” he said to the visiting journalists.

For many years, he’s visited a local school twice a year, talking to students about his farm and farm animals. Those students, in turn, visit his farm as part of a forest walk program, where they’re excited to see the animals that he’s talked about.

To expand his efforts, he’s just finished building a unique viewing gallery onto the side of one of his chicken barns. He paid for the 25,000 Euro project (about $36,000 CAD) almost entirely on his own with only a 1,000 Euro grant from a farm organization.

Stefan Teepker

Anyone passing by this German chicken farm is welcome to stop in and see the birds. This viewing gallery, built on the side of the barn, is open 24 hours a day.

Their farm is near a busy highway and popular hiking and biking path. With the grand opening last week, the gallery will be open 24-hours a day. One criticism he’s heard is that farmers only show the nicest photos of their barns and animals. With the new viewing gallery, he says he’ll be able to say “come when you want.” Passersby will be able to stop in at any time to see, for themselves what’s happening and what the birds are doing.

Signage will explain the age of the chickens, what they eat and drink, how the ventilation works, where they were hatched, when and where they’ll go to market and more.

Teepker said that some farmers think the signs should be more technical, focusing on bird genetics and such. But he knows firsthand that consumers are interested in going back to the basics. The most common question he’s asked? “Where are the cages?” To which he explains that broiler chickens are always raised in a free run (floor system) barn – just like here in Canada.

Guests at the viewing gallery will also be able to buy fresh meat and eggs (provided by neighbouring farmers), from a special vending machine.

When asked whether he’s concerned about farm security as a result of the increased attention and visitors, Stefan was definite in his “no”. While he has installed security cameras, he says that they’re only meant to protect the birds and doesn’t expect problems.

He’s also created a Facebook page for the farm where he engages regularly with his 2,000 (and growing) followers. Through updates, he introduces his farm staff, talks about environmental initiatives on the farm (including solar panels and a biogas plant) and answers questions about his pigs and chickens. He also posts regular videos – the top one has 180,000 views to date.

And, new this year, the farm is sponsoring local soccer teams as another way of engaging with his community.

Are his efforts making a difference? Teepker thinks so – but emphasizes that there’s always more that can and should be done. “You see a mind shift when people come to see the farm for themselves. They don’t know what they will see if the doors are closed – so we’re opening the doors.”

Listening and Learning Across the Table

matt in GlencoeBy Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

I had a mutually-educational supper with a friend recently.

It was a pre-planned date where I, being rewarded with barbecue and malted barley, gave a 101 on Canadian food and farming — a subject of great passion for me and great interest to my friend, though one she admitted to knowing very little about.

We hit on several common topics over the course of the evening: pesticides, GMOs, and the odd anecdote from my farm-kid childhood, just to name a few. But it was our discussions around “corporate agriculture” and what the ideal farm should be that stuck out the most. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised to discover that my view of the “ideal” farm was actually quite similar to hers.

I was however astounded to learn that my friend, whether she realized it or not, saw modern Canadian farms not as independent family-run businesses, but mere corporate franchises. In her mind, the modern farm was under the thumb of — and even directly controlled by — large agro-chemical corporations.

These ideas manifested themselves shortly after I described my family and our farm. After mentioning that we grow some GMO crops, my friend asked if we actually owned the land where we plant our crops. I said that we absolutely did, though we also rent land from neighbouring farmers. She then asked if we owned our own equipment, to which I explained that we did, though some farmers find it economical to hire others to plant, spray, or harvest.

Those questions were not asked just so she could learn about business structures, however. They were asked because she didn’t know how deep into my family’s livelihood the proverbial corporate tentacle reached. Without necessarily being conscious of the fact, she was questioning our sovereignty over our own business.

The fact that farms are independent businesses is a given to me, but it wasn’t to my friend.

Untrue as it is, the idea that farmers are under the thumb of large corporations is certainly not new. Many times I’ve responded to people asking if we are forced to use specific products, if we lived in fear of lawsuits, and other similar questions, but never had I encountered the idea that our land could be literally taken from us with such ease.

In this case, I realized that in order to connect with my friend starting with shared values was not enough. I had to one more step back and describe that the vast majority of Canadian farms (97%, in fact) actually are family businesses run by independent entrepreneurs who make decisions based on personal values, business goals, and what works best on their land.

With this in mind, I asked my friend what Canadian farming should be, and for comparison, followed her answer with my own conception of the ideal.

To paraphrase, my friend suggested Canadian agriculture should be comprised of more and smaller farms that are environmentally conscious and operate independently of large corporations. This was excellent to hear because I whole-heartedly agree with all her points, and better yet, I can say with certainty that much of what she idealized already exists.

DSC_0009I told her about Ontario’s long-running Environmental Farm Plan program, the seemingly-infinite number of crop varieties available to growers, some neat innovations I come across as a farm writer, and how an independent lifestyle is one of the most attractive characteristics of a farming career. 

Considering my friend has never been to a farm like my family’s — and the fact that, like the rest of us, she is continually bombarded by anti-modernity propaganda — it’s only logical that knowledge gaps exist. That was, after all, the entire point of our dinner date. Regardless of how close to the ideal we think modern agriculture is, though, we both discovered our idea of what was “right” was more similar than originally anticipated.

It was a good conversation, and to her credit, my friend was already quite knowledgeable on some subjects, and shared that knowledge with me. Where she knew little, though, the only real thing lacking was context, and that reminded me not to take the independent business aspect of farming for granted.