Farm outreach with a global perspective

Christine enjoys a little R&R on her family’s combine

By Christine Wilkinson

It’s been a long and winding road to get to where I am now.

I grew up on a farm in Milton, Ontario.  Yes, Milton – a Greater Toronto-Area city that had a population of 25,000 people when I was a kid, and now has over 100,000 residents.  Right out of high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do.  I knew I wanted to travel and help people, so I went to school for International Development at the University of Guelph.  Being a farm kid, I chose to specialize in agricultural development because that was my other area of interest.

In my third year I had the opportunity to participate in an exchange program, and attended the University of Essex in England.  To make myself feel more at home, I joined the Young Farmers Club of the UK – and it was the best thing I did while I was there.  I made friends from across the county, and even one from Australia (she also had the idea to join while working as a nanny in a nearby town).

I quickly realized that agriculture isn’t just an industry or sector; it’s a community and a family. Although I was pretty involved in 4-H growing up, my experiences in England made me realize how lucky I am to be part of a global community.

Showing cattle for 4-H

I took my experiences overseas home, too. As my undergrad came to an end, like most students, I struggled with figuring out what I wanted to do next.  After taking courses in agricultural communications, and rural extension, I decided to apply for the Ontario Agriculture College’s Masters of Science program in Capacity Development and Extension.

I didn’t really know what all of that meant, but I knew I wanted to learn more about improving public trust and teaching people about agriculture.  I’ve become very passionate about this topic, especially over the last few months, while working with Farm & Food Care as a summer student.

Prior to working with Farm & Food Care, I worked on a public farm in Milton doing outreach and education programs, as well as leading/interpreting tour groups and school field trips.  In these roles, I’ve realized how passionate I have become for agriculture, and showing people the story behind their food.

At the time, I may not have thought my undergraduate program was the best fit for me, but it ended up being a pretty interesting path. I’m still doing outreach, and continue looking forward to sharing what agriculture is all about.

“When was the last time you changed your mind?”

By Sarah Sheppard

I recently had the chance to attend a screening of a new movie about food production, breeding methods and technology at my alma matter, the University of Guelph. It was followed by a panel of a group of scientists and activists who I think I are really cool.

The Food Evolution movie tells the story of how genetically engineered crops are perceived by scientists, activists and the public and the friction between the groups to figure out how to provide enough food for a growing world population.  Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, it compares the debate of genetically engineered crop use in Hawaii with the debate in Africa (Kenya and Uganda specifically).

Since I have not yet talked about genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), here is a quick crash course.

Genetically engineered (GE) organisms, also often referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are things that have had a gene from either a different species or a synthetically produced gene added to their DNA to allow the organism to have a trait it would not be able to get through traditional breeding methods or to have a trait appear faster than it would be able to through selective breeding.

This means that organisms can be improved to have more disease resistance, to have more nutrients that humans need in their diets, to have resistance to herbicides that can kill weeds, to maintain genetic diversity, to improve the hardiness of crops in the face of climate change, to improve animal welfare, and to more effectively produce livestock for human consumption.

Some genetically engineered products are already available – corn, soybeans, and cotton all have genetically engineered varieties that are widely used, as well as sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, squash, canola, and potatoes.  There are also apples, salmon and eggplant (brinjal) that are starting to come to the market now.

Some consumers and activists are ardently opposed to the use and sale of genetically engineered products for a variety of reasons, including playing God, concerns about effects on the environment, food safety and human health concerns. However, there is no scientific evidence of these concerns being actual problems across thousands of scientific studies and there is a consensus among scientists that GE products are safe. The problems lie in the fact that the people opposed to GE crops are often so passionately opposed to them that they are able to sway politicians into banning these crop and animal varieties and that keeps these products out of the hands of the people who would benefit most from them.

Two resources that I like to point people to when they have more questions about GE technology are the Genetic Literacy Project and GMO Answers. For those of you wondering why I keep using the term GE instead of GMO, Dr. Kevin Folta recently wrote a piece about how use of language matters in the technology debate, although it is generally accepted that the two are interchangeable (you may remember Kevin from my first post as someone who helped me get this blog off the ground).

Food Evolution explains the fear associated with GE products but then goes through the scientific process and allows the research to be explained by renowned scientists.  It features skeptics, farmers, politicians and researchers from both America and Africa. It particularly focuses on the Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii and bacterial wilt-resistant bananas for Africa, two crops that are able to resist diseases which are crippling to them when the diseases occur. These crops are another tool farmers can use to help produce a viable crop for consumers and they bring in enough money when sold to allow the farmers producing them to make a living.

The movie screening was followed by a panel with Dr. Kevin Folta, Dr. Allison van EenannaamMark LynasAdam Kighoma MalimaRobert Wager and Dr. CS Prakash.  Prior to the movie screening, the audience was polled to see where they stood on genetically engineered products. 90% of the audience was in favour of the use of GE crops and the rest were opposed or unsure. Personally, I found it interesting how the first 90 minutes of the panel was made up of questions from people who were very opposed to GE technology, even though the made up the minority of the audience.  Some had thoughtful, valid concerns, about things like how a neighbour growing GE crops would affect their organic crops, while others had questions that seemed intent on out-foxing the panel and trying to force them into saying something they didn’t mean (the panel handled it much more gracefully than I would have…).  By the end of the night though, the tone of the questions changed, and the pro-GE part of the audience started asking more questions, wanting to know how we in the audience could support science, science communication, and bringing the technology into the hands of the people who need it.

I took a lot of notes over the course of the movie and the panel, and true to form, I cannot read a damn word I wrote. As such, some of the more refined points I wanted to bring up are squiggles that I can’t unravel.  The title of this piece is a quote I can read though, and I thought it was powerful because everyone who holds an opinion on GE crops (or any other debatable subject) often feels very strongly about the matter. Be it science, politics, religion, it is often hard to change your mind and even harder to admit that you have. That seems to be part of the problem with people in the GE debate, and that is part of what makes panel-speaker Mark Lynas so credible in the GE debate because he was so opposed to the technology for so long.

The other quote that stuck with me (and that I can read!), was one from Dr. Allison van Eenannaam in the panel, where she asked:

“How do we make people evaluate the risks based on what is more likely to be bad? The risks people worry about are the ones they don’t have control over, like the way people are more afraid of flying than they are of driving, even though driving is more dangerous.”

I find this poignant because at this point in time there are quite literally thousands of studies saying that GE crops are safe (including this meta-analysis of 1783 studies from a 10 year period), but because so many people are so far removed from the food system and are really trusting the people growing, processing, auditing and regulating their food to keep it safe, the general public can be wary of GE foods.

I think movies like this help. I think hearing from a panel of experts like I did helps. I think people who support the technology sharing information about it with people who don’t know or are indifferent helps.

Unfortunately, the screening last week was the only Canadian one scheduled so far and no US, Canadian or European broadcasters have picked up the movie to air it.  I’m hoping that Netflix will pick it up because then it will likely be accidentally stumbled upon by a person who would not necessarily watch the movie if it was shown on a TV station.

If you get the chance, please go see this movie, it is so worth it.

 

***This piece originally appeared on Sarah’s personal blog site City Mouse in AG

 

More than dogs & cats

Why I want to be a farm animal vet

By Shannon Finn

Ever wondered what it takes to be a veterinarian? As a fourth year veterinary student at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, I thought I’d give some background on the process, and our role in Canadian Agriculture.

I grew up in Baden, Ontario – a beautiful and agriculturally rich area of Southern Ontario, and an area where I would like to practice when I graduate. Coming into vet school, I didn’t have as much large animal veterinary experience as some of my classmates, but I love rural life and have a true appreciation for farmers and the work they do.

The road to vet school itself is a long one! In Ontario, in addition to at least two years of a

Shannon Finn

university undergraduate degree, you must get three professional references – two of which need to be from veterinarians. This usually involves working or volunteering at veterinary clinics so they can get to know you. I worked at two small animal clinics during high school and undergrad. I also got experiences with horses by working on a horse farm in high school.

My advice when volunteering – don’t be scared to ask questions. Volunteering continues throughout vet school with lots of extracurricular activities, so it’s best to learn early how to make the most of it.

When you acquire references and enough hands-on experience, you can apply to school. I started my application after finishing two years of an Animal Biology degree. The top 200 applicants go through an interview process, but only 120 are selected for the program.

There are four phases, or years, in vet school. The first year involves learning everything that is “normal” for healthy animals. The second year is all about learning what can “go wrong” – how and why an animal get sick or injured. Third year is the last year of “book learning,” and we learn how to diagnose and treat a wide variety of conditions in many different animals.

Fourth year is an entire year of clinical learning on rotations. To start off our clinical year we also have to do an 8-week externship at a mixed animal practice. You can read more about what we do on our externship at OVC’s Externship Blog Project!

One of the cool things about being a veterinarian is you are able to specialize in animals that interest you the most. I chose what’s called the “Food Animal stream” for my fourth year because I’m passionate about keeping entire herds healthy – as well as individual animals – and because I’m also very interested in food safety and biosecurity.

Considering food safety, herd health, and animal welfare is a big part of being a food animal vet. It also includes building relationships with farmers, communicating knowledgeably with the public about agricultural issues, and a willingness to be on call so people can reach you whenever an issue arises.

I will be one of the Externship Project bloggers this summer, and I hope you follow along with me! I’m hoping to shed some light on the kinds of things we do as future veterinarians, including what it’s like to work in rural Ontario, and how we work to keep animals healthy. You can also follow me on Twitter at @SFinnDVMStudent!

Bringing food to the classroom

Experiences of an AgScape Teacher Ambassador

 

By Amy Dunslow, OCT, AgScape Teacher Ambassador

Growing up in Chatham-Kent (Ontario), I had the privilege of learning about agriculture first hand – by visiting farms, eating fruits and vegetables bought at the local farm stand, and running through the fields across the street from our home.  Even though I didn’t live on a farm, I recognized and understood the hard work and effort it took to bring food to our table. This recognition and understanding is often missing for many of the students I meet when I visit urban high school classrooms as an AgScape® Teacher Ambassador.

This is understandable, though, because most people have little opportunity to experience what I grew up with.

At the beginning of each lesson I always start with one question: “What is agriculture?”  The answers I receive often surprise me – from “I don’t know” and “A culture about something,” to the more promising “Culture of food” and the occasional “Farming”.  These kinds of answers remind me that we live in a time where most of us are drastically disconnected from the people, places, and processes that bring food to our table.

When I introduce AgScape® to a class I always comment, “The more you know more about the food you eat, the better choices you will make for your health and the more respect you will have for your food.”   Usually I have to go on to explain that what I mean by ‘respect for your food’ is an appreciation for the abundance and choice of foods we have, a true understanding of where it comes from, and recognition of the energy, thought and care that went into producing it. This understanding is the primary reason AgScape’s Teacher Ambassador Program® is so important – it brings students the knowledge they need so that they can understand how their food is grown and processed, and it prepares them to make informed choices about that food.

In every classroom I visit, I see opportunity for learning, growing and making good decisions.  Today’s students are great at asking questions and trying to find what matters most to them. On several occasions my ‘lessons’ have transitioned to more of an open ‘question and answer’ period, with students picking my brain about agriculture.  I don’t get lessons shift focus – I’m happy that these students are curious and asking questions about what interests them.  This often happens in my Local Food lesson when students are surprised and excited to learn about how much food we actually grow in Ontario.  It’s often a revelation to them, and their surprise is understandable when we consider that they are urban students and the nearest farm is a 45 minute drive away.

In an age where almost any kind of information is readily available to them, talking about food in school – and doing so with balanced, fact-based programs and resources – is very important. It’s right that we focus our attention on something that’s so important.  The Teacher Ambassador Program® has a wide variety of topics for teachers to choose from – this variety allows us to connect to many parts of the curriculum in most of the subject areas.  It’s a great program and I look forward to working to promote it in as many schools as possible.

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A partner organization of Farm & Food Care, Agscape works to promote food and farming literacy in Ontario’s school curriculum.

More information is available on on there website:

Agscape.ca

 

My working world – so far

By Stephanie Vickers

It’s officially been a year since I made my way from university to the working world. While my school career may be over, however, one thing is certain – my first “adult” job has showed me there’s still plenty to learn.

My first job out of school was (and still is) with Farm & Food Care Ontario as a Communications Coordinator. In this position, I help run social media, coordinate and work at events like Breakfast on the Farm, and speak to the public about agriculture. All these tasks involve connecting people with the food they eat and the people who produce it, and hopefully, help clear up a lot of misconceptions about farming.

It’s a role I never thought I would be in, though.

As someone who grew up on a dairy farm, my love and passion for agriculture started young. Needless to say, it was no surprise to anyone when I decided to attend the University of Guelph for Agriculture Science. Growing up on a farm near a small town, I never fully understood why – and to what extent – people were so unsure about farming. I saw the care, time and effort that my dad put in everyday to make sure our cows were treated well, and wondered how people couldn’t see it too. In short, I had little idea why someone would doubt farmers and their intentions.

I’ve learned that speaking with Canadians is so much more complicated than the young farm girl could ever have imagined. As an industry, agriculture has been on the defense for a long time, and I sometimes feel this has affected the way we speak to those with genuine questions. People are just curious about the way their food is grown and my job has really showed how important it is to have these conversations.

My experiences so far have opened my eyes to why people doubt agriculture – and why they might love it too – and I hope that my efforts have helped foster more enthusiasm for the food we eat. The vast majority of people are not out to get farmers, after all, and my conversations with them have been a great part of my first job.

Besides, if we don’t answer their questions, who will?

 

Have questions? Don’t be afraid to get in touch!

Meet ‘Agriculture Today’ blogger and farmer Angela Jones

Angela Jones and her husband Michael operate their farm in North East Saskatchewan. They grow cereal, oilseed, pulse crops and raise bison with the help of Michael’s cousin.

They currently have one other employee and their boys who are 11 and 14, put in shifts when they can. Michael oversees all parts of the operation and handles the marketing, while Angela handles the finances. During seeding and at harvest time though, everyone pitches in! Whether it’s operating equipment, washing windows, fuelling up machinery, running for parts or any other job that needs to be done, everyone participates. Truly, a family business.

Angela began blogging in 2014 after trying to explain farming practices to a young university student. “It was at that moment when I realized farmers were fighting an uphill battle to help consumers understand the challenges facing food production. When blogging it is sometimes difficult to find a narrative that appeals to both consumers and people involved in food production. My goal is to connect with consumers and to be transparent about the parts of agriculture that I have experience with, while hopefully learning from and supporting people in other areas of agriculture.”

RealDirt: How has farming changed since you started farming?

Angela: The changes in farming are too numerous to list! Technology in every area of agriculture adapts and adjusts so rapidly that it is a full time job to keep on top if it all. I think this is why I love farming so much, it never lets you get bored and there is no monotony (well, unless you are picking stones – that’s pretty monotonous). My kids constantly bug me and Michael about the amount of time we spend ‘playing games’ on our phones when in reality I am reading up on the newest studies and advances in crop breeding or pesticides and he is keeping up on the latest marketing news or equipment technology.

RealDirt: When you’re not farming and blogging, how do you like to spend your time?

Angela: My husband and I do a lot of volunteering. He sits on the local minor sports board and works with a local group of farmers on an annual crop fundraising project called Farmers and Friends, I help out with the local 4H Grain Club, and we both recently sat on a Cameco Hockey Day Committee that raised over $100,000 for our local recreation centre. We keep busy in the winter with our youngest son’s hockey team. Our oldest son enjoys outdoor activities, so we try to find time to camp or fish when we can.

RealDirt: What has been the most challenging part of farming?

Angela: I have been asked this question before and my answer was the financial uncertainty that comes with farming. There is no doubt that it is tough to put your heart & soul and all your time into something without a guaranteed pay cheque – we cannot set the prices of the product we sell and Mother Nature or government regulation can make things tough. BUT recently I have reflected on this answer and decided that the increase in misinformation about agriculture through social media is by far the hardest part. Time after time I see blog posts & web pages promoting false information about food production in order to sell consumers something, film producers exaggerating claims about agriculture in order to make a documentary more dramatic, or activists sharing untrue messages in order to push an agenda. The question on how to get the truth to consumers often keeps me up at night.  

RealDirt: What is one message you’d like to get across to the general public about what you do? 

Angela: I think the most important message to convey to people not involved in agriculture is just how much we care about what we do. The profession of farming is one based on pride and a deep sense of responsibility and we do not take management decisions lightly, whether that is using hormones, antibiotics, fertilizer or pesticides. So I guess the message I really want to get across is that farmers care. We care about our animals, we care about the soil, we care about the product we sell, we care about our customers, and we care about the environment. We care about those things a lot.  

 

You can connect with Angela on her blog, Instagram, Twitter (@AGtodayblog) or Facebook.

Warm days bring more local food

Local foods like meat, dairy and root vegetables are available year-round, but spring provides an opportunity to really celebrate the greener things in life.

In Ontario, the variety of local foods available at markets, on roadside stands and at grocery stores is tremendous, and for those with access to it, something to be cherished. See what’s available each month with Foodland Ontario’s FOOD AVAILABILITY GUIDE.

Looking for local food in Ontario? It can be easier to find than you might think!

Curious about how your food is produced on Canadian farms? Visit FarmFood360.ca

The Earth needs you – and good science too

Everything’s gotta eat.

All life needs food, and everything relies on a healthy environment for it. Since we humans cultivate our own, farming and the environment are naturally inseparable.

Here in Ontario, and Canada more generally, farmers have a lot to draw from when it comes to environmental improvement. Cover crops like clovers and grasses can help reduce topsoil erosion and increase organic matter; GPS makes for more targeted use of fertilizers and pesticides; higher quality feed means healthier and more efficient animals; conservation projects help growers reduce their water use, establish wildlife habitat, and much more.

A farm – and the family behind it – can’t operate for generation after generation if environmental sustainability isn’t taken seriously, after all.

Agriculture exists the world over, and each farm has its own set of challenges, opportunities, and triumphs when it comes to the health of our air, water, and soil. What suits one farm may not suit another – though there are often a few ways to approach new challenges. Indeed, both agriculture and our planet’s environment are incredibly complex, and that’s something to celebrate.

Politics and narrow thinking, however, have a habit of oversimplifying things to an unhelpful – and dare I suggest dangerous – degree. It’s a problem to be sure, and one that takes a constant, global effort to confront. The health of our planet relies on our understanding of both the positives and the negatives of agriculture’s relationship to the environment, as well as ways to continuously improve how we produce food.

So, for this year’s Earth Day, go to the source – check out what the environment means to farmers, get the science, and give politics the boot.

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Curious about environmental initiatives here in Ontario? Check out these links:

Best Management Practices – Methods farmers use to promote environmental stewardship

The “Soil Your Undies” test – Farmers measure soil quality with underwear

Faces of Farming – Profiles of Ontario farms and the families behind them

Farm & Food Care on Facebook – Quick facts on Canadian food and farming

Farm & Food Care on YouTube – Videos of all kinds, from on-farm water conservation to how chickens are raised

Have questions about farming, the environment, and science in Canada and around the world? Get some answers through the links below:

Best Food Facts – For any and all questions about your food

Cornell University Alliance for Science – Profiles of science in the field, from Alberta to Uganda

Cucumbers, Peppers, Tomatoes, Oh My!

Our friend Fresh Air Farmer is visiting 52 farms in 52 weeks! Check out the latest video where he tours a vegetable greenhouse, one of Ontario’s most technologically advance farm types.

Want to see more Ontario farms? Check out Fresh Air Farmer on Twitter and Youtube for more.

 

Better eating through chemistry

Chemists develop solution to make kale palatable

 

Kale comes in many forms, from fresh steamed greens and salads to on-the-go shakes and chips. It’s a vegetable that’s been successfully labeled a “superfood” by clever marketers, and one that appears to be increasing in popularity throughout the country.

Unfortunately, Kale also tastes terrible – and that’s caused a major plateau in sales.

Recognizing this obvious barrier to the plant’s marketability, researchers at Ontario’s North Buxton University have developed a chemical designed to make Kale leaves both more palatable and more tender.

“Kale is a close cousin of collard greens, and that’s a vegetable most people find significantly more enjoyable,” Says Anna Fitzgerald, lead researcher and head of science communications at the University’s chemistry department. “We decided to breakdown what it is about collard greens that people actually liked, and develop an application that can improve the plant’s edible qualities before being harvested.”

“If you change what it’s exposed to, you can change things like sweetness, bitterness, and so on.”

Fitzgerald and her colleagues quickly recognized the general affinity for collard greens had largely to do with other ingredients commonly paired with them – bacon and sweet onions more specifically.

While this may seem counterproductive to their strategy of using a sister plant, however, Fitzgerald says it was actually a boon to their process.

“Once we realized – as some of us suspected – that it was additives during cooking that really made the difference, we were able to skip a number of steps and immediately develop an additive based on salt and sugar flavours,” she says. “We then started working directly with the school’s culinary department to perfect a flavorful growing additive derived from natural sources.”

The chemical developed combines concentrated forms of sugars already present in leafy greens like Kale, with proteins from an unexpected source – bark from red cedar trees, which is highly toxic if ingested. That might seem frightening, but Fitzgerald says it’s that very property that makes their yet-to-be-named additive effective.

The additive works by spraying a crop of kale with the researchers’ sweetening-chemical shortly before harvest. The sugars are quickly absorbed by the plant – creating a sweet burst of flavor – while the cedar proteins help break down cell walls, leading to a more easily cooked and chewable plant.

Fitzgerald and her team have only been able to perform two seasonal field trials so far, but they are hopeful their efforts will lead to a greater demand for an otherwise healthy vegetable.

“I think people will be very open to this type of application,” she says. “I can’t foresee anyone having any issues with this.”

 

 

DISCLAIMER **** This post is a joke. Happy April Fools day!