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 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.
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.”