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.

**********

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!

Is Roundup Poisoning Us?

By Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

Glyphosate is a herbicide — a type of pest control product used to kill plants. It is the active ingredient in the now infamous chemical Roundup, and is one of the most used agricultural chemicals worldwide.

Google glyphosate, originally released as the product Roundup, and you’re faced with results like ‘horrific’ “new evidence about the damage Roundup causes” and “Roundup chemicals are lethal.” One quick search and I can understand why society might have concerns about the pervasive use of glyphosate in agriculture. Reading these statements does lead us to question: is Roundup poisoning us?

Let’s examine the science.

A small amount (think: pop can) is mixed into a tank of water on the back of a special machine called a sprayer. Farmers use these machines to spray the mixture onto the weeds over a large area (that one pop can treats an area nearly the size of a football field) where it is absorbed by the plant. Once inside the plant, glyphosate binds to an enzyme (EPSP synthase), preventing it from building essential amino acids that a plant needs to live and grow. With this enzyme disabled, plants die. Now, the really interesting thing is that EPSP synthase is found only in plants and bacteria; humans and animals do not use this process.

Remember that Google search which told us glyphosate is one of the most toxic chemicals around? Not so. The general standard for acute (short term) toxicity is a value called an LD50. This refers to the median lethal dose, the amount of a chemical needed to cause death in 50% of the animals it is tested on. An LD50 is one way to measure the relative short-term poisoning potential of a compound. The lower the number the more toxic it is. For example, the LD50 of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda, a common ingredient in baking) is 4220 mg/kg; table salt 3000 mg/kg; caffeine (as in our precious morning coffee) is 192 mg/kg; and nicotine (cigarettes) is 50 mg/kg.

So where does glyphosate fit? Glyphosate has an LD50 of 5600 mg/kg. Yes. It is less toxic than baking soda, table salt, and coffee.

Our entire world is comprised of chemicals. Water, salt, and vinegar are chemicals, and even our bodies can be considered walking, talking chemical bags.

You’ve probably heard the old adage of toxicologists “the dose makes the poison”. Even those regular household compounds like salt, vinegar or yes, even water can be toxic if ingested in high enough doses. When glyphosate is used as it is intended, just like salt, vinegar, and water, it has minimal toxicity to humans and animals because the amount used is small.

But how do we know we are not consuming high levels of pesticides? Health Canada scientists review the data from over 250 separate studies before they approve a pesticide for sale or use in Canada. As part of this extensive review before a chemical is approved for sale, they identify the amount of a pesticide that a person could be exposed to without any adverse health effects. These levels are then compared to the maximum amount of residue that might be found on crops after use of the pesticide (a value known as the Maximum Residue Limit or MRL) in order to ensure that consumers are never exposed to an amount that could pose a risk to health. Indeed, MRLs are typically 100-1000 times below levels that are still considered safe.

Thanks to the MRLs established by Health Canada, based on science, we can be confident that if small amounts of glyphosate are ingested through exposure in our food system, we know they won’t be at toxic enough levels to cause damage, even if they are consumed every day over a life time.

I should probably also mention that it is not just Health Canada that has assessed the science around glyphosate. Most other major regulatory organizations around the world, including the European Food Safety Authority, the World Health Organization, and the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency, have also reviewed data on glyphosate (available here).

Glyphosate is easily and relatively quickly broken down in the environment. It does not bioaccumulate, meaning it does not build up in the bodies of fish and wildlife (read an example of mercury bioaccumulation here). And finally, it is excreted by our bodies if ingested. Their overwhelming consensus? When glyphosate is used according to label directions, it poses minimal risk to people, wildlife, and the environment.

We need to evaluate claims on the basis of overall weight of scientific evidence behind it. The stronger the weight of evidence, the more confidence we can have in the scientific findings. Glyphosate has been investigated by many scientists from around the world, in hundreds and hundreds of studies (again, available here) all of which have determined that, when it is used as it is intended, it is safe for people, for animals, and our environment.

Being a science geek, I follow facts. And the evidence tells me glyphosate is not the problem a cursory Google search might suggest. If you would like to know how glyphosate is used, the label (which is a legal document authorized by the Pest Control Products Act) can be found here. And if you still have questions, we want to hear them.

For more information/resources:

https://www.bestfoodfacts.org/glyphosate/

https://www.bestfoodfacts.org/glyphosate-in-food/

http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-2012_en.html

http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/1287975/reload=0;jsessionid=osa7mo59kVxNtcafSkkP.18

http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2014/06/salt-vinegar-and-glyphosate/

http://www.who.int/foodsafety/jmprsummary2016.pdf

 

White Stripes in Chicken — Should you be Worried?

By now you may have seen a few click-bait worthy articles highlighting a concern in chickens known as “white striping”, in which white lines can be observed in chicken meat purchased fresh at the grocery counter.

Farm & Food Care asked representatives from the Chicken Farmers of Canada to comment on what consumers were seeing and being told, and whether or not we might see this in Canada and if it’s of concern. Here’s what they said:

The research (in regards to white striping) in question has been conducted with birds that grow much bigger than they do here in Canada. The data references birds processed at 59, 61, and 63 days of age whereas in Canada, chickens are not grown to be as big and are most commonly processed at around 35 days of age and weigh about 2 kilograms. We do see some incidence of breast meat “striping” in Canada, but these are likely not as frequent, because our birds do not grow as big.

It’s important to note that white striping and other similar conditions present no food safety risk and chicken remains a nutritious choice. A recent nutrient analysis conducted by Silliker labs shows that chicken is a healthy, lean, source of protein.

“As part of an overall healthy diet that includes a variety of both animal and plant-based foods, Canadian chicken remains a great source of nutrition. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, not only do I recommend chicken as a healthy option, I will continue to do so and not change my advice in light of this report. All cuts of chicken, both light and dark meat, are a source of important nutrients such as protein, zinc, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and B vitamins such as B1, B2, and B12 to name a few which, are needed for health by all ages.”

Doug Cook, RDN MPH CDE

Read more here.

It’s true: Chickens grow faster today than they did in the past. However, this is due to breeding programs and feed efficiencies. In fact, the mortality rates, lameness issues, condemnation rates, and ascites concerns in chicken have all seen a marked decrease at the same time that growth rates have increased (See references below). And it’s important to note what is not making chickens grow faster: hormones or steroids. These have been illegal in chicken production in Canada since the 1960s.

Since birds are more efficient at converting feed to muscle, less land is needed, less manure is produced, fewer fossil fuels are used, and fewer emissions are generated, resulting in reduced environmental impacts.

Canada has a mandatory, enforced, and audited national animal care program, which is based on the National Farm Animal Care Council’s Code of Practice.  It was developed in consultation with over 40 stakeholders, and support for its implementation has come from animal care organizations, veterinary associations, industry professionals and more.

To learn more about how chicken is raised in Canada, talk to a farmer. Visit www.chickenfarmers.ca for all the info about production practices in Canada.

[1] National Chicken Council, “U.S. Broiler Performance,” September 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/statistics/u-s-broiler-performance/. [Accessed February 2017].
[2] D. N. Kapell, W. G. Hill, A. M. Neeteson, J. McAdam, A. N. Koerhuis and S. Avendaño, “Twenty-five years of selection for improved leg health in purebred broiler lines and underlying genetic parameters,” Poultry Science, vol. 91, pp. 3032-3043, 2012.
[3] Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, “Poultry Condemnation Report by Species for Federally Inspected Plants,” October 2016. [Online]. Available: http://aimis-simia.agr.gc.ca/rp/index-eng.cfm?menupos=1.01.04&action=pR&pdctc=&r=133&LANG=EN. [Accessed February 2017].

Food Freedom Day— Canadian Food Privilege Is Inconsistent

By Matt McIntosh

It’s pretty hard to beat food. We need it, we like it, and it can be an incredibly significant part of who we are.

As any shopper knows, though, food can also be expensive.

The good news for us Canadians is our national food dollar isn’t actually that high. Despite what our grocery bills suggest, we have access to some of the highest quality – and cheapest – food on the planet.

Today, February 8, is “Food Freedom Day” in Canada. Determined each year by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, “Food Freedom Day” is when most Canadians have made enough money to pay for their yearly food bill. Where the event lands each year is determined by comparing Statistics Canada data on average individual income ($32,464) and yearly food expenditures ($3,497).

Based on these numbers, the Federation determined Canadians spend approximately 10.7 per cent of their income on food.

Now, 10.7 per cent might seem like a sizeable chunk of your wallet, but it’s an astoundingly low number when analyzed in a wider geographical context. In a 2015 report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), for instance, citizens of France – another highly developed western country with a particularly glorious culinary history – spend 13.2 per cent of their annual income on food, compared to 9.1 per cent for Canada. Canada and France may not have taken the top spot on the USDA’s list – the United States consistently takes first prize there – but both were still far into the upper echelons.

That same study, for instance, shows the Portuguese spend 17.3 per cent of their income on food, the Russians a whopping 28 per cent, and Nigeria, almost unbelievably, at 56.4 per cent. A similar 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service also put these countries in very similar positions.

Granted, the USDA and Congressional studies were created using different data than what the Federation used for Canada’s Food Freedom Day, but the point is the same – in the global scheme of things, only spending one-tenth of your income on food is pretty good.

The flip side of this is, of course, that Food Freedom Day hinges on what the average Canadian has to spend on food. When viewed within the confines of our own individual experiences – whether it be a trip to the market or a restaurant – food can certainly seem expensive. Indeed, Canadians spend so much money on food that affordability and rising costs are consistently ranked as one of our country’s top public concerns.

As can be assumed in a country as vast and rugged as Canada, different communities also experience vastly differing food issues. Canadians in the far north, just as one example, can spend a small fortune on everyday products such as milk and fresh produce. Contrast that to the experience to those of us living in Ontario’s deep south, and there’s little left in the way of meaningful comparison.

Food Freedom Day helps us understand and appreciate what we have as Canadians. We have choice galore, high quality, and relatively cheap products, and systems that help farmers, processors, retailers and everyone else maintain what is, essentially, a food-privileged society.

Food Freedom Day serves as a reminder that we are a truly lucky bunch. Many folks both abroad and in our own country do not have the same luxuries, and understanding the reasons behind that disparity is never a bad thing.

Solutions can’t be found if problems have no context, after all.

Students to Celebrate #CdnAgDay By Sharing the RealDirt on Farming

Next week, farmers and consumers across Canada are encouraged to share, tell, and post how they’ll be celebrating Canadian food on February 16, 2017, the inaugural Canada’s Agriculture Day.

University students, too, are gearing up to celebrate in several ways. Farm & Food Care reached out to universities and agriculture schools across Canada offering up copies of the Real Dirt on Farming  and call-to-action cards to hand out to non-agriculture students, staff, and visitors on campus.

The goal of the day is to encourage students and staff to seek out answers to their food and farming questions, directly from the students handing out Real Dirt magazines, or through online resources like www.RealDirtonFarming.ca, and through use of the #CdnAgDay hashtag on social media, from Facebook, to Twitter, Instagram, and more.

There’s still time to get involved! Whether it’s hosting a made-in-Canada meal, or Tweeting what you do on your farm each day, or as a student yourself, check out www.cdnagday.ca and scroll down to posted events, and to find images and graphics you can use to celebrate Canada’s rich food and farm culture.