By Jeanine Moyer
One Ontario farm couple is so passionate about farming that several times each year they take their farm on the road. Ron and Sharon Douglas of Whispering Brook Yorkshires, Clifford, ON, spend nearly 100 days travelling to schools, fairs, festivals and exhibitions across Ontario each year, educating the urban public about agriculture.
And with them come their own pigs – in the comfort of the Pig Mobile – a converted livestock trailer with the sides replaced with windows to allow people to see the pigs as they would live on the farm.
The Pig Mobile is as close as you can get to an Ontario hog farm without actually stepping foot in a barn. The animals are carefully chosen to represent hogs at various growth stages including a sow and baby piglets, weaner, grower and finishing hogs. Ron designed the unit himself, modeling the trailer as close to a real pig barn as possible. The unit is complete with ventilation, a farrowing unit, slatted floors and feeders similar to those found in any Ontario hog barn.
“It all started with a few questions about hog farming and it just seemed natural for us to help people understand more about our industry,” says Ron, explaining the concept of the Pig Mobile started with questions from visitors at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (RAWF). Ron and Sharon and their children showed hogs at the RAWF in the mid-1980s where they discovered the urban public had a keen interest in learning more about their hogs and farming operation.
“We took our first display of a sow and litter to the Royal in 1986 to help people understand more about pigs,” says Ron who noted they were initially skeptical about public acceptance of the display. But the display was such a hit that he’s been taking the live animal demonstration to the fair every year since. At the time, Ron was a director with Ontario Pork and the organization quickly got on board with the project, supporting the model hog farm’s trips on the road. Ontario Pork is still involved with the Pig Mobile today, providing communications support and signage for events.
“People love talking to real farmers,” says Sharon. “Visitors are constantly thanking us for taking the time to answer their questions.” The couple relies on fellow Ontario hog farming families to help out at events, giving Ontario farmers the opportunity to speak to the urban public about agriculture and answer their questions.
The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) is the Pig Mobile’s most popular event, attracting more than half a million visitors to event’s educational farm display over the 18 day show. “The CNE is our favourite show because it’s the best place to promote agriculture; visitors are so interested and often come as families to gather information,” says Ron. The RAWF is the second most popular event for the model hog farm, attracting children on school trips. The vehicle also travels to schools and educational events throughout the year, teaching children about hogs and farming, and explaining job opportunities within the agricultural industry.
The Douglases travel with their own pigs as much as possible, so Ron plans each event more than three months in advance – the length of a sow’s gestation – to ensure a sow and litter are available for each event. According to the Douglases, the sow and piglets are the highlight of the pig mobile. Not only do visitors enjoy watching the young piglets, but the farrowing unit also creates discussion with the public. “Ninety-nine per cent of the people we meet are in full support of agriculture and what farmers do,” says Ron, noting he and Sharon explain the importance of animal care to the remaining one per cent, “so even if visitors don’t agree with what we do, they at least walk away with a better understanding of farming.”
When they’re not visiting schools or attending fairs and exhibition events, the Douglases are busy on their own farm. Ron has made some adjustments to their farm in recent years because the Pig Mobile is so popular. Rather than cropping their feed, the couple now buys in grain for their hog and beef farm since they are traveling with the exhibit during harvest season. Their busiest season runs from August through November and the Douglases estimate they are on the road 40-50 days during that time.Traveling to approximately 25 events throughout Ontario, the popular feature attracts nearly 1.5 million people annually. That means the Douglases have over a million conversations with consumers each year, talking to them about hog farming, Ontario agriculture, the environment and animal care.
The couple was recognized in 2010 for their tireless efforts in agricultural education as regional award winners of the Ontario Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. “We enjoy meeting people, and talking about what we do on the farm comes naturally to us,” says Sharon. Ron agrees, adding, “Maybe it’s the farmer in us, but this is something we continue to do and enjoy it.”
This article is one in a series of profiles on Ontario farmers produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario.