Consumers ‘get the real dirt’ on food production

Canadian farmers are using the oldest form of communication to talk to urban consumers about how their food is produced. A growing number of farmers from across the country are participating in farm tours, which allow them plenty of face-time with consumers whose closest contact with food production is shopping at the grocery store or ordering from a restaurant menu.

Farm tours are an obvious marketing tool for farmers producing market-ready foods such as chicken, cheese, wine and vegetables. Indeed, participants in Alberta’s two-day Open Farm Days events in 2015 generated $100,000 in sales. “We hope to see this number grow even more in 2016,” says David Eggen, Alberta’s Minister of Culture and Tourism.

Even though direct sales aren’t an option for conventional farmers, they still find ways to make field-side conversations work to the industry’s advantage, says Kelly Daynard of Farm & Food Care (FFC) Canada, a charitable organization based in Guelph, ON, that’s committed to providing to consumers, credible, evidence-based information about food production.

“The bottom line is that people are hungry for news about how their food is produced,” says Rick Stamp of Stamp Seeds and Stamp Farms near Enchant, AB. Stamp participated in the Open Farm Days tour for the first time in August 2015, welcoming about a dozen visitors, mostly from Calgary, about a two hour drive away. Farther north, near Round Hill, AB, Humphrey and Terry Banack say their traditional grain farm had about 45 visitors that same weekend in August. Most were from Edmonton, 80 km away.

While the Stamps focused their farm tour on the fundamentals of pedigreed seed production, the Banacks took a more hands-on approach. Most of their visitors harvested a few peas using the Banacks’ GPS-guided combine. They also saw and touched samples of wheat, flax, canola and peas grown on the farm. Each group of visitors to the Round Hill farm then took home a bag of peas, a few new recipes and some farm-fresh information about how the Banacks grow crops on their 7,000 acres of land.

Tour targets: ag tourist or foodie?  

Not all farm tours are the same. Organizers in Alberta and Manitoba invite agricultural producers to participate, then advertise the dates and farm venues in agricultural and mainstream media to attract ag tourists. FFC Ontario offers a similar program for the general public. Its “Breakfast on the Farm” events attract more than 2,000 people a year.

FFC offices in Ontario and Saskatchewan also invite local and international food influencers including chefs, culinary students, high-volume food buyers and food writers and bloggers to participate in organized bus tours.

FFC Saskatchewan held its first two farm tours in 2015, one of which attracted 70 people after a culinary school in Saskatoon made student participation mandatory. “Next year we are planning a separate culinary/ farm tour for those students and will also reach out to students studying to be dieticians,” says Adele Buettner, FFC Saskatchewan CEO.

Regardless of the tour’s focus, Stamp says conventional producers should get involved. “We just think people should be way more confident in their food production and we’ll do what we can to boost that confidence.”

Stamp and Terry Banack say visitors asked few questions about GMOs or pesticides. But they did field plenty of questions about technology. “Telling people about how precision farming works to optimize production and protect the environment probably helped our visitors understand why we farm the way we do,” says Stamp.

There is tremendous reassurance in showing visitors the precautions in place to guide farmers in the proper use of crop protection products and the important role technology plays in helping farmers apply crop protection products only where needed, says Daynard.

Participants in this year’s Ontario tour had an opportunity to see several new technologies in action. One conventional grain farmer, in particular, showed participants his GPS-guided tractor he controls from his iPad.

“FFC Canada represents all types of farmers from small organic farms to large-scale conventional operations,” says Daynard. The organization’s goal is to present science- or evidence-based information about how food is produced and let consumers decide what type of food they will buy for their families.

Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers (MPSG) shares that conviction. Knowing its growers are busy with harvest when Manitoba Open Farm Days are held in September, MPSG decided in 2015 to do what its producers couldn’t. Last fall, MPSG attracted about 80 ag tourists to a display they set up near an agri-food interpretive centre close to Winnipeg. “People were especially interested in what we grow and where we grow it. They also wanted to know where they could buy Manitoba-grown products in the store,” says MPSG’s Roxanne Lewko.

Speakers Bureau   

FFC Canada also trains ag-industry insiders to take industry messages directly to community groups in urban centres. About 200 farmers, ranchers and others from Saskatchewan participated in the first round of training workshops in 2015.

More workshops are planned throughout Saskatchewan for 2016, says Buettner. Workshop participants receive speaker training and a laptop-ready memory stick with five professionallyproduced presentations that include talks on farm animal care, farming and the environment and even farming myths. Trained speakers then present these talks — peppered with their own experiences — to participants in venues such as classrooms, church groups and urban libraries.

“Research shows Canadians have food-related questions about health and safety, the environment, animal care and farming methods and technology,” says Buettner. “Farm tours and speakers bureaus are good ways to spread information about ways the industry supports research and better practices.”

“It’s all about relationship building,” adds Daynard. To that end, FFC Ontario also offers special tours for government employees working in areas related to food production and processing. “They’re engrossed in this topic every day, but many have not had a chance to get their boots dirty,” she says.

“We need to get creative when it comes to finding ways to engage non-farmers and to talk about how the industry supports research and better practices,” adds Buettner. “That information builds public trust and supports the social license to farm.” FF