Outreach program connects canola farmers to consumers

For canola growers, customer service is about more than just delivering a clean shipment of high-quality seed to buyers. It’s also about reaching out to the ultimate end user — the canola oil consumer.

These days that’s no simple task when you have a wide experience gap between consumers and food producers. That’s why farmers have invested in Canola Eat Well, a consumer outreach website — CanolaEatWell.com — developed by western Canadian canola growers.

“We are about building bridges, building communities and connecting farmers and key leaders in areas of expertise like chefs, dieticians and health professionals,” says Ellen Pruden, Canola Eat Well director. The program is a collaboration between Alberta Canola, SaskCanola, and Manitoba Canola Growers.

It’s also a unique team approach that brings together experts from a variety of disciplines in a coordinated effort designed to inspire people in their kitchens while connecting them to the farm. That team is comprised of Pruden, who has a background in education and Jennifer Dyck, a professional home economist, both based in Manitoba; Tanya Pidsadowski, from Alberta, a dietitian with a farm background; and Lynn Weaver, an Ontario-based dietitian.

Building those connections between the field and the kitchen across the entire country can be a challenge when the players are speaking different languages, says Pruden. “We are translators,” she says. “We take farmer talk and translate it to consumers, and then we take what consumers are asking for and translate that back to farmers. When you can bring people together and create that opportunity where you can have conversations, that’s where true learning and growth takes place.”

For many Canadian consumers, its only encounter with a producer may be at a farmer’s market, but that’s a whole different type of farming. Canola Eat Well’s work involves sparking curiosity and empowering consumers to ask the questions they’re really interested in about what producers really do on the farm. And it starts with finding common ground or similar goals.

“It’s all about moving conversations forward … what are issues farmers are facing and how can technology help them?” says Pruden. “It’s all about telling their story,” she explains. “When you tell a story, you’re able to engage and you have this connection to that person, and those are the moments they take back and then share with their larger community, which then is shared even further out.”

Pruden’s experience has shown farmers are engaging storytellers. The team likes to involve an actual farmer in any of its programming, especially into Ontario, a key canola oil market for growers. Farmers like Jeannette Andrashewski, who really shines when sharing what it means to be a farmer, and regularly engages on social media with Ontario consumers to talk about her farm life. Pruden sees such ongoing dialogue as a key to building community.

But Canola Eat Well doesn’t only bring farmers to the city. One of its most successful initiatives is called Canola Connect Harvest Camp. September 2018 marked the seventh year for the camp. Each year, 15 participants from across the country with diverse backgrounds, including chefs, bloggers, health professionals, educators, even scientists are invited to Manitoba to participate in the camp.

This group is taken to a farm where they first learn about the soil, its importance, and about farmers’ relationship with the land. They also visit a cattle ranch and a bison operation. There’s a dinner in the field, a chance to see how farming and equipment has changed over the last 20 years and the impact technology has made on efficiency.

“It’s incredible how the farmers will break during harvest for us,” says Pruden. “We visit several different farmers, all members of a canola organization. Everyone gets a combine ride and one-on-one time with a farmer. It’s an experience they never forget.”

And those experiences inspire lots of online sharing, especially by food bloggers. From sneakymommies.com to thelemonapron.com, Harvest Camp alumni share their personal experiences about this special camp.

In fact, the Harvest Camp has proven to be life changing. Pruden cites the example of Erin MacGregor, one of the first campers, who was so impressed that she decided to make it her mission to share what farmers do for Canadians. She’s done so on her website howtoeat.ca, with articles like: Four BIG myths about food and farming: DEBUNKED.

Another camper, home economist Mairlyn Smith, became so inspired by her experience, it sparked a project encouraging consumers to use Canadian food ingredients through a cookbook called Home Grown: Celebrating the Canadian Foods We Grow, Raise and Produce.

Pruden says all these people have been truly inspired by the farmers they’ve met through Harvest Camp. Each farmer demonstrates such passion for the land, their work and their lifestyle.

“That’s what farmers don’t realize — the amount of passion they have,” says Pruden. “They have ‘it.’ After visiting farms, there’s something, the je ne sais quoi of these humble, special people. The campers walk away with a feeling that can never be replaced. I would bottle it if I could,” she laughs.

Building community is a two-way street. Pruden admits she was fearful asking farmers to take a harvest break for the first camp, but now sees how much the farmers enjoy sharing what they do with people who are genuinely interested.

CanolaEatWell.com is so much more than a place to find great recipes. The site talks about the health benefits of canola oil and how to use it in combination with fresh ingredients to create healthy, tasty food.

Pruden thinks it’s been a shift for farmers to realize the importance of building relationships with canola oil users. And she believes it’s become vital for their business.

Providing a factual perspective, helping shoppers feel good about choosing to use canola oil, and putting a face to farmers is how Canola Eat Well shines brightly as a valuable tool for growers.