Mommy, I want to go back to the farm!”
Michael Fuller, age three, made this point to Mom, Karen Fuller, on the drive home to Brandon from Open Farm Day.
Michael and two city cousins had just spent the afternoon connecting with a real farm for the first time – and they couldn’t have been happier.
“They can’t stop talking about it,” nurse Karen Fuller said Friday, five days after the event. “They went to preschool and told their teacher and told the other kids. If it’s open next year, we’ll definitely go back.”
They enjoyed the wagon ride with the horses, loved digging for plastic eggs in the straw, brushed the pony, touched the horses, even patted chickens. They saw the billy goat, and the dog that was in with the sheep.
They sat in the cab of a real farm tractor and, with adult supervision, actually moved the tractor’s bucket themselves.
“They thought they were just in heaven,” Karen says.
“All the staff there was just more than accommodating. The gentleman driving the horses let all the children have a turn at holding the reins, so they felt like they were running it. That was very gracious, and really cute.”
The Colin and Ann Hunter farm, near Rivers, was one of 44 participating in the 2016 Open Farm Day. The event began six years ago as an initiative of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives. It operates since 2015 through the Manitoba Association of Agricultural Societies (MAAS).
“We get funding to run the program through Growing Forward 2 with Manitoba Agriculture,” MAAS executive director Marlene Baskerville said. “There’s no charge for farms to sign up, nor is there a charge to attend.”
MAAS hires a co-ordinator for Open Farm Day. It also supports the program with promotion, signage and direct assistance. The co-ordinator, or an assistant, visits each farm that registers, to set it up for success.
MAAS also encourages local agricultural societies to get involved in the day, both by helping directly at host sites and by doing something supportive in the area the same day.
“The host sites do this out of the goodness of their hearts, basically, to support and promote agriculture,” Baskerville said.
“Safety is of paramount importance. We provide site signage. We talk to them about the pro-cess they want to ensure safety, and we give the hosts a couple of safety vests so they can be easily identified.”
Co-ordinator Wendy Bulloch said cloudy, rainy weather this year reduced participation at some popular host sites in the Winnipeg area, but that overall attendance was roughly 5,000 people. There are still some locations that have not reported their numbers.
Visitors came from nearby towns, from cities, and even from out of province. The guest book at one farm was signed by visitors from other countries, including China.
A farm, museum and agricultural society at The Pas joined the Open Farm Day program for 2016 – with outstanding results.
“The Opasquia Agricultural Society site had 4-H kids, all kinds of display, and about 250 visitors,” Bulloch said. “The Round-The-Bend farm has bison, honey, and about 40 visitors for the event.”
Why the bother?
The Brandon cousins were among just over 100 visitors this year at his farm, Colin Hunter said. It was an increase from 80 visitors in 2015.
“In preparation we probably had only an extra day and a half of work. We got the barn and the pens cleaned up, but it wasn’t really extra work,” he said.
The extra work was in getting animals into position for easy viewing, in setting up the sheep shearing and the clean deep straw for a playpen, in guiding visitors with signs and ribbons, in getting helpers to operate the wagon ride and the tractor with the special ‘people-carrier’ box on the back.
Ann operated the little red farm shop where she sold farm-raised beef, lamb and pork, plus her own garden vegetables. Colin circulated, trying to keep the whole event running smoothly. Both, along with helpers, were bombarded by streams of questions as well as wide-eyed curiosity from their urban visitors.
The Hunters had worked with sheep in Wales, before moving to Canada about 12 years ago. They have about 200 cow-calf pairs and 60 ewes today, and four sheep guardian dogs.
“The two (dogs) we shut up for this are called Filthy and Dirty,” he said with a grin. “When they were pups, they were always in the wettest mucky spots. We’ve also got Reba, the one that was barking for everyone, and Dolly.”
As for farm management, Colin says, “We’ve reached our limit for what we can cover ourselves.”
Yet, they add to it to host a non-profit open house for six hours the third Sunday in September.
There’s a reason Colin is happy to give.
“In the U.K., I saw the towns and the country separate. After the split, they became two communities that have very little to do with each other. I could see it beginning here.
“When Open Farm Day came along, we felt that we could do our part in trying to hold the two communities together. There needs to be more interaction. Town people need to know where their food comes from, need to care where their food comes from.”
Ben and Lacy Kontzie went to Open Farm Day from home in Brandon with Shaelynn, nine, and son Matthew, six. The two town kids get exposed to a farm somewhere once or twice a year, Lacy said.
“I heard about it (Open Farm Day) through a pamphlet my son’s teacher sent home from school. I just wanted to expose my kids to where their food comes from, give them some understanding of agriculture in Manitoba, and how it relates directly to them,” she said.
Her children ‘connected the dots’ in the Hunters’ barn. Nearly side by side, they saw and participated a bit in sheep shearing. They saw fleece being spun into wool. They saw wool being knitted into mittens.
“They could see the connections. Ben and I both grew up in rural Manitoba, and we’ve moved to the city. We feel this is important, for the kids to be out there, and experiencing life on a farm,” Lacy said.
“You were able to walk into the barn, look around, see how things go on, and the farmers were there to answer questions. Everybody seemed quite friendly and talkative about their operations. I think we’d go again.”