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Online food fight grows into ag advocacy for local producer

Faces of Ag: Will Bergmann uses social media, his restaurant and relationship building to tell the story of agriculture to those who most need to hear

It started with fighting people on Facebook.

Will Bergmann was figuring out where life would go. He’d gone to school for education, but he wanted to return to the land his family had farmed for generations.

In the miasma of fights over GMOs and the evils of Monsanto, Will saw the potential in the platform to boost agriculture. He changed tack.

“Building relationships is kind of at the heart of proper discussion,” Will said. “Mutual respect is key to having a conversation — a constructive conversation.”

Over the last few years, Will found his way back to the farm and found a mission in connecting people across the rural-urban divide to the story of agriculture.

“We all share one thing in common, and that’s food,” he said.

Bergmann Bros.

The Bergmann family farm goes back to the old country. Will’s ancestors were Mennonites living in present-day Ukraine. During the Russian Revolution, his great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather were killed. His great-grandmother emigrated to Canada and followed rumours of land opportunity to the Prairies where she bought the plot of land the family still occupies.

Will’s “Opa” (grandfather) and great-uncle were the original Bergmann Brothers. Opa had six children, and three of them took over the family operation.

The farm had a dairy from Day 1 and expanded this twice. They’ve always grown crops. In 1986, they added a hog operation.

In 1996, facing the choice to expand and renovate or refocus, Bergmann Bros. shut down the dairy barn.

A little over a decade ago, Will returned to the farm as an employee. At about the same time, he began to blog and be active on social media.

“This divide is always going to be there until farmers start to really understand what’s happening in the city.” – Will Bergmann.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Photography was a large component of this. The Bergmann family had many pictures of the farm going back to before they came to Canada. Starting in the 1980s, photos became more scarce and by the 2000s, they were nearly non-existent.

After Will’s dad bought him and Jen a camera, Will started documenting farm life. When he posted these online, people asked questions. When his answers became too complex for social posts, he realized he needed to start a blog.

“Through that process of photo taking and then explaining things through social media, it has changed the trajectory and goals that I have on the farm because now I see myself as an ag educator,” Will said.

He said he sees a “huge, huge need” for ag education. For many years this meant teaching urban-dwellers about farm life and what is actually going on in Manitoba agriculture.

In the past year that has reversed.

“This divide is always going to be there until farmers start to really understand what’s happening in the city,” said Will.

Farmers spend most of their time on the farm, they talk to other farmers, they don’t eat in city restaurants. They don’t understand that the food trends that affect agriculture come from the city, Will said.

“I recognize that food trends are trends that ultimately affect the farm,” said Will. “Those trends are very often created and/or killed by chefs and celebrities.”

Corporations might decide what they want trends to be, he said, but they get chefs and celebrities to market them.

Will experienced this for himself a few years ago when the *Manitoba Canola Growers Association (MCGA) involved him in an event geared to market canola oil to chefs and influencers in Toronto.

The MCGA realized Toronto chefs needed a connection to the farmers who produced canola oil. They brought Will to the event where he connected well with these influencers.

Will said he didn’t see his job as selling canola but as selling farm life, what farmers are, and what the Prairies are. He added that MCGA polls showed that canola oil consumption had increased in Toronto since then.

“We need to go to the chefs,” Will said. “The more often you can do that to get a cohesive story, the better it’s going to be in the long term for the mass population.”

Today, Bergmann Bros. raises hogs and grows crops. Together, Will and Jen grow organic vegetables in a CSA (community-supported agriculture) garden. Will is also a partner in Winnipeg restaurant ‘Oxbow.’

Oxbow has given Will a venue to tell this story — both through connecting with chefs and by hosting events. He has also hosted “From the Water,” an event that brought chefs from across Canada onto the ice of Lake Winnipeg. They made camp, cooked food, fished, and showed them “intimately” where food comes from.

Will said he’s planning “From the Earth” for next year, which will bring chefs to his farm where they’ll pull veggies from the dirt, forage for mushrooms and see crop production first hand. He also hopes to add “From the Air” (poultry, wild bird hunting, honey production) and “From the Land” (wild game hunting and livestock farming).

These face-to-face relationships are far more transformative than social media, Will said.

Ultimately, vegetable farming, Oxbow and these events have given him a seat at many tables where he can tell the agriculture story and ask, “How are we producing safe, nutritional affordable food for everyone, and how can we all work together to solve world hunger problems?”

*NOTE: The Oct. 24, 2019 print edition of the Manitoba Co-operator incorrectly referenced the Canadian Canola Growers Association.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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