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Fresh ideas for rejuvenating country fairs

“Our last two generations have forgotten how to cook, how to garden, how to sew, how to can.”

– Doris Fletcher

The volunteers who log countless hours organizing community fairs should not lose sight of why they got involved in the first place, community development expert and motivational speaker Paul Born says.

“Caring is the most important thing that you can do,” Born told the Manitoba Association of Agricultural Societies annual conference in Brandon in early January.

“So much of our work has become so technical. We’re worried about meeting our budgets, or setting up the food displays so people don’t get sick, and involving young people; everyone gets so bogged down in the issues of putting on fairs and the business of it that we forget why we’re actually doing it,” he said.

Keeping that fundamental principle in mind makes it easier for community organizers to change with the times, because then they are able to keep in sight the root from which all their efforts grow.

The old adage: Think what you always thought, and get what you always got, also applies to community fairs, said Born, who co-founded and now directs the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, based in Waterloo, Ontario.

“How do we begin to feel OK about thinking differently?”

Conflict

Because agricultural societies have been around for over a century, the need to remain relevant to community life often conflicts with a desire to maintain important traditions.

But in fact, ag societies weren’t originally created just to put on fairs, he noted. They were intended to promote excellence in rural life.

This could include showcasing improved agronomic practices, animal husbandry, and food preparation and preservation techniques.

“Today a new method in canning is novel, but certainly not life

changing. But when canning was a large part of sustaining your life during the winter, and someone showed you a new, safer way, that was very important,” he said.

People who care about their towns generally agree that their goal is achieving community wellbeing. According to Born, this aim rests on five pillars: healthy people, a dynamic economy, a sustainable environment, a vibrant culture, and engaged citizens.

Using those criteria, community groups can better identify their specific needs and create events to match.

Canning

Using the canning example, which originally targeted sustaining the health of citizens in an earlier era, its modern counterpart could include an exhibit on the subject of staying healthy in modern times.

“What if Brandon was going to do a fair exhibit on healthy people? It would be a damned interesting exhibit,” he said.

“And you could probably get it paid for by the companies that are selling different kinds of health equipment for fitness or for seniors. There could be chiropractors, or people giving massages, or displays on the science of physiology. It could be very interesting if you work on it.”

To promote an engaged citizenry, displays could be designed by the local municipal or town council, with a look at voting, the patterns of voting and why voting is important.

If building a dynamic economy is the goal, then volunteers could seek to augment the existing agricultural displays with fresh ideas for diversification.

“So we envision the community that we want to be and start putting together a celebration that helps us get to what we want to be,” said Born.

If an agricultural fair isn’t advancing the goal of community well-being, then all it is doing is “being what it has always been,” he added.

Gimmicks

“Then we have to put more and more gimmicks in place, like midways and horse racing, just to get people to come,” he said. “We

“If you have grass-fed beef, how do you trace that all the way through the system so that the consumer is assured that it is really grass fed?”

– Wayne Lees, Chief Provincial Vet

A pilot project has proven that food from Manitoba farms can be traced from farm to fork, but whether high-tech, speed-of-light solutions can replace old-fashioned trust relationships between the people who raise food and those who eat it is open to debate.

Completed last fall, the test run using TraceTracker software developed by a Norwegian firm showed pork and beef could be traced from their origin, all the way up the processing chain, and finally to the end consumer, using information already being gathered.

Interest in such technology is growing worldwide, according to Susan Wilkinson, an executive with IBM who worked on the test run – a kind of Google search engine for food – which involved 16 supply chain elements and provincial officials.

A survey in 2007 by IBM found half of all consumers surveyed were concerned about food safety, and 70 per cent didn’t trust the environmental and health claims of branded products. Food companies, naturally, are keen to address those concerns.

The eventual goal of traceability, she said, is to create a “digital product passport” consumers can use to verify the food they purchase is exactly what the seller claims it to be. This could be done with nothing more than a computer and web browser, Wilkinson added.

Traceability is a natural fit for large, vertically integrated corporations that own and operate all aspects of the food production chain, she said. For them, installing a single-platform data entry and processing system for workers to implement would allow them to comply with regulations and minimize damage and legal liability, by giving them the means to immediately recall specific products if something goes wrong.

Transparency

But, she added, traceability systems could be made to fit any-size operation, including a small group of farms working within a value chain that markets food products under a single label. Customer interaction and feedback could then be channelled through a website open to the public, she said.

“A traceability system is actually about providing transparency. For consumers, transparency into what a company is doing or what their sources are gives them a level of trust,” she said.

“Consumers are actually more interested in the fact that the company is transparent than the actual details of where the meat comes from.”

Ian Smith, who direct markets about 175 finished hogs, or roughly two-thirds of the number raised on his farm near Argyle, to roughly 200 regular customers, echoed the IBM executive’s view.

Customers ask questions about his Winnipeg Humane Society-certified straw-based and outdoor production model, but few actually come to see how pigs are raised the old-fashioned way.

“People say, ‘We want to come out and visit your farm,’ but 90 per cent of them never do,” he said.

But just being able to ask the question is enough for most people.

“No other hog farmer would say, ‘Yeah, you’re welcome to come anytime you want,’” he said, adding that strict biosecurity measures adopted by large-scale operations make such openness impossible.

His customers know him and trust him, he said, or they wouldn’t buy his pork. Some who had sworn off meat due to unfavourable opinions of industrial farming have since returned to being carnivores because his production model is more acceptable to them.

“There’s lots of people who have become vegetarians because of the way the animals are raised,” he said. “Ask them why, and a large percentage will say it isn’t for health reasons.”

Customer comment

Free delivery helps make sales, he added, but he makes a special effort to show that he cares. Each time he sells a new customer some pork, he calls them a couple of weeks later to check up on how they liked it.

“Sometimes people will say the bacon is a little fatty, but you have to accept those comments because that’s why you’re calling,” he said.

Wayne Lees, Manitoba’s chief provincial veterinarian, said there are three major reasons traceability is needed. First is to assist authorities in developing plans to protect human and animal health in cases of disease outbreaks or food safety incidents, and secondly, respond effectively when they occur.

“The third reason for traceability is maintaining attributes for products,” Lees said. “If you have grass-fed beef, how do you trace that all the way through the system so that the consumer is assured that it is really grass fed?”

Other exporting nations see traceability as one way of grabbing more market share, and some are fast tracking such programs to maintain their competitive edge.

The European Commission launched a five-year project called TRACE (Tracing Food Commodities in Europe) in 2005. Giant corporate farms in Thailand, a major exporter of chicken to the EU and Japan, are also aggressively pursuing the technology, with many already at advanced stages of implementation.

For Manitoba, highly dependent on export markets for its current levels of production of beef and hogs, traceability might be the key to the industry’s long-term survival.

“If we’re going to get into the high-end markets, we’re going to have to start developing very sophisticated systems,” said Lees. “If we look ahead, say, five years, these are the types of things that will allow us to move ahead.”

Modern food production and distribution makes traditional one-on-one trust relationships between buyers and sellers unwieldy, he said, and computerized interaction might be an effective substitute.

“You can’t expect everyone in Winnipeg to know a farmer to deal with,” he said. “Traceability is not meant to replace the direct client-customer relationship, but to take some of those qualities to a bigger level so that it can work in the modern distribution channel.”

Kelly Penner, CEO of Keystone Processors in Winnipeg, participated in the traceability project last fall.

Keystone’s beef slaughter facility is due up and running by 2010, he said, and plans to adopt a traceability system to help it market its products worldwide, especially the hard-to-break-into but lucrative European market.

“We want to get out of this North American market. I just can’t see a huge future in it,” he said.

“Won’t be cheap”

Traceability, which would allow a plant to send carcass information back to producers, could also help producers raise better beef and get more money for it, Penner added.

He once shipped cattle to the now-defunct Natural Valley plant in Saskatchewan, which provided grade, yield and other carcass data via fax.

In one case, data on two 1,400-pound steers that looked nearly identical came back showing that one yielded 56 per cent and the other 62 per cent.

“Seven per cent at $1.40 a pound on the rail, that makes a big difference. That’s the value today that we’re not getting from the big packers,” he said.

Penner hasn’t priced the cost of the Winnipeg plant’s traceability system, but added “it won’t be cheap.”

Clint Cavers, who with wife Pam operates a meat shop on their farm near Pilot Mound, said he and other participants in the Clearwater-based Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative haven’t looked at adding computerized traceability to their marketing efforts.

“We know where every steak comes from right now,” he said. “The standing joke at one time was that we were just a miniature version of vertical integration.”

The group’s strategy is to reconnect urban consumers with their food through fun events, such as their music festival held every fall at harvest time.

If one person visits their farm as part of the weekend activities and returns to the city with rave reviews, the result might be 20 new customers for his farm from word-of-mouth advertising, he said.

“That’s probably worth more than software for us and the people who are buying from us right now,” he said.

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