[UPDATED, Sept. 12, 2019] Open Farm Day organizer Wendy Bulloch is more than ready to take a swing at the wall between farmer and the non-farm public.
It’s the main point of the event, after all — to foster public trust in food production and bridge the gap between, not only farms and the urban population, but also between farm and those who grew up off the farm, or even on a different sort of farm.
“I didn’t know anything about a dairy farm, because I didn’t grow up on a dairy farm, I grew up on a mixed farm,” Bulloch said. “When you listen to what is in the dairy industry today and what they’re doing… seven days a week, twice a day, even on Christmas, those cows have to be milked. I think it’s an awareness for everybody to have that opportunity to learn from.”
Why it matters: In an era when agriculture is trying to foster public trust, Manitoba’s Open Farm Day has become one of the flagship events for farms and agribusiness to talk to the public.
Sep. 15 will be the tenth time Open Farm Day takes over agricultural Manitoba. A record 56 sites have joined up this year, including 23 new sites across the province.
Rachael Verwey and her family are among those first-time sites. The mixed farm in central Manitoba farms 7,000 acres of grain and runs 300 beef cattle on top of a 140-cow dairy barn.
A family operation, the Verwey farm is owned by Rachael Verwey’s father and his three brothers and operated by a long list of cousins, siblings, a few hired staff and her mother, Jill Verwey, who is also vice-president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.
“During harvest, we go from seven to three people (in the dairy barn), if we had less people, it wouldn’t work,” Rachael Verwey said.
The family has planned a behind-the-scenes look at their dairy when they open their doors this weekend. The barn was upgraded a decade ago, increasing the farm’s milking capacity from 40 cows an hour to 140 cows an hour. The family’s milking parlour went from six milking units to 24, and the barn added a precision grain feeding system that marks the feed of every cow using a radio collar. That system has made feed more efficient, Verwey said, and has helped the farm dry down cows as their lactation cycle winds down, since they can tailor a cow’s grain ration.
Less technically interested visitors will still see a day in the life of a dairy farmer, including the daily 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. milkings, calving and milking cycle, and newborn calves, kept in an adjacent room after the three days critical for colostrum when they are with their mother.
“We have such huge benefit being a mixed farm,” Verwey said. “Say, if there’s a crop failure, we can bale the barley or the oats that aren’t going to make grain, but they’ll be great feed here, so we can utilize that.”
The dairy is run with less worry over the sex of the calf than the typical dairy operation, since male calves can just be folded into the beef operation, while manure management offers synergy between their livestock and grain. Verwey also credited her involvement with the beef industry’s young leaders programs for her dual understanding of diary and beef trade.
Farm Away from home
The day already fits into the mandate of Tracy Wood and Taralea Simpson, owners and operators of Farm Away bed and breakfast, also near Portage la Prairie.
The pair had already intended to lean heavily towards ag education when they opened a year ago. In that time, the pair have hosted agricultural kids camps, offered equine assisted education, gotten their guests in the barn to bottle feed lambs (courtesy of Wood’s home farm nearby) and offered a “bed and bale” service for anyone travelling long distances with horses.
“The ones that are here and are out with us are asking very particular questions like, ‘What kind of animal is that? How old is that animal? What do you do with that animal?’ that kind of thing, and then general questions about what kind of agriculture is around the area or, ‘How do you do things?’” Simpson said.
The pair just wrapped up their Aspiring Aggies kids camp, a camp designed to expose children to a range of agricultural jobs. The camp involved visits to the Verwey farm and the local auction mart, combine rides and comparisons between fresh and store bought eggs. Each child also cared for a lamb during the camp.
“All of the kids said they want to come back. Half of them said they want it to be an overnight camp,” Simpson laughed.
On top of that, both Wood and Simpson maintain their own agricultural jobs, with Wood working on her own family farm and Simpson employed as an agronomist.
Diving into the dirt
A number of the province’s agribusinesses have also joined on with Open Farm Day, including the Brandon-based Shur-Gro.
Portage la Prairie store manager Frank Perrin said they will be diving into the science of farming, soil nutrition, soil tests and inputs, a more complicated process than most of the non-farm public likely knows.
“I don’t know how in depth and detailed the general public wants to go on that, but we certainly can show them (a test) that shows, nutrients are high in this one and the recommendation would be not to apply,” he said.
The business may get some difficult questions, Perrin admitted, looking at the recent attention that glyphosate, GMOs or even fertilizer (something that the average Manitoban has likely heard most often in combination with Lake Winnipeg algae) have gotten.
Bulloch says she often uses the metaphor of vitamins to explain nutrient replacement when confronted by a member of the public.
“In reality, if people are against it, I’m probably not going to be able to convince them because they’re going to see me as tainted and part of the industry and just perpetuating it,” Perrin added.
FDC joins fold
For most Manitobans, including most farmers, this weekend will also be the first time to visit the province’s Food Development Centre.
Although it has been around for decades and has been key in developing some now familiar local products — things like the Niverville-based Gorp protein bars or Manitoba Harvest’s lead in the hemp heart industry — few \farmers who grow those ingredients have set foot in the building.
Most recently, the centre has taken a role in Manitoba’s plant protein development, such as protein content analysis, extraction processes, regulatory help and evaluations like taste testing.
“You need a team of experts and you have food engineers, you have food scientists technologists, nutritionalists,” as well as Canadian regulatory experts, said Javier Planinich, manager of the pilot plant and commercial activities at the centre.
The price of developing some of those products can easily run over $10,000 and take six to nine months, he noted. Home recipes, for example, must often be tweaked for shelf life as well as tested to clear food safety hurdles.
About 60 per cent of the prototypes out of the centre come from established companies, Planinich said. The other 40 per cent are developed from scratch with burgeoning entrepreneurs.
In total, Open Farm Day 2019 will count six dairies, six museums, bison farms, beekeepers, bed and breakfasts, agribusinesses, research farms, stables, colleges, beef farms, pastured pigs, poultry, grain farms and various flavours of mixed farming on the schedule.
It’s hard to gauge how much difference in that farm-urban divide they’ve made, Bulloch said, although she’s optimistic.
It’s the second year that Bulloch’s team will ask visitors to fill in a survey after the day to help answer that question and guide the future of the event.
“We’re thinking that we’re bridging the gap, but, then again, we don’t know and our major goal is to build public trust,” she said. “By doing the consumer survey that we’re going to have online during the day of Open Farm Day, we’re hoping that we get more feedback and we understand if there has been a change in attitude. That kind of measurement is really hard… how do you measure that and how do you get people to respond? I believe that, yes, we are making a difference. We’re making a difference just by the increase in host sites.”
More of the agricultural sector sees the value in reaching out to the public, she said, which has, in turn, boosted the day’s participation.
Surveys will be available on www.openfarmday.ca. A full list of host sites has also been posted, while more information has gone up on the organization’s Twitter account, @MBOpenFarmDay.
*UPDATE: The article previously indicated Jill Verwey as the vice president of Manitoba Beef Producers when in fact she is the vice president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.