Tita Evangelista was astonished to discover there’s something else she might want to have for dinner some time: Manitobaraised bison.
“The bison! I didn’t know you could eat that,” laughed the Winnipeg woman, who immigrated three years ago from the Philippines.
She was one of a throng of Manitobans who took a trip on September 19 to what is, for urbanites, a foreign land – the family farm. Evangelista joined a bus tour for new Canadians organized by Literacy Partners of Manitoba and was one of thousands of people taking part in Open Farm Day.
There were about 1,000 names alone in the guest book put out at Benner Holsteins Ltd. near Steinbach.
Directly across the road at Penner’s Scarecrow Forest, over 200 people were waiting when John Penner opened his gates at 10 a. m.
“I don’t know how many (came) after that,” said Penner.
In all, 38 farm families participated in the event, launched by Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives.
Interlake sheep farm Sheeples Fine Fibres near Inwood laid claim to having the longest and most perplexing directions, but that didn’t seem to deter anyone.
An estimated 400 people showed up, filling the farm yard with cars, then lining the farm lane.
“We just looked out and said, ‘Oh, my God, look at all the people,’” said Joe Streker, the farm’s owner.
Visitors came from Winnipeg, Dauphin, and Steinbach, he added.
LOTS OF INTEREST
The weather played its part – a blue and gold September day too perfect to waste in front of the television.
And everyone found something of interest. While small groups of seniors leaned on canes and talked about “how things have changed,” teens wandered about snapping photos with cellphone cameras.
Jeff Hein lives in the small village of St. Geneviéve, southeast of Winnipeg, but he was also eager to get up close and personal with modern agriculture. When asked why he had come out with his young daughters, he had a simple answer.
“It was to see how our food is produced, and to see how modern farm operations run and what is a big part of our economy here in southern Manitoba,” Hein said.
He was impressed with Open Farm Day.
“People who would never have had a chance to go out and see these things, had a chance to go out to a real farm and see how things run,” he said.
Bruce and Carol Ann Dracass, who raise veal just north of Carman, were feeling a tad lonely early in the day, with just a trickle of visitors. But by day’s end, they were satisfied with their couple of dozen visitors.
Their veal is sold at St. Norbert Farmers’ Market, and the couple always tells people that their farm is open to the public 365 days a year.
But few take up the invitation and they wonder if people believe them when they say their animals are grass fed and raised outdoors.
“I wanted people to come out and see this,” said Bruce Dracass, gesturing at his grass-munching calves.
Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers visited five farms with his young son, ending the day at a feast in Steinbach showcasing local food.
“What I saw was a whole lot of people talking with farm families, learning some of the challenges farmers are facing, and also having some fun,” he said.
“I saw a lot of people understanding how important agriculture is to our economy and, even more important than that, how it is so much a part of who we are as Manitobans and the contributions that agriculture has made to our whole quality of life.”
This year’s Open Farm Day was a test to see what the public response would be – and it passed with flying colours.
“Judging by what I’ve seen today and what I’ve heard has gone on at some farms around the province, I think we’re going to look to try and do this again next year,” said Struthers.
The hottest ticket of the day was for Supper From the Field at Steinbach. All 124 tickets sold out well in advance, said MAFRI rural leadership specialist Joy Lorette, and they could have sold at least another 190.
“The enthusiasm from people was just amazing,” she said. “People even (asked if they) could be put on a waiting list to be called if we have another one.”
It appears only one farm did not get visitors, said Susan Nicoll, manager of the North Interlake MAFRI Go team, and part of the department’s agritourism team. Proximity to urban centres made a difference in the numbers, she said.
“The Interlake and Eastman area had definitely more response,” she said.
First evaluations coming from participating farm families show the event seems to have met or exceeded expectations. Over half (66 per cent) reported hosting more than 75 visitors, said Nicoll.
“And so far, 100 per cent said they’d participate in Open Farm Day again.”
Alain Nadeau whose bison ranch near Steinbach was where Evangelista had her eye-opener, says he’s keen to do it again. He answered lots of questions about how he feeds and cares for his herd, and says the day was a chance to help more people understand how their food is raised.
“I think we have to keep doing this,” he said.
“We just looked out and said, ‘Oh, my God, look at all the people.’”
– JOE STREKER, INWOOD-AREA SHEEP PRODUCER