A Good Idea – for Sep. 23, 2010

Kudos to the Manitoba Government and the farm families who opened their gates to visitors as part of the province’s first Open Farm Day last Sunday.

By most accounts, the initiative was well-received by the non-farming public because it was, quite simply, an opportunity to “touch the farm” in a way displays and exhibits at urban events can’t provide.

City folks may be largely ignorant of the realities of modern farming and yet judging from the popularity of farmers markets and local food initiatives, many are looking looking for ways to better connect with their food suppliers.

The Open Farm Day drew people past the Perimeter, offering what for many would be a rare glimpse of rural Manitoba. Without a reason to venture off the major highways, most Manitobans are left to form their images and thoughts about agriculture from what they see in media.

This initiative had them talking face-to-face with people on the land, not only hearing their farming story first-hand but seeing it for themselves.

The majority of 35 farms participating in the event were producers who are already engaged in some form of agritourism, which made them capable ambassadors. But while they represent a face of agriculture that is increasingly important to the rural Manitoba economy, these operations are very different from those that are focused on production agriculture for export, which are arguably the dominant agricultural activity in agro-Manitoba.

It’s understandable, given the kind of growing season and harvest mainstream farmers are having, why many would be reluctant to host visitors to their operation.

But at a time when many farmers lament the disconnect they feel with food consumers, it’s important farmers seize opportunities like this one to start the dialogue. Consumers may be more inclined to understand modern farming practices, and less inclined to be critical when they see how farmers operate first hand.

Likewise, farmers might come to realize that some of the concerns consumers have over how their food is raised are genuine and not founded on misinformation.

As business operators, farmers first and foremost need to understand their customers. This is is apparently a foreign concept to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which issued a churlish assessment of the Open Farm Day in a release last week.

Rather than celebrate what most would agree was a good idea, the federation seized the opportunity to lambaste the province for what it characterized as “on-going attacks on Manitoba agri-business owners.”

“It’s interesting the government is eager to showcase farms, but seems less interested in talking about the many roadblocks it has introduced to the agricultural sector over the past few years,” said Shannon Martin, director of provincial affairs in a release.

The regressive measures cited included the two per cent levy on quota transfers, the regional hog moratorium, expanding employment standards, expanding workers compensation benefits to farm workers, and new regulations on fertilizer applications.

We acknowledge many farmers do see these as irritants. However, we sincerely hope farmers participating in the event didn’t take their cues from the CFIB in their interactions with the public.

Imagine how the conversation might go:

Visitor: I hear you farmers have been having a hard time lately.

Farmer: Yeah, it’s really tough being in the farming business right now. You city people think we’re just in it for the lifestyle, but we’re business people through and through – and we’d be making money too, if only the government came up better subsidies and fewer roadblocks.

Visitor: Like what?

Farmer: Well, the Manitoba government won’t let us raise more hogs. That’s crippling our industry.

Visitor: But, weren’t you asking for aid to cull the sow herd and euthanize baby pigs not so long ago? In fact, if I remember right, your industry association was asking for those subsidies right about the same time I was seeing all those billboards in Winnipeg complaining about the hog moratorium.

Farmer: Well, uh, yes, but umm…, farming businesses face special challenges. And that’s not the only roadblock we’re facing. The government is now telling us we have to treat farm workers like real employees and give them days off and benefits and make sure they are covered by workers compensation and crap like that. How’s a business supposed to make money that way?

Visitor: Do you mean farm employees didn’t get those benefits before? Why not?

Farmer: Because, uh, we’re farmers, that’s why. Farming’s special.

The fact is, most non-farmers would find what the CFIB labels as “attacks on farming” as acceptable standards for any business.

The Open Farm Day is a valuable initiative. We hope more farmers from all facets of the industry participate in the future. In the end, they may learn as much as they teach. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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