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Opinion: Note from an urbanite

Eight years ago, I had no idea what fusarium, clubroot or any of the other diseases affecting crops were.

Ag Days in Brandon? Never heard of it, or any of the other big farm shows in the country.

I couldn’t tell wheat from canola, or identify most other crops, either.

Manitoba Co-operator? Western Producer? Ontario Farmer? Although I was an avid newspaper reader — a news junkie, really — they weren’t on my radar at all.

As for the weather, all I cared about was whether rain might spoil a picnic or softball game.

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In other words, I was a classic example of the rural-urban divide in Canada. But that all changed in 2011 when I joined Canadian Foodgrains Bank to direct its communication, fundraising and public engagement work.

Suddenly, this city boy was in a new world of crops, prices, drainage, weather, machinery, seeds, science and technology — and did I mention drainage? I had no idea how big a deal direction of the flow of water is.

The first thing I did to get up to speed was to start reading farm newspapers — like this one.

The second thing was to go out and meet the farmers who support the Foodgrains Bank. My strategy was to listen, not talk — something that served me well over many cups of coffee, breakfasts, lunches and farm and field visits.

It helped, but I still won’t pretend to really understand the agricultural sector. Far from it! But during my time at the Foodgrains Bank I developed a deep appreciation for the hard and amazing work of farmers, and of everyone else who works to support the growing and harvesting of crops.

I also developed tremendous gratitude for the generosity and community spirit of the many farmers across Canada who support the Foodgrains Bank.

Year after year, thousands of them come together to organize and operate the 250 or so community growing projects from P.E.I. to B.C., donating their time, money and machinery to raise funds to help those who don’t have enough to eat.

I also came to appreciate the generous support of agricultural businesses, big and small. Each year hundreds of them support the growing projects through donations of inputs, services and even gifts of land.

I also was grateful for many other farmers and others who donated individually, whether the donations were big or small.

Overall, I was deeply moved by the care farmers show for their land. It is the source of life, and their livelihoods. Soil will never again be “dirt” to me.

And that rural-urban divide? It might not exist for me anymore, but it’s still a big issue. The agricultural sector still needs to find ways to have conversations with consumers about things like GMOs, use of chemicals, and climate change.

The silos are so tall and thick; what can be done to break them down? It will take creativity, imagination and a bit of risk to build bridges between the two.

Looking back at my time at the Foodgrains Bank, I will forever be grateful for the many people I met in the agricultural sector, and for what they taught me about hard work, generosity, faith, and community — and also for patiently answering questions from this city boy.

And I will never view weather the same way again, either.

John Longhurst is now a freelance consultant in the areas of communications and marketing, as well as a special communications adviser for the Foodgrains Bank.

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