A century ago, over half of Canada’s population were farmers. Most folks understood farming as it was done then because it was fairly simple. Today people are so far removed from agriculture and what they know is the scary stuff they read about growth hormones, steroids, genetically-modified organisms, medications, pesticides and the like.
There are many misconceptions about farming, including how many farmers there are. The 2011 census is misleading by saying there are about 650,000 farmers in Canada. That works out to 1 farmer out of every 50 Canadians, or 2 per cent of the total population of Canada. There aren’t that many.
The census says the farm population accounted for 1.4 per cent of Ontario’s total population. That figure is misleading because it’s based on a farm population of 174,905. Those aren’t all registered farmers. An Ontario farm population of 50,000 would be a more realistic figure.
There is a lot of interest in our foods, how they’re grown, how the animals are treated and how farmers treat the environment. The Farm & Food Care Foundation has put out a very factual and excellent magazine — The Real Dirt on Farming — which answers many questions about food and agriculture.
An interesting item is about grass-fed and grain fed-cattle. Many people assume that beef cattle raised on grass in a lush, grassy field will have less impact on the environment than grain-fed cattle in a packed feedlot. Not so. The publication points out that a study in Australia found grass-fed cattle produce more greenhouse gases per pound of beef than beef from feedlot grain-fed finished animals. Grain-fed animals also gain weight faster and are sent to market sooner, which means there is less manure and they’re emitting less gas overall.
It’s unfortunate that most consumers aren’t aware of this publication. It is distributed widely but I have a feeling it’s mostly the “farm population” who leaf through it.
One of the questions I’m asked during the winter months is why farmers still have corn out in the field.
“The farmer had all kinds of good weather to get it off in September and October. Why weren’t they at it then? Now it’s out in the snow.”
I explain that it’s grain corn and there are reasons why it wasn’t harvested before the snow came. The farmer has to have transport trucks lined up to haul it to a dryer when he harvests the corn. Elevators are sometimes overrun with corn during the harvest. The moisture could have been too high at harvesting time, resulting in high drying costs. The farmer may want to take a chance and let nature dry down the crop over winter and combine it in the spring. That works some winters but it is a risk. Stalk breakage and ear kernel mould can occur if the winter weather is wet and extended for a period.
I explain that silage corn — that’s the corn where the stalks, leaves and cobs are chopped up as silage for livestock feed — is harvested in September. That is the ideal time to harvest it as the moisture content of the plant is perfect for making corn silage. Silage cannot be made when the stalk and leaves are dry (they would catch fire) so that’s why the dry-looking corn in the fields is only harvested for grain.
I often get asked about cows being outdoors in the winter, eating hay in the snow. Don’t they get cold feet? Freeze to death out there? Beef cows are hardy animals. They need a windbreaker shelter for cold, windy days but otherwise can eat and sleep in snowy fields. It’s healthy too.
I get asked why some farmers get huge transport loads of fertilizer trucked onto their fields. I explain that it’s agricultural lime, not fertilizer.
I was asked by someone last summer why the farmer planted a huge field of golden rods. “Isn’t it early for them to be blossoming in July? It’s very pretty when it blossomed and we took photos of it,” the woman said. It’s a field of canola.
Those are just some of the interesting and easy questions to answer. The inquirer understands, not much debate there. The questions and comments about GMOs, hormones, steroids, chemicals, dairy and chicken quotas….well, that’s another story. Those people need to read The Real Dirt on Farming.
Maynard van der Galien is a Renfrew-area farmer and agricultural writer.