By Connor Lynch
ST. ISIDORE — When Kelly Daynard started running Farm & Food Care Ontario’s farm tours 13 years ago, she had a hard time filling buses. It wasn’t easy finding people who wanted to spend an entire day visiting farms. If she got 15 people on a bus, she figured she’d nailed it.
Now she could easily fill two buses with 40 people on each out of Toronto and still have a waiting list, she said.
The farm advocacy group’s executive director has led nearly 120 farm tours, connecting so-called food influencers with farmers, bringing a total of about 3,600 people onto various farms and food processors across Ontario. Though they spend much of their time with consumers, the organization is funded entirely by farmers, in large part by seven major farm organizations including the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Chicken Farmers of Ontario.
In kick-starting the first farm tours, Daynard had her work cut out for her. Farmers were sometimes reluctant to let a group of strangers wander on to their farms, and coaxing out urbanites was a challenge. One of the earliest guests was Ron Eade, the once food editor of the Ottawa Citizen. “I think he told every foodie in Ottawa how much he learned,” she said. That gave her a lot of local credibility.
Credibility is practically a mantra for Daynard. On one of her most recent farm tours, the group of 40 or so chefs, dietitians and food bloggers stopped at a chicken farm at St. Isidore. Nathalie Bourdon-Grenier, who runs the farm with her husband Gabriel, also hosted one of the earliest tours, 10 years ago. She said if it had been anyone other than Daynard asking, she likely would’ve said no.
Nevertheless, they are not entirely at ease having strangers in the henhouse. Bourdon-Grenier also told the group as they boarded the bus to leave: “Only nice pictures, please.”
The ag-friendly tours are also meant to answer difficult questions.
The most difficult question Daynard has ever fielded was chicken related: What happens to male chicks in the egg sector? They are, of course, euthanized, but that can be a difficult thing to explain to an urbanite. Nevertheless, Daynard said, that’s what Farm & Food Care Ontario is for. “You talk about the system of humane treatment of livestock. We talk about the technologies moving forward, industry moving towards sexing eggs. How we’re always looking for the next solution.”
Male chicks often end up in mink feed, Daynard told Farmers Forum. “I love that there’s a use for them.”
Meeting farmers face to face has a way of softening blunt truths. For farmers, agricultural is “a business, but also a way of life. I think once (the guests) get that, they realize how hard farmers work to make a living,” Daynard said.
Though the farm tours are a good way to hit the high-influence people who will carry the message far and wide, they’re far from the only work Farm & Food Care is doing. The regular Breakfast on the Farm event, an idea poached from Michigan State University in 2013, has seen 10 farms host a total of about 20,000 urbanites.
The Real Dirt on Farming, the group’s flagship publication, a full-colour magazine format, has been distributed through city daily newspapers. There are four million copies in print. The advocacy group hosts virtual farm tours on a website where visitors walk through a farm online. The website gets about one million visitors a year, she said. Pop-up events happen regularly. Farm & Food Care and egg farmers were in Union Station, Toronto’s downtown subway hub, handing out egg sandwiches to commuters last month with stickers on them that read: “Thank you from Ontario farmers.”
The credibility of the farmers and the unscripted interactions between them and consumers is what sells, she said. At that Union Station event, a backyard chicken farmer got to talking with Chicken Farmers of Ontario board member Dianne McComb. Daynard said McComb told her afterwards: “We had a lot more in common than we didn’t.”
Are farmers winning the battle? Said Daynard: “We’re not losing.”