Farm To Table Talk

An industry organization helps start important conversations

photo courtesy Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan
TAKING THE PULSE This farmer is checking her lentils for nodulation.

Food | by Gregory Beatty

Farms at the Table: Making Connections
Saskatoon Inn
Dec. 15-16

“Stubblejumper” is a stereotype most Saskatchewanians loathe. Time was, though, it accurately described our province. Census figures show we hit “peak farm” in 1936, when 573,894 of us (out of a total population of 931,547) lived on farms.

The reality’s much different today.

Like the rest of North America, Saskatchewan has shifted from rural to urban living. Lifestyle considerations are part of it, but it’s also driven by mechanization in agriculture. Those 573,894 people back in 1936? They lived on 142,391 farms. In the 2011 census, Saskatchewan had 36,792 farms — and that number is dropping yearly.

One consequence of that is that we don’t have the same familiarity with the nuts and bolts of farming and ranching we once did.

Big Business

We still have romantic notions about the old-style family farm, but 21st-century agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry that runs the gamut from seed, agrichemical and machinery producers on the front end through food processing and transportation in the middle to giant chain retailers on the back end.

But the increasingly industrialized nature of agriculture has raised plenty of red flags. As anyone familiar with the rise of the organic movement knows, GMOs, pesticides and herbicides, antibiotics, soil and groundwater contamination, animal husbandry, habitat preservation and endangered species are only a few of the hot-button issues.

We all have a stake in the health of our food supply and environment. But as our ties to the land weaken, and agriculture becomes progressively more complex, it can be difficult to sift through all the competing claims to ensure we make smart food (and environmental) choices.

Since their livelihood depends on it, farmers and ranchers are naturally keen to be part of that discussion. In this province, one organization that’s emerged is Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan.

“Historically, if you look at how farming, especially in Saskatchewan, was set up, there wasn’t really a need to promote what we’re doing because there was that direct tie,” says new FFCS executive director Clinton Monchuk. “Now, with less of a personal link, people are looking to other places to find their information.

Monchuk, who was the CEO of Chicken Farmers of Saskatchewan before FFCS, has been executive director since Oct. 1.

“Whether it’s searches online or social media, that’s where you can run into misinformation, so farmers and ranchers need to be active in engaging consumers,” says Monchuk. “We’re trying to create relationships with consumers and have those conversations where we say, ‘Well, this is how your chickens are really raised, and this is how your wheat is really grown.’”

Different industry associations are involved too, and there’s lots to talk about as Saskatchewan agriculture is very much an evolving industry.

Wheat is no longer king. Instead, farmers are diversifying into a range of crops, from fruit and vegetables to other cereal grains and even honey.

“Look no further than canola,” says Monchuk. “Thirty years ago, it wasn’t even a crop. It was rapeseed. Through breeding and research at the University of Saskatchewan, they created a new oil seed that’s much healthier for people, and it’s in high demand for the fast food and restaurant industries, and cooking in general.”

Pulses such as lentils and peas are another big story. There’s a large international market in India and the Middle East, so like canola they’re a solid cash crop. They also fix nitrogen in the soil, so they have a huge environmental upside. When farmers rotate other crops into their pulse fields, they don’t have to use as much fertilizer.

Advances in technology are delivering further benefits, says Monchuk.

“Nowadays, when you get into a combine or tractor, there’s more electronics than in my home,” Monchuk says. “Everything is monitored and adjusted as you’re going. There’s self-steering with GPS, so it’s really quite amazing what farmers can do today that they couldn’t do 10 or 15 years ago.

“Sometimes there’s this viewpoint that all these chemicals are available, but as a farmer I don’t want to spray any more on our crop than I absolutely have to,” he adds. “First off, it’s not good for the environment. But secondly, I don’t want to spend any more money than I have to.

“We want to ensure we’re as efficient as possible, and get the right amount where it needs to be and that’s it.”

Hungry World

Critics might argue that in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to apply any agrichemicals to grow our food. That leads to larger questions, obviously, about how we feed our ever-growing, increasingly urbanized, population — which is forecast to hit eight billion in 2023.

As stewards of the land, farmers and ranchers are strong believers in sustainable agriculture, Monchuk says.

“On the research and development side, farmers are playing an extremely active role in moving their industry into the future,” says Monchuk. “Then there’s the issue of animal welfare and responsible agriculture. We’ve termed that ‘social license’, and it’s a huge topic.”

Scientists, government agencies, veterinarians, industry and advocacy organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies are some of the groups farmers and ranchers are partnering with to establish effective regulatory regimes.

“When the poultry industry made their new code of practice, there was influence from other groups to hammer home different animal welfare priorities,” says Monchuk. “As a result, farmers are going to have to change the way they do things.

And that’s all right. “You’ll never find a farmer who doesn’t want to do what’s best for their animals or crops,” Monchuk says.

If we’ve learned anything from electoral politics recently, problems happen when different segments of society don’t talk to each other. That’s why outreach efforts on behalf of agricultural producers — which extend to farmers’ markets, trade shows such as Agribition and Taste of Saskatchewan, and use of local ingredients by restaurant chefs — are welcome.

To find out more about Farms at the Table: Making Connections, visit farmfoodcaresk.org.