Open Farm Days: a great opportunity

Summer is when families like to create memorable moments together. For many, that’s on the lake, or around the campfire, or at the ball diamond. But there’s also a great opportunity to make that special time happen ‘on the farm’.

Summer is when families like to create memorable moments together. For many, that’s on the lake, or around the campfire, or at the ball diamond. But there’s also a great opportunity to make that special time happen ‘on the farm’.

The generation that used to have annual summer fun on the grandparents or cousins’ farm is dwindling. That means today’s parents don’t have the treasure chest of experiences like picking and shelling fresh peas, collecting eggs from the chicken coop, or even stepping in a fresh cow patty! Yet, they want to connect with their food and know where it comes from.

So the provincial agriculture department, the Association of Ag Societies, Travel Alberta and Ag for Life have teamed up with enthusiastic producers for the third year to present Open Farm Days. This weekend (Aug. 23) more than 70 farms around Alberta are inviting folks to come and visit and experience a taste of farm life.

“That’s up from last year,” noted Luree Williamson, CEO of Ag For Life, which coordinates the day. “A great number of farmers wanted to participate again, because it was an exciting opportunity for them to have visitors come, and to show them what they do for agriculture.”

The mandate of the day is in ‘perfect alignment’ with the objective of Ag For Life, an organization dedicated to building a better understanding and appreciation of agriculture and its fundamental connection to life. The ‘education’ component of Open Farm Days comes in a fun way, according to Williamson.

“It allows people to get their hands dirty as they get some firsthand experience with agriculture. It gives them a chance to ask questions directly.”

“Today there is a lot of information, mis-information and choices, so consumers can make decisions on what they eat.”

Open Farm Days then become a key occasion for farmers to share a slice of reality on their choices in producing safe, healthy food.

“It gives farmers a voice to tell their story,” offered Williamson. “They can have direct conversations around food. It also gives the farmers a chance to meet consumers and understand their changing needs. Once a relationship is forged, they can start to understand. It’s so valuable to both sides.”

If you ever were tempted to think of agriculture in central Alberta as mainly ‘cows and canola’, a glance at the host sites for the region would certainly broaden your horizons. There are almost 30 Open Farms listed, covering a wide range of commodities and farm types. There are market gardens, orchards, dairies and ranches. But you can also tour a big grain operation, or a Hutterite colony, and even a draft horse breeding and training facility.

“We try hard when we’re recruiting to have a diverse number of farms, so that many facets of agriculture are represented – from farm direct sales to conventional agriculture,” Williamson added.

While those with market gardens or doing farm direct sales regularly talk with their customers, that isn’t often the case with say, a large grain farm. In fact, maybe shoppers don’t even realize the flour in the grocery store could have originated in the wheat field down the road. Williamson points out while there’s not the same potential for direct economic benefit for conventional producers, they are wanting to be involved in Open Farm Days.

“What we’re finding is that it becomes a communication channel. We’re hearing more today about the ‘social license’ aspect of farming, and this provides a way to talk with consumers and fill in some of the facts, and deal with the misperceptions.”

There is definitely no shortage of mixed messages, especially around buzz issues like organic or GMO or antibiotics or animal welfare. So being able to ‘show and tell’ can be well worth the work of getting the farm ready for visitors.

Luree Williamson says the day is all about dialogue.

“It’s putting a face to agriculture, and shows it’s a farmer producing food,” she smiled.

In some of the larger centres, there is a culinary tie-in to Open Farm Days on Saturday, which includes some pre-booked bus tours. In central Alberta, the farms are open on Sunday, and it’s all free. The best way to plan your route and pick farms to visit is to head to the comprehensive website and click on the region you want. It’s a day ripe for memory making!

If you are out and about this weekend, there are a couple of other events to keep in mind. Young people involved with dairy cattle are in Red Deer this week for the 31st edition of the Western Canadian Classic. It involves a hundred youth from the four western provinces.

The show moves around through western Canada, so it doesn’t get to Red Deer very often. The young people demonstrate their skills in activities like clipping, judging, showmanship, and they even take a dairy science quiz.

They also have some fun, with this year’s theme being the ‘Cowtucky Derby’!

Show days are Friday and Saturday at Westerner Park, if you’d like to stop in and cheer on the talented and dedicated dairy producers of the future.w

As well, there’s been a lot of interest in the special Canadian Fwoodgrains Project being done with real ‘horse’ power in the Ponoka region. Ken and Verna Pohl have called on their friends with heavy horses to join them in the five acre effort. The oats were seeded with the help of nearly a dozen teams, and they’ll be starting the harvesting process this weekend. Weather permitting, Ken says they’ll be swathing and stooking, starting Saturday around noon. The project site is eight miles straight north of Ponoka’s UFA Feed Store. Stook builders with pitchforks are welcome! The full harvesting day with the threshing machine will be a little later, and that’s expected to draw big crowds as well.

Dianne Finstad is a veteran broadcaster and reporter who has covered agricultural news in Central Alberta for more than 30 years. From the Field appears monthly in the Advocate.