Throwing open the doors of a newly built dairy barn for others in the agricultural sector to see is common practice; throwing open the doors for the general public is much rarer.
The Johnston families of North Perth, operators of Maplevue Farms, plan to do both on Oct. 25 and Oct. 26.
Why it matters: Dairy farmers have come under increased scrutiny from the North American public over the past few years, as animal rights activists heighten their attempts to call into question the practices used on livestock farms.
“We’re no strangers to taking on bigger projects,” says ownership partner Dave Johnston.
Maplevue hosted a Breakfast on the Farm event in 2017 in conjunction with Farm & Food Care, was once a Perth County Plowing Match venue, and in August 2020, they plan to serve as only the second-ever Canadian host to the annual Manure Expo event, showcasing innovative manure management technologies and research to industry insiders from across North America and beyond.
“We’re not afraid to stick our necks out.”
Johnston admitted, though, that the plans for late October on the outskirts of the hamlet of Britton are definitely unique.
From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Oct. 25, Dave and his brother Doug and their families will host fellow farmers along with dairy industry input and service providers for a conventional new barn open house. Then, on Oct. 26 for the same hours, they’ll host members of the public for what’s being dubbed an ag education day.
Dave Johnston says he has personally experienced the disdain such activists have for livestock producers — not at his family’s farm, but rather at the Ontario Livestock Exchange in Waterloo, where he has had a side gig for 31 years as a once-per-week auctioneer. But, so far, it hasn’t changed the way he approaches inviting the public into the barn.
“I think we are more careful than we might have been a few years ago,” he said, adding he wouldn’t invite anyone who specifically identifies themselves as an animal rights activist.
“But we also know we have nothing to hide. We look after our cows great, and they’re in great shape. I don’t have any problem with somebody taking photos if that’s what they want to do.
“I’m not saying that won’t change over the next few years if things keep getting worse. But for now, we’re not going to change.”
It was a willingness to welcome non-agricultural visitors to the facility, a 75-cow freestall with two Lely A5 milking robots, constructed between April and December of 2018 that inspired the family’s idea of having two separate new-barn open houses.
“We’ve been doing a lot of tours,” Dave explained, for businesses associated with the construction project, including some made up almost entirely of people with non-farm backgrounds. Examples included their bank, as well as a 30-strong excursion from their accounting firm.
“With the new barn, we’ve got lots of new technology that the general public isn’t even aware of. It’s definitely not what a lot of them think of when they think about a farm they might have visited when they were kids. We’ve had people who have walked in here and said, ‘wow!’ And that kind of stuck with us.”
Plus, Dave and Doug remember years and years when their late mom, Marcie Johnston, would turn their dairy barn into a classroom through her job as an elementary educator.
“I guess it’s the school teacher thing that’s bred into us.”
So they decided, “let’s aim for consumers.”
Both men combine the qualities of being community-minded and being concerned about the future of the wider Ontario dairy sector. Doug is currently on the board of directors at EastGen. Dave is past-president of Ontario Holstein, and is currently serving his sixth term as a municipal councillor.
On Oct. 26, they plan to have displays and information booths situated around the facility for visitors to view and interact with. Attendants at the booths will provide information about what they feed their cows, show how the robotic calf feeder works, and give visitors a chance to see the robotic manure sucker in action.
Dave and Christine have four children; Doug and Laura have three. Ages range between 13-20, and Dave expects they’ll all be involved in some way.
Nobody has taken formal training about how to deal with the public in that kind of setting, but Dave believes his family members have natural abilities as agricultural ambassadors, and are best suited to help members of the public experience Maplevue.
“We’ll likely sit down the week before, maybe at a campfire or a family meal together, and talk about what happens if you get somebody who doesn’t like something, who to call for help, or what signs to watch out for.”
His goals for the ag education day are modest, but earnest.
“If we get 50 people out, I’m happy with that. If we get hundreds, that’s good too. But even if only 20 people come that have never been to a dairy farm before, that’s great.”