Taking the sustainability discussion to the city

An event in Toronto’s centre emphasized the complexity of farm ecosystems

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Farm and Food Care has taken urban dieticians and food influencers out to farms across the province with its annual bus tours.

The organization recently went the other direction to the centre of the city, hosting an agriculture sustainability discussion at the Royal Ontario Museum that challenged conventional urban wisdom about beef production.

Why it matters: Public awareness is key to ensure consumers understand and producers continue to have access to the resources and tools they need, but it is difficult to know how to start that conversation. Organizations like Farm and Food Care are trying new approaches.

The event included a panel of Norfolk County lamb producer Carrie Woolley, Haldimand-Norfolk County beef farmer Cory Van Groningen, Bob McLean, environmental consultant, Jennifer Lambert, senior manager of sustainability at Loblaw Companies Ltd., and Paul Thoroughgood, regional agrologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Bob McLean, Carrie Woolley, Paul Thoroughgood, Jennifer Lambert and Cory Van Groningen were the five panelists for the event.
photo: Bruce Sargent, Farm Boy Productions

It focused on the way livestock on farms allows for diverse plant and animal environments. This follows work by researchers and organizations involved in the conversation around climate change. They warn of the dangers in oversimplifying the impact of livestock production.

The basis of the event was a film called Guardians of the Grasslands, which looks at the long-term interaction with the land by ranchers and the impact that grazing has on grasslands, especially in Western Canada. It was produced by Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

Van Groningen, whose family produces, processes and sells beef directly to consumers, defines sustainability as producing a food source while not disturbing any of the four natural ecosystem cycles — the mineral cycle, water cycle, community dynamics and biodiversity.

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“I do know that if we do not use all of the tools in our toolbox in order to optimize those four ecosystem processes, we are less productive.”

He says farmers are given four categories of tools to manage land — rest, fire, animals and technology. When removing one of these tools, specifically animals, sustainability can’t be managed productively.

“Now we only have 75 per cent of tools available to us to optimize those ecosystem processes. I can say for certain we won’t be improving our ecology. We won’t be restoring the land. We won’t be living the lives that we want to live when we take that tool out of the toolbox,” says Van Groningen.

Woolley says her farm has improved since she and her husband added sheep to the operation seven years ago.

The event provided an opportunity for consumers to learn what growers do on a personal level and gave producers the chance to learn what consumers are looking for. As well, they were able to reduce fuel because less mowing between trees is required, as the sheep graze between trees in the orchard.

“These animals fit into our farm system in other ways. We had abandoned cattle pastures that were sitting there. The grasses were dying out and kind of smothering each other. When we brought the sheep onto this land it’s been amazing the changes over the years.”

“These producers are producing more than just livestock. There are multiple outcomes if we have really effective grassland, wetland management and so on. There are more values from these folks than the livestock that’s coming down the line,” says McLean.

Consumers

Consumers’ relationship with sustainability takes place at the grocery store with each food transaction. They drive demand for different types of food and their choices affect the way food is produced.

As the producers of food, farmers have a direct relationship with the environment.

This can produce a disconnect.

The mixture of demographics encouraged in-depth and personal conversations between producers and consumers.

The event provided an opportunity for consumers to learn what growers do on a personal level and gave producers the chance to learn what consumers are looking for. As well, for producers learned what consumers are looking for.

It was expressed during the event that consumers are beginning to be concerned about their food sustainability and are willing to learn more.

One attendee said, “I think I can speak for myself, everyone in this room and for my generation, that we are willing to spend a couple more dollars for a more sustainable product. Especially if we know the dollars are going towards a more sustainable future.”

To the average urban consumer, the closest they come to food production systems is the grocery stores. They rely heavily on education through the grocery stores to learn about the background of their food products.

Lambert says that communicating about sustainability is complex. It’s not easy to convey the food’s story on a small price tag. The work to do so is done behind the scenes.

“We really want to engage those conversations. We try to do all the work in the background so customers don’t have to make a difficult choice. They can really trust that everything they are buying at our stores, we have done the work to ensure we are sourcing in the most sustainable way that we can.”

Thoroughgood says food sustainability concepts are still new to consumers.

“If you walk down the street and ask how many people would recognize (current sustainability logos) the majority wouldn’t put their hand up. I think we have to be patient a little bit and let the movement mature.”

Kelly Daynard, executive director with Farm and Food Care, told those attending that sustainability does not relate to farm size.

“It’s not the size of the farm that makes it good or bad. It’s how that farmer manages their farming system. That goes for livestock, crops and everything in between.”


Why go to Toronto?

Toronto provides opportunity to reach out to a large population of food influencers and provides unique venues.

“We recognize that we can’t meet and greet every single person in Ontario so we look for people who have a reach with people. Food influencers already have a basic interest in food and farming and they have a reach,” says Kelly Daynard, Farm and Food Care’s executive director.

The Guardians of the Grasslands screening is a continuation of an event held last April of the screening of Before The Plate at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto.

The involvement of Ontario beef and sheep producers and industry professionals led to the opportunity for consumers to speak directly with farmers about livestock production.

“This event was about answering the questions related to farming and the environment. We hope that we can give (consumers) an educated opinion when they go shopping — we never want to tell them what to buy or what to eat,” says Daynard.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer lives on a farm in Cayuga, Ontario and has a lot of experience in the many aspects of agriculture.

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