If you've ever had a hankering to mingle with real farmers, Sunday's your chance.
It's Open Farm Day in Manitoba, and this year about 60 farms across the province are opening their gates to the public. The event has been growing in scale and sophistication since the inaugural Open Farm Day in 2010, with more farmers and a wider cross-section of farm operations opening up each year. Visitors can now go to a website: http://wfp.to/openfarmday, where they can choose their routes using an interactive map. Most sites even provide GPS co-ordinates.
But efforts like this, aimed at putting a face behind the food we eat, are coming under scrutiny as the local-food movement in this province gains momentum.
Given the events of recent weeks, some are asking whether the faces of farming the public see during government-sponsored events like this are simply a charade that masks the more industrialized reality of agriculture today.
Most farmers participating in the day are small-scale producers adding value to their production through agri-tourism, direct marketing or food processing. For the most part, they do a stellar job living up to the traditional images people far removed from farming still harbour.
There are some larger-scale grain operations accepting visitors as well, but most commercial grain farmers are so focused on dodging rain showers as they get this year's bin-buster of a crop into storage, they barely stop to eat, let alone entertain curious visitors.
Colin Anderson, a University of Manitoba PhD student who witnessed the recent raid by provincial health inspectors on Pam and Clint Cavers sausage-making operation near Pilot Mound, goes so far as to suggest the government has a two-faced approach to small-scale food production.
"MAFRI (Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives) holds up small family farms as the face of agriculture. Yet it provides minimal financial support and even undermines small farmers with one-size-fits-all regulation," he says in a widely circulated opinion piece.
There has been no shortage of coverage of that now-infamous raid a few weeks back in which inspectors bullied bystanders, seized product and fined the producers. They planned to incinerate the same cured Italian sausage that was honoured as the best new innovation at the Great Manitoba Food Fight earlier this year.
Now it has become the rallying cry of a new movement calling itself the Real Manitoba Food Fight. It is also the genesis of a new lobby group calling itself FEAST (Farmers and Eaters Actively Sharing the Table).
But to be fair, the job of serving the public, when it comes to food safety and health, is complicated. Regulators and enforcers are required to juggle an unwieldy balance between giving consumers access to the alternative, artisan, natural or just plain different food choices they seek, while protecting them from food that is unsafely produced, processed or stored.
They can't win. Whether it's raw milk, uninspected meat or home canning, if the inspectors crack down, they look like the bad guys. If they don't and someone gets sick, they weren't doing their job.
Labelling products as artisan, local or from the family farm can't be about subverting food safety. In the Cavers case, there is no evidence they were attempting that. Their problems arose, not because there was evidence their product was contaminated, but because they couldn't prove to inspectors it was safe. The incident highlights the need for a reasonable balance between documented safe production practices and industrial-strength risk management.
Which is why Open Farm Day is so important. Its growing popularity speaks to the public's craving for a closer connection to the people who produce their food. Likewise, it responds to an oft-cited desire among farmers for consumers to better understand why they do what they do.
It also underscores the rising emphasis on understanding the "how" in food production. People need to understand how complicated producing good food really is. The provincial department, quite rightly, is providing an opportunity for those connections to occur.
There is nothing two-faced about that.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com.