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Farmers will plant seeds of knowledge with youth

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If you want to rile a farmer to the point of sputtering, just start talking about how bread comes from the grocery store and chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

With four out of five Canadians now living in cities and with farmers making up less than two per cent of the general population, you could argue the urban-rural divide in this country is every bit as wide as the infamous rivalries between East and West.

Farmers are particularly sensitive about the disconnect between food producers and the rest of us.

Increasingly, the regulations and polities that dictate their operating environment are swayed by folks who have little connection with what farmers actually do, but who often have strong opinions about how they should be doing it.

So what better way to reach out to Canadians than through the kids in school?

February is I Love to Read Month in Canada, but the Agriculture in the Classroom organization is hoping to put a different spin on the literacy focus this coming week.

Farmers will be in 20 elementary schools across the province Feb. 26 to March 3 reading to about 40 classrooms as part of the first Canadian Agricultural Literacy Week.

The effort, which is supported by Farm Credit Canada, will connect farmers with kids who have little opportunity nowadays to experience agriculture. Each child who participates goes home with a bookmark made with "plantable paper," containing seeds.

"Obviously, what we are trying to do is create goodwill and understanding of our industry," says Johanne Ross, executive director of Agriculture in the Classroom-Manitoba.

"We have to engage young people in this industry so they understand agriculture is important to our world."

The tie-in with I Love to Read Month emerged from the AITC's national conference last year and is a natural fit with ongoing efforts to get conversations about agriculture integrated into the school curriculums. "It is about science, it is about social studies, it is about math, we are everything," she says.

And it's not just about farming. Piquing children's interest in food and agriculture at an early age might spark an interest later on in pursuing a related career. "We need really good, strong people coming into our industry."

But when it came time to find material for farmers to read with their students, the project hit a snag. It turns out agriculture and farming have fallen so far off the cultural radar in Canada, there isn't much written from a Canadian industry's perspective for the program to deliver.

Ross said she was stunned by the lack of locally produced material, a problem she hopes will be rectified in the not-too-distant future.

"We had hoped to have a great book that could be used across Canada," she said. "Unfortunately, that is just not out there."

One of the books to be used in Manitoba classrooms next week is from the United States, which is fine, except agriculture practices there aren't always the same.

"Going forward, we would love to fund a project and have some books written -- so if there are writers out there who are interested... " she said.

Of course the project needs a sponsor, too. Ross estimates it would cost upwards of $250,000 to get such a book published.

It's just one of many efforts Agriculture in the Classroom co-ordinates in conjunction with industry partners, ranging from Made-in-Manitoba breakfasts to special events for youth at industry events to farm tours for teachers. It says something about peoples' passion for their business that they regularly volunteer their time to talk about what they do and why they do it.

The organization knows from the demand for its services it is having an impact. But Ross said success of the venture is hard to measure. "I've been doing this for 12 years, and we've come a long way, but we have a long way to go," she said.

"There are so many people we need to reach. We have to be out there telling real stories, the good stories, because there are a lot of inaccuracies and misconceptions out there about our industry."

Granted, there is room for debate and no shortage of controversy over modern agriculture and production practices. Although some of the best-selling books that caused the industry to bristle in recent years have been written by people from outside the industry, they've raised some important questions that deserve a broader discussion.

That's fair enough. But in order to have those conversations as a society, there needs to be at least a basic understanding of what it is we're talking about.


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2012 B8

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