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This week, First Person explores memorable encounters and relationships between humans and animals.
It’s about a 12-minute walk door-to-door from my home to the office. In those 12 minutes, I travel from the city to the country and back again. I live in Toronto, just south of Queen Street and Strachan Avenue, and I’m in charge of agriculture at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, which takes place at Exhibition Place, just four blocks south of my home. The fair opens this year for its 96th year.
As the lead hand on agriculture, I’m at the centre of the Royal’s mission to bring the country to the city. And by the country, I mean all of Canada. In decades past, provincial governments subsidized rail passage for livestock and food products from across the country, all bound for competition at the Royal. Governments no longer offer rail subsidies but the Royal is still decidedly national in scope: apple growers from British Columbia; Holstein breeders from Newfoundland; cheese makers from Quebec; teenaged public speakers from Alberta; and creameries from PEI. For many of these exhibitors, participating in the Royal is a lock on their calendar – just like Christmas.
While the fair is national in scope, there are times when our small team realizes that our jobs are unique – at least in Toronto. Donkey enthusiasts once called to ask if they could exhibit their animals at the fair. We discussed it, researched the housing and dietary needs of donkeys and decided there was no room in the inn. We also concluded that on that day, no one else in Toronto was considering donkeys as house guests.
Year-round, I straddle urban and rural life. I am constantly reminded of how different these two worlds can be, how rarely they intersect and how little they understand each other. After one late meeting with one of the Royal’s livestock committees, I put on my backpack to go home. Before I left that evening, I stopped to chat to the farmers lingering in the barn. One of them looked at me dubiously and asked: “Are you walking home?” I told him I was. “Aren’t you nervous walking these streets so late at night?” I told him I wasn’t. I didn’t tell him I would be more nervous walking at night down the gravel road that leads to his farm. It’s much darker and more threatening to someone unaccustomed to the remoteness and relative silence of rural Canada. I’ll take my nighttime city walk any day.
I hear similar incredulity from city acquaintances who know little to nothing about how modern, mainstream agriculture works. Most of my urban circle sees no reason why all food can’t be produced organically and sold at farmers markets and specialty grocers. I remind them that this business model may work for their affluent, big-city lifestyle but it doesn’t solve the challenge of feeding a hungry world. To date, I have been spectacularly unsuccessful in bridging that gap in understanding.
I’ve worked in agriculture all my career, studied it in school and visited hundreds of farms across Canada. Like many of us in agriculture, we wish the urban public would take a science-based view of modern farming. It is an indisputable fact that Canada has some of the safest food on the planet. Many urbanites I encounter, however, seem to prefer an emotion-based perspective on food, which is, if it seems icky, it must be unsafe. An independent research study some years ago found that when presented with the concept of feeding silage to cattle – chopped plant material stored in a silo where it ferments to improve palatability and nutrient release – the majority of urban respondents said they would not eat meat or dairy products from animals that had been fed such a gross diet. I’ve come to love the heavy, sweet smell of silage and I’ve watched many a beef or dairy animal tuck in readily to a meal of the stuff.
As a city dweller, I’ve learned to be selective about voicing my perspective on food production. I’m confident in what I know but I don’t want to be the buzzkill everyone avoids at social gatherings. I have had people in my social network raise their hand and say they don’t want to discuss agriculture with me. Some have kindly pointed out that they don’t want to think less of me because my point of view differs from theirs.
When the Royal takes place over 10 days each November, however, country and city have a chance to meet each other. I’ve seen both urbanites and farmers stare wide-eyed in amazement at the other. When the busloads of Toronto school kids press into the barns to see the animals and meet the people who care for them, our rural constituents are reminded of how diverse Canada has become.
Many of these schoolchildren are first-generation Canadians who have had zero exposure to agriculture. Several years ago, a teacher told us of a new Canadian student who travelled to the Royal with her class. This young student saw a black-and-white Holstein cow and said to her teacher, “Look at the giraffe!” All the student knew was big and spots – a giraffe and a Holstein both fit the description. By the end of their day at the Royal, I expect the student and her class knew a lot more about agriculture and the food on their table.
The Fair remains a unique opportunity for city Canada to meet country Canada. Both city and country can stand to learn from cross-pollination. As someone who straddles both worlds, I can tell you that rural and urban Canadians lead very different lives. Both groups find their own sweet spot. Rural Canadians value the sense of community, shared purpose and the stability of farming. Once someone starts farming, most will work the same acres until the next generation succeeds them or a doctor begs them to stop. Urbanites love the dynamic aspects of their lives and the thrum of city life. Many of them relish change and roll easily with whatever comes next.
Me, I get to live in both worlds, thanks to my 12-minute walk to the country.
Peter Hohenadel lives in Toronto.