Earth Day cook-off kick starts kinder, gentler campaign

Tomorrow at 8:07 p.m. is the March equinox. It marks the official arrival of spring. It's also International Earth Day.

Farmers have always cared about the former. As spring approaches, they keep an eye on all-important soil moisture, get their machinery up to snuff and make plans for planting.

But Earth Day hasn't really been on their radar screen.

This year, that's changing in a purposeful, highly visual way. Not oblivious to Canadians' recharged interest in the environment, Ontario farmers are keeping pace by both recognizing Earth Day, and by sponsoring a cooking contest to give it, and them, higher profile and connectivity.

It's all taking place through a kinder, gentler version of the Farmers Feed Cities! campaign, being led out of Guelph's Ontario AgriCentre by a farm group amalgamation called Ontario Grains and Oilseeds. This initiative got off the ground two years ago as a back-against-the-wall reaction to chronic low commodity prices. It was accompanied by warnings of no farmers, then no food for urban Canada.

Some farmers don't like the aggressive, dire approach. And after a while, particularly after big announcements that Ottawa is pouring hundreds of millions into the farm economy, neither does the public.

So now, the confrontations have softened, although the message remains the same: a meaningful investment in farm families is a sound investment for Ontario.

The campaign's become much more conciliatory. For example, on Earth Day, rather than protesting prices, Farmers Feed Cities! is using a chili cook-off promotion as a springboard to talk about environmental responsibility.

That doesn't mean farm prices are appreciably better — although they have risen lately, with the mushrooming interest in ethanol made from corn.

But it does mean farmers have realized a protest campaign must either be accompanied by, or be quickly followed by, an education campaign. Just check the latest census, and it's clear farms and rural Canada aren't exactly enjoying a growth spurt. Fewer people than ever are connected to the land. Education about farming and rural areas is a must.

And so in a friendly, persuasive manner, Farmers Feed Cities! is approaching Earth Day as an opportunity to tie in farming, food and the environment.

It's a common sense approach. Farmers have long maintained they are the true stewards of the land, because they're the ones who live on it, work on it and raise their families on it. If they don't look after their land, they're out of business. If we don't pay them enough for the food they grow for us, they won't have the resources to look after their land. That's an understandable message, much more palatable and educational for urbanites than shouting "give us more money."

And it's particularly relevant given the way Canadians have made the environment their top priority. The Farmers Feed Cities! campaign figures this is the time to remind people farmers adhere to environmental farm plans, and that they've cut pesticide use by 52 per cent in the past 20 years while growing vastly greater quantities of food. They're doing their bit.

Just as meaningful to the public is the connection between farming and food. That bond may sound elementary to a Guelph audience that generally has an above average appreciation of agriculture. But despite sincere efforts by groups such as Ontario Agri-Food Education, AGCARE and the Ontario Farm Animal Council, many Ontarians don't equate crops or livestock with groceries. It's not all the public's fault — farmers have marketed the fruits of their efforts as commodities and carcasses to processors, rather than as ingredients to the public. People don't understand commodities. But ingredients are familiar. They're what everyone has in their kitchens. And they're what farmers grow.

So the Farmers Feed Cities! campaign is taking an educational approach to ingredients, too, by tieing in the chili cook-off. Few stove-top favourites have more Ontario-grown ingredients than chili, and everyone thinks theirs is the best. So campaign organizers want to recognize and celebrate the connection among the earth, good food and good farming by inviting chili fans to submit their favourite chili recipes to farmersfeedcities.com to create an online cornucopia. They're trying to create an equinox event a bit like Elora food guru Anita Stewart's World's Longest Barbecue held each July, in which citizens support Canadian farmers by barbecuing Canadian meat — or fish.

Congratulations to Farmers Feed Cities! for this new approach. The recognizable signs haven't changed, the effective words are the same, and the new message should yield more results.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.

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