When was the last time you visited a farm? For me it was last fall, although I must admit that it wasn’t a “get your boots dirty” type of visit, rather than a social call. But for most consumers, and in fact, for many of us working in the food industry, visits to working farms are few and far between. And considering the myths and misunderstandings that are out there about agriculture and the agri-food industry, that’s not good news.
That’s where organizations such as the Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC) come in. In the mid-1980s the leaders of Ontario’s large commodity associations got together with the intention of forming an umbrella organization that would address consumer concerns about livestock farming and agricultural issues in the province. In 1988 the OFAC was formed, charged with the mandate of both consumer education and animal welfare. Funded by these farm organizations, and by agri-business and the farmers themselves, the non-profit, Guelph, Ont.-based OFAC was at the time the only organization of its type in North America. Today, there are sister organizations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and one in development in B.C., as well as the National Farm Animal Care Council, which deals with national issues such as regulations.
Today these organizations are even more relevant, pressured by ever more demanding consumers who now want greater connection to their food source, while at the same time placing incredible scrutiny on the agri-food industry in terms of food safety, environmental sustainability and animal welfare. “We’ve always been very passionate about agriculture, but before there was always the feeling that most consumers didn’t want to know where their food came from, as long as it was there in the grocery store when they wanted it,” says Kelly Daynard, program manager for the OFAC. “In the last five years there has been a huge shift, and there’s been a growing interest from the public, from chefs and the media due to things like the 100-mile diet and farmers’ markets. They’re more and more interested in putting a face to farmers and getting to know them better.”
The OFAC, which represents approximately 35,000 livestock and poultry farmers, is extremely active in ensuring informed and enthusiastic messages get out to the public and the media. That includes making a multitude of education material available for teachers, hosting exhibits at both agricultural and non-agricultural shows across the country, conducting media tours for journalists to get a glimpse “behind the barn doors,” and producing its extremely popular annual “Faces of Farming” calendar. Another huge success is the group’s virtual farm tours, online visits to 17 Ontario farms, which now receive approximately two million hits annually.