How Do You Bridge the Rural-Urban Divide? One Potluck At A Time!

Every participant made up a plate for the “pot luck” which included their name and the various experiences and perspectives they were bringing to the table. The result? A diverse table of “dishes”!

It’s not everyday I find myself among policy makers, farmers, a food chemist, a food bank manager and foodies, so when the opportunity to discuss our food system with this group arose, I jumped at it.

This wasn’t your typical industry think tank session though. There was no high-priced ticket to attend. No conference rooms with tables of notebooks and bowls of little, sugar candies. No lobby groups pushing an agenda. No, this was an altogether different think tank to talk about food because not only was it free and hosted far from the big city, but it was held in the equipment shed of the Craig family farm. Nestled among hay wagons stacked neatly to the brim with second cut, participants enjoyed homemade muffins and locally made yogurt while getting to know each other.

Organized by James Craig and held on his family’s farm near Arthur, Ontario, the event was built around the traditional, rural gathering of a “potluck”. Except this potluck was different; attendees came not with food but with their experience, diverse perspectives, and an interest in discussing sustainability. Guests were treated to both fantastic hospitality and an honest glimpse into the Craigs’ lives as farmers. Elgin and Joan’s opening comments illuminated the challenge that faces farmers today; we enjoy a lifestyle, but we must also run a business and we need to be profitable and we may be conflicted with decisions as a result. I believe understanding this is the reality of today’s family farms is important in itself to set the context for any discussion around the food system. Any alternative that doesn’t consider profitability is equally unsustainable.

So began our discussions around the food system and where we “fit”. Though everyone ultimately must self-select their role, there is a level of uncertainty among many of us who wear several hats and struggle to identify with only one title in the industry. As James realized though, out of this discomfort comes an opportunity to have tremendous impact on the food system.

“I’ve struggled to answer this question as my own life has interests and a livelihood both on and off farm.” Said James. “I relate to both food producers and non-food producers and so I believe I fit right in the middle. With my identity, I am lucky to have contacts on both sides of the food system, and I have long wanted to bring those worlds together.”

When James heard former Prime Minister Joe Clarke challenge farmers at the GFO March Classic to develop allies outside agriculture, he realized just how important people like himself, who feel they are “in-the-middle”, are to fostering face-to-face conversations between producers and non-producers.

“It’s important to remember that all food producers are also food consumers, but not all food consumers are producers.” Sometimes, I think many producers feel non-producers forget this, so this was an opportunity to connect everyone on the same level, as food consumers. As much as farmers want to use these conversations to advocate for agriculture though, it’s equally important for producers to listen to non-food producers. “Each side has a vested interested in sustainable food production and consumption. We are all a part of the food system and need to listen and learn from one another!”

Sustainability was unquestionably an underlying theme for the day where every speaker touched on it in some way. Dr. Ralph Martin, the Loblaw Chair in Sustainable Food Production at the University of Guelph, presented a very thought-provoking argument there may be an alternative to the “9 billion mouths to feed by 2050” predicament we currently face in agriculture. Through a combination of efforts aimed at reducing poverty, adjusting production, harnessing science and reducing food waste there could be fewer mouths to feed, healthier food on our tables and less impact on the environment.

Everyone was on the edge of their seats, drinking in not just the complexity of the challenges we face ahead but also the incredible opportunity that exists if we can put differences of opinion aside and work together. What role do we each play? What role do our organizations and companies play and are we working enough different angles to support a multitude of solutions?

For me, it was exhilarating to hear discussions among people on important issues and at a level, which we rarely get today. Though Twitter has made it easier for us to connect with people of similar interests and ideas, it has also made it harder to discuss the tough issues. Even when issues seem less controversial, some would rather argue the merit of the issue, than discuss solutions. It’s a shame, because it’s not only unproductive but it’s disrespectful and unfair when we can’t appreciate context. It’s proof that for all the social media in the world, the best way to reach common ground and start moving ideas forward is still face-to-face discussion.

Note: This event also re-united some attendees from the 2013 Global Youth Ag Summit, hosted by Bayer CropScience and 4-H Canada. With the 2015 Summit around the corner, you can follow the conversation on Twitter.

Participants line up in order of where they see themselves fitting in the food system from “farm to table”.
Hosts, Elgin and Joan Craig, talk about the decision to purchase some Speckle Park cattle and bring them to their Ontario farm.
What better place to engage in discussion than the pasture?

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