Agriculture literacy is a growing problem across Canada.

By MPP Toby Barrett

The topic might seem a bit foreign in Haldimand and Norfolk as most people know about agriculture and understand its basic concepts. When I walk through the fairs across the riding, agriculture is a big theme as it was 150 years ago when our leaders were working on confederation. But to most people in urban areas, the connection to the land has been lost. No longer do most city dwellers have a relative who is a farmer.

To address this problem, agriculture leaders organized agricultural literacy week. Led by the non-profit group Agriculture in the Classroom, the week-long awareness event has a strong commitment to educating Canadian teachers and young people about the importance of agriculture contributing to a strong, sustainable, viable Canadian agricultural industry. Last year, more than 95,000 students and 3,500 classrooms across the country were visited by industry speakers.

This year’s theme for Canadian Agriculture Literacy Month is “Our Food. Our Story.” This hits home in Haldimand and Norfolk where we produce a variety of commodities.

During a speech last week in the legislature, I started with a question: “Really, we wonder how many people, for example, know the difference between sweet corn and field corn. How many would know the difference between hay and straw?

“Many of my colleagues here are from rural ridings. They understand many of these differences. I know the minister understands the difference. There are so many, perhaps, children of members here who may not be aware or may not really care about the difference between hay and straw. That may well go for many of their fellow students in the classroom.”

Urban people and rural non-farm people may not understand agriculture. They may not appreciate the challenges – the dependency on weather, the debt load or worrying if the combination of the futures’ market and dollar exchange will result in a profitable year. Many people have opinions on food and farming and on the way things are done in rural Ontario. They want to influence things they may not understand.

Ontario’s agri-food sector is one of the most diversified in the world with 52,000 farms producing hundreds of different commodities. There are 790,000 people employed in primary food production, food processing and distribution, food retail or service.

When the premier introduced the Local Food Act in 2013, we proposed an amendment to include food education as a mandatory part of the curriculum. My colleague Lisa Thompson introduced a Private Member’s Bill that would have made it mandatory to teach about agri-food in Grades 9 and 10.

I taught high school agriculture in the 1970s – grades 9,10,11,12 – 4 and 5-year stream at Simcoe Composite School. There is still an agriculture course of sorts at the school, and courses are still an option in some rural schools.

Our agriculture and agri-food economy and way of life lacks recognition. There are jobs – but employers can’t find enough trained or enthusiastic workers – the answer starts in secondary school and earlier. I think of the success of 4H!

Agriculture literacy is about the future of farming. It’s about creating the next generation of ag leaders.

Rather than only celebrate agriculture literacy for a week or month, we should encourage it to be a year-round learning adventure!