A pork producer in Quebec, Canada joined other farmers to host a provincial-wide open house to acquaint city dwellers with life on the farm.

Philippe Desjardins welcomed an unbelievable 1,100 visitors to his hog farm near Joilette, Quebec in early September. The visitors were but a fraction of the 135,000 who toured one of 151 host farms or the displays at Union des Producteurs Agricoles (UPA) headquarters in Longueuil, Quebec, as part of their third annual “Farm Open House.”

Over the past three years, nearly 400,000 people have come out to see what really happens on Quebec farms. As Laurent Lessard, Quebec's Interim Minister of Agriculture, commented: “The city mouse took kindly to the country mouse's invitation.”

Most of Canada's food may be produced on its farms, but in an age where only 2% of the population has any involvement in agriculture, it's not surprising that so few people know it. The challenges on the production and consumer sides of this food equation are no doubt familiar to their American counterparts.

Diligent parents may wish to take their children to visit a working farm, but unless they have a friend or relative who owns one, there is little opportunity.

Public Relations Effort

Union des Producteurs Agricoles (UPA), which in English translates into the Agricultural Producer's Union, is trying to change that. Dating back to 1924, UPA has served as Quebec's umbrella farm producer group, is present in 16 regions, and represents 25 specialized groups. With a membership rate of 93%, UPA is the official voice speaking on behalf of 44,000 Quebec farmers.

“This is the biggest public relations initiative ever to take place in the agricultural sector,” says Laurent Pellerin, UPA president. “Our goal is to promote better understanding between farmers and the non-farming community.”

Visitors participated in a hayride, during which an agronomist explained the composition of the Desjardins' hog feed, mostly made from grains grown in nearby fields. Questions were wide-ranging and colorful.

“My dad said that pigs stink, but I went to see them (in the barn/garage) and I didn't smell anything,” said a little girl.

The comment provided an excellent opportunity for the agronomist to discuss odor control and the agronomic use of manure in the fields.

The kids enjoyed a run through a cornfield maze, then back at the farm made a beeline for the free pork burgers, freshly made in Desjardins' butcher shop.

André Pelland and Luce Piette decided to visit Desjardin's farm after reading about the operation on the UPA website.

“We visited a dairy, a sheep farm, one that had bison and this hog farm is our fourth,” says Pelland. “This is the best we've seen today.”

Biosecurity Risks Noted

Only two out of 200 hog farms in the Lanaudière region took part in this year's event.

“Sanitation is a big issue,” says Claude Laflamme of the Pork Producer Syndicate in the Lanaudiere region, north of Montreal. “It's easier to recruit producers who commercialize their own products. Philippe is quite unique in the sense that he's got his own butcher shop on the farm. Of the 15 farms that took part in the program in this region, seven or eight had something to sell.”

“My greatest concern was disease,” says Desjardins. The Quebec producer and his wife, Annie Perreault, thought twice before having visitors come to see their operation of 125 sows, 400 weaners and 800 finishers.

Rather than bring the visitors to the pigs, Desjardins decided to bring the pigs to the visitors. “I transformed the garage into a barn and put the sows, piglets and a few finishers in there, too. They will all be kept in quarantine before they go back into the barn,” he explains.

Meeting so many members of the public at once was quite a change for Desjardins.

“I get to talk with clients from time to time, but today it was on a whole different scale,” he says.

“A lady asked me if my pigs ate vegetable grain. She heard the term on TV. Olymel uses it in one of their ads,” he continues. “I told her, ‘Ma'am, all grains are vegetable.” Olymel is Canada's leading chicken and pork processor.

Hog farms often bear the brunt of public criticism over intensive livestock operations, although most people don't know much about pork production.

Bernard Dion took part in last year's open house. Although he knew all the work involved wouldn't provide any direct benefits to his 320-sow operation in the St-Hyacinthe region, 60 miles northeast of Montreal, he felt it would benefit the industry as a whole.

“I hired a small television production company to come in and provide direct access to my operation via closed-circuit television,” Dion explains.

“My manager was in the barn, and he could talk with visitors in the tent. People could see the animals on a giant screen television. They were surprised to see how clean the barn was and how good the animals looked.”

Dion estimates the price tag for the day came to $5,000 CDN (approximately $4,280 U.S.), which included the tents, camera crew, equipment and giant-screen TV. The Quebec Hog Federation covered most of the cost. Olymel supplied the pork burgers and pork chops that Dion served.

“The Farm Open House Program provides a good opportunity to show the public that hog producers are committed to protecting the environment,” says Raphaël Pouliot, an agronomist who works for one of the province's four groups of hog producers. “It also helps improve the public's impression of the industry.”

Fulfilling the Need

Orchestrating a province-wide farm open house isn't simple. “It takes eight months of work for the event to come to fruition,” says Eliane Hamel, public affairs advisor for the UPA. “It takes the combined efforts of our affiliates in every region, producer groups, friends, family, farmers, full-time staff from various government agencies and the farm credit union and sponsors to make this day a success; more than 550 in all.”

Many of the farm visitors seemed surprised. “I think many expected something out of the '40s, '50s or '60s. They thought they would see hogs covered in mud, outside or in an old barn, being fed table scraps,” Dion notes.

“They are so taken aback when I tell them my farm is certified ISO 14001 and show them all we do to protect the environment, like the shelterbelts and the addition of enzymes in hog manure to lower phosphorus levels.

“We set up a booth to explain feed with all the different grains, minerals and vitamins there for people to see and taste. They realized how well the animals are fed. The need to educate the public is real,” he adds.

“There used to be 20 farms on this road; now there are two,” says Desjardins. “Producers lived on farms, and their parents, once retired, moved into town. Now, you have city dwellers descending here wanting the quaint country life and having to learn a thing or two about rural life.”

“Neighbors of a friend of mine asked him not to take his cows out to pasture, fearing they would bite his children,” says event spokesperson Jean L'Italien. “When I hear this kind of nonsense, you realize people know little about agriculture.”