This Friday I attended a great symposium on the University of Guelph campus, filled with groundbreaking, hardworking and interesting farmers from around the province. The symposium hosted by the Plant Agriculture was on urban agriculture, an often neglected sector of the agriculture industry. Never was that fact more apparent to me then at the symposium. Now I wasn’t expecting to see lots of people I knew but being the only person there wearing an Aggie jacket; at an agriculture symposium on an agricultural college campus, was somewhat surprising. I do need to admit at this point that I was not the only OAC student at the event, their were a number of organic major students, and there may have been other OAC students that I did not recognize, but the point isn’ t that I was the only aggie there, its that an interesting and growing field of agriculture isn’t attracting attention from students or the college as a whole.
So how come the agricultural community isn’t giving their urban farming counterparts the respect and attention they deserve? I think the primary reason is a complete lack of knowledge of what urban agriculture is and how it functions. The farmers I met at the symposium deserve the title of farmer just as much as any other farmer I’ve ever met. This isn’t a hobby to them, they work long days, and wear just as many hats as any other farmer. They negotiate contracts for land, plant, manage weeds and pests, harvest, store and sell their products, and generally hold off the farm jobs. Due to their urban environment where land is very expensive and generally buried under buildings and pavement it means that these urban farmers utilize generally under 5 acres of land to grow their crops. In North America this is more comparable to a large lawn of an estate then to a farm, but internationally the average farmer worldwide still farms less then 5 acres. Therefore on the global stage these urban are in no way too small to be effective and sustainable.
These farmers deserve just as much help and support from their industry and government as conventional farmers, but instead receive little to no support. This means that when they have problems to solve, they turn to each other, this is one of my favorite parts of working with farmers in urban agriculture and organic agriculture as well. Put three farmers in a room and soon someone has put forward a question they have been unable to solve and an hour later they are still discussing things they have tried, their successes and failures and working towards a solution. Unfortunately this is also one of my biggest problems with working in these sectors, they are so used to being turned away by the industry and the government that they have stopped looking for answers from these resources and there are so few scientists and agricultural professionals willing to talk to them that they turn to other less reliable sources of information. For example, a farmer I talked to at the symposium spoke of the process she had taken to learn about chickens and chicken slaughter. She had looked at government resources, but none had applied to her, she had tried to find a veterinarian willing to talk to her and teach her, she was un-successful. Finally she found a small abattoir that she could deal with and learn from but it was too far away to be feasible, so eventually she turned to YouTube, thats right the social video website, to learn how to identify sick chickens and to learn how to slaughter her own chickens! As agriculture students we hear of these things and shake them off as crazy people, but I’ve talked to them and they aren’t that crazy, they want to learn, they want to do things right and they want help in achieving their goals. I think the agricultural community needs to step up and provide them with that help and leadership, but first we must recognize that they are farmers and that they are an important part of our industry. In other words, we can’t have one lonely aggie jacket trying to bridge the gap! Calling all aggies! Its time to take a look at non-conventional streams of agriculture, they are interesting, growing and looking for bright, creative young agriculture professionals!