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Food and drink: Oh, the joys of farming

A glimpse behind the curtain of that hamburger on your plate

If you ever care to test how much you really know about farming and what it takes to get your basic litre of milk or meat patty into your kitchen, drop in to an agricultural exhibition.

I did just that at the Pacific Agricultural Show in Abbotsford last week, and before I passed the entrance I had already learned something new - Abbotsford, generating some $1.8 billion in farm and agri-business economic activity, is considered the agricultural capital of Canada.

The ag show featured a petting farm and seminars on everything from berry growing to reducing your greenhouse energy bills, but the main feature was a huge trade show that filled the 120,000-sq-ft Tradex building.

Strolling past the exhibitors, my head was turning faster than a harrow's rakes taking in the tractors with tires taller than me, the bright green goop you paint on livestock's hooves to prevent infection, and the seemingly magical automated machines that use laser or infrared light to sort out under-ripe and over-ripe blueberries from perfect ones.

Despite all these wonders, or maybe because of them, it struck me that for something as fundamental as food, most of us know darn little about the behind-the-scenes details of farm-to-fork. That includes me, and I write about these topics all the time.

I mean, food production issues aren't exactly like issues surrounding something like, say, jackhammer production.

But give yourself an hour at an ag show and you'll grok at least a handful of the many considerations farmers deal with every day to get us our food and what might, or might not, be in it for us, depending on the choices they make.

For instance, take your basic raspberries, which Jordan Sturdy, who owns North Arm Farm in Pemberton, was researching at the show.

What kind of raspberry canes will you grow? If you're processing them instead of selling them fresh-to-market, you'll have to consider different criteria. Processed berries need to stand up to machine harvesting and ripen all at once, but if you're going to sell fresh berries, flavour is king. If you go U-pick you'll have a different set of issues, never mind the pests your carefully planted canes might face.

"The raspberry dwarf virus is a problem down there in the Fraser Valley, so you want to have something resistant to that. Then you have your root rot considerations. To top it all off there's a new pest that's just shown up, the drosophila, which has never been seen here before, and God knows where it came from, but everyone is kind of panicking about it," says Jordan.

"Then there's weed control, cane burning, irrigation requirements and soils - it goes on and on, and that's just for raspberries."

And that's just deciding which varieties of canes to grow. You've also got to figure out how you'll pick your berries and what kinds of containers you'll need in the fields and what kinds you'll need for market if you're selling them yourself. Paper that biodegrades? Corn-based containers that don't? Clear ones from recyclable plastic?

How will you store the berries? How will you transport them? And what are your farmer-neighbours planting that might impact your chances of selling your precious crop, provided it doesn't get hit by the aforementioned pests, too much rain or not enough?

Here's another twist. What happens if you went into something like blueberries four or five years ago, so your crop isn't commercially productive yet and now the market is tanking because we consumers are gobbling up all the blueberries we can, plus B.C. only has processing capacity for 125 million pounds of blueberries a year - and there's almost 200 million pounds in the pipeline? What do you do with that?

Besides the challenging complexities of it all, a couple of other things struck me at the Pacific Agricultural Show. One was the numbers and kinds of chemicals, and I use the term loosely, that follow our food from farm to fork.

Not that I know anything about dairy farming, but I was flabbergasted to learn that you might opt to feed your calves "milk replacer" instead of cows' milk. Kind of like baby formula only for animals. It's better than milk, the salesman promised. Besides, why would you want to feed your calf milk at 70 cents a litre, when you can feed it milk replacer at 44 cents a litre? Why indeed?

If you're raising livestock, a chemical stall deodorizer will neutralize ammonia, keep odors and flies down and, if the ads are accurate, save 50 per cent on bedding costs.

There's T-Klor-XX to hose down your truck or reefer van if you're hauling food (450 ppm free chlorine) and Hortiklor to keep your berry processing equipment clean - no manual scrubbing. If you're into chickens, you can get DuPont Liquid Tray & Egg wash ("highly caustic and chlorinated for efficient soil removal") or DuPont 904 (don't use it with the tray & egg wash).

There's estroPLan to regulate the reproductive cycle of your cattle, which is "key to your business growth," and Calf-Lyte if your calves get diarrhea. Some of the hormonal products boast that you'll have zero milk or meat withdrawal, meaning you don't have to wait after administering them to milk or butcher your animals.

Of course, all of these products are tested and determined by regulators to be food safe but, still, one can only wonder about the numbers and varieties - do they test them in combinations? Is this what it really takes be a successful farmer?

Which brings us to a final and quintessential point: financial success. If what I saw at the ag show is a glimpse of costs involved to be a working farmer, you'll not be getting me near a farm any time soon.

How about $18 million for a dairy operation in Saskatchewan? Or nearly $6 million for a grain farm in Manitoba and it's only got 3,000 acres, way below the recommended 8,000 acres to be financially viable.

Then there's the equipment. That infrared blueberry sorter will set you back $90,000, the laser one a mere $75,000. An orchard vine shredder comes in at $15,000. But if you were up for a bargain at the show, you could pick up a cattle feed processor for just under $50,000.

No wonder the most popular exhibit was the booth featuring beds and chairs that massage you. Now those will soothe your farming headaches if you're brave enough to venture forth in the first place.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who always admired her aunt and uncle who homesteaded a section in Peace River country.