Great conversations often happen over a great meal, and that’s just what the organizers of A Seat at our Table are banking on for their upcoming Canada Agriculture Day event in Olds.
“In typical agricultural fashion, we have a tendency to present ourselves through facts, and the average consumer isn’t going to get that — they’re going to get food,” said Terry Andryo, senior agriculture marketing manager for ATB Financial.
“We felt that it was important to get consumers to engage with the farming community and that it was important that we started with food rather than facts.”
A >Seat at our Table< was launched in 2015 as a way of “bringing rural to urban,” said Andryo, who represents one of 22 event partners involved in the agriculture and food sector. The concept is a simple one: Bring farmers and consumers together over a five-course meal and encourage them to talk about food.
“Typically, we don’t do that,” said Andryo. “When we celebrate things as an agricultural industry, typically what will happen is that we’ll get a bunch of people together from the agriculture sector and we’ll all slap each other on the back and go, ‘We’re doing the right things.’ It’s the same with consumers.
“For us, it’s about getting these two parties together to have a real conversation about food.”
That idea has grown since the first long-table event in 2015, he added. The organizers have hosted at least five long-table dinners, each with 100 participants, in Calgary, Edmonton, and Grande Prairie, but the upcoming event near Olds is the most ambitious yet.
“In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, we thought we’d bring 150 people together — 75 consumers and 75 people involved in agriculture in some shape or form — to have a conversation about food,” said Andryo of the event, which will be held Feb. 16 at Willow Lane Barn.
And everyone at the table will be a millennial — people under the age of 35, “the age group that’s going to make drastic change for the next generation.”
“What we want to do is get ahead of the curve,” said Andryo. “The people who are really going to make the change and the people who are the squeaky wheels are the millennials.”
The five-course meal will also be prepared by millennial chefs and paired with five different spirits or beers, all brewed or distilled by people from that age cohort.
“Everything about this is basically going to be millennial focused,” he said. “We really want people to get exposed and have conversations with strangers. That’s why we want millennials. We know they’ll talk. We know they’ll tweet.”
In many cases, millennial consumers are two or three generations removed from the farm, and “they’ve never been exposed to it,” said Andryo.
“Hopefully, we can get the consumers who have never been to a farm out to a farm and debunk a lot of fallacies,” he said. “That’s the objective of these dinners — to debunk a lot of issues but also to listen to consumers first to hear what their concerns are. We know from an agriculture perspective that it’s probably less than one per cent that are the squeaky wheel, but they make a lot of noise, which makes it tough on agriculture.”
But for the event partners, the real benefit lies in the research that’s taking place before the event. Every participant will complete a 25-question online survey on buying decisions. Those results will be compiled to help the partners — which includes seven provincial crop and livestock organizations — “make changes” based on consumer wants and needs.
“Consumers are going to be asked questions about what’s important to them,” said Andryo. “Is local important? Is GMO free important? Is gluten free important? We’re really going to find out what is important to the consumer before the dinner, and then we’re going to share it at the dinner.
“For the agriculture world, it’s going to be a learning session to hear what people are saying about agriculture, and we really hope to take our fear and turn it into curiosity.”