The picturesque old barn conjured up stereotypical images of an old-fashioned farm, but the conversation inside was all about the modern world of agriculture.
The Seat at our Table event in the old white barn near Olds brought 150 people — mostly millennials — from across the province on Canadian Agriculture Day. But the goal wasn’t to celebrate modern agriculture, but to encourage frank and open conversations between young farmers and their urban counterparts.
“A Seat at our Table is one of those amazing vehicles that gives us that opportunity to have those conversations and bridge the gap between urban and rural,” said Fraser Abbott, chairperson of the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance, a partner for the event.
“We wanted to bring together different agricultural communities and people from all walks of life to learn more about what Alberta has to offer.”
A Seat at our Table launched in 2015 as a way to connect farmers with consumers, and this particular event invited 150 people to ‘meet in the middle’ on Feb. 16 to talk about food over a locally sourced five-course meal.
“It’s Canada’s 150th birthday this year, and we thought why not bring everybody together on Canadian Agriculture Day and celebrate the richness that agriculture and the food industry brings to this province and to our entire country,” said Amber Schinkel, a morning news anchor for Global News in Calgary and the event’s MC.
Roughly 95 per cent of the attendees were millennials, said Schinkel, who grew up on a farm near Cochrane.
“We thought it would be fun to bring together 75 millennials from an agricultural background and 75 millennials who do not have an agricultural background,” she said. “For so long, it’s been our parents’ generation — the baby boomers — who have really been driving things, but we’re now moving forward with our generation.
“We wanted them to come to the table to celebrate one of the biggest economic drivers in this country.”
The rest of the attendees — “vintage” members of the agriculture and food industry — came to the table to “help make change,” she added.
“They’re very open to what comes of the conversations tonight,” said Schinkel. “They really care about the ideas and conversations that come out of us all being here this evening.”
As the evening progressed, guests were treated to a variety of dishes prepared by millennial chefs using foods from local farms, everything from lentil soup to bison brisket with smashed pulses, seared tri tip steaks with mashed potatoes, and goat cheese mousse with raspberry sauce. Each dish was also paired with a locally produced beverage, ranging from beer to aquavit and raspberry vodka.
And as people ate, they talked. Seated at three long tables, with urban and rural interspersed throughout, farmers shared their stories and consumers asked questions about how their food is produced — the real purpose of the event.
“That’s one of the things that we are passionate about — fostering those conversations so that all of us will jump down that rabbit hole together and learn more about what it is our province has to offer,” said Abbott.
“We want people to engage in those conversations with farmers — the people who work this land — and with all those people who use those products and put it onto our plate.”
Jesse Williams was one of the young farmers at the event, and she found the evening to be “eye opening.”
“We should never give up an opportunity to speak with our consumers and see what their concerns and perceptions are,” said Williams, who raises cattle near Hanna.
“I actually chatted with a nurse who has never been to a farm and who had a lot of really great questions and concerns about where her beef was coming from.
“It really just opened my eyes to the sorts of perceptions that are out there. I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to come.”
In most cases, “people just don’t know” about farming, and that’s where misconceptions about the industry stem from, she said.
“A lot of our urban population has never been to the farm, and they’re very busy people — especially millennials that are extremely busy and don’t have a lot of time,” said Williams.
“They don’t think about going out to a farm, and they’ve probably never even had the opportunity to. They probably haven’t been invited.”
That’s why it’s so critical to “meet them in the middle,” she added.
“We can’t expect them to just show up at our farms, just like we don’t show up at their places of work. It’s important that we come together and learn from each other.”
And for Williams, there’s “huge value” in having millennials in particular “come together and learn from each other.”
“It’s not the same industry that it was during our parents’ generation,” she said.
“Millennials are a completely different group of people who communicate in different ways and have very different values and ideas about where their food should come from.
“As much as I love the generations that came before the millennials, it’s important to focus on where our industry is going in the future.”