The world has got a little smaller for some Alberta farmers. And that’s a good thing.
Alberta farm communities continue to be huge supporters of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank — raising more than $2.6 million last year. One of the foundations of that support has been “food study tours,” where farmers (who pay their travel costs) go on tours of Foodgrains Bank projects.
“They meet people and see how our assistance changes lives — meeting with people like that makes a deep impression on them and they bring back those stories to Alberta,” said Andre Visscher, the organization’s co-ordinator for southern Alberta.
“It’s very important. We must have had 20 to 30 farmers, maybe more, who have gone on these food study tours and seen what we are doing with the money.
“When you visit some of these communities, it makes the world a lot smaller.”
Visscher has heard many of those farmers share their experiences with members of their communities.
“When you hear people tell the stories of their visits, you know they’re speaking from the heart. It’s quite touching.”
Groups in 39 communities across Alberta undertook fundraising projects this year. Most were growing projects where a group of farmers provide the equipment and labour to seed, grow, and harvest crops on land (rented or donated for the season). Companies typically donate the seed and most of the inputs; write cheques; or pay premium prices for the crop. Barley is the crop most often grown, followed by wheat. In Linden this year, it was canola.
“They had the best year ever,” said Visscher. “On two quarters of land, they raised close to $200,000. They had a large event, about 500 people came out — it was pretty much the whole town.”
The first growing project harvest came off in early August and the last few are just wrapping up.
“Everybody was surprised at the yields, even in central Alberta,” said Visscher.
While Mother Nature throws some curveballs every year, one thing remains constant with every project in every village or town, he said.
“You have a group get together to grow a crop — that’s what they know how to do. But to do it together builds community. They make real friendships in these groups.”
The need also remains constant, although Visscher said “this was such a strange year, there were so many events around the world.”
That included famines in four African nations — more than 20 million people in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen are at risk of starvation — and the situation in Myanmar has seen more than half a million Rohingya people flee their homes to seek refuge in Bangladesh.
But the message that farmers bring back from food studies tours isn’t that the world is an awfully cruel place, but that giving can bring real and enduring change, said Visscher.
He points to the tour to Ethiopia that he went on two years ago. Participants saw ‘food-for-work’ projects, including one community where villagers were digging irrigation canals that will alleviate the threat posed by drought.
But it was one small thing that made a deep impression on Visscher.
“I met with a family that had received a couple of beehives from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank,” he said. “They didn’t need the honey, they sold it and that income allowed them to become food secure.”
The family has a plot that is only a little more than two acres in size, and can only produce enough food to last seven or eight months of the year. The income from selling honey got them through the rest of the year.
But it didn’t stop there.
“At the same time, the farmer was training others in the village how to look after the bees. When I met them, they had 11 beehives. So they had made quite a bit of progress.”
Visscher and Terence Barg, the regional co-ordinator for the northern half of Alberta, “are always looking for new projects.” They can be reached at [email protected]
Loads of grain can also be donated at elevators and cash donations can be made at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank website.
“For every dollar we raise for food assistance programs, the Canadian government gives us another $4 — up to $25 million a year,” said Visscher.
The website has details of the organization’s work and an interactive map of growing projects across the country.