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On the importance of ag societies

Ag societies were intended to be a way for farmers to learn from each other

Agricultural societies in Canada were once king among us rural dwellers, I’m learning. And they should be again.

Everything is in place for these groups to be the most relevant, important gatherings of people in Canada. Food security is a real issue affecting a growing population. “Sustainability” is a word that appears to be sticking around. And genetically-modified has become polarizing.

Animal husbandry is on Canada’s mind, as well. It’s a lost skill. We have knee-jerk reactions to large-scale livestock operations without knowing details of the operations themselves or being able to suggest a better way. We have made A&W’s hormone-free beef campaign a success, a campaign anchored on consumer ignorance of the livestock industry. We should know better, but we don’t.

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“By the 1880s settlers were arriving in Western Canada from regions that had well-established, active networks of agricultural societies — the Maritimes, for instance, since 1789,” writes Judy Reimer in University of Regina’s Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. “Many new settlers were aware of the way an organized society could help them exchange information on crop and animal husbandry; they saw the agricultural society as a way to display their crops, livestock and domestic arts and crafts.

“Today, as in years past, this network of grassroots, non-political, volunteer-based organizations works to encourage agricultural production, support the agricultural industry, and enhance the quality of life. This they do by delivering programs and events, from business and industry specific trade shows to community celebrations; by providing facilities, from riding arenas to community halls; and by supporting other business and community groups.”

People from the city and small towns lured to the country life don’t know about ag societies. In fact, a surprisingly large number of lifetime rural dwellers don’t, either. Educational opportunities for these people come from elsewhere, leaving the wealth of community wisdom contained in each of these groups untapped, largely forgotten, and left to fade or stagnate.

It’s testament in part to how we do things now. I spend many winter days holed up in our home, sitting in front of my laptop. If I have a question about farming, I ask the Internet. If I have a question about raising chickens or goats or bees, I look up forums and read magazines on the topic. And there are some pretty misleading magazines out there (a magazine called Modern Farmer published an article exploring replacing tractors with draft horses).

These are not bad things. Nor are they wrong (the draft horses idea aside). It’s good to be curious. But finding answers to questions in a vacuum doesn’t promote rural living to a potentially interested and formative audience.

Full disclosure: I sit on the Stan­ley Ag Society board — this happened only a week or two after I discovered they exist. It’s been eye-opening. Something exciting stirs at the Stanley Ag Society. It’s opportunity, I think. It’s promise. It’s new to me, so to hear someone passionate about 4-H programs, agriculture, and country living, in general, stand up at a meeting and say (I’m paraphrasing), “this is an exciting time for us. Ag societies were intended to teach people how to live in the country, and more and more people, I find, don’t know the first thing about doing so. This is a great time to be what ag societies were intended to be.”

If I knew about ag societies, I assumed they were for kids who love horses and cattle. This is not the case. And if it is, it’s only because that’s what a specific society’s catchment area has let it become.

According to Manitoba’s ag society charter, “The objects of a society are to encourage improvement in agriculture, food production, and rural living. To provide leadership in sustaining the social structure of rural communities, including, but not limited to, maintaining educational opportunities and traditional activities in communities.”

This inspired me. To learn about all the elements of country living from people who have been doing it and loving it for years and generations. To spend time with people who care enough about animal husbandry that they’ll volunteer their time to make sure a younger generation develops the skills and appreciation they were taught.

I agree with the gentleman who spoke out at our meeting. More and more people, city dwellers, too, are interested in ag practices, especially as they relate to sustainability, the proper care of livestock, and generational wisdom. These topic fall under the purview of every agricultural society in Canada. But these groups, and there are so many, are dwindling.

Get involved in your local society. Keep them going. Strengthen them. Refresh them with new ideas, and stir these sometimes stagnant, dwindling groups into the bastions of country wisdom they could be.

About the author

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Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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