What’s The Real Dirt On Farming?

By Ryan Métivier

In 2016 the locally approved Real Dirt On Farming project continued to be popular in Region 2. Leaders Jean Sullivan and Leah Richardson-Dean of Carleton 4-H Association began the project in 2015 and in only its second year, it already doubled in size.

“I took the Real Dirt On Farming training (through Farm & Food Care Ontario) and felt the issues discussed would fit with the 4-H format,” says Sullivan. “The topics apply to youth as they are bombarded by information and misinformation on social media.”

The Real Dirt On Farming project is based around the teaching of topics such as how your food is grown, the difference between growing crops conventionally and organically, pesticide use, animal housing and animal welfare, environmental sustainability, technology used in farming and more. Last year Jean and Leah’s club touched on many of these topics by visiting a strawberry and vegetable farm to discuss farm labour, organic versus conventional foods and direct sales. They also participated in the Port of Prescott Grain Handling Tour, having conversations about grain buyers and GMO/non-GMO corn. Additional tours included learning about an anaerobic digester and manure management/stewardship during a dairy farm tour and learning about how soybeans reproduce at Central Experimental Farm. Three members attended the Centre For Food Integrity to listen to research about consumer trust.

In 2016, “soil your underwear” was introduced to provide a project to carry through the club and it was a huge success. In order to learn about soil health and the importance of soil to agriculture, members were given a pair of white cotton underwear to bury on their farm or property, with plans to dig up at a later date to examine what they could learn about soils. The club was also able to create a display at the Carp Farmers Market by stringing them up on a clothesline across the front of a small tent.

“We tried to make the conversation something that wasn’t too technical—simply that soil contains lots of microorganisms, fungi, and bacteria,” says Sullivan. “It’s these creatures that eat through the cotton in the underwear, showing us they are there and working to build soils.”

As someone who grew up in 4-H herself, Sullivan says it provided her with a positive experience and has shaped where she is and what she does today. Being involved as a volunteer has allowed her to share her knowledge on topics she cares about and to receive positive feedback from members, parents, other leaders and the community.

Kathryn Stanton, a 4-H member in Carleton, has been a part of the club for the past two years and says what she has enjoyed the most has been learning about different farm operations and furthering her understanding of the Canadian agriculture industry.

“A big part of what we learnt was how to best interact with consumers and becoming true ‘Agvocates,’ she says. “I also developed skills such as public speaking through our achievement days, one of which we spoke to the Ottawa City Council of Rural Affairs.”

As part of the Real Dirt On Farming project, each of the past two years a representative of Farm & Food Care has visited the club to provide insights into perceptions of media, consumers, protesters and others.

“Having Farm & Food Care attend our meeting was extremely helpful teaching us the ropes on how to best help tell the story and facts about the industry,” says Stanton. “One of the key things they touched on was how to have a 30 second elevator conversation, where you discuss who you are, how you are connected to agriculture, all the while keeping the topic positive and educational.”

“I think they are also gaining skills and attitudes to help them understand others,” says Sullivan. “Through participation in this club members are gaining confidence in presenting their opinions and public speaking, parliamentary procedure and decision-making skills.”