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By Owen Roberts, Urban Cowboy

Immigrant farmers helped build a thriving agri-food sector

This week we’re welcoming more than 250 of the world’s top agricultural journalists to our area, when three years of determined, hard work culminates with a celebration of Canadian agriculture — and a nod to those who put it on the map.
The participants belong to the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, comprising about 5,000 members from 30 countries. As part of their annual congress, they’re visiting farms in southern, central and eastern Ontario, after ceremoniously being welcomed in Guelph Wednesday night.
The congress moves from country to country each year. However, it hasn’t been in Canada since 1967, because the organizational infrastructure wasn’t in place to support it. Over the past decade or so, though, the network of agricultural journalists and communications professionals throughout Canada has strengthened. New communications jobs have cropped up in business, industry and grower organizations, as farmers increasingly embrace the need to communicate with stakeholders and decision makers — politicians, the media and consumers, among them.
So with that lengthy hiatus between visits, there’s a lot of catching up to do. That’s where the likes of Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show comes in. The congress was timed to coincide with the show’s opening, because there’s no better place in Canada for a farm crowd to learn what’s new. Given the visitors are all looking for stories, the show, whose administrative home is in the University of Guelph’s research park, is a natural stop, as are the numerous farms, farm businesses and agricultural research stations the visitors will frequent during their five-day stay.
The congress’s theme, Experience New World Agriculture, was chosen mainly with visitors from the old world in mind. Canadian agriculture owes so much to immigrants, going back to the 1600s. Pardon me if I exclude anyone, but consider the Métis descendents of French fur traders who married aboriginal women and became farmers, mainly on the prairies and in Ontario. Later, Ukrainians, Scandinavians, Belgians, Dutch, Swiss, Germans, Russians, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French, Italians and others (United Empire Loyalists, among them) from the old world would find regions here that suited them or were available, and further open the land. Chinese workers toiled to create rail lines that would move new farmers from coast to coast. Even now, Canadian agriculture would struggle mightily without migrant workers.
This diversity has contributed to a dynamic agriculture and agri-food sector, one that’s eager to tell its many stories to visiting journalists. During the development of this congress, the organizing committee found doors opened when potential sponsors (many of whom are exporters) came to realize the uniqueness of having 250 eager journalists on their doorsteps — eager to learn about New World agriculture, and eager to share stories with hundreds of thousands of readers, listeners and viewers around the world.
Journalism places great importance on mentoring, and in that spirit, the 2011 congress has for the first time an applied program — dubbed a boot camp — for young journalists. It also features a newly minted professional development initiative for journalists from underdeveloped countries to help them connect with their colleagues, who are among the best anywhere. Appropriately, it’s called a master class.
But learning is a two-way street. When Guelph Mayor Karen Farbridge and University of Guelph president Alastair Summerlee join together to welcome delegates to the city Wednesday, it will indeed mark many visitors’ first experience with new world agriculture. They’re not the only ones who’ll have their eyes opened, however. How about Canadian farm writers, who likewise get to rub elbows with colleagues from 29 other countries, and learn from them?
It’s an exciting time — and a proud moment — to be a Canadian agricultural journalist. Welcome to the new world.

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