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Urban Cowboy: ​Dig deep during this this weekend’s Rural Romp

Visit farms, ask farmers questions, and draw your own conclusions about food
Urban Cowboy is Owen Roberts' weekly look at agriculture and food in Guelph.

Mainstream farmers — those who use modern technology — keep telling consumers food is safe.

Anti-technology advocates say it’s not. They believe food production should be more aligned with their definition of natural.

Seldom do consumers get to visit farms, ask farmers questions, and draw their own conclusions about food, one of our most common day-to-day experiences, conveniences and necessities.

But this weekend is different.

Rural romp photoCharli Marshall (standing) and Madison Zmija had a close-up encounter with farm animals at Mapleton's Organic Dairy during last year's Rural Romp. Photo courtesy of TasteReal.

The sixth annual Spring Rural Romp take place in northern Wellington County Saturday, May 28, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Farms, markets and nurseries in Mapleton, Minto and Wellington North will open their doors to welcome visitors on a free, self-guided tour. I hope you have the opportunity to take part.

The event has been torqued up this year with some imaginative food pairings. For example, the Kabbes Patch rabbit farm near Drayton with the Elora Brewing Company, the Reroot organic farm near Harriston with the nearby South Street Café and Arthur Greenhouses with the Drayton Chop House.

Organizers say they’re trying to highlight the strong connections between farms and the food service sector in the county, and at the same time cross promote the businesses and create a better experience for the “rompers.” This exercise also creates some good opportunities for the chefs themselves to out questions to farmers — for meals out, they or their servers are the ones on the front lines who need to have answers that diners want.

Christina Mann - TasteRealRural Romp organizer Christina Mann of Wellington County TasteReal, along with her children Max and Marlena at their local plot at the Ignatius Farm in Guelph. Photo courtesy of TasteReal.

Wellington County Taste Real coordinator Christina Mann says the rural romp is the closest to our food source that some of us will ever get. “There is no more direct way from farm to fork than serving food grown and raised right at the location,” she says.

Why go to farms? The way Mann sees it, farmers go out of their way to make it easy for customers to purchase local food in many innovative ways. These include community supported and shared agriculture programs, buying clubs, freezer meat deliveries, online ordering, partnering with a distribution service and spending multiple days at farmer’s markets.

But with these options, food travels to the consumer, rather than the other way around. “Along the way, we lose some of the story that’s behind our food,” she says.

That’s where the “Romp” comes it, says Mann. “It’s about seeing, touching, learning and tasting. It’s about building a relationship with your food."

To me, the operative word in that sentence is learning. You can see, touch and taste food many places. But there’s only one place to learn about it from the farmers’ perspective, and that’s from the farmer, through their first-hand stories, face-to-face.

So, what kinds of questions can you expect rabbit farmers, conventional farmers, organic farmers, beef farmers and vegetable farmers to be able to answer?  They all come at things a little differently, or in some cases, a lot differently.

That said, you can, and should, ask them why they aspire to a particular production method. Ask them to dispel myths that suggest their production method is inferior to another. On the flip side, ask them why it’s better.

But most of all, ask them details — at least, as much as you can politely ask without being a pain — about their production methods. That means asking them how they take care of their crops and animals, and how they fight disease.

You’ve heard the ads and the arguments. Do they pump their livestock full of antibiotics and hormones? Do they use GMOs? If they don’t use antibiotics, what do they use for medicine when their animals get sick?

If they don’t use GMOs, why not? And can they explain what a GMO is, or is not? What kind of research have they done that suggests GMOs are problematic, or problem-free?

All farmers on the rural romp will have one thing in common – that is, their love of local food. I hope the weather’s as great as the tour looks to be, and that the conversation flows.