Read this feature article about a farm association that is successfully reaching out to consumers and politicians. Best Press Feature (Bronze), Canadian Farm Writers' Federation.
By Steven Biggs
Contributing Editor, Country Guide Magazine
"I'M DOING A TELEVISION SHOW RIGHT NOW," Jamie Reaume says over the phone. "And I'm filming tomorrow as well." Then, Reaume suggests, why don't I come out to the farm and watch anyway. Heck, it could hardly get more nuts.
When I ask again to make certain, because tomorrow I'd have to pile three kids into the truck with me, aged five and under, and they'd be sure to get in the way of the filming, Reaume snaps, "Bring your kids. Jeez, that's what we're interested in — getting young guys to see this."
It's my introduction to what it takes when you decide that if you're going to have a future in farming, you've got to fight for the hearts and minds of consumers by fighting for space on the televisions, radios and newspapers that they're already hooked into. It means never saying no, never missing an opportunity, never thinking that this is anything less than the coolest thing you could do.
It's something not everyone may be cut out for. But Reaume seems to be, so the next day, we pack up and head off to the Holland Marsh. I want to see if it's paying off.
Reaume likes to tell people the 12,000 farmed acres here at the marsh are different from other farming areas. With about 100 growers, it's chock-a-block with farmers — yet there are no fences. Driving into nearby Bradford, I see something else that strikes me as different. A sign proclaims the town as home of the carrot festival.
The fields here are lower than roads. That's no surprise given that this area was, as the name suggests, a marsh until early in the last century, when it was drained for agriculture using dikes and canals. Driving along Canal Road at the top end of the marsh, aquatic weeds cover the stagnant water out the passenger window. On my side, amazingly productive vegetables dot the black muck soil.
What really makes the marsh a unique place, however, are the challenges that the farmers here face. Some of those challenges seem familiar. There's supply-chain pressure from both ends, and it's hard to keep young people on the farm. But some are different too.
Two of Canada's busiest roads cross the marsh. Torontonians speeding along the multi-lane Highway 400 to their cottages pass through these black fields, which on some days give off a whiff of onion. And just to the east, a steady pulse of traffic travels up and down Yonge Street, connecting a chain of boomtowns north of Toronto straight into the heart of the Golden Horseshoe.
Incredibly, though, farmers here believe that their single biggest problem is that no one seems to know they exist. Even the locals are blind to the marsh.
"These guys literally disappeared," Reaume laughs as he talks about local media coverage of the launch of the Holland Marsh Growers' Association in August 2008. Despite the invitations, local reporters flocked to Holland Landing, not Holland Marsh, because the marsh isn't actually on the map. They overshot the launch by several kilometres.
It was a lesson Reaume and the association went to school on.
"The marsh had dropped off everyone's radar screen for the past 10 years," Reaume says. "It was time to turn that around."
Finding the hook
The growers' association was established through a $400,000 grant from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation. (The marsh, a mere 40 km north of Toronto, falls within a protected greenbelt that encircles the greater Toronto area.) The association has a volunteer board and an executive director — Reaume. "Every one of these guys is my boss," Reaume says, referring to marsh farmers, when I enquire about the structure of the organization.
As far as I can gauge, his efforts to put the marsh on the map are paying dividends. I've seen the marsh and the growers' association frequently in the Toronto media. They've made the national media too, including the Globe and Mail, Readers Digest, CBC, and CTV. A quick Google search of Reaume's name returns endless pages of articles quoting him. "We get some phenomenal press," he says.
Reaume describes the organization as consumer-focused. "Really, you have to educate consumers again," he says. A leaflet put out by the association directs consumers to the website, saying, "Find what you want to make your next meal a local delight. Then ask your grocer about getting Holland Marsh Gold products." The leaflet also has a pretty, some would say sentimental photo showing mist rising over the marsh's fields.
Reaume and the association have taken flak from farmers who believe such idyllic shots don't tell consumers what farming is really like. They're unapologetic though, saying the photo is not for farmers: it's for consumers.
Holland Marsh Gold is part of the brand. The association website, www.hollandmarshgold.com entreats consumers to "Look for restaurants with fresh food from the Holland Marsh on the menu and Holland Marsh Gold in the produce section."
The logo, which is prominent on the website, consists of rows of crops, with the city of Toronto — distinguished by the well known CN tower — in the background.
Reaume explains the logo's purpose is clear. It's to make Toronto-area consumers remember that the marsh is in their backyard. Tapping into that market makes sense, he explains, because while currently roughly 60 per cent of the produce from the marsh is sold domestically, 40 per cent is still exported. That's produce that could be sold locally.
Along with visual elements such as a logo and photos, Reaume points out the association has also invested time in developing well-chosen language. "We're trying to simplify it to a conversation our consumers can understand," he explains. "We don't grow commodities, we grow crops, we grow food," he stresses.
"We don't say we're producers," Reaume says. To urban consumers, a producer sounds like some sort of manufacturer…and from there it's not too much of a jump to fears of factory farms. On the other hand, Reaume says, "If you say you're a farmer, they get it, and all of a sudden you're a person they trust."
The battle against jargon is relentless. So many industry terms are utterly foreign to urban consumers, he says. "They don't understand what an agrifood is."
Courting consumers doesn't mean bowing down before what he sees as uneducated consumer notions. Reaume talks of consumers visiting the marsh and wanting to know whether the carrots are organic. He's quick to ask them why they want an organic carrot, explaining that pest control products are applied to the leaves above ground — and don't even move to the root.
But it does mean that he knows journalists and others who want to talk up the marsh have got to have help. "A big part of our job is to understand their job," he says. "We feed them ideas that make good stories."
On the film set
I park the truck in the farmyard of brothers Mike and Tom Miedema, who grow carrots, onions, and parsnips. Their yard looks like the other farmyards around here, except for the film crew.
I grab my notebook and unbuckle the kids, then grab the pails, shovels, and toy trucks that I'm hoping will afford me a bit of uninterrupted time to tallk with the film crew and the Miedema brothers. Tom Miedema, who I'm guessing from his soil-blackened face has got up extra early to get fieldwork done, tells me that they farm 170 acres and are third-generation farmers. He loves the lifestyle, but says things have changed a lot. Farms are getting bigger, people are leaving the industry — and guys need a lot of capital for equipment. Since he and his brother got into farming, they have more than doubled their acreage. He doesn't know yet whether any of his four kids, aged 18 to 23, will go into farming.
My kids happily dig in the black muck soil at the edge of the onion field. After chomping on a carrot that someone has given him, my two-year-old Quinn tugs at Tom's leg, trying to get him to play trucks again.
I sit with the film crew, who have parked themselves on an onion harvester, taking a break. I guess before we are introduced that producer and host Marty Galin, with large, round, red-rimmed glasses and blond hair that shoots out in all directions, is not from the farm scene around here. "We had such an amazing year last year!" Galin enthuses as he explains that this is the second year that they have filmed the television show Fresh Life here in the marsh. He goes on to explain that besides introducing viewers to farms and farmers, the show features celebrity chefs cooking marsh produce.
Galin's colleague Kaaveh Shoman adds, "We owe a lot to Jamie because he brings farmers to us," adding, "He's well connected." Shoman explains that their television show airs on both Sun TV and Rogers TV, capturing a huge swath of the southern Ontario viewership.
Reaume is an unlikely firebrand for a farm organization. A self-described city person, he lives in Kitchener, a city more than 100 km from here. It helps explain his un-farm-like clothes, a black T-shirt, leather boots, and a long trench coat.
On the other hand, you also wouldn't say that Reaume is smooth in an uptown, advertising agency sort of way. Instead of saying the he promotes the marsh, it may be more accurate to say that he "flogs" the farmers' story, sometimes with some pretty salty language, and uses it to get bureaucrats, politicians the media, and consumers to visit and learn about the marsh.
After the morning shoot, I catch up with Reaume in the parking lot outside the restaurant where the film crew is having lunch. He hops out of his blue Ford Escape to have a smoke and tells me about his background. A journalist, he spent eight years with the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association before this as communications manager and editor of The Grower magazine.
Taking on big food
"I got kids," he says, adding that he's never been short of food — and that's what he wants for his four kids. He figures the food system no longer serves farmers or consumers well and he is pumped about fixing it. I'm not surprised at his explanation: the licence plate holder on his SUV promotes an Ontario apple-growing region, saying, "Buy local — eat Georgian Bay apples."
For the next film shoot we drive just outside of the marsh to a livestock farm raising natural meat. My kids are pretty intrigued by the commotion the cattle are making as film crew members trod about in the pen. When my five-year-old Emma lets out her imitation of a moo at Reaume, he's quick to moo back.
Making my way with the kids across the enclosure, I see the film crew in position with the farm family, someone holding a light reflector, someone with the microphone. Galin has now donned a straw hat. Shoman asks if I think it's OK for him to walk towards the sheep to try to film them— but they skitter away as he does.
Marketing beyond consumers
The television show fits well into the strategy of building consumer awareness of the marsh. But it isn't the only public relations activity. Reaume has given 150 tours since the organization started — including 65 tours in the last year alone — to MPs, MPPs, and anyone else who is interested, me included. Publicity means putting aside politics, he says, as he tells of taking Liberal leader Michael Ignatief to visit one of the most Conservative farms in the marsh.
Reaume hopes such tours may help government officials understand the bureaucratic nightmare faced by marsh growers. The marsh, he explains, is governed by 23 major pieces of legislation, 14 provincial ministries, 11 federal departments, five municipalities, one county, one region, and two conservation authorities. That's a lot of red tape for 12,000 acres. In one case recently, legislation was approved that means that land that isn't farmed for two years becomes classed as environmentally sensitive, and can no longer be farmed.
I have previously interviewed Reaume, by phone — and I know from the experience that he is very good at sticking to his message and will steer the conversation back on track. Nor is Reaume's the only face in the media. "My guys barely blink anymore," he says as he talks about one marsh farmer who handled the issues perfectly when he recently got up to speak at a local township meeting.
Reaume explains what he sees as the importance of consistent messaging, using the outbreak of H1N1 flu in Mexico as an example. Lots of media came to the marsh, he says, because there are quite a few Mexican workers here. What could have been a public relations nightmare, he says, turned out quite well. The reason? "The message never changed," he says.
He goes on to explain that instead of the media getting footage of farmers despairing over concerns about labour — a "woe is us" message — viewers saw farmers who were very concerned for their employees. "We're regulated to death: we might as well talk about how good our standards are," he adds.
The association message gets out in other ways too. Shortly after we speak, Reaume is meeting with people in the economic development department in Toronto. He adds that the association is also on the board of trade for nearby Bradford.
Can we come back?
"We have not done a good job of getting our story out there," says Reaume as he talks about farm organizations bringing the story of farmers to the public. He hopes that with the right publicity and education, the Holland Marsh Growers' Association can change that for this small farming community. Getting the faces of farmers such as the Miedemas before the public is just one way in which the association is doing that.
After everyone leaves the Miedema farm, the kids and I hang around the farmyard for a picnic. Mike Miedema points out the facilities in the shed then heads back to the fields while his brother Tom takes a load of vegetables into town for storage.
The kids hop onto an onion harvester. Quinn mutters "wowee" at the sight of a tractor on the road. As we drive away afterwards, Emma, my eldest, says, "Dad, can we come back?"
Reaume was right. It was a good idea to bring them after all.