Sunday, November 11, 2012

Everyone Loves a Fair

Almost too pretty to fry up...almost

This year marked the 90th anniversary of 'The Royal'. Known more officially as the 'Royal Ontario Agricultural Winter Fair', this tradition, while possibly a little dowdy, appears to be in no danger of going out of fashion. The crowds were thick and the enthusiasm was high. I am actually quite surprised not just at the tremendous amount of people on hand, but of the diversity of the revelers. Sashaying my way between animal pens and food vendors, I squeezed past a genuine cross section of society: young suburban families, oldsters in motorized wheel chairs, douchey hipsters, bearded mountain folk, rowdy teens, urban foodies, yuppie equestrians, singles moms with double strollers, young lovers, old couples and all walks of life in between. I brought my two kids with me, and although this hindered efficient movement from section to section, it proved to be the ultimate educational experience for them. Fearlessly thrusting their small fingers into animal pens, often within terrifying proximity to giant horse teeth, my kids startled me with their inherent lack of trepidation at farm animals and their associated odours (as can be witnessed by plenty of the parents crinkling their noses). They couldn't get enough of stroking the soft sheep's fleece or grabbing hold of the cool and knobbly horns of a goat. They were well into their element. Taking a break between animal pens, they careless sat down in great manure-caked piles of straw, their pretty dresses falling victim to their antics (much to the chagrin of my wife). My kids are not afraid of farm animals, the smell of manure doesn't bother them and they are aware that these adorable animals also make for good eating. Not bad for a couple of city kids. Perhaps it's hard wired into kids brains that farms are awesome. 
Udderly fascinating Marge
The number of vendors appeared to have tripled over the last few years. Their offerings were rich and varied including local bee honey products, wild berry preserves, homemade fudge, northern-grown garlic (I bought nearly a bushel of the stuff) and smoked great lake fish. I was in foodie heaven. There was also all manner of equestrian gear, leathers, antiques, hand crafts and the like. The dashing Curtis Stone, celebrity chef from Australia was on hand to give a cooking demonstration - likely attracting more enamoured ladies then actual foodies. 

Probably as an indication of modern animal husbandry, I discovered at least three so called 'genetics' companies that deal in animal semen.  I suppose in large farm environments, having to wait around for a bull to get in the mood is just not efficient enough, so these fellows come in with very large, slightly terrifying looking, insemination devices, locked and loaded with customer-selected semen sample. All the romance has been taken out of mating it seems. A brave new world indeed. 

There are aspects of the Royal for which I am torn. On the positive side, there are plenty of small scale farms in attendance.  They practice a sustainable and ethical approach to animal husbandry and ease my carnivore's conscience. One such farmer is Ashley Burke with whom I had a lovely conversation; learning that she is an English ex-pat that rears both pigs and lambs here in Ontario. Her Alverstoke Farm in Paisley supplies heritage pork to Sanagan's Meat Locker (my "go to" butcher shop). She also has a small flock of ewes that produce lambs every spring. All her animals are allowed to naturally forage on her 100 acre farm and are fed the most natural of supplements to their grass diet. The pigs do not have ringed noses and she never cuts nails or teeth or allow for any other unnatural modification to these animals. It is a farm that makes me supremely happy - because the animals that inhabit it are supremely happy. 

On the other hand, there is the large, more industrial side of Ontario farming. Now don't get me wrong, I try to support all Ontario farmers as best I can given the importance of their role in our food chain and in providing local food to locavores like me. However, I did indeed see sows in enclosures, I did see caged hen egg production, I saw rabbits on steel wire flooring and plenty of other examples of the things I do not like about modern meat production. In fact, the display I saw for rabbit breeders convinced me that unless I find some kind of ethically reared rabbit in Ontario, the only rabbit I'll be eating any time soon will be the wild ones I hunt myself.

A common theme that appears throughout the fair is this notion that 'Farmers feed cities'. I think this is an important point to make. As someone who takes food very seriously and intends to eventually open an establishment of my own, I am no doubt keen to be plugged into the agricultural sources of my food. Not content to be a smug, finger wagging urban crusader, nor an 'ignorance is bliss' grocery store meat purchaser, I feel it is critical to be as knowledgeable as possible about our farming systems in this province. The Royal is an amazing way to do this. I talked to farmers for whom I think their way is the best way, but I also talked to farmers who have a different point of view that probably needs to be heard as well. Many of these farmers have regular families, mortgages and utility bills just like you and me. These farming families are doing the best they can, working within a food system that favours cheap imports and a consumer base that demands their food cost as little as possible without really understanding how it all works. It just goes to show that agriculture is a tapestry of different views, philosophies and approaches. What better way to learn about it then having them all under one roof. Bless the Royal.  

I could not resist a shot of this tractor.

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