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What I Learned from Farm & Food Care Ontario’s 4th Annual Registered Dietitian Farm Tour

November 1, 2019

Holding a three-week-old chicken (Photo: Stacey Wong)

By Beini Wang, Diploma in Dietetic Education and Practical Training (DDEPT) student at Brescia University College

On Wednesday October 23rd, 2019, I hopped on a bus with ~35 other dietitians and students to embark on a farm tour in the Niagara region. The tour was led by Kelly Daynard and Jessica Sills from Farm & Food Care Ontario and featured experts from the Canadian agriculture industry.

On the way to our first stop, Karen Armstrong, RD, formerly of Manitoba Chicken Producers, talked to us about the Canadian broiler (meat) chicken industry. A lot of people think that farmers set grocery store chicken prices. But in reality, provincial chicken producer organizations negotiate a price per kilogram with processing companies on behalf of farmers. Processing companies decide what price to sell to retailers. Finally, retailers set prices depending on market demand. Grocery stores charge more for popular cuts of meat, such as boneless skinless chicken breast. Fifty years ago, wings were considered a throwaway cut!

Our first stop was the DeVries family chicken farm. Did you know that over 90% of chicken farms in Canada are family owned and operated? Before entering the barn, we had to don disposable coveralls and boot covers for biosecurity reasons. After day-old chicks arrive from a hatchery, they are free to roam around in the well-ventilated, climate-controlled barns and have free access to water and feed. Once they reach market weight, which usually takes 30 to 45 days, they are transferred to a processing facility. I got to hold a chicken, and I was surprised at how calm and sweet-natured it was.

Ontario chicken supreme with forest mushroom ragout, canola roasted vegetables, and Yukon potatoes (Photo: Beini Wang)

Next stop was lunch at Vineland Estates Winery, which featured – you guessed it – chicken. Having just lovingly held a broiler chicken made me appreciate the chicken on my plate even more. During our meal, Lynn Weaver, RD from SaskCanola talked about the history and health benefits of canola oil. Canola (which stands for “Canadian oil”) was developed in the 1970s by plant breeders who wanted to lower the erucic acid content of rapeseed and it is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.

After lunch, Erin O’Hara from CropLife Canada shared some information on pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), two topics for which misinformation abounds. I learned that organic farming uses natural pesticides, while conventional farming uses synthetic pesticides. All pesticides used on Canadian crops must meet strict Health Canada regulations. A lot of people worry about pesticide residue on produce, but residue is negligible. A person would have to eat hundreds of apples in one day before experiencing any adverse health effects. GMOs, such as herbicide-tolerant crops, have greatly improved the environmental and financial sustainability of agriculture. Without them, farmers would use more land to grow the same amount of food and soil health would suffer from having to mechanically remove weeds.

Ontario-grown Asian pears (Photo: Beini Wang)

Our final stop was Vineland Growers Cooperative, which stores and distributes fruit from local growers to grocery stores. Sales and Business Development Manager Matthew Ecker showed us how fruit is packaged for different retailers. In response to increased demand for exotic fruits, the cooperative has started to offer locally grown Asian pears. We sampled Asian pears grown by Thwaites Farms and they were some of the best pears I’ve ever had, rivalling the high-end Asian pears that I’ve bought from Chinese grocery stores.

This tour was a unique opportunity to get a firsthand look at food production facilities in Ontario, learn about supply management, and dispel common myths about agriculture. Thank-you to Farm & Food Care Ontario and their partners Chicken Farmers of Canada, Canola Eat Well, and CropLife Canada for a fun and informative event!