For many visitors to the Calgary Stampede, a trip to the barns is the only interaction they ever have with livestock.
This lends greater importance to the UFA Cattle Trail, an interactive exhibit about beef production. Set up each year in the Calgary Stampede’s Nutrien Western Event Centre, the Cattle Trail shares the story of the Canadian beef industry with Stampede attendees every July.
“We talk about the natural resources that we deal with, we talk about efficiency and innovation in the industry, animal health and welfare, and then the food aspect of it,” says Stephen Scott, past chair of the Cattle Trail subcommittee and executive director of the Canadian Hereford Association. “The general takeaway is that farmers are here to protect the land, protect the animals and produce quality beef for Canadians.”
The UFA Cattle Trail takes visitors through each step of the production cycle. Members of several organizations are present throughout this exhibit, allowing Stampede-goers the opportunity to speak with various industry representatives and see live cattle up close.
Brad Dubeau, marketing and education manager for Alberta Beef Producers, finds the tone of these interactions to be very positive.
“People are genuinely interested in what the beef industry is about. They are very curious to know the age of the animals on display here, they’re curious about their names, but then it goes beyond that,” says Dubeau.
“I think the majority of the people that are coming through the Cattle Trail are very positive toward the beef industry,” says Dubeau. “You will get the odd person that expresses their concerns. We try to talk to them in a positive format, and you kind of leave it at that.”
For Mathieu Paré, executive director of the Canada Beef Centre of Excellence, questions about nutrition allow him to talk more about the beef carcass, nutrition and environmental impact of management practices.
“They’re already sold on beef,” he says of the majority of attendees who stop at the Canada Beef display. “You see them coming up to the showcase display: their eyes light up, you can see them looking through the cuts and getting excited about it.”
James Jenkins, vice chair of the Alberta Farm Animal Care Association (AFAC), spoke to many Stampede visitors at the AFAC booth, which was located within the Agriculture Barn this year. He fielded many questions related to food safety and production practices.
“Most people kind of knew that our food is safe, but they didn’t really have that reassurance,” says Jenkins, who is also the vice-chair of the Western Stock Growers Association. “We talked about the use of antibiotics and the use of hormones, how they’re used, when they’re used, withdrawal times, and then I always like to go into the food safety aspect of it and all the testing that’s done on our products before they ever reach market.”
With the current disconnect between the general public and the agriculture industry, engaging with consumers in person is vital.
“It’s the one time of year that you really actually get to be face-to-face with the consumer,” says Jenkins. “In my own community, I get to be face-to-face with many people, but not nearly to this magnitude, so just even being here and allowing them to access the information, I think helps people become educated on where their food comes from.”
This individual connection to agriculture is the reason that Alberta Beef Producers’ delegates run its booth rather than the organization’s staff.
“The stories that the consumers are hearing are very personal,” says Dubeau. “It allows for people to make a better connection, I believe, and it works out really well.”
A personal stake in the beef industry can help convey the messages that producers wish to share with consumers.
“We care about our livestock. They’re very important to us, and not just in a monetary way,” says Jenkins when he asked what he hoped visitors learned from this experience. “We’re caring for other beings, so at the end of the day that’s the most important part of it, and the financial aspect comes secondary to that.”
Trusting that our food is safe is another major takeaway. “The one thing I think that we aim to communicate most is that our beef industry here in Canada produces a super high-quality product that is safe,” says Paré, adding that nutrition and sustainability are also important messages.
“Beyond the high-quality eating experience, those are probably the key points that we try to communicate best, and in doing that I think we are building ambassadors who believe in the product.”
Paré also found that younger consumers stopping by the Canada Beef display are very interested in beef.
“They have quite an understanding of the attributes, like the marbling and the fat, and they really have intelligent questions and they’re keen to learn more. So I’m encouraged by that, to see that the future generation of consumers is keen to know more about where their food comes from.”
Not only can this experience prove educational for consumers, it can enlighten the producers involved. Scott explained that by speaking with visitors, it provides a better idea of the range of knowledge that the public has about beef production.
“There’s such a variation of understanding when these consumers come through. We will have questions from, ‘are these pigs?’ to some fairly in-depth conversations about hormones and antibiotics,” says Scott.
“That’s why I love having producers come and sit in here, because I think we as producers take our knowledge for granted and that the greater consumer on average would have such a basic knowledge of the industry that we almost overeducate them. We’re not speaking at their level, so even for us to come in and talk about, ‘this is a heifer, this is a bull,’ they’re not in the normal consumer’s vocabulary.”
Scott believes this is an opportunity for both parties to better understand each other’s perspectives.
“At the end of the day, all these consumers just want to talk to beef producers, and if they meet with a beef producer and get to hear their story, I think it resonates with them,” he says. “I would encourage everyone to get out because it does kind of give you an insight into what the consumers are thinking and how wide the spectrum is.”
Other exhibitions across Canada have similar programs to help engage the public with agriculture, which producers can use to make meaningful connections through one-on-one conversations.
“I find that events and venues like this where you have a lot of people milling around, you can talk to a lot of people that don’t understand or are not involved in the day-to-day,” says Dubeau. “This is a great opportunity to put the beef industry’s best foot forward, remind people this is a fantastic product and it’s healthy and it’s safe, and dispel some myths.”