With only two per cent of Canadians living on farms, few consumers truly know where their food comes from. Whether they get their information from a producer group's public relations campaign or from undercover footage of abusive practices on farms, the Canadian consumers' view of farming is often muddied by bias.
To address the ever-widening gap between producers and consumers, I'm skipping the middle man and directly asking beef farmers about their connection to their animals, their motivation to farm and the emotional investment they have in farming.
Dr. Joe Stookey, a professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), had a couple of reasons for starting this study.
"Within my social circle I'm friends with lots of beef producers, and when you talk to them, you can see their passion for their animals and for their work," says Stookey.
"As an industry, we often say that we care about our animals, and I believe that we do. But as a scientist, I want to be able to show people scientific evidence of it before we can tell that to the public."
As a veterinary student, the project is an opportunity for me to get to know farmers on a whole new level. My challenge is to bring that level of understanding to the public in a way that's as unbiased as possible.
The project is still in its pilot stage so the interview process is quite fluid. I'm interviewing eight farmers from around Saskatoon, and each interview is a little different. I'm trying to figure out what makes farmers tick — what makes them open up and show their emotion. I'm also asking them what they think are the most important issues facing farmers today.
What's interesting is how each farmer's background gives him or her a unique perspective on farming. For some producers, the bond with the individual animals is strong enough to bring tears to their eyes at the thought of losing them.
For others — such as a fifth-generation cattle farmer whose family homesteaded land over a century ago — the most important aspect is to uphold their family's heritage.
"For me, the most rewarding thing is not being the last [person in the family] to have cattle," says the producer. "I won't be the reason we have to sell or be done our [family's] consecutive streak of 125 years."
What drives other cattle producers is their passion for environmental stewardship, protection of prairie habitats and promotion of sustainable grazing practices.
"I just love what we're doing with the land — what's happening to it and how it's improving," one producer tells me.
A common thread that runs through all of the interviews is the underlying pride these farmers have in their animals and their lifestyle.
Until the project moves beyond the pilot stage, we can only scratch the surface of how producers feel about farming and their cattle. But by using the results of this study, we hope to show that our interview process is a reliable means of gauging farmers' connection to their animals.
"A one-on-one interview allows for the opportunity to capture sentiments and quotes that are honest and heartfelt. And it allows us to capture spontaneous responses and comments that we had not anticipated," says Stookey.
"We're hoping to tap into the emotional connection and passion that producers and ranchers have for their cattle, and I think the best way to do this is to hear them talk openly about their operation and their cattle."
By expanding to a larger study, we can provide the public with valuable information about who Canadian beef producers are and what they get out of farming. And with a better understanding of the industry and of farmers themselves, the public can make more informed choices at the grocery store.
So next time you're driving past a field full of grazing cows or looking at packages of fresh steak and hamburger on a grocery shelf, remember that the person raising those animals and your food has much more invested in the business of farming than just money.
To them, cattle are a way of life, a source of pride and joy, and a means of survival.
Ellen Watkiss of Saskatoon, Sask., is a second-year veterinary student who was part of the WCVM's Undergraduate Summer Research and Leadership program in 2014. Ellen's story is part of a series of articles written by WCVM summer research students.