Archive for the 'Canada' Category

Back to Blighty

I’m writing this a few thousand feet over the Atlantic. Despite usually having narcoleptic tendencies whenever I board any kind of transportation, I’m annoyingly wide awake. Plus I’ve managed to pick the one seat on the plane where the tv set isnt working so I can’t watch a film – hence the blogging.

I’ve been trying to think  of a way to sum up the past couple of weeks, but at the moment my head’s whirring with all the information I’ve been given, the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. I thought it was another one of those lame Nuffield cliches (© MJWN, again) when past scholars have said you don’t really get your head around things until a few weeks after your trip, but I think that actually might be the case.

At the moment I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near answering my study question about communication with farmers – in fact I think I have even more questions.

Despite my study confusion, I have managed to identify ten other lessons from my trip:

– pears are legitimate weaponry
– Lego is still fun, even as an adult
– squirrels can be accessorised with white, black, red and grey
– I can be out-sarcasmed
– Belgium is in fact Holland, apparently…
– fireworks should be watched with the sound on
the bee scene from Candyman hasn’t made me as terrified as bees as I thought it had
– cats and bagpipes are an obvious combination
– I should have packed straightening irons
– chocolate cake is a viable breakfast foodstuff
– my mother needs to be taught the concept of time differences between different continents in time for my next trip  (though everyone loves an early-morning wake-up call)

And finally (okay, so there are eleven), I’ve found oat how talk speak like a proper Canadian and that, eh?

Canada1
Thanks to all the people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made and the folk who have made me feel so welcome on my travels – especially my pocket-sized hostess-with-the-mostest. I look forward to repaying your hospitality soon x

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Wining about local food

This area of Ontario around Niagara has traditionally been a fruit-growing region. It has chalky soils, warm summers and less harsh winters in comparison to the rest of Canada because the lake, so it’s perfect for growing things like cherries, peaches and blueberries (or ‘bloobs’, as us in the know like to call them).

However, over the past few years farming in the region has had a bit of a revolution – farmers have discovered they can make a packet out of growing grapes and making wine and have diversified by the shed-load.

vines
Niagara is now home to hundreds of vineyards, most of which have visitor centres where you can be plied with samples and get so sozzled you end up buying a few cases of the stuff. I don’t normally like wine but ended up getting out the credit card more times than I care to think about, though I think that was probably because I was so scared by the sommelier (he had a real-life twirly moustache and only started being civil when I asked about the soil structure of the farm) that I didn’t dare tell him I only usually drink tipples made from grain.

Anyway, one of the professors I spoke to at the University of Guelph earlier this week said Canada had a big issue with promoting regional produce and getting consumers onside with the local food thang, but I reckon farmers in the rest of the country could take a leaf out of these guys’ books. I’ll concede their success if probably mostly because they are lucky enough to have the tourist hot-spot of Niagara on the Lake and the falls nearby (think Windermere but with more sun, a Christmas bauble shop and a bunch of forts), but the diversifications are targeted incredibly well to the local population too.

The suburbs are mostly made up wealthy retirees and professionals who commute to Toronto and the farms have been turned into ‘Destinations’ for these people to go and spend their hard-earned cash. The farm buildings, tracks and crops are immaculate, the wineries are tastefully built and decorated and the majority of them have a restaurant attached to them so you get drawn in to eat and drink even more of their plonk over dinner. While most of the wine is shipped around the rest of the country and overseas to be sold, the farmers here do a bloomin’ good job of looking after their local markets (after all, the tourists are only around during the summer months), and they seem to be raking in the profits accordingly.

Enough writing for now, I’m off to crack open the case of ice wine. What do you mean, it’s only breakfast time?  It goes great on cornflakes, hic….

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Viva las Niagara

Heaven forbid that I would ever be accused of having a romanticised view of things, but I just didn’t expect Niagara Falls to be surrounded by a town that can only be described as as a cross between Blackpool, Las Vegas and Mablethorpe.

My hostess Sarah and her man friend, John, made the 90 minute trip with me from Guelph to the town of Niagara so I could do the tourist thing and see the waterfalls. It’s something I’ve always wanted to visit, and I wasn’t disappointed when I got my first glimpse of them – their size is incredible, the people who even contemplate trying to go over them in a barrel must be utterly bonkers.

niagara falls

For some reason though, I had got it into my head that the falls would be situated inside a national park, not at the side of a pavement on the edge of what felt like a tacky seaside town. Bored of the outstanding natural beauty? Well that’s just fine, pop over to the waxwork museum or spend some dosh at the casino. Apparently this town’s the honeymoon capital of north America – I just hope couples are going there for the view and not so they can get his ‘n’ hers maple leaf hats with their names stitched on.

The area we had to drive through on the way to the falls is rich agricultural land. The region’s always been known for it’s soft fruits and there were loads of roadside stores selling cherries, peaches and blueberries, which have just come into season around here.

fruit stand
cherries
The fruit’s dirt cheap too – Sarah bought bags of the stuff for about £8. And that’s even a considerable mark-up from the supermarkets – I bought a peach yesterday for about 15p, while bananas were selling at about 40p/lb. Apparently Ontario’s always had cheap food as it’s been a dumping ground for fresh produce – lorries start on the west coast of America, selling along the way until the ocean stops them from going any further. What’s scary is consumers still complain about how much this stuff costs…

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Miss Bee Hivin’

See what I did with the title there?

beekeeping

Nice outfit though, eh? One of those might come in handy when I’m in Australia trying to cope with the sand flies.

I was back at Guelph university yesterday to see some of the work that’s being done there with bees. Guelph has one of the leading apiary research centres in Canada – if not the whole of north America – and researchers there are currently looking at something called Colony Collapse Disorder.

Basically the number of honey bees has declined by about 30% over the past six years and with bees responsible for pollinating crops and helping to produce food, it’s important scientists work out why the little fellas are popping their clogs.

According to Janine, the ridiculously lovely and enthusiastic researcher who showed me around the centre, biodiversity loss, mites and disease and pesticides are all factors (it’s been discovered one pesticide was causing memory loss in bees, so once they’d found the pollen they couldn’t remember their way back to the hives).

bee stuff

I have to admit, the subject of bees has never really interested me much before (thanks, Comtesse), but spending a couple of hours with someone who was so passionate about their research – and who could explain what they were doing so well – completely changed my view. As with Mimi, the other researcher I met this week, it just goes to show the potential power of good agricultural communicators.

Anyway, I learned loads of stuff about bees, like how the queen goes out to mate for a few days then comes back to the hive and is able to lay 2000 eggs a day for a few years without ever going outside again, and how the colony decides when it wants to have a new matriarch. I also learned about how bees release a banana-scented chemical when they sting someone so other bees can smell danger and know where to attack, and how scientists artificially inseminate queens using this contraption:

bee machine
But most-importantly, I learned how to make a bee beard. If anyone wants some instructions, let me know…

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Sneezy going through Canadian farmland

Maybe I was asking for trouble when I took my Matthew Williamson handbag with me on a trip to a goat farm.

Maybe it was my own fault for getting so close to try and take a photo.

Anyway, lesson of today, in case you didn’t know dear readers, is that goats have a powerful sneeze. I s’pose wiping goat snot from a pricey piece of leather – as well as my legs – is another of those ‘Nuffield Experiences’MJWN).

My experience with the runny-nosed ruminant came about during a whistle-stop tour of farms around the Guelph area. Thanks to my trusty guide and Nuffield chum, Karen, I visited three farmers who all had very different enterprises.

There was Paul and his grain storage and farm supplies business:

Paul Sharp

Brent and his turkeys and sheepsies:

sheeps
And finally, ex-pig farmer Greg with his goats and lambs:

Greg and titchy billy
It’s apparently an unusual thing for me to have seen two farmers who produce sheep in Canada. The country only produces enough lamb to meet 40% of demand – the rest is imported from New Zealand and can only be bought frozen from the supermarket.

In the past, demand for sheep and goat meat hasn’t been very strong, which is why few producers have bothered with it. But these two forward-thinking chaps are hoping to take advantage of a growing demand from Canada’s rapidly-expanding ethnic and immigrant markets. It looks like it could be a profitable move too – Greg can get $212 (£134) for a 115lb lamb, a figure he could only dream of when he was a pig farmer (he switched to sheep and goats earlier in the year after the industry was on the brink of collapse because of low prices and high input costs).

On the way home we drove through some of the province’s Mennonite farmland, which was pretty interesting. Similar to the Amish community I visited earlier in the year in Pennsylvania, the majority shun electricity, cars and so on. Like the Amish community though, some made exceptions – the Mennonite farmer combining Karen’s dad’s wheat was driving a rather lovely, shiny New Holland.

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Agricultural speed-dating

No ice cream, but beer and chocolate cake (by a tortoise-shaped lamp) – a much better way to get my strength back.

Recovery

I’ve had a pretty exhausting day of meetings with various media types and professors from the University of Guelph.

Guelph is home to Canada’s largest agricultural university, so the people I’ve met have all been experts in various areas of farming – from planning to regional and alternative foods, crop development and developing rural communities. It was like speed-dating, but with agricultural boffins.

My last stop was to the crop sciences department to visit Mimi, who’s a doctor of plant genetics but managed to explain her research in a way that made sense, even to a crop thicko like me:

Mimi and corn

In a nutshell Mimi and her colleagues are looking into the genes of plants, including corn, which mutate and change the point at which a plant flowers.

As soon as a plant flowers it puts most of its energy into producing its seeds or fruit. So, if a plant’s genes are a bit squiffy and it flowers early, it will have fewer leaves, comme ca:

Thale cress 1
Whereas a later-flowering plant will have bushier leaves, like so:

Bushier thale crop
Mimi and her science friends are looking into what makes a plant’s flowering point change – apparently there are environmental factors such as the amount of sunlight a plant’s exposed and so on. But if they can work out how the gene works, they could manipulate certain crops so they produce more or less biomass, depending on what was required (for example, a farmer who produces a fuel crop would want a high amount of biomass rather than fewer leaves but a load of seeds). They could also ensure crops like lettuce and cabbage don’t flower and the produce doesn’t go to waste.

I hope I’ve explained that properly. If not I’m sure a certain know-it-all will delight in telling me where I’ve gone wrong…

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The Guelphster

In homage to my chum, Mr Timothy Relf,
I thought I’d use rhyme to talk about my stay in Guelph.

Then I came to my senses and realised there’s no way I could hope to match the Relfster’s poetry prowess (Sally Gunnell and poly tunnel? Genius), so it’s back to boring old prose I go. (For those who don’t have a clue what I’m on about, you’ll have to follow the link above. I hear there’s demand for a blue plaque on his old house in Kent now to mark his literary contributions…).

Anyway, back to business. I’ve travelled about an hour south of Toronto to the university city of Guelph. It’s one of Canada’s biggest cities, but it’s really spread out, leafy and has lots of quaint stone properties – I get the feeling the original architects were very taken by olde English buildings.

I currently staying with my lovely Nuffield chum, Sarah. She’s very kindly opened up her home to me and seems very intent on showing me the best Guelph has to offer. Out of interest in Canada’s grain markets (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it) she took me to try some of the local real ales yesterday, which rubbished my belief that the only decent ales come from the UK.

Today I have been to visit Owen Roberts of the University of Guelph. He’s an expert in agricultural communications and is very interested in knowledge transfer. Twenty years ago he set up something called SPARK, which stands for Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge. It’s a publication about the research the university is doing, but it is written by students at the university who are trained by Owen in the art of writing. It’s sent out to alumni as well as government agencies and organisations that provide research funding – basically it explains what scientists are up to in a simple way, justifies research expenditure and makes it clear how the work the university is doing can be transferred into the real world.

I’ve mentioned before how important I think it is for agricultural scientists to be able to talk to farmers about the work they do so it can be applied on-farm, so the project Owen set up is really interesting. It’s always great to meet people who really care about the work they do, and if his students feel half as inspired by him as I do after talking to him today then agricultural journalism in Canadian is on a strong footing.

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Toronto, eh?

The good thing about London, is that the weather’s always so dodgy that most touristy stuff is designed so you go indoors to allow you to shelter from the rain/sleet/snow.

Not so in Toronto. Obviously they’re so used to nice weather that they don’t even have any areas to shelter when apocolyptic thunder storms get underway. Cue soaked feet as my trainers dissolved and hair like this thanks to the rain and humidity:

side-show-bob

I have to say my day as a tourist here wasn’t the greatest of successes. I wandered the whole city for 11 hours and still didn’t manage to find anything I would describe as a focal point or a central area. I thought I’d try and find a pathway to walk along Lake Ontario’s shoreline and ended up walking along a road like this for an hour:

Pretty Toronto
When your tour book recommends a shoe shop as one of the top-ten things to go an see you know you’re struggling (especially when the said shop is the size of Clarks in Sutton). I s’pose am being  unfair here – few cities look good in miserable weather and had it been sunny I would have happily whiled away a few hours sat by the lake reading a book.

One thing I did enjoy was a trip to the top of the CN Tower. The world’s tallest free-standing structure, I was whizzed up 447m in about a minute in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque glass elevators to the Sky Pod, where I was treated to views like this:

pretty view
I got to watch my second Blue Jays game in two days from up there too. Anyone would think I was a proper fan:

More baseball

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Posh rounders

I went to my first baseball game yesterday. This is the Rogers Centre, home of the Blue Jays and shadowed by the CN Tower:

Rogers Centre

I managed to get seated next to a lad from Kent who patiently explained what was going on throughout the game. It turns out baseball’s slightly more complicated than rounders. But only just. Apparently I had an awesome seat because there was a good chance I’d get hit by a wayward ball. Baseball fans clearly know how to have a good time.

baseball

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Oh Canada…

After the Planes, Trains and Automobiles-esque escapades of yesterday (things would’ve been so much better had John Candy been involved), I’m ready to wave goodbye to the US and head on to Canada.

I had planned to arrive in Chicago with enough time last night to sample the city’s famous deep-dish pizza, but I didn’t get to the hostel until nearly midnight and I wasn’t staying in the greatest of areas so didn’t fancy walking round trying to find somewhere to eat.

The hostel was in the Greek district and was sandwiched between and above a Greek restaurant. Let’s just say I was obviously spoiled by the last Chicago hostel I stayed in and there was probably a reason why this was the only place in the city with a room going spare. I keep telling myself the splodges on the sheets were patterns and were meant to be there…

Breakfast this morning was a slightly awkward affair in the restaurant’s bar, with the proprietor and the chef having a blazing row in Greek over my head while I tried to eat my Cheerios. I legged it before the customary plate-smashing began.

I have a few days in Toronto now before I head down through Ontario to Guelph, where I’m meeting up with some more agricultural communications experts as well as Sarah, Karen and Shane, some Canadian Nuffield chums. While I enjoy travelling by myself it’ll be nice to catch up with some familiar faces.

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