The following article appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, October 5, 2011.
We’ve all grown accustomed to the hype around Hockey Night in Canada, a phenomenon that has hockey fans glued to their big-screen TVs and those not-so-crazy about the game leaving the room.
Well back in the mid-1940s, Monday was Farmers’ Night in Canada, when upwards of 1,300 small groups of farmers coast to coast clustered around a radio to listen to national broadcasts discussing current topics of the day and then following up with their own discussion locally.
And it was those forums that became the genesis for a modern non-government organization that connects small-scale farmers in 35 countries.
The National Farm Radio Forum, a joint educational project of the CBC, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Association for Adult Education, was a valuable and popular extension vehicle for farmers during the postwar era. People living in isolated rural communities were hungry for the latest information and radio was an efficient way of reaching them.
The forums addressed big issues such as farm living standards, new science as it pertained to agriculture, agriculture as a risky business and social security for the farmer.
On Nov. 4, 1946, for example, 32 forums in Manitoba met and discussed farm taxes. A report from the forum said:
“Manitoba forums find it difficult to believe that only about five per cent of Canadian farmers file income tax returns… The reasons they give for this are many, such as, all farmers do not keep accounts because they haven’t the time to spend on bookkeeping, income tax forms are too hard to understand, failure of the government to force tax returns (and) the average farmer just makes a bare living at best.”
A later forum concluded the reason there was a lack of farm home improvement was also related to a lack of funds and time. Farm home improvement was considered an important issue of the day, as noted by J.E. Brownlee, vice-president of the United Grain Growers, in his annual address to members.
“We want to see (in) Western Canada, a land of comfortable homes. We want to see farm homes so equipped that our boys and girls will recognize the real opportunities and pleasures of rural life. They will not stay on the farms until we do.”
Dubbed “the world’s greatest listening group activity,” the forums were a way to reach farmers and generate discussion, but also a means of connecting with small, rural communities.
Fast-forward three decades and CBC farm radio broadcaster George Atkins was travelling on a bus in Zambia talking to locally based colleagues. When he asked what the local broadcast was about that day, he was told it was all about tractor maintenance. His next question was how many farmers in that country had tractors. Only a handful.
Resource-starved radio stations were forced to use extension material supplied to them from elsewhere and much of it had little relevance to what small-scale farmers were doing. That made no sense at all to Atkins, then a 25-year veteran of farm broadcasting.
Atkins returned to Canada and began developing a charity based on a radio forum similar to what had worked so well in Canada, a vehicle that networked local producers and linked them with information they needed, not simply what was available.
Instead of tractor repair, commercial fertilizers and pesticides, the radio scripts discussed how to better raise oxen or fertilize fields with manure. Today, what is now known as Farm Radio International has become a powerful charitable organization that connects more than 250 participating radio partners in 35 African countries sharing practical information and stories based on meeting local needs.
Like the farm forums on the Prairies, these radio broadcasts don’t only deal with farming. They address community and life issues, such as breaking down the myths and taboos of AIDS. In recent years, the agency has become one of the many tools the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is using to empower and improve the lot of the world’s small-scale farmers.
And despite all of the new communications technology sweeping the globe, radio remains one of the most powerful and effective means of, as Farm Radio’s executive director Kevin Perkins puts it, taking good ideas and growing them to scale.
If anything, new technology serves to complement radio. People with cellphones can receive a text reminding them to tune in to an upcoming broadcast.
More than anything, this effort acknowledges the power of indigenous knowledge and of communities working together to solve common problems. It also recognizes that the only way local knowledge can survive is if it is freely shared.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2011 B10