Manitoba farm show joins 21st century

Improved cellphone coverage at St. Jean Farm Days keeps participants connected while staying warm

ST. JEAN BAPTISTE, Man. — A tradition going all the way back to the birth of the cellphone age has died here, but few are crying about its loss.

Instead of finding a gaggle of farmers, businesspeople and reporters shivering in the frigid early January weather on the steps outside the Knights of Columbus hall, holding cellphones above their heads trying to get a signal, St. Jean Farm Days now finds digital addicts tapping away on screens inside the warm and cheery hall.

It’s all due to a cellphone booster that the hall installed before this year’s iteration of the show, which has changed the formerly dead zone into a wired-in location.

“It’s just part of being connected,” said Brunel Sabourin of Antara Agronomy, who is one of the chief organizers of St Jean Farm Days.

Indeed, being well-connected for cellphone or wi-fi service is no longer seen as optional or an additional feature for a farm show or rural business. Instead, it is essential to remaining part of the modern economy.

During this year’s show, many farmers and exhibitors from the trade show could be seen tapping out texts, checking email and updating websites inside the hall, while newspaper and radio reporters could stay inside the seminar room and live tweet the presentations.

In previous years, reporters would have to run outside the hall onto the main street of St. Jean Baptiste to send tweets, often having to hold their mobile phones above their heads in the quest for a single bar of service.

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“A lot of exhibitors were asking for it, to be able to access the internet, to send out texts, receive calls, and of course, social media is a big driver these days,” said Sabourin.

“A lot of people want to tweet out what they’re doing.”

Farmers and rural businesses have long complained about poor cellphone and internet access in many areas of Western Canada, but the issue has evolved from one of annoyance and irritation to one of necessity.

Many businesses and industries now operate with the assumption that everyone everywhere is connected, so being connected is something many farmers and businesses can’t do without.

For example, many grain companies and brokers now send out flash offers by text, offering special prices for limited amounts of crops that are immediately needed. The first customers to respond usually get the deal, while those who don’t see the text or can’t respond lose out.

The federal government has said it plans to make most of Canada internet-connected, something that has brought a lot of relief to digitally isolated people such as farmers.

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The Bell takeover of MTS in Manitoba has also brought promises to wire the province better, with Bell saying rural areas will get better service in general. Specifically, it says Highway 75 from Winnipeg to the U.S. border at Emerson will soon see seamless service.

St. Jean is located on Highway 75, but its service is appalling.

St Jean Farm Days has always faced dodgy mobile access within its hall, but the situation has become worse in the last couple of years. Locals say that might have to do with a nearby grain facility being shut down because it had operated its own booster.

St. Jean Farm Days has always had a lot of local traditions attached to it, from the sight of the hard-working men and women in the kitchen preparing and serving the French Canadian pea soup that is a town specialty to the relaxed local chatter — often in French or low German —occurring in the trade show’s busy aisles.

However, the tradition of standing outside in -29 C temperatures under ruthless January skies, holding aloft cellphones, appears to have died.

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