Video: Small farm show establishes a loyal following

St. Jean Farm Days has been a destination 
for Manitoba farmers for 30 years

ST. JEAN BAPTISTE, Man. — Every year in the first week or two of January, visitors trudge down the main street of this Red River town, through frigid temperatures, toward the Knights of Columbus hall.

They open the door to heat, throngs of farmers and exhibitors, a moist wash of air redolent with French-Canadian pea soup and no cellphone service.

These are some of the hallmarks of St. Jean Farm Days, a popular farm show celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

“I’m sure it’s the meals,” joked Gilles Sabourin, the grand knight of the local Knights of Columbus and the event’s chief pea soup cook.

“The continental breakfast, and they have a good lunch. Hey, I’d come back for the soup.”

But that joke is probably not too far from the truth, because the homemade pea, barley and vegetable soups are something farmers and exhibitors line up for during each of the event’s two days, with virtually none left over and with people taking seconds and thirds once they see everyone’s gotten at least one bowlful.

St. Jean is a big success for a small farm show, with a packed exhibition hall (more than 50 exhibitors and a waiting list) and a seminar room packed with farmers. The information sessions always end up with standing-room-only by late morning.

This year, Manitoba Agriculture released its much-anticipated crop profitability projections for 2015-16 at the event, rather than at Manitoba Ag Days, underlining St. Jean’s status.

There’s a “good variety of speakers, timely topics,” said Brunel Sabourin, one of the event’s organizers and often the master of ceremonies. He’s a locally based agronomist and part of the well-represented Sabourin clan, which is the biggest name in this traditionally French area.

It also helps that the show, despite often brutal weather, is the first farm show of the year and immediately following the Christmas holidays.

“Now’s the time to start thinking about farming again,” said Brunel.

“It’s a great little show.”

Exhibitors like the show because it is a chance to chat with farmers in a less harried environment than at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon or Crop Production Week in Saskatoon.

An amusing annual element of St. Jean is the inability of mobile phones to work inside the hall. Rather than being ringed by outdoor smokers, the hall is surrounded by a thin halo of mobile addicts.

Throughout the show, farmers, exhibitors and reporters can be seen outside in the cold, often coatless, talking on cellphones or holding up their mobiles above their heads, on the north end of the building, to send out Tweets, to link into the poor reception the town generally suffers.

But this doesn’t inspire much annoyance, just good natured joking because whether it’s due to the pea soup or the small, friendly crowd or the lingering effects of Christmas and New Year’s, it all seems a part of the ambience that yearly draws a dedicated audience of people for whom St. Jean Farm Days is a never-miss event.

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