Take a seat at our table

Event brings urban millennials and young farmers together to learn about agriculture, food marketing and catering to demands of this growing sector

OLDS, Alta. — Marketing specialist Michaela Brownlee wants to know that the people who grow her food use the same high standards as she does when she buys and prepares it.

She got a chance to meet the people who grew and raised the food on her plate and the beverage in her glass during a four-course banquet in a roomy barn east of Olds, Alta. She loved it.

“I am unlucky enough to be celiac, but I also have a various array of food allergies, so I am definitely interested in being sure that I find foods that are healthy. I prefer to go organic when I can, because I have a sensitivity to pesticides as well as anything that has any additives to it,” Brownlee said.

She was asked by a client, Calgary Co-op, to attend the Canada Ag Day Meet in the Middle event on Feb. 16, organized to introduce urban millennials to their counterparts from the farm.

The most recent in a series of long-table events organized by ATB Financial, the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance and a variety of partners, the long-table banquet was held to kick start discussion between the two groups.

Terry Andryo, organizer and senior agriculture marketing manager for ATB’s business and agriculture division, said there has been much discussion about the growing gap between farmers and consumers.

This time around, the idea was to bridge that gap and start some discussion that would help young farmers and consumers understand each other and keep them talking long afterward.

Andryo and others involved in the project had originally planned to bring 100 people to the table, equally split between farmers and consumers. However, they increased the number up to 150 in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Jimm Holland, event partner and president of Street Smart Strategic Planning in Calgary, said industry needs to take a closer look at adults younger than 35, whose age group has outnumbered the baby boomers since 2015. They are the first of any age group to do that since the post-war baby boom for which the generation is named, said Holland.

Millennials are now taking over the purchasing power and market domination enjoyed by baby boomers since the 1960s, he said.

“The expectations of the millennial consumer will be different than those of the baby boomers. While it is still very early in this transition, businesses need to begin preparing and adapting now rather than thinking they can just hold on and maintain the status quo. There is a new normal coming down the pipe.”

Businesses that ignore that shift will do so at their peril, he said.

Among their expectations, millennials have fewer reservations about their own privacy and they expect a higher level of transparency from anyone with whom they are doing business, said Holland. They want to know where their food comes from and they want to know how it is produced.

Brownlee said Calgary Co-op had asked her to attend to develop a better idea of what’s going on with agriculture in Alberta to improve the marketing team’s understanding of their business and fresh food initiatives.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot more about how our food is made … and it’s been really informative, too, to go through and learn about the different things like barley and how much honey goes into mead.”

Brownlee said that it was nice to speak with farmers and agri-food businesses.

“You don’t always get that connection, say, when you go to the grocery store. It’s almost like that farmers market feeling, when you actually get to go to the farmer who’s selling it and get to meet them and get to know their products a little bit better.”

Dina Sutherland, community investment manager for the UFA Co-operative Ltd., said allowing millennials to lead the conversations appears to have sown some precious seeds that may take root and grow.

“From the conversations … the networking and the relationships made are not going to end at the dinner table,” said Sutherland.

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