How do you run a big farmer event without farmers?
That’s what I was pondering — a compelling rural mystery — as I headed out to meet the volunteers getting ready for the Manitoba Threshermen’s Reunion and Stampede.
After 65 years, the reunion is operating in a prairie landscape that contains only about one-tenth of the farmers it had when people still threshed, and farmers today are generally too busy to spend many summer hours travelling to Austin to maintain vintage harvesting equipment.
So, who are all these people camping on the Manitoba Agricultural Museum grounds, where the event occurs, I wondered. Who are these people swarming around the grounds, fixing up aged equipment, polishing anachronistic technology and firing up old steam engines to see if they needed help.
As I met small groups of volunteers that sunny mid-July afternoon, with the sounds of wheezing engines, whirring belts and clanking metal creating a background buzz, the answer became clear: they are mostly not farmers.
There were retired farmers. There were farm-raised kids. There were relatives of farmers. There were small-town folks.
But I didn’t run into any full-time farmers among the couple of dozen people I met that day. They were farm- or machinery-related people, but one step at least beyond the farmgate.
I realized an interesting demographic dynamic: the number of farmers is steadily falling, but the number of farm-related people is steadily increasing. And as time passes, those farm-related people often aren’t seeming less connected to farm and country culture and history. A generation off the farm, taking part in something like the Threshermen’s Reunion must seem like a compelling way to reconnect with a lost and fading part of the family history. That’s the feeling I got from the people I chatted with. Something draws them to Austin, and it isn’t just the chance to get their hands grease-covered and their muscles sore.
We’ve seen a similar thing with Remembrance Day services across the country. At one time a lot of people worried that Remembrance Day would fade away as First and Second World War veterans died and disappeared from society.
Attendance did indeed seem to be falling and energy waning back then.
But that’s reversed in recent years, with many Remembrance Day ceremonies attracting growing numbers of attendees, many who have no family members in the military or who served in Afghanistan, and most who have only vague memories of relatives or ancestors who served decades and generations ago.
Quite a few who attend have no connection to the military, other than a commitment to Canada and its heritage.
That seems to be the dynamic operating at the Threshermen’s Reunion too. Most people involved aren’t farmers and haven’t been full-time farmers, but have deep emotional connections to farming memories, families and homes. Preserving the heritage of farming is a deeply personal thing that isn’t fading with time.
Is that happening at other farm-related events? It’d be nice to know.
But the Threshermen’s Reunion is proving every year that you don’t need a lot of farmers to celebrate farming. Farming culture today is a lot bigger than just the core of people who actually farm.