Stampede ag facility: here they go again

With their usual over the top PR efforts, Calgary Stampede officials announced that they plan to start building a new agriculture facility

With their usual over the top PR efforts, Calgary Stampede officials announced that they plan to start building a new agriculture facility — to be called the Agrium Western Event Centre.

They got Premier Alison Redford to attend the ceremony, along with a flock of other officials who all hung onto a plow being pulled by a team of draft horses. The plow lifted some ceremonial sod to show the connection to our farming history.

Two levels of government are contributing about $50 million, with the remainder to come from the Stampede and Agrium, one of their major sponsors, for a total investment of $60 million.

Nowhere during the ceremony was it mentioned that this was the second attempt to launch the building of a new agriculture facility for the Stampede. About 10 years ago, during another ceremony, it was announced that the Stampede would then be building a $35-million facility to replace the aging agriculture building. The money for that enterprise was obtained through the sale of the Stampede Casino. At least that was the plan.

To make a long story short — a new Casino was built by a private concern, but it later reverted to the Stampede when it ran into financial difficulties. Hard to believe a Casino could run into financial problems, but it did.

At any rate, that seemed to impact the non-construction of the new agriculture building. No doubt there is more to the story.

Originally, the new facility included a Calgary campus for Olds College. That was a good idea, at least from an agriculture PR perspective.

Olds College, however, eventually struck out on its own and established its own facility in Calgary. In the meantime, the Stampede was trying to line up financing for the new born-again agriculture building.

The Calgary Stampede is actually a registered agriculture society, which makes it eligible for lottery funding and support through various agriculture industry programs.

Every year, the Stampede gets about $10 million from the lottery fund, much to the chagrin of lesser charitable groups, who see the Stampede as a $100-million marketing behemoth that should be able to fund its own activities.

Be that as it may — one of the selling points for the Western Centre was that it’s going to be used for educational purposes. The idea is to build interactive displays that will be able to explain agriculture and the production of food to an urban audience. The emphasis will be focused on school children. That’s an excellent concept, as most city folks continue to believe that food magically appears at the grocery store every morning.

As admirable as an agricultural education component for city slickers will be, the big concern will be how that education will be presented. Agriculture and the production of food today is under an onslaught by disparate lobby groups, all trying to gain from painting disparaging pictures of modern agricultural practices.

The reality is that notwithstanding whether that picture reflects the truth, those groups have been very successful at telling a compelling story. That story might not tell the facts, but that’s not the goal of most green and animal rights lobby groups.

This is where the agriculture industry has lost the PR battle in educating the public about how it does its business — the industry focuses too much on the facts.

No one is advocating that the agriculture industry needs to mislead the consuming public in the same way that duplicitous lobby groups have done for so long.

What needs to change is the approach — that being the farming and ranching business has to be explained to the public by means of a more positive narrative or story. The industry is famous for being able to reel off mountains of facts and research pointing out how safe food production is and why consumers need to just believe us.

As righteous and honest as that approach might seem, that’s not how the city dwellers mind works. They are more prone to believe outrageous stories of mayhem about their food — it just makes for a better story.

My hope for the new ag education facility in Calgary is that they will take lessons from those opposed to commercial agriculture and portray farming and ranching in a positive story, not boring facts.

Well, I can hope.

Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.

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