Where does our food come from?
By J.P. Antonacci
IF you walked through the cattle barn at the recent Norfolk County Fair and Horse Show, you were bound to meet the Krakar sisters.
From her seat at the Beef Farmers of Ontario booth, Kaitlyn Krakar chatted with passersby about the reality of raising cattle – while keeping an eye on Venus, a seven-year-old Charolais cow from Krakar’s livestock farm outside Vanessa.
Gleaming white and visibly pregnant, Venus was a hit with fairgoers, especially the kids who stopped to shyly pet and scratch her head.
“She loves the scratches,” Kaitlyn said, smiling under a face mask adorned with cartoon farm animals.
Across the barn, Kaitlyn’s younger sister, Emma Krakar, stood beside a new addition to the fair’s agricultural awareness program — the pig mobile.
About the length of a shipping container, the pig mobile — which belongs to Ontario Pork, the group that represents the province’s 1,143 pig farmers — had large windows on one side so visitors could see pigs at each stage of their life cycle, from farrowing to finishing.
Inside, the eye was drawn to a two-year-old sow lying on her side as a passel of two-week-old piglets jostled for space along their mother’s udder.
“These are all her piglets who are nursing on her,” Emma said. “Basically, a piglet’s life is nursing, running around and playing, and sleeping.”
That leaves the 500-pound sow pretty well resigned to be a milk buffet, lying within the bars of a farrowing crate so she does not inadvertently roll over and crush her offspring.
“I call it a piglet protection program,” Emma said. “They can be squished very easily.”
Once the piglets are weaned off mother’s milk, the sow can once again see her porcine pals.
“For three weeks, that will be her life,” Emma said. “And then she can go back to the pen and socialize.”
Promoting agricultural awareness has been a central focus of the Norfolk County Fair throughout its 181-year history, and the Krakar sisters are all for it.
“Probably the best part is getting that farmer-to-consumer conversation going and helping them understand what’s actually going on,” said Emma, noting many people unfamiliar with agriculture assume giant livestock operations are the only source of the meat they find on store shelves.
“A lot people think it’s all factory farms. But most Canadian farms are family farms,” Emma said.
“It’s families who are putting in the hours to raise these animals for us. They’re not a big company who doesn’t care. It’s families who are putting love and respect into their land and animals.”
Running a small farm is hard enough, Kaitlyn said, without the added challenge of countering preconceived notions that can colour people’s impressions of farmers.
“Farming today, from a mental-health standpoint of our farmers, it’s very draining, especially with a lot of social media and the bad publicity that comes with some of it. A lot of farmers are struggling,” she said.
“It’s difficult to process the fact that some people don’t understand how our food is actually made and how much work goes into it. There are a lot of misconceptions around.”
One such misconception, Kaitlyn said, is the idea that cattle farms have an outsized carbon footprint.
On her family farm near Vanessa — one of 19,000 cattle farms in Ontario — some three dozen cows graze on marginal land and eat leftover produce from local farms that would otherwise be discarded.
Instead, Kaitlyn said, the cows return nutrients to the soil by producing manure.
“They do a lot of good to the environment,” she said.
Transparency, said Emma, is key for farmers looking to correct the record about controversial topics like animal welfare.
“People think there’s a lot of abuse going on in there, and it’s not. Pig barns are honestly the safest and most humane farms out there,” she said, pointing to biosecurity practices that provide “protection for the animals” and keep them safe from outside contaminants.
Livestock farmers, Emma added, “are always looking for new ways to improve the health and care of the animals.”
Born into the farming life, the sisters say they love their work.
“I love going outside to see the cows. I love seeing them happy and content,” Kaitlyn said.
“Even little mundane jobs like feeding and watering — jobs that you have to do on a daily basis — I love it.”
Emma said it can be sad to watch her pigs move on, but she takes satisfaction in having contributed to their welfare.
“It can be very hard, because you raise them. You put in all this work and are with them for a bunch of months, and they’re all grown up now,” she said.
“They’re alive because I was there.”
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J.P. Antonacci is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter at The Spec funded by the Government of Canada