The Farm at the CNE is a great way to teach kids about agriculture, respecting nature, and the importance of nutrition.
One might expect many possible responses when asking a toddler what their favourite thing at the CNE is. Cotton candy, perhaps, or the Ferris wheel. Maybe the teacup ride or the acrobats or even a deep-fried, bacon-wrapped, beer-battered hot dog on a stick. But when I asked my almost three-year-old Emile, he replied without hesitation: “The animals!”
The Canadian National Exhibition was initially founded, way back in 1879, to show off Canada’s agricultural achievements. While most modern-day attention is paid to fatty foodstuffs like fried butter, Krispy Kreme donut burgers and pulled pork with red velvet pancake sandwiches covered in Jack Daniel’s-infused maple syrup, the fair’s original raison d’etre remains an attraction, if you can make it past the midway and Food Building to find it.
There’s an awesome petting zoo near the children’s area, which is filled with over 100 gentle animals (from goats, ducks and sheep to alpacas, llamas and miniature horses) for the kids to see, pet and feed right up close. It also boasts a Clydesdale, which is so freaking huge it gives grown-ups an idea of what life is like, proportionally speaking, for a kid.
The CNE’s main agriculture attraction is known as The Farm, and though it’s hidden inside the Better Living Centre, it offers the full experience, complete with sheep-shearing, cow-milking, egg-laying and pig-suckling. There’s an interactive Agri-Magic show, a Kids AgVenture area (boasting five miniature barns for little ones to learn about planting crops and tending livestock), and the FarmzOnWheelz exhibit, which sadly is not about hip-hop agriculture but instead is intended to explain the role of science and technology in modern farming. Throughout the building are real farmers who can talk to kids about their experiences.
Children love this stuff because, well, animals are awesome! Tractors, too. But teaching tykes about where food (not to mention clothing) comes from is vital, especially for city and suburban kids who need to know that this stuff doesn’t miraculously appear in stores. And they need to learn it firsthand, not from Farmville.
The prevalence of farmer’s markets in Toronto is welcome, and we take Emile there to pick out fruits and veggies throughout the season, but since they’re often set up in parks or parking lots, you’re still well removed from the source. The CNE and Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in November get kids a lot closer. As do the year-round Far Enough Farm on Centre Island and the Riverdale Farm, both of which Rob Ford has famously attempted to shutter.
Riverdale seems to have won a stay of execution earlier this summer, but while Far Enough Farm wasn’t closed as planned in June, it’s only been saved through the end of the year, with 2013 plans unresolved. Fundraising efforts have been ongoing, but the amount it would cost each individual Toronto taxpayer to keep it running is so negligible as to be irrelevant. It’s about priorities.
Giving urban and suburban kids a deeper understanding of rural agriculture is important because of the ethical, nutritional, economic and environmental issues involved. Obviously, issues like industrial farming, GMO foods and government subsidies are way over the head of the knee-high set, who are just gobsmacked by seeing a cow or an orchard or a red barn. But it’s never too early to impart a bit of knowledge about agriculture to those raised in the concrete and white-picket jungles.
This teaches them about respecting nature, including the animals that we eat, as well as the importance of nutrition. Kids need to understand what’s on their plate and how it got there so they can grow up to make informed decisions about what they put in their bodies.
So have fun at the Ex this long weekend riding the Merry-Go-Round, eating mini-doughnuts and
losing playing carnival games, but make sure to visit The Farm and petting zoo. The experience will stay with them even longer than a Bacon Explosion.