Supporting small-scale farmers: From the National Farm Radio Forum to Farm Radio International

It’s a Monday evening in late November 1962, and a group of around 20 farmers — a mix of women and men — gathers in the living room of a farmhouse in Halton County, Ontario. They have braved the cold to listen together to a radio program about dairy policy. After the 30-minute broadcast, they will break off into small groups for discussion. The group’s secretary will mail a summary of their conversations to the Ontario office of the National Farm Radio Forum program.

A fixture on this CBC program is George Atkins, a farm radio broadcaster who went on to found Farm Radio International in 1979. He is joined by a panel of expert guests relaying the latest agricultural advice across the country.

60 years later, a group of women similarly gathers every Tuesday evening in Sare Samba Netty, Senegal, to listen to and discuss radio programs about gender equality, agriculture, food security and nutrition. Their Community Listening Group tunes in to the radio program together, discusses the content of the show, and sends feedback and questions back to the radio station using a mobile phone and Farm Radio International’s Uliza Interactive software.

Planting seeds

There’s a direct line from the first group of radio listeners to the second.

George Atkins founded Farm Radio International to meet small-scale farmers’ need for relevant agricultural information. The Canadian forums (or listening groups, as Farm Radio International might call them today) were created in the 1940s in response to farmers’ need for resources and support coming out of the Great Depression.

What better way than radio to reach across Canada’s vast territory with the latest agriculture issues and tips?

Learn more about Farm Radio International’s roots:

The National Farm Radio Forum program went on air in 1941 as a partnership between three recently formed organizations: the Canadian Association for Adult Education (CAAE), the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). The program aired weekly from November to March. Before the Monday night broadcast, forums received a guide by mail, which contained discussion questions like “Has the war caused a farm labour shortage in your community? Has the farm labour shortage affected production?”

Episodes covered agricultural practices, farm finances and other topics relevant to Canadian rural society, like education, health care and the role of the church. They featured a variety of formats, including panel discussions, speeches, interviews and radio dramas set on the fictional Sunnybridge Farm.

“Read, Listen, Discuss, Act.”

– The motto of the National Farm Radio Forum program

Besides the lively discussion of farming topics, the weekly gatherings were an opportunity for neighbours to socialize through activities like singing and playing card games.

Program organizers chose the topics for radio broadcasts based on current events and an annual questionnaire sent to forums. Today, Farm Radio International applies the same principles by surveying listeners about their needs and interests before designing radio programs.

Each episode of National Farm Radio Forum included a five-minute summary of forum discussions from across the province from the previous week. Highlights of farmers’ feedback might be shared with the provincial minister of agriculture or education or even with federal ministers. Today, Farm Radio International remains committed to sharing rural voices with policy makers through our On Air Dialogues.

Listen to episodes of National Farm Radio Forum from the CBC Archives:

Putting down roots

A forum gathers to listen to the radio.
© Library and Archives Canada | Bibliothèque et Archives Canada (Source)

At the program’s peak in 1949, there were over 1,600 registered forums across the country with over 21,000 members. Farmers who participated in the forums found them useful and enjoyable.

“We who heard the radio broadcast on Monday evening agreed it was one hour and a half well spent, and also gave information worthwhile thinking about,” reported an Ontario-based group called Bruce Farm Forum.

In a 1958 questionnaire, 68.5% of forums who responded said that the National Farm Radio Forum program solved some of their problems, and 92.7% said that the program broadened their outlook.

Right from the start, the National Farm Radio Forum program emphasized action. Its motto was “Read, Listen, Discuss, Act.” There was a sense that farmers had to help themselves and could not wait for the government to act. Information sharing and discussion only had value if they led to concrete action to improve lives in rural communities.

The forums’ work went further than their farms. The thousands of action projects that groups undertook — which ranged from building skating rinks and establishing co-ops to improving school grounds — may be their most tangible legacy in communities across Canada.

Leaving a legacy

As farmers’ needs changed, so did the best channel to serve their needs. After 1949, the number of forum groups started to decline. Canadian farming was changing: small-scale farmers could not compete with big business agriculture and rural populations were shrinking.

National Farm Radio Forum went off air in 1965. However, the program planted seeds that continue to bear fruit in Canada and around the world.

Members of a Community Listening Group for a Farm Radio International project in Senegal.

In 1947, Leonard Harman, who was involved in the National Farm Radio Forum program’s development and a leader in the co-operative movement in Ontario, had this to say about the program’s impact: “I want to restate my opinion of Farm Forum as a unique project in the world history of adult education and farm organization … I believe it has made significant contributions to national unity, to farm thought, to urban understanding of farmers and farm problems, to the growth of rural leadership, to the development of farm organizations, to the growth of co-operatives and other community action, to the moulding of public opinion and the influencing of government policy.”

In 1952, UNESCO commissioned research into Farm Radio Forums. The United Nations agency published a report in 1954 and implemented similar projects in France, Ghana and India.

And, of course, the forums’ legacy lives on in Farm Radio today. Since its founding in 1979, Farm Radio International has worked with radio stations and listening groups to get good information to farmers so that they can make the best decisions for themselves and their families. In 2021-22, we reached 24.5 million listeners and partnered with radio stations in 38 sub-Saharan African countries. That’s a legacy worth celebrating.

Acknowledgement: Much of the research for this blog post was carried out in the Canadian Farm Radio Forum collection in the Ontario Historical Education Collections.

About the author
Eleanor Willner-Fraser is the Communications Assistant at Farm Radio International.

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