On the Canadian National Exhibition: Down on the Farm

This piece is the fourth in a series of reports from the 2012 Canadian National Exhibition.

In a previous post I alluded to the CNE’s status as an essentially urban fair, but with all the animals and farm displays it would be just as accurate to call the CNE rural. As Shawn Micallef observed in his book Stroll, “The Ontario hinterland comes to Toronto during the Ex, providing a connection that goes unheralded.” Toronto used to have a lot more connections like this, back when the city’s industrial economy was dominated by companies like Massey-Harris, the farm equipment manufacturers whose giant factories were just across from the exhibition grounds. Nowadays Toronto is a global city with an economy based on less physical services, and the CNE is one of the few big public events that maintain a bond between the city and its agricultural hinterland. (The CNE’s November cousin, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, is another, but it’s a specialized event that caters to people who are already interested in agriculture and seek it out.)

Unlike the farmers’ markets that now exist in many urban neighbourhoods, the CNE doesn’t emphasize feel-good things like organic farming and permaculture. At the CNE, agriculture is shown the way it actually is, not the way urbanites wish it were. The harsh reality of animal husbandry is pretty openly displayed, with pregnant pigs sleeping in uncomfortable-looking metal pens, detailed explanations of milking machines, and a rather chilling display of cow products and by-products that proudly proclaims, “98% of the cow is used. Virtually nothing is wasted!” Even the setting of the farm displays, the Better Living Centre, expresses a kind of accidental truth; it wasn’t designed for agriculture, but its austere warehouse aesthetic is not far off from the barns on today’s industrialized farms. The agricultural industries obviously sponsor these exhibits as propaganda, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re not inadvertently creating future vegetarians, or at the very least provoking more thought than is healthy for their bottom lines.

Artist Olenka Kleban puts the finishing touches on Rob Ford’s steering wheel.

On a lighter note, this year the farm building also happened to contain probably the most talked-about cultural artefact at the CNE: a butter sculpture of Rob Ford reading a Margaret Atwood book while leaning against his steering wheel, a reference to two controversies our inimitable mayor has stumbled into in the past year. Butter sculpting is a perennial folksy feature at the CNE and other fairs, but the CNE also used to have a proper art gallery that was often the site of controversies when the art on display was too lewd or provocative or subversive for civic leaders. It’s strangely fitting that the last vestige of this otherwise dead tradition would show up in the farm building, which is itself somewhat vestigial.

Displays of new technology, another mostly dead CNE tradition, also manage to survive in the farm building. My personal favourite is an iPod powered by cow poop to demonstrate the potential of alternative energy sources. It’s maybe not quite on par with the world’s first movies or a levitating car, but at least it’s something.

My sense is that a lot of fairgoers skip the farm building, or just breeze through quickly. It wasn’t very crowded during either of my visits this year. Which is a shame, because for better of for worse, this building is probably the most educational one at the CNE.