Wed, Dec

The National To-Do List V:
Saving the Family Farm

Wed, Dec 12, 2007


The photo above is entitled Saskatchewan Tour and is by Chad Teer. It is used in accordance with his Creative Commons license.

A very long time ago — as the current minority parliament first sat down, in fact — I started what was to be a five-part series on those issues that I felt were important matters for parliamentarians to examine, either because the consequences of not examining them soon were dire, or because the media had been overlooking these issues, or both.

I talked about urban affairs, I talked about the underfunding of the Canadian military, I talked about the coming demographics crisis and the need for electoral reform. Then real life intervened and the final part never materialized.

But as I write this, its clear that the current minority parliament is winding down. The various parties have abandoned consensus-building for a more spirited attitude, and it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing falls and a new election is called. I think it would be nice if I finished the last part of this five part series before that happens, so let’s roll up our sleeves. The fifth important item that parliamentarians should examine and soon — and one which the media has tended to ignore — is the plight of the family farm.

Earlier this year, on my visit to Ottawa, I stayed overnight with my aunt and uncle at their house on the southern fringe of the city. Driving downtown, I could not help but notice a huge tract of land enroute, green with low crops, and flat as the eye could see. This was, I was told, the National Experimental Farm, and it was surrounded by gridlock. This huge government-owned greenspace had been at the edge of the city when it was set aside, but it has since been overtaken by sprawl on all sides. I’m told it’s a devil to drive around during winter, as the flat fields let the winds blow, sending huge drifts of snow into traffic. Not much experimental farming is done there anymore, my aunt sniffed, and the greenspace was mainly used in places as parkland, and as a large morsel looked upon greedily by developers.

This, it would seem, would sum up our government’s attitude towards farming over the past few decades.

It would be a mistake to say that this government, or its opposition, doesn’t pay attention to this country’s farmers. Given the amount of time and press the Canadian Wheat Board has had over the past two years, it’s fair to say that agriculture isn’t too far off the national radar. After all, as the folk song says, the lawyers and the planners and the architects might build our cities, but the farmer feeds us all. For now, at least.

Now, I don’t know the first thing about farming. That’s one reason why this post took so long to compose. Though I’m not so naive as to believe that beef comes just from the supermarket, I’ve not so much as even gardened. If you asked me to milk a cow, you had better bring along a video camera. But Erin is just one generation off the farm, and my eyes were opened after several visits to South Dakota.

Erin’s mother was the eldest of eleven, and she and all of her siblings have some farm work experience. Erin’s grandfather, now 90, is a quintessential old farmer who has seen it all and has paid his dues. The old family farm still exists, and has played host to at least a few family reunions. One of Rosemarie’s younger brothers now works the farm with his family, though I have heard that they may be the last generation to give it a go before the factory farms take over.

The family is no stranger to struggle. The running joke is that their ancestors kept heading west until the money ran out, and they were just a little too rich for their own good, plopping themselves in the dry rolling hills of South Dakota, with rocky soil and bitter winters instead of more prosperous grounds in central Iowa. But when I visited South Dakota four years ago, I saw nothing short of a disaster. Heavy rains had turned fields into lakes. There was no hope of getting the farm equipment in to plant the corn crop, and it was more than likely that there would be no crop that year. At the same time, the per pound price of corn had dropped to levels not seen since the Great Depression — and we’re talking real numbers here, not numbers adjusted for inflation. Things have improved since then, especially with the production of ethanol raising corn prices, but family farmers everywhere still work under the crushing load of fuel fees, equipment costs, feed costs, back taxes, mortgages, whathaveyou.

Canadian farmers are no strangers to this. The subsidy war between America and the European Union has Canada caught in the crossfire. It’s driving down the price of food and pushing farmers to bankruptcy. It’s also bankrupting the treasuries of the United States and Europe, but no government dares to be the first to let up the pressure. Hearing the plight of our Canadian farmers, and seeing the plight of their American counterparts, I couldn’t help but wonder: with family farmers pressured not just by depressed food prices, but high overhead, just how can they keep going?

The subsidy battle aside, there’s a fair argument that the capitalist marketplace is making its presence felt in the farming industry. There is a high demand for food, and big interests are entering the game with deep pockets. The technology is changing to the point that favours the big and the automated rather than the small and hand-worked. Maybe it’s time to accept that the time of the family farm has passed, and we move on. But what would happen if the family farm vanished? Erin noted that the factory farms tended to be controlled by large corporations. Get rid of the family farm, and we suddenly hand over control over the bulk of our food supply to the likes of Monsanto.

Sean McCormack, better known to some bloggers as the libertarian Polspy or the Urban Refugee (now blogging at Neutral Hills Stills). finds this prospect terrifying:

“Monsanto dominates with 100% share in some of its markets, e.g. RoundupReady Soybean. I have a firm enough understanding of biology that I’m scared of monocultures (e.g. the Cavendish banana). I think their business practices, such as not allowing farmers to keep the seeds generated by their crops are just bad business for the farmers — things are tight enough on the family farm without having to purchase new seed each year. Worse, if farmers can’t keep their seed, the seed never acclimatizes to the particular area. My father-in-law grows a variety of wheat that his family has been producing on his land since the 1920s. It is so well adapted to the local environment that it grows noticeably better than Monsanto’s RoundupReady crap that his neighbour plants (the Monsanto crop looks sickly when you stand and eyeball the two side by side). John’s crop is much more drought-resistant and will actually choke out most weeds if the crops are properly rotated — no herbicides necessary.

“More fundamentally, I’m bothered by the fact that it is legal for Monsanto to patent GM crops. There is something very wrong with the world when we begin to patent life itself. It’s not that I’m against genetic engineering (as someone with a bum ticker I hope to benefit from it someday), but it scares me when it seems to be done as capriciously as Monsanto likes to go about their business. I’ve spent enough time working in large organizations to realize that the well-being of the customer is often the last consideration — if it even IS a consideration.”

It should be noted that it was a factory farm whose effluent entered the water supply at Walkerton, causing the ecoli crisis. It is against these farms that family farms compete, and for this reason I believe the family farm is a way of life worth preserving. But how do we go about doing it? A guaranteed minimum income for family farmers? Subsidies to hold lands fallow (and thus reduce food gluts)? A massive bailout of farm mortgages? What?

With no knowledge of the farming industry myself, I decided to ask other individuals who had more experience. One of those individuals was Mahigan, a regular contributor to the blog Peace, Order and Good Government. He is himself in “the agriculture business”, and has seen the industry develop over the past few decades. For him, the decline has been more marked:

“In my 60 years I have had a front row seat as we moved from horse power to massive mechanization, from small usually profitable mixed farms to large, frequently unprofitable industrial agriculture and from farmers being an innovative, self sufficient group to being timid and showing up as clients at food banks. (That last item always sets off explosions in my brain and perfectly demonstrates how completely screwed up things are.)

“I am planning to write a chronology of the events I have watched from 1950 to the present to try to explain where things went wrong and lay the blame where it belongs - at the feet of farmers themselves, government, consumers and agribusiness. The second part will be an investigation of what can be done to fix the mess. We can’t undo industrial agriculture even if we wanted to (and I’m not 100% sure it would be a good idea anyway).”

In my discussions with Mahigan, I start to see parallels between the family farm and the current shift in Ontario’s economy from a manufacturing-industrial base to a high tech-information base. The economic die has been cast: in terms of providing us with the wheat and corn that is so important to our society, few things can compete against the high-yield, low-margin agrifactory, and perhaps we shouldn’t try. We need to eat, and society as a whole benefits if we can eat cheap. Small family farms may have no place in an economic realm where produce is measured by bushels per dollar rather than dollars per bushel.

However, specialty crops could represent to family farmers what the information economy represents to Ontarians suffering from manufacturing job losses. And there are several advantages here. For one thing, specialty crops can be tailored to the local ecosystem. Says Mahigan:

“The first problem we encounter when we start talking about “prairie agriculture” is there is no such thing. Less than 1/3 of Manitoba. 1/2 of Saskatchewan and probably less than 2/3 of Alberta is agricultural land. Calling any of these a prairie province is conceptually flawed. Lumping them together into a unit called “The Prairies” pretty much moves us out of the fact based world and into fantasy land. The Manitoba Interlake region has virtually nothing in common with southern Alberta so talking about prairie agriculture is a stretch.

“One of my favourite quotes is from the farmer who said: ‘I used to have a 1000 acre farm with very limited potential. Now I have a 100 acre farm with unlimited potential.’ I think the future of the family farm is in small scale speciality agriculture where farmers are producing high dollar value commodities (or as I usually put it - products priced in dollars per pound not pounds per dollar) combined, in some cases, with on site value added processing. There are many such opportunities and they are increasing as a result of climate change and the inexorable climb to $100.bbl oil.

“But this concept is far better suited to a lot of Manitoba and the parkland regions of Saskatchewan and Alberta rather than the southern third of those provinces. There are a number of reasons - land in that area is usually cheaper, it tends to be more sheltered (that is something many of the specialty crops need) and there tends to be more rainfall that they also need. The soil in those areas is also more suitable for some of the crops. Over all, 100 acres near Neepawa MB or Lloydminster is likely to be much more suitable than 100 acres near Davidson SK or Medicine Hat.

“The crops themselves are extremely varied including in where they will grow. Some like root vegetables are well suited to heavy soils and a lot of them are grown in MB and marketed through an agency called Peak of the Market. PoM is also getting into value added processing. These also have the benefit of being short production cycle crops. By that I mean they are planted and harvested the same year.”

But specialty or alternative crops are not a panacea. Planting crops that sold for dollars a bushel rather than for bushels a dollar is an appealing idea, but it overlooks the difficulties of striking out on one’s own, into a largely untested market. Mahigan writes:

“One crop that has been touted as an alternative is Saskatoon berries. John Ritz, a Manitoba grower, worked for several years developing a market for Saskatoon products in Britain before his untimely death this summer. John had to fight EU protectionism as well as dealing with the catch-22 of needing more product to develop the market while, at the same time, needing guaranteed markets to get more product. The volume of sales had reached about $650k/year - not enough to support a lot of farmers.

“Saskatoons are a good example of the problems of alternative crop development. A 5 acre Saskatoon operation will cost about $50k before it produces anything. The plants will begin to produce a few berries in year 3. They will produce about enough to cover operating costs in year 5, hit full production in year 7 and will have recouped the initial $50k investment by about year 10. If that seems long, that is one of the better crops.

“Take Sea Buckthorns - another possible specialty crop. This is a shrub from Asia that produces a nutriceutical crop. In Asia, it is used to make everything from medicines to beer, including an ointment Soviet cosmonauts used for protection from radiation burns, but no one has heard of it in North America. There is no market in place. And it gets worse - it is called sea buckTHORN for a reason, making it harder to pick. It is also dioecious (both male and female plants). It takes 7 years to flower and the flowers are the only way to tell the sex of the plant. Seedlings are normally about 1m:1f while the ideal ratio for berry production is 10f:1m. However, there is one grower north of me who put in the seven years of looking after the plants only to discover they had 90% male plants that produce no berries. The only way to guarantee the right sex ratio is to clone them from plants of known gender and that is no small job given the numbers that would be required.”

And again the similarities between this and the disconnect between the growing information economy and the aging manufacturing economy present themselves. As well as we are doing in establishing new jobs here in Ontario for software engineers and other highly educated workers, this is of little comfort for those who have done hard labour in a factory all their lives and have few skills to offer. Indeed, farmers looking to move out of the industries dominated by factory farms have even more daunting obstacles to overcome:

“Look at an average younger farmer. Someone who might be $300k or more in debt and have only about 30% equity in his farm and a family to support. This does not sound like someone who is going to sell off 90% of his land to get out from under the bank so he can invest in setting up an operation to grow something that produces no crop for 7 years (and may not produce one then) and hope that, by the time he gets a crop, there is actually a market for it. At last he sure isn’t going to do it without a lot of support from somebody.

“This process of researching, doing pilot projects, developing markets and marketing agencies is something that is going to have to be repeated every time for dozens of potential crops many of which will turn out to be failures. There is almost no university research going on in alternative crops because agribusiness controls the research going on at almost every ag college in the country. And I do mean control - if you decide to research something that is not in agribusinesses’ interest, they will threaten to pull all their research funding. Some of this research is going on privately but on a very small scale - nowhere near what is required to develop any of these alternatives in a timely fashion.

“This leaves government.¬† There are research projects being funded by government but they are relatively small and scattered compared to what is needed. So which government is going to finance this kind of development on the required scale?¬† Are we going to have 5 cash strapped provincial governments all duplicating each other’s efforts?¬† Or, are we going to have this done by a federal government that doesn’t think government has a role in much of anything and is trying to get rid of the CWB?

“…I think you can see why everyone is reluctant to talk about agriculture. Any serious discussion is likely to open a can of worms that will go slithering into all sorts of places no one much wants to look into.”

I can see why, but I’m sure Mahigan agrees that agriculture is still something we have to talk about. We cannot stand idly by while thousands of individuals who have had their lives and the lives of generations before them invested in farming, suffer a massive transformation in the economy. I believe that we as a society have a duty to help them, as we do to those laid-off aging manufacturing workers who currently have no place in the information economy. From a purely self-interested point of view, we must talk about preserving the family farm because agriculture affects us all, from the rural communities dying as the next generation of farmers take to the cities, to urban communities facing a loss of control and diversity of the food they eat, to those affected by the environment (meaning everybody), having to deal with the ecological practises of large, monocultural factory farms.

The drive of farming up to now has been to the big and the mass produced, just as in our industrial sector. Today, our manufacturing base is discovering that the same items can be manufactured for far less in plants half the world away. Our beleaguered economy and our lengthy history of government deficits from the early seventies to the mid nineties can be traced to this structural fault. However, our economy has been climbing out of this hole by investing in smaller, more complex industries — high-skill, high tech, service-based jobs that require a highly educated workforce, and nimble and innovative workers. In a similar way, opportunities exist for family farms that are smaller, nimble, and concentrating on far more specialized crops offering higher profit margins.

But that’s not going to be easy to bring about. Urban neighbourhoods are slowly recovering from the economic shift that rendered working class enclaves into impoverished ghettos, but it is hard to imagine rural neighbourhoods doing the same. The pressures of capital and the task of changing one’s operating procedures are far more keenly felt by a family than they are by a big or medium-sized business.

So our provincial and federal governments need to take up the task of creating the next rural economy with even more vigour than they’ve addressed creating the urban information economy. This means rural research and development, farming retraining programs. Possibly low-or-no interest loans to facilitate the transfers. But most of all, there needs to be a change in the way we view agriculture, to bring rural industries up to the level we now view high-tech and biotech firms.

In Ottawa, the National Experimental Farm is little more than a park; greenspace eyed by hungry developers. The federal government should review this resource and see if it can be put back into use as an actual, experimental farm. If not, then give it to the City of Ottawa as greenspace and buy property elsewhere (in Saskatchewan, perhaps). Give us a farm that’s worth experimenting on, and make our farm industry an envy of the world.

The last words of this article, and this series, go again to Mahigan, who says it best:

“There is bad news, good news and more bad news in all of this. The bad news is that these issues could and should have been dealt with 20 years ago (when I first started talking about them). The good news is the solution doesn’t have to be found immediately. The more bad news is that, if we wait another 20 years, it will be too late. Accomplishing these changes is going to require a fundamental alteration to the mind sets of farmers, consumers and government (agribusiness will just continue to be an impediment). This is going to take a lot of time since no significant number of people in any of those groups is even talking about it yet.

So, let’s start talking.

On This Day

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