Wednesday, 29 June 2011

A Noble Excercise

John Varty wouldn't look too out of place in many rural communities in the Maritimes. There are still experienced farmers who think nothing of driving the tractor to the nearest village to get goods. What sets Varty apart is that he'll be pulling a small bunkhouse behind him, and his plan is to travel  across the country, meeting farmers both big and small  and documenting how they're feeling, how they're doing.  I suspect he'll get a very mixed message. Farmers in the Maritimes with their higher costs of production, and smaller local customer base continue to struggle, while farmers in Western Canada (those that aren't flooded out) are enjoying a boom time with grains and oilseed prices soaring.  Quebec (as in many other fields) marches to its own drummer. Farmers there have a unique provincially funded income support program (started by the PQ when sovereignty was a real possibility), and a thriving organic farming sector.  Ontario and BC are unique as well, with huge fruit and vegetable industries that are very weather dependent, but generally thriving.

I think what Varty is doing is very important. Urban Canadians need a more realistic feel of what's going on out there in rural Canada, and as an academic (as opposed to a journalist), and with a very smart partner on board,  he can do that. It will be interesting to see what kind of attention he gets (or doesn't) as he swings through the larger urban communities ("quirky prof on a trip to nowhere", or "academic tries to get close to people we don't often hear from"). I wish him good luck and a safe trip.

Professor sets out to harvest the truth about the Canadian farm

John Varty will fire up a donated tractor on Friday in Prince Edward Island, pulling a mobile farmhouse behind him. So will begin a cross-country journey designed to probe the soul of the Canadian farmer.

A professor of history at McMaster University in Hamilton, he hopes to cut a swath through the debate that has reduced food production in Canada to warring stereotypes: the good guy (a plaid-shirted, organic-loving yeoman) and the bad guy (a grain-slinging, technology-wielding market conqueror).
Prof. Varty thinks the reality is far more complex, and his odyssey – coming at a crucial time in the world of food – will form the basis of a video documentary aimed at shedding light on the true state of our farms, which he argues has been obscured by emotional interest groups promoting an outdated, romanticized notion of farming.

“The alarm for the loss of the family farm has been out there for a long time,” he said. “The question is what part of [the country] looks like the alarmist material and which parts don’t?”

The foodscape is certainly in profound flux. At home, an unprecedented 75 per cent of Canada’s farmers will look to retire over the next decade and a half. About $50-billion worth of land could change hands during this period, setting the foundation for a dramatic shift in Canada’s agricultural landscape.

Globally, the United Nations’ top food official said this week that food prices are likely to remain high and volatile for years to come. G20 leaders are in the midst of negotiations on what, if anything, ought to be done to dampen the volatility, which has its most direct effect on underdeveloped nations but sends ripples into the global marketplace.

Accompanied on his tractor trip by partner Molly Daley, Prof. Varty will explore the landscape of the Canadian farmer. For years, political economists have debated whether farming is an inherently capitalist venture or something more sacred. The professor’s theory?

“It’s not one or the other.”

People have lost sight of the fact that in modern society large corporations have always been involved with food production in one way or another, Prof. Varty said. Historic consumer demand for cheap food laid the foundation for the current system, which he suspects will reveal itself to be more of a mix between small and large farm operations than the average Canadian envisions.

While hobby farms catering to local and organic foodies are one of the fastest growing segments of Canadian agriculture, farmers are increasingly choosing to incorporate and operate on a large scale – some Prairie farms run 40,000 acres. Family members being groomed for succession might still start out operating equipment at a young age, but now they go on to earn commerce and agriculture degrees before taking over the farm.

“The one thing [Prof. Varty] will find is people running their farms more like a business. They’re dealing with such huge dollars now,” said Liz Robertson, executive director of the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors, a non-profit organization. She added: “Young farmers nowadays, they don’t want to be called farmers. They want to be called businessmen.”

As such, the unpredictable market spikes and dives that characterize periods of volatility represent an opportunity for Canadian farmers to step up in global markets. Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has been working to smooth this process by brokering trade deals around the world for Canadian farms, most of which have remained family enterprises.

“Canadian farms are still run by Canadian farming families – that includes most of the really big ones,” said David Sparling, chair of agri-food innovation and regulation at the Richard Ivey School of Business. “The skill level is increasing, no doubt about that. Farming is more complex than it was a decade ago. They understand global markets better … that’s become a more significant factor for them.”

The longevity of that mixture, farm advocates say, will determine the future of food production in Canada.

“We’ll have quarter-acre farms and 15,000-acre farms and we’re going to need them all,” said Christie Young, executive director of FarmStart, a national non-profit that works to train young and second-career farmers and support their enterprises.

“We need to make sure the system isn’t just set up for the consolidation of farming. … We won’t have the farmers to do what the local food movement is talking about,” she warned, adding: “People are starting to understand that if we’re … reconnecting with our food, we’ll see a healthier future.”.

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