Friday, 16 October 2015

Finding Fairness for Small Farmers

It's great to hear the words "fair trade" linked to Certified Island Beef.  This is an extension of a beef marketing strategy that's been around for more than a decade now. It starts with what consumers are looking for and works its way back to the farm.  The Certified brand assures Triple A quality, no growth hormones, and humane handling.  This means it takes a little longer for steers to get to market weight, but farmers are paid extra to compensate.  The Certified product has been a big success in upscale Ontario markets, and it's now available through Sobeys here in the Maritimes. It's so important that Island farmers produce outside commodity markets where they can, and get rewarded for doing this. The "Certified" program is an excellent example of this.

There's another group of farmers who need some attention to the bottom line too: the market gardeners and small farmers who supply PEI's farmers' markets. I wrote this column with a suggestion about they might gain a little more income security:

Keeping Small Farmers in Business

They are the farmers everyone loves, the ones you see at farmers markets across the province. Chefs and foodies speak about them with reverence. For many consumers they’re the only “real” farmers they meet and talk to. We like them because they provide fresh produce and meat, often organic. They farm on a scale that many appreciate, harkening back to a simpler time of small mixed farms on the Island.  Here’s the but: if we like them that much we need to do more to make sure they stay in business.

Full disclosure: I have relatives who are market gardeners, and I did it myself for four years in the 1970’s before I realized I could make a much more stable living talking and writing about growing food .  (I still grow a large kitchen garden at home).

I wanted to write about this because I was privy to a conversation by four small farmers that ended in tears. They felt under enormous pressure to not only grow good food, but to also be that cheerful person who remembers everyone’s name, and has a story to tell about what they’re selling that week.  I don’t want to imply that these farmers resent the one-on-one with their customers,  they don’t, but it’s an extra job other farmers don’t have, and can chew up a lot of time and energy.

The other constant is that almost all small farmers are driven more by ideals and lifestyle than the bottom line. Most (not all) are one truck breakdown from bankruptcy.  Their costs aren’t huge, but they don’t have the scale of farming to build up surpluses when prices are good. It’s precarious at best. Does the fishing industry have an answer to this?

I had started my reporting career when Employment Insurance (Unemployment back then) benefits were extended to licensed fishermen (fishers if you wish). What I remember is then fisheries minister Romeo Leblanc was concerned that small boat cod fishermen in Newfoundland were starving during the winter, and obviously couldn’t do any jigging  in the frozen bays.

Now I appreciate that many people resent the fact that fishermen get EI.  I would argue that it’s the seasonal nature of their business that justifies the benefits, and that’s tied to one more important fact that often gets forgotten. The seasons are linked to the ecological health of the lobster stock, something you don’t see in Maine for example.  Maine lobstermen can fish year-round. In fact Maine fishermen are now making a virtue of harvesting molting lobsters (“new shell” is the marketing ploy), even though the lobsters have little meat,  are in the reproductive stage of their lives, and are vulnerable to predation  in holding facilities.

Perhaps a better example are oyster fishermen working public beds. They’re only allowed to use tongs, long double-handled rake-like tools, rather than mechanical dredging. It’s slow, hard work, but much more beneficial to the environment and the oysters themselves.  They have seasons as well. EI benefits are an important part of oyster fishermens’ yearly income.

So what about allowing smaller market farmers to get EI benefits?  Their work is definitely seasonal too. If we set certain production and  environmental standards, why shouldn’t they, like oyster fishermen, gain some income security too.

I realize this goes against  much of the political and economic  trends that slam seasonal work as something inferior, and anything that would promote it as simply wrong.  (I won’t be sending this column to Stephen Harper).   I tell my Toronto pals (2 of them) that  without EI, if the Bay Street boys had to pay enough so that oyster fishermen here could feed a family, only Toronto bankers could afford to go to the oyster bars they now enjoy.  This way oysters are reasonably priced, the stock is harvested responsibly, and fishermen have a chance to make a reasonable living.  What’s wrong with that?

I remember Paul Offer, a farmer’s market stalwart, giving a speech to a large, sympathetic group about four years ago.  His talk ended in tears too, as he tried to get people to understand the risk, hard work, aching back and legs, and total lack of financial security that had been his life for decades.  If we want small market farmers/gardeners who grow good food, maintain the quality of the soil, to be around for the long haul, not just until the bank won’t extend any further credit, we have to give them a chance at some financial stability.  I know it would be complex and difficult to create the regulations for something like this, but we need to talk about it. We’ll lose too many of the farmers we love without it.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent idea. I am also interested in working toward some kind of mechanism to make more direct consumer to farmer contact and sale of food products. This could result in rural economic development, better food security on P.E.I. and possibly more availability of affordable nourishing food.