Monday, 10 December 2018

Some Hard Truths About Farming

I wish I were as good a writer as Joanne Will. She wrote an excellent article for the Globe and Mail about her family's last harvest in south western Saskatchewan.  She really captured the heart and soul of the family farm, and the challenge for the medium sized farm that's been the backbone of farming there and in the Maritimes. These are farms that aren't as heavily capitalized as big corporate operations, but are much bigger than the smaller businesses that sell at farmers markets.  Because of their scale they do have to compete in international markets with all of the uncertainty that comes with that. They are also farms that have been slowly losing money for years, while the equity they built up kept them in business.

Joanne Will uses enough facts and figures to support her story, but mixes it with all of the intangibles that economists never get, like the role these farms play in rural communities, and the basic local knowledge that farmers carry around.

It's a sad story in some ways, and I really worry that the terrible harvest on PEI might push a few more farm families like this to call it a day. If that happens we're all the worse for it.

The last harvest: My stepfather and the demise of the family farm

Joanne Will is a journalist based on Vancouver Island. She has been a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail since 2009. In 2014, she was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan.
In August, my stepfather, Gord Will, announced that this fall would be his last harvest. At 72, and with each of those years spent on the vast agricultural plains in the rural municipality of Wheatlands, near the village of Mortlach in southwest Saskatchewan, he is putting away his combine and his grain trucks, his tractors and granaries, his auger, swather, cultivator, baler, sprayer and seeder.
Gord’s fleet of equipment, some of it dating back to the 1960s, is in solid working condition, and each piece carries untold memories. Sentimentality aside, the machinery and implements can be sold, rented, lent or gifted to other grain, pulse, oilseed, hay and forage farmers. It will live on, so long as it is found useful, and so long as someone tends to it with the same meticulous care that he has.
But what of Gord’s accumulated and intimate knowledge of more than 2,000 acres of prairie pasture and cropland, including significant wetlands and wildlife habitat, cared for throughout his lifetime? Or his keen observations of the weather and changing climate in this semi-arid region of the Great Plains known as Palliser’s Triangle? And his lifetime of experience and understanding of what has increasingly become the “business” of farming? And what of the community that counts on him, and others like him, to be its lifeblood?
My stepfather is not the last farmer, but he represents the last of a certain type. The family farm is disappearing.
When you think of farming, you may well picture the industrial-scale factories and megafarms that produce the lion’s share of what you’ll find for sale at your local supermarket. Or you may think of the truly small-scale operations whose proprietors sell their hand-picked wares at farmers’ markets.
But in fact, there’s another size of operation, one that sits in the middle of those two extremes. Owned and operated by families firmly linked to the local community, medium-sized family farms are big enough to supply significantly more food than the vendors you’ll meet at those Saturday-morning booths staffed by a farmer who operates an acre or two.
And yet they manage to be much better for the land, for rural communities and, I’d argue, for the health of Canada, than are outfits run by large corporations or land-owning investors who either hire their own managers or lease out their land to those who work it.
My stepfather’s final harvest has reminded me that the family farm is home to one of the most important and noble jobs on the planet – one that involves working with one’s neighbours and with the land, all in the name of feeding a lot of people you will likely never meet face to face. When families own the land, that is what they do.
The loss of any family farm is, in my eyes, nothing less than a tragedy. For all of us.

Farming in the blood

Gord is a wellspring of information and of history that originates long before his birth, and that was passed on by elder farmers in fields and coffee shops, in grain-elevator lineups and at farm-supply stores and community gatherings. Such history was also transmitted at home, by his father, James Will, who emigrated to Saskatchewan from Scotland in 1921 at the age of 19.
Gord was only 10 when his father died of cancer. But the young boy was surrounded by family and community, including uncles and several neighbouring farmers who showed him the ropes. In the spring of 1965, the year after he graduated from high school, Gord planted his first crop. “There was never any time I can remember that I had any notion of doing anything else,” he told me recently, as we walked one of our favourite fields in the undulating Coteau Hills. “I remember going to the circus with my dad, and the main thing I was interested in was how much horsepower the elephants had.”
My mother, Nora, moved to Mortlach while I was a toddler, in the late 1970s, after she and Gord married. A 30-minute drive west of Moose Jaw, this is where they had three more children: twin girls and a son. Although Gord grew up on what we call “the home farm” – the three quarter-sections of land south of Mortlach that his father bought after working for several years at a nearby ranch – our family always lived in the village (current population 261) in view of the K-to-12 school.
When Gord and my mother started their family, things were booming. They paid cash for the house they built in 1978, and worked hard to acquire more farmland and the tools needed to work it. I remember well the fall of 1983 and the arrival of Gord’s first four-wheel-drive tractor. Back then, he always had a full-time hired hand from spring until fall, through the busy seeding and harvest seasons. At harvest time itself, an assortment of other help would show up: relatives whose jobs were far from the land, and a farming friend and neighbour or two who had finished their own work. Everyone pitched in before the frost and snow arrived.
My mother would make dinner for the crew. Along with pots of meat and vegetables, Thermoses of steaming tea and coffee, trays of pies and other desserts, she’d pack us kids in the car, a dust trail following us down the gravel roads to the field being worked that day. It was our nightly ritual from late August to early November.
At our destination, we’d spread two or three heavy wool blankets and quilts over the golden stubble and dirt, unfold stools and lawn chairs, and unpack the meal. The men would pull up in their harvest equipment, and while they ate, we played in the grain truck box, chewing mouthfuls of wheat kernels until they transformed into wads of whole-wheat “gum.” (I’m obliged to mention that today, playing in grain trucks, whether empty or loaded, is discouraged by farm-safety experts.)

The seeds of calamity

Then came the one-two punch of sharply rising interest rates and plunging commodity prices. Inflation-fighting rates that soared to nearly 22 per cent in 1981 stubbornly remained in the double digits for the best part of a decade, making land-mortgage payments hugely difficult, and sometimes impossible, to meet. By the summer of 1986, meanwhile, the price of wheat – the dominant crop then grown in the Prairies – dropped by more than 50 per cent from where it had stood in the fall of 1980.
And as if those economic demons were not trouble enough, a drought rivalling that of the Great Depression descended on the Prairie provinces in the early eighties. Although it let up for a spell mid-decade, it came roaring back in 1987 and held firm through ’89, packing its hardest punch in 1988, the single driest year in two decades.
In 1988, roughly 10 per cent of farm workers left agriculture. Crops were so poor – virtually non-existent in some areas – that Gord didn’t even take his combine out of the Quonset hut. That fall and winter, he had to find work elsewhere to support our family and farm: He left for the oil rigs on the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, returning just in time to join Christmas dinner with the extended family in Moose Jaw.
As with the Depression of the thirties, the recession of the 1980s eventually ended; but it was long enough that many farmers had to let go of precious land for which high mortgage payments had become untenable. Land prices plummeted; it would be more than 20 years before they fully bounced back.
And there were new challenges to come. For those who survived, such as Gord, the industrial revolution of farming began to really take off: more mechanization, more chemicals, ever more costly equipment, constant consolidation. The pressure built, in the mantra of the time, to “get big or get out.” On some levels, this created efficiencies. But on many others, something important was lost.
Just as Gord didn’t foresee the downturn of the 1980s, we four children never envisioned, from within the landscape of our youth, the realities of agriculture today: sky-high land prices; farms comprising many thousands of acres; an explosion of technology, including tractors with GPS and automated steering; and maximum farm-credit loans reaching sky-high levels.
The most recent Canadian Census of Agriculture, in 2016, tells much of the story. Between 2011 and 2016, the value of all farm machinery and equipment, owned and leased, increased more than 15 per cent, to $54-billion. Agricultural land and buildings increased in value by more than a third, to $428-billion. In the same period, the total value of the largest category of tractors grew a stunning 50 per cent, to $9.4-billion, accounting for more than half the value of all tractors.
Farming has become a case of survival of the fittest. Or more accurately, the biggest.
One result of this relentless shift: Fewer farmers are “required.” In 2016, 193,492 agricultural operations were counted nationwide, down roughly 6 per cent from 2011, while the size of farms (once again) increased.
It is, in many ways, an old story. In Saskatchewan alone, between 1911 and 2016, the number of farms dropped by 64 per cent, even as the amount of total farmland more than doubled. And over that century, the size of the average farm sextupled – from 295 acres to 1,784 acres. And where will it end?
“One day, and it’s not too far off, there won’t be any people out there farming the land,” Gord predicts. “In some ways, I’m glad I’m finishing before that happens.” This isn’t science fiction: Small autonomous tractors, just like driverless cars, are already being introduced at agricultural shows.
As a country, we’re the world’s fifth-largest exporter of agricultural commodities – even as fewer than 1 per cent of us operate farms.
But a robot driven solely by the corporate profit motive cannot smell the soil it is tilling. It does not feel in its very core the need to preserve that soil for future generations. And the only meal it presents you with is one produced at the lowest possible cost, using the cheapest possible inputs, grown on industrial-sized fields. Your health, and the health of the community in which you live, will not be the driver of this kind of food production. The stock market, with its eye on instant gratification for investors, will be.
We will no longer have any farmers at all – only “food production.”

‘It’s not a healthy system’

The average Canadian farmer is 55 years old. The next generation, those under 35, represent fewer than 10 per cent of farmers. And the future for them does not look bright. Only one in 12 farms nationally has a formal succession plan.
Saskatchewan – the province with the largest area of field crops, the largest average farm size and the most (relatively) affordable land – is a microcosm of what’s occurring in the rest of the country. The average value of land and buildings in the province (about $1,200 an acre) increased 76 per cent from 2011 to 2016. And yet, that’s still less than half the national average (almost $2,700 an acre), which increased close to 40 per cent over the same period.
At today’s prices, apart from taking over an existing family operation – itself a daunting prospect, given the competitive pressures kindled and stoked by Big Agribusiness – how can a new farmer ever afford to get started?
Gord’s first tractor, a used model, cost $1,700. His next, also second-hand, was $7,500. His third, a brand-new 1976 model, was $17,000 when he ordered it; due to high demand, by the time it arrived at the dealership, the price had shot to $22,000. Sound like a lot? Today a new combine can run up to $750,000. Altogether, a combine, seeder, tractor and sprayer can run from $1.5-million to $2-million and even higher.
Interest rates are relatively low these days. But what happens if you’re highly leveraged and rates go up, as they did in the 1980s? “You’d pretty much have to turn and run,” Gord says.
Gord himself has witnessed a fourfold increase in crop production in his lifetime. Yields per acre have doubled thanks to better technology, not to mention new seed varieties, pesticides and fertilizers – and thanks, as well, to more land being constantly pressed into service: Summerfallow – alternately working a field one year, then leaving it to rest the next – is no longer widely practised. “In a good year now, 40 to 45 bushels-to-the-acre crops are common,” my stepfather says, while “in the old days, if someone had a 30-bushels-to-the-acre crop, people would drive to that field just to see it.”
But grain prices have not kept pace with the increasing costs of production. The price of wheat is roughly the same today as it was in 1980. In addition to weather, farmers are at the mercy of world markets and a system of transportation over which they have no control. To make matters worse, the farmer’s share of the food dollar has sharply declined. To afford the inputs and equipment “required” to farm, you need to produce a lot. And to do that, you need to cover a lot of land.
On balance in Canada, we don’t have anything approaching the level of subsidies that European and American farmers receive. In fact here, it seems, farmers themselves subsidize agriculture: More than one-third of Saskatchewan farmers depend on a second, non-farm job for extra income. And still they struggle to balance the books. Farm cash receipts doubled between 1996 and 2016 – but farm debt increased 3.5 times. In 1996, cash receipts exceeded the debt load, but in 2016, that reality had reversed itself: Farm debt exceeded cash receipts by a factor of 1.6.
“You just look at the economics of the whole thing and you know it’s not right,” says Kent Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at British Columbia’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University and an adjunct professor at UBC. “It’s not a healthy system.”
Today, even as I ardently assert the importance of the Canadian family farm, I’m the first to admit that I’m in no position to take over ours. Nor are my siblings.
My brother, James, a father of three who manages a city-government parks-and-recreation department in Alberta, has at least given it more thought than his sisters. But they have, on the whole, been sobering thoughts. As a teen, during those difficult 1980s, he wanted only to insulate himself from the uncertainties of farming. He describes an imaginary ad campaign of the era: “Hey, all this could be yours someday: the drought, the astronomical interest rates, the debt, the grasshoppers!”
Today, he runs through staggering numbers as he outlines the money he’d need to run the family farm. And those numbers do not add up to anything he could feasibly manage. Family farming is in our blood, but our wallets tell us to turn the other way.

Losing history

In 1986, just 2 per cent of farmland in Canada was rented. Today, more than a third of all agricultural operations rent or lease some of the land they work. Among Canadian farmers under the age of 35, half of the land they tend is rented. On the one hand, we have absentee landlords; on the other, the farmers who are, effectively, their employees, even when they live on the land.
In the world of family farmers such as Gord, a “good” farmer works to be sustainable – not only financially, but ecologically: You must look after the land, the future health and viability of your soil. But in the world of corporate agriculture, farms get worked to within an inch of their life.
When we see only the bottom line, we lose sight of the need to nurture the land. And to nurture, as well, human relationships, and the accompanying human values, that are tied to the land: those involving our family, our neighbours and their families, and the broader community – all the things that ownership, and a local multiplicity of family-sized farms, have long led to.
In the words of American farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry, the “contest between industrialism and agrarianism now defines the most fundamental human difference, for it divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves, our fellow creatures and our world.”
I’m not arguing for a wholesale return to the old days of back-breaking work unaided by technological advances, but rather for a renewed awareness of our collective future – one that includes incorporating values of stewardship, both for the land and for the culture of community that family farms nurture. Large-scale farming has a place in this future, but we must weigh its costs against its benefits.
In Gord’s youth, the village of Mortlach had an array of businesses, including a butcher, two grocery stores, three implement shops, a livery and a lumber yard. At one time, the village even had two banks and a weekly newspaper.
They’re all gone now.
There were also five grain elevators. Today, just one stands – and it’s closed. All the grain in the surrounding area is trucked to Moose Jaw, consolidated in four “high-throughput” elevators, the newest of which can fill up to 147 grain cars in a single day.
In 1964, when Gord graduated from Mortlach’s only school, it was home to more than 300 students. “Remember when we attended in the eighties and early nineties?” my sister Janice asked me a while back. “There were eight buses sitting out front of the school each day.” Now, says Janice, who lives in the area and whose boys go to school there, “there’s just three.” With only 75 students from kindergarten to Grade 12, there are no longer enough kids to form viable sports teams. Another tradition, and all that comes with it, is lost.
Or consider this: Our family has always called each piece of land by the name of its previous owner – Harley’s, Percy’s, Nicholson’s. Some of these people have been gone now for many decades. But Gord still carries the history and knowledge of the peculiarities of each parcel that those families passed on. We’ll be the last generation who can name those fields, my brother reminds me. And then he asks me: Who will remember, protect or even appreciate the ancient tepee ring and buffalo jump that border the Coteau Hills field, just a few kilometres from our home farm, that we so love?
“When it comes to land, if you lose the memory, the stories and knowledge of the people who were on it before you, it becomes merely a corporate enterprise,” James says. And then, suddenly, the enterprise itself is “just a company that’s going to farm 15 sections, with no historical context. When you don’t hear about the struggles and challenges of the older farmers who came before, you don’t know or remember that people lived a certain way. You lose history.”

Planning now, to harvest later

So, maybe it’s time to take a step back from the treadmill – call it big, call it industrial, call it what you will – that is farming today.
Years ago, Gord attended a farm-management seminar hosted by so-called experts in modern agriculture. “They had a blackboard full of figures, and they were leaning toward the idea that unless you have an awful lot to harvest, you can’t afford a combine,” my stepfather recalls. “They were talking about someone who had 800 acres, and they said: ‘He can’t really afford a combine, because it’s so massively expensive,’ and on and on. Finally I spoke up, and said, ‘Well, if you’ve only got 800 acres to harvest, you don’t buy that new $200,000 combine. You buy a used pull-type for $15,000. Then I added: ‘If you don’t believe it, well, that’s what I’m doing.’ ”
Besides, he points out, when times get tough – and at some point, he notes, they always do – what’s even nicer than not having to repair older equipment is not having huge payments for new equipment hanging over your head.
And when you are not as beholden to the latest technology and the debt that comes with it, Gord says, you don’t feel as much pressure, when the time comes to retire, to sell your land to the highest bidder. “True, dedicated farmers won’t sell their land. They just won’t,” he says. “Someone could offer a million dollars a quarter and we still wouldn’t sell.”
Gord intends to practise what he preaches: He and Nora will remain in the area, and rent out their land to farmers they know and trust. They will not be absentee landlords, and intend to keep a close connection with the farm, and those tending it.
It is a connection that extends to parts of their land that don’t even get farmed. There is a major slough, or wetland, on the parcel of Gord’s land we call “Nicholson’s,” whose water could be used for irrigation. But while draining it would increase the farm’s value, Gord has let it be. For one thing, he says, “I’ve always enjoyed watching the pelicans, and all the birds, that use it.”
And, it’s too early to say for certain, but there is hope that some of my stepfather’s knowledge and experience may come in handy to some of his grandchildren. My sister Janelle and her husband, Larry, live near Saskatoon, on the site where his great-grandfather homesteaded in 1901. Janelle works in the city, and, in addition to farming, Larry runs a landscaping company. They’ve purchased some fertile land, on which they grow peas, oats and canola, and raise cattle, a few Berkshire pigs and heritage chickens – all of which are cared for with the help of their two young boys. While my sister and brother-in-law have encouraged their children to go to college, the boys are already asking: If everyone leaves the farm, who will be left to look after the animals and the land?
Or perhaps there is a middle way: going to college precisely in order to cultivate better ways to tend the land. B.C.’s Kwantlen Polytechnic, Prof. Mullinix says, focuses on teaching its students about “sustainability, and regenerative, agro-ecological-based agriculture.” In Craftsbury Common, Vt., just over the Quebec border, Sterling College cultivates farming methods that are suited to the local environment and that employ both age-old techniques and cutting-edge research. The college has also partnered with the non-profit Berry Center in Kentucky on a new degree program in place- and community-based agriculture. As instructor Rick Thomas told me when I toured Sterling last spring “Our graduates don’t go very far.”
There is also the kind of education that we consumers can undertake for ourselves. We need to learn more about our food, where it comes from, who makes it, how healthy it is and how healthy the community that created it is. And we need to learn that convenience comes at a cost – that, for instance, farmers typically make pennies on the dollar for what we buy at our local grocery megastore. Certainly, many of us can afford to pay more: In 2017, Canadians spent only 11 per cent of their household income on food, among the lowest of any country in the world.
And all of us, even those living in cities, need to start supporting policies that help the family farm. Some of those policies are financial (for example, reducing the tax burden on existing and inherited farms). Some are environmental (everything from maintaining soil fertility to weaning food producers off expensive chemical inputs that aren’t absolutely necessary). Some are educational (as simple, say, as sponsoring field trips in our local schools to teach kids where good food comes from).
Finally, farmers can help themselves by exploring new crops, such as organic or heritage grains, and new methods that require less-intensive inputs and that the public is often waiting for with open arms. Perennial grains such as Kernza (a wild relative of annual wheat being researched at the universities of Manitoba and Minnesota, and at the Land Institute in Kansas), which require fewer inputs than soil-depleting annual crops, show great promise.

​​​For Gord, a last harvest

This year, the annual Mortlach Fall Supper, a long-standing community gathering that caps the harvest season, welcomed 360 attendees; that’s 100 more than the population of Mortlach itself. In my youth, the event, held at the village hall, was packed with locals, and pretty much everyone who came was involved in farming.
Now, many attendees come from surrounding towns, and even from Moose Jaw. A tradition built around those who owned and worked family farms – and who built an organic community on their way to feeding their fellow Canadians – is becoming a gathering untethered to the land.
But not every farming ritual has been lost, at least not quite yet. In late October, when Gord was racing to complete the final stretch of his final harvest, 320 acres of Northern Spring wheat, he (along with many other farmers across Saskatchewan and Alberta) was halted for a month by wet weather, including early-season snow. When the sun finally reappeared for a few days, drying the wheat, he was able to resume the harvest, only to face another weather-driven deadline: With four days of combining work still to finish, he had only two days before rain was set to come in again. And his crop would not withstand another downpour.
As he raced against time, working late into the night, he called everyone he could think of for assistance – including his former hired man, who had retired. No one was available.
Then, at the 11th hour, he got hold of a local father and his two sons who had just completed their own harvest work and were now ready to lend a hand. The next morning, they arrived with two combines and a grain truck, and, together with my stepfather, finished the work in just more than a day.
Gord’s last harvest was one for the history books.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

A Fall to Forget

This picture and text from Gary Linkletter says a lot, none of it good:

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Eating Used to be Easy

Two interesting articles on food. One on the behind the scenes lobbying over new food regulations in Canada, the other on how morality has become part of what drives food purchases, but just for those who can afford it.

Big ideas or Big Food? It’s time for Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy.

  • By Jennifer Reynolds, Diana Bronson,
  • November 5th, 2018

Almost three years ago today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlined his priorities for his new health minister.
They included some big ideas to promote public health through healthy eating. They were, and are, urgent.
In Canada, an unhealthy diet is the single leading risk factor for death. Millions of Canadians have diet-related disease, costing the public purse about $26 billion in 2015. Food Secure Canada and many other non-profit organizations working in the public interest have been raising alarm bells and proposing some big ideas for a very long time.  But Big Food, despite consumer trends, appears to be marching to a different drummer, slowing all of us down. 
Two years ago, Health Canada announced its Healthy Eating Strategy with a number of action areas “to improve the food environment in Canada to make it easier for Canadians to make the healthier choice,” which we support. Trans fat regulations were recently announced, but we’re still waiting for the three other pillars: mandatory front-of-package nutrition symbols; restricting marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to kids; and revising Canada’s Food Guide.
So what’s the hold-up? Thanks to transparency policies put in place by Health Canada, we can access public records of any lobby efforts on the Healthy Eating Strategy. This includes about 130 meetings initiated by the food industry and correspondence with public servants working on the strategy — more than a dozen by the Canadian Beverage Association alone. Though a significant number of food-related companies recognize that foods that are healthy, sustainable and local are the future, a closer look at each area of delayed action paints a portrait of old-school industry tactics meant to protect industry interests by watering down and delaying health-promotion policies.
Let’s start with the front-of-package labelling.
In Canada, the approach is symbol-based, designed to alert consumers when a food product contains more than 15 per cent of the daily recommended amount of a nutrient of concern to public health, such as sodium, sugars and saturated fat. A letter sent to the federal agriculture minister and co-signed by the Food and Consumer Products of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture argues the proposed labels “will cause food shoppers to feel undue, ingredient-specific anxiety,” and will “undermine public trust.” Public trust cannot be gained by refusing to display the information consumers need to make informed choices.
Next up: marketing to children. Research has shown that food and beverage marketing to children affects the foods they request and prefer. Not surprisingly, the food and beverage industry spends billions of dollars on it. With a third of children in Canada overweight or obese, and 70 per cent not meeting the minimum daily requirement for fruit and vegetable consumption, one would think protecting them from advertisements for unhealthy food would be an urgent public health priority.
Bill S-228, an act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (prohibiting food and beverage marketing directed at children), was first introduced to the Senate in 2016, and is still travelling through the legislative process.
Canada’s Food Guide acts as a foundation for nutrition education and meal planning in homes, school, hospitals, daycares and more. It’s the second-most downloaded government document after income-tax forms. Over the years, the guide’s credibility has been questioned because of the undue influence of industry interest groups. We commend Health Canada for building a firewall around the current process: Bureaucrats developing the guide will not take meetings with industry until after the policy’s release, to ensure it’s in the public interest, informed only by the latest evidence. 
This has not stopped lobbyists from getting their message out through other government departments and processes, including internal memos intended to influence Health Canada’s work on the guide. One memo obtained by the Globe and Mail noted that “messages that encourage a shift toward plant-based sources of protein would have negative implications for the meat and dairy industries.” We think this is missing the mark because, more than ever, Canadians want to make healthy choices. This includes knowing where their food comes from, and supporting local and sustainable producers and food businesses.
As we wait for the promised Food Policy for Canada, the government must decide if it will implement some Big Ideas in the public interest, or if it will allow Big Food to hold the rest of us back.
Canadians need strong federal leadership to stand up for the real public interest: healthy people, healthy communities and healthy local economies. Consumers making better food choices will help support a necessary transition to a food system that is healthier, more sustainable, and more just. Forward-looking companies will bring those products to market. But better food policy is about more than the market. We need government to firmly act in the public interest and implement some bold new ideas.

You aren’t what you eat: Why ethically ‘good’ food doesn’t make you a better person

Rebecca Tucker is the author of the forthcoming book A Matter of Taste: A Farmers' Market Devotee’s Semi-Reluctant Argument for Inviting Scientific Innovation to the Dinner Table, from which this essay is adapted.
In the television series The Good Place, which frames the concepts of heaven and hell – or, more loosely, what happens to you in the afterlife – as, well, a Good Place and a Bad Place, each resident of Earth is assigned a point score based on their deeds while they were alive. The greater the deed, in terms of its virtuosity, the higher its score; the more abhorrent the deed, the more it cuts that score down.
It’s one of many concepts that the show, in its initial presentation, plays for quirkiness and laughs. But, as with the fundamental narrative of The Good Place – which is, like it or not, a deeply thoughtful, nuanced and at times devastatingly incisive criticism of human morality – there’s much more to the idea than immediately meets the eye.
For one thing, the good that we, as individuals, are able to perform isn’t necessarily equal: One person’s “high-ticket items,” good-points-wise, may be entirely unavailable to another person; but how is it then fair that that person would be granted a higher moral status, simply by virtue (no pun intended) of factors beyond his or her control? In the TV series, the character Tahani – a wealthy socialite during her life on Earth – notes that some of her points were contingent on her elevated socioeconomic standing. It’s a lot easier, in other words, to get ahead, in this life and the theoretical next, if you’re already a member of the 1 per cent. Doesn’t seem particularly fair, does it? It reminds me a lot of the way we think about food.
In 2018, the discourse around what we should eat is a lot like the discourse around where the characters in The Good Place should end up: Is it good, or is it bad? In the slightly literal sense, in the context of food, you might think that this means is it nutritious – is it good for me, for my body, for my health? – or the opposite: Will it harm me, physically? Our idea of what constitutes good food is just as deceptively surface-level as The Good Place; in actuality, it’s all about virtue and vice, on a slightly esoteric and often unattainable level.
These two types of good and two types of bad – the healthful and the virtuous goods versus the unhealthy and immoral bads – aren’t mutually exclusive: Often, food that ticks off virtue is also good for our bodies. But in marketing, and in the collective consciousness, it’s become more important to emphasize morality than literal physical wholesomeness; good for you might be the baseline, but virtue is the prevailing top note.
To understand this, we need to go back a few years. In 2006, the writer Michael Pollan released the defining tome of the modern foodie era: The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It sought to answer one (deceptively, beguilingly) simple question: “What should we have for dinner?” The Omnivore’s Dilemma at once defined and catapulted into the zeitgeist the food-borne anxieties that would come to frame the next decade for food activists and concerned diners. In it, the American journalist scrutinizes everything from factory farming to foraging to fast food, with the stated goal of determining the best food to eat. His conclusion, practically, is that the Perfect Meal, as he calls it, is one that is partly foraged, partly hunted and allows him “to eat in full consciousness.” Which is to say that, almost immediately, Mr. Pollan gives up the idea that the “best” food means, purely, the healthiest food. The best food, to him, is the food that allows for a pretty significant helping of righteousness.
Mr. Pollan notes that the question of what to eat, for humans, has historically been almost strictly utilitarian: Evolutionarily, the omnivore’s dilemma – that is, the human’s dilemma – centred on determining first which of a plethora of foods available would not kill us, and second, deciding which of these foods could serve as good sources of the nutrients, vitamins and minerals we required to stay alive. A lot of the time, we figured this out by tasting things, and subconsciously associating biological responses with flavours: The collagen in bone broth might have once helped your body recover from a bad cold, for instance, which explains why you might crave chicken soup the next time you have a flu. (In The Dorito Effect, Mark Schatzker calls this “biological wisdom,” although he also explains that we’re not as instinctively wise to the evolutionary benefits of flavour as we used to be, on account of our prolonged exposure to the artificial stuff).
Mr. Pollan addresses some of this, too. “Many anthropologists believe that the reason we evolved such big and intricate brains was precisely to help us deal with the omnivore’s dilemma,” he writes. “Omnivory offers the pleasures of variety … But the surfeit of choice brings with it a lot of stress and leads to a kind of Manichean view of food, a division of nature into The Good Things to Eat, and the Bad.” Mr. Pollan was joined in 2007 in the pursuit of revolutionizing dinnertime by Canadian writers Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, whose The 100-Mile Diet brought to the fore the very virtuous idea of “locavorism”; Barbara Kingsolver and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle followed shortly thereafter and doubled down on the assertion that the best food is the stuff that comes from your own backyard. Mr. Pollan returned in 2008 with In Defense of Food; firebrand New York Times columnist Mark Bittman released Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating that year.
In 2009, the moral quandary of what’s good to eat and what’s not hit the big screen with Food Inc., A documentary co-produced by Eric Schlosser (who, eight years earlier, eviscerated McDonalds and co. with his book Fast Food Nation). The film, based on The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and narrated by Mr. Pollan, was called “literally gut-wrenching” by NPR and “one of the year’s most important films” by The San Francisco Chronicle. Food Inc. was nominated for an Academy Award and succeeded in putting onscreen – and therefore making far more widely accessible and discussed than it was in print – Mr. Pollan’s message that eating right doesn’t just mean eating nutritiously – it means eating morally. (Not coincidentally, that NPR review described Mr. Pollan and Mr. Schlosser as “embodiments of conscience.”)
Fast forward to 2018, when we’re stuck on the idea of food as a reflection of our conscience; of good food as moral food, as virtuous food, as food that answers the question not of “what does food do to my body?” but, rather, “what does this food do for my soul?” Certainly, the core tenets of the sustainable food movement of today, which Mr. Pollan, Mr. Bittman et al defined in the early part of the aughts, have something to do with the health of the planet and, almost by luck, individual, physical health. But the terminology widely used by the sustainable-food movement (you know the buzzwords: “all-natural,” “organic,” “free-run,” “nose-to-tail” and all their friends and cousins) is more often meant to delineate a type of eating that is steeped more thoroughly in a sense of moral superiority than in the science of healthful eating – never mind the idea that, for food to truly be good, shouldn’t it also be easy to access?
To understand one of the key reasons why this is the case, think back to Tahani, on The Good Place, and to her point score. Her social standing allowed her access to people, places and situations through which she was given the option to perform acts of extreme moral good. She could have chosen to opt out, of course, but even opting in part of the time allowed her a high moral score with precious little effort – while, for another character, the only option to increase one’s moral standing might be to hold open a door, which is worth a paltry five points. In The Good Place as in life, advanced socioeconomic status comes with the luxury of access.
In terms of food, for the most part, the stuff that we these days consider morally good is also literally expensive. Take, for example, that all-Canadian staple: Kraft Dinner. Having purchased both (for research, and for hunger!), I know that Annie’s macaroni and cheese – an organic, boxed pasta option – is a little different from Kraft Dinner in taste (less salty) and caloric value (about a third lower). But the way both products are sold is not altogether different: Annie’s uses a cute bunny as its mascot for its entire product line, suggesting nostalgia, childhood and, again, wholesomeness; a 2017 Kraft ad titled “Family greatly” has a number of parents discuss how challenging it is to find time to be a perfect parent (luckily, KD only takes about 10 minutes to make). Where these two paths diverge in the woods is most evident when you dig into each company’s mission statement: For Kraft, it’s “helping people around the world eat and live better.” For Annie: bringing organic food to, ahem, “everybunny.”
Annie's Macaroni & Cheese, shown on the shelf at a supermarket in Edina, Minn., in 2018.
On the surface, this sort of seems like apples and, well, fancier apples. But the difference between “better” food and “organic” food is significant. For one thing, “better” – which we’ll take here to mean healthy, or healthier – is subjective, and up for debate: One person’s healthy might be another person’s sodium-rich. But organic is a set-in-stone concept, enforced at a federal level in the United States and Canada, and defended fiercely by its disciples as the best option for you, your family and your planet. You can evangelize for Annie’s, because you can evangelize for organics. And many do. It’s much more difficult to evangelize for “better food,” even though that’s what we all really want, because those terms aren’t as concrete. Annie’s has the advantage of a clearly defined side.
But Kraft has the advantage of price. A box of KD sets you back $1.47 at Walmart, and Annie’s Organic Mac and Cheese costs about a dollar more. So it’s not entirely clear whether, in this particular example – and many others – the organic option is the better option for everyone, every time. Not everybunny can stretch their grocery budget, but everybody deserves better food.
Kelly Hodgins, an academic at the University of Guelph, focuses on how the price of “ethical” food choices affects consumers across tax brackets. Ms. Hodgins, a British Columbia native, grew up farming. “I was very much focused on the farming side of things, and supporting small farmers, and trying to create a local, Canadian food system that supports small farmers,” she says. “Doing that really neglected food access for consumers.”
In researching her 2014 doctoral thesis, Ms. Hodgins looked not only at the high price margins of alternative food-market spaces, such as farmers markets, but she also conducted intensive interviews with the proprietors of such spaces – vendors, and farmers themselves – to get a sense of what they believe to be barriers to access. The responses were too varied to list here. Among them was convenience: Specialty stores and farmers markets are open infrequently, keep odd hours and are often simply not easy to get to for low-income individuals. The convenience factor, respondents said, also applied to the time it takes to cook food: One of Ms. Hodgins’s interviewees remarked that one can “feed a family from scratch for three days, if you wanna do it” (emphasis his).
The idea here, as Ms. Hodgins notes, is the inaccurate assumption that shopping and cooking habits are always typically framed as a matter of choosing to purchase fresh, organic foods over packaged ones, or to prepare one’s own food from scratch instead of eating out. It’s an especially egregious way of thinking when applied to low-income households, an extension of the age-old idea that if poor people would simply pull up their socks, work a bit harder and maybe read a book or two, they’d be happier, healthier and richer. Shaming the poor accomplishes nothing, and the aforementioned idea – rooted as it is in a bourgeois definition of financially anchored moral fortitude – is as wrong now as it ever was: A 2017 study by the University of Toronto think-tank PROOF found that individuals living in food-insecure households reported the same cooking abilities and menu-planning habits as those in higher income brackets. Desire for the organic peach is universal; access to the organic peach is not.
And that’s because, it almost goes without saying, the organic peach – the farmers-market peach – is just way, way pricier than its conventional counterpart. Last summer, I passed up an $8 basket of juicy freestone peaches, on sale at a farmers market located in one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, for a $3.99 basket onsale at a convenience store nearby. I don’t know if the half-price peaches were organic, or hand-picked, or how large the farm on which they were grown actually is; I didn’t hand my cash directly to their farmer or one of his or her friends, but a part-time retail clerk. But, even on a decent income with few bills and no dependants, I can’t always justify the moral superiority that comes with forking out almost 10 bucks on stone fruit. And anyway, it’s no coincidence that in Toronto, where I live, most farmers markets are situated in wealthier enclaves, or near plenty of tourist and white-collar foot traffic: Farmers need to make money, after all. So they need to market to people who’ve got it.
The lower-price fruits and vegetables available from chain grocery stores and big-box retailers are often the products of a highly subsidized industrial agricultural system that perpetrates (and perpetuates) serious environmental and social ills. But they are fruits and vegetables all the same. And simply suggesting that individual consumers choose to spend more money on food – whether to invest in better farming practices, to demonstrate using economic means that there ought to be a greater level of funding toward alternative food-retail infrastructure, or both – assumes that such a choice exists. “[Alternative food markets] are sometimes touted as the silver bullet,” Ms. Hodgins says. “But they’re not. In fact, it’s not a better food system than the conventional food system if it’s excluding people.” Put another way: If a food system is not accessible, how can it possibly be sustainable?
So what good does it do, to inflict the idea of a moral good – and therefore, the attendant idea that opting out of the moral good ought to result in a sense of personal shame – on a way of living, shopping and eating that is literally out of reach? A lot of the time, the language we use around good food borrows terminology (and, indeed, sentiment) from religion: It’s no coincidence that one of the most widely shared articles responding to the recent lawsuit against hipster seltzer company LaCroix, which claims the company overinflated its use of the term “natural,” was written by Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religious study at James Madison University in Virginia. In fact, Prof. Levinovitz writes often on the injection of morality into specific types of food, and why this impulse is entirely useless – if not potentially harmful.
“Seeking out natural products is about health, yes, but holistic health: physical and spiritual, personal and planetary. Nature becomes a secular stand-in for God, and the word ‘natural’ a synonym for ‘holy,’” Prof. Levinovitz wrote in The Washington Post earlier this month, commenting on the LaCroix lawsuit. “The appropriation of natural goodness by corporate brands allows us to expiate our guilt for participating in the system. As long as consumption is sacred, there’s no such thing as overconsumption. … Buying ‘natural’ is the modern equivalent of buying indulgences – deep down, we probably know that holiness can’t be purchased, but the opportunity is just too tempting to pass up. In this sense, both LaCroix and the people who buy it because it’s ‘natural’ are guilty of reinforcing the false faith of consecrated consumption and the false idol of nature to which it is dedicated. Instead of confusing ‘natural’ with innocence and goodness, we should think hard about who stands to benefit from the ritual practices that result.”
So just as the church demands penance of those who can’t afford to pay for forgiveness, so, too, does our modern moral food system make participation more difficult for those who simply can’t buy in. Certainly, it’s a net positive that the conversation surrounding our food production and consumption habits has veered strongly toward one that is critical of overprocessing, environmental degradation and practices that are harmful to the humans and animals who are participants (willing or not) in them. But we seem to have come to a conclusion about the best way to eat without factoring in the human experience. If good food is moral food, then morality needs to exist on a sliding scale that factors for lived experience. It’s not realistic to think that we’re all going to end up in a “good” place, but it would be helpful to strive for a way of thinking that doesn’t position anyone in a “bad” one. Let’s just try for a slightly more egalitarian “better.”

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Wisest Farmer- Wendell Berry

I was very pleased to have been asked to give a speech at the MacPahil Homestead, part of what's called the McRobie lectures. George McRobie was E.F. Schmachers friend and right-hand person, carrying on the "Small is Beautiful" legacy.  I talked about many of things I've written in this blog, essentially that it's not fair to short-change farmers in the marketplace, and then not expect them to short-change their farming practices, that  getting the economics right is essential to the kind of environmental stewardship we all want. Put another way: there are costs to cheap food that affect us all.

I was very pleased to see a day later an article in the New York Times interviewing Wendell Berry. And what was he talking about? The need to get economics right on the farm to protect the environment.

I did want to thank all of the people who came to the lecture. Thoughtful, mindful consumers are essential to getting our food system right and fair for everyone, and there was a whole roomful of these wonderful people that night. Inspiring for me.

Wendell Berry’s Right Kind of Farming

Gracy Olmstead 
Agricultural choices must be made by these inescapable standards: the ecological health of the farm and the economic health of the farmer.
Ms. Olmstead is an Idaho native living and writing outside Washington, D.C.
"Wendell Berry"
How we farm matters. For the past two centuries, America’s farms have expanded and homogenized, and farming equipment and chemicals have replaced personnel. Farmers have grown older and more isolated and are retiring without successors.
Our embrace of industrialization and “factory farming” has not resulted in greater economic security for most American farmers. The nation has suffered a historic slump in prices for corn, soybeans, milk, wheat and other commodities. It has lost half its dairy farmers in the past 18 years. And The Wall Street Journal warned in early 2017 that “the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s.”
The farmer, essayist and poet Wendell Berry has long argued that today’s agricultural practices are detrimental to ecology, community and the local economies that farms once served. A native Kentuckian, Mr. Berry has written over 40 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and has received a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award.
Mr. Berry argues that healthy forms of agriculture require intentional cultivation on the part of both consumers and farmers. Americans presume there will always be enough — money, clean soil, healthy water — to fulfill our desires. But our ravenous economic disposition goes against the very nature of our world and its finite resources. Advocates for sustainable agriculture argue that we ought to recognize the limits of our world and, as Mr. Berry writes, “live in it on its terms, not ours.”
This year’s proposed Farm Bill awards millions of dollars to wealthy agribusiness and factory farms in the form of commodity subsidies and crop insurance, while cutting funds for important conservation and stewardship programs and offering little to beginning farmers and ranchers or local farmers markets and local food promotion.
Mr. Berry, as an ally of Wes Jackson of the Land Institute and others, has long argued for a 50-year Farm Bill that would rejuvenate our nation’s ecosystems while fostering long-term food security in the United States.
Gracy Olmstead: The Farm Bill usually promotes short-term economic gains over long-term ecological health (something the 50-year Farm Bill seeks to fix). How do we get Washington politicians to support more sustainable forms of agriculture?
Wendell Berry: The problem here is not so much that of the shortness of the term of planning or of shortsightedness as it is of ecological and agricultural ignorance and a sort of moral blindness. The problems we ought to be dealing with are not problems because they are going to cause us trouble in the future. They are problems because they are obviously and clearly causing trouble right now. We ought to be doing our best to solve them right now.
If politicians and journalists want to know about the problems of agriculture, they are not likely to go out into “rural America” to observe the condition of the fields and the waterways or to talk to the farmers and the ex-farmers, the ex-merchants of the small towns, or to talk to the mayors and county judges of rural counties. Instead, they are very likely to talk to academic and bureaucratic experts, who are tightly bound within the industrial structure of agriculture, agri-science and agribusiness.
Alan Guebert was right when he said in one of his columns that this farm bill will be much like the last one insofar as it will not address the real problems of agriculture. Those problems, as you know, are soil erosion, soil degradation, the pollution of waterways by sediment and toxic chemicals, various ecological damages, the elimination of small farms, the destruction of the cultures of husbandry and the ruin of country towns and communities. And maybe we should add specifically the curse of overproduction, which at present, as often before, is the major and the cruelest problem.
Those problems could be summed up as the triumph of industrialism and industrial values over the lives of living creatures, and over the life of the living world. The preferences and choices of industrialism do not imply a limit of any kind. They rest instead upon the premises of limitless economic growth and limitless consumption, which of course implies limitless waste, and finally exhaustion.
Nothing can take form except within limits. No cure is possible, either in policy or practice, except within understood limits, which is to say within a correct diagnosis. This requires patience. A good solution has to begin with a description of the problem that is full, clear, and reliable.
Olmstead: The Farm Bill addresses many issues, including “rural development” — and rural communities desperately need help these days. Could the government help combat these issues, in your community and elsewhere?
Berry: A farm bill sincerely intending to help rural communities might begin by proposing a program of production controls and price supports for every product of farming and forestry. At present, for example, the dairy “industry” is increasing milk production by millions of gallons every year, thus reducing prices and driving small dairies out of business. This of course serves the interests of large dairies.
A bill intending to help rural communities, furthermore, might forbid the large chain stores to underprice their goods in order to destroy locally owned small stores. I don’t see why the government should not enforce honest prices for the same reason that it enforces honest weights and measures. I am sure that a lot of conservatives would object loudly to such “regulation.” But for small farms and small businesses, the “free market” is not a “level playing field.”
Olmstead: Many conservatives and libertarians see the Farm Bill’s handouts to large agribusinesses as the opposite of a free market. If small farmers are given a level playing field, they argue, more will succeed — and industrial agribusiness will no longer have a government-provided financial cushion.
Berry: I distrust entirely the terms “free market” and “level playing field.” Those phrases are intoned as if they were the names of gods, but what do they mean? How exactly do the conservatives and the libertarians think small farmers would be served by the free market and the level playing field?
The problem that has impoverished and destroyed farmers nearly always is that of low prices resulting from surplus production. That is also, obviously, a land-destroying problem. The only solution to that problem that can sustain the small farmers is the combination of production control and price supports as exemplified by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association as it was reorganized in my region under the New Deal in 1941. I dislike recommending my own writing, but that organization and its work are explained pretty fully in “The Art of Loading Brush.” The conservative politicians and their friends in the Farm Bureau hated that program because it protected the small farmers, and they finally killed it. In its absence, our troubles have multiplied.
Recently, for example, 100 family dairy farms have been put out of business in this region, two of them in my county, because Walmart is building its own milk-bottling plant in Indiana. And so 100 self-employed, self-supporting, self-respecting farm families are being severely damaged or destroyed in order to increase the wealth of a family already far too rich. I am unsure what the farmers themselves have concluded, but I can conclude only what I already knew: They have no friends among the conservatives and libertarians. And if the Democrats and the liberals were to capture the government, those small farmers would find no friends among them, as they now are.
Both of the political sides, so far as I am concerned, have to accept responsibility for the emergence of Donald Trump, the autonomous man, the self-made man, economically “free” and sexually liberated, responsible only to himself, starting from scratch and inventing his own way of doing things. To get outside the trajectory that produced Trump, we will have to go back to tradition. I am unsure when we began to think of, for instance, the 15th Psalm and Jesus’s law of neighborly love as optional. They are not optional, as I think the Amish example proves, and as proved by present failure.
Olmstead: Our trade war with China has highlighted American farmers’ reliance on the global market. Do you believe this reliance is a necessary risk in today’s globalized economy? How can these farmers safeguard their own self-sufficiency and well-being?
Berry: I have been arguing for a long time, and I still argue, that an economy worthy of the name should begin with proper care of its sources in the natural world and in the local cultures of land use. Beyond that it should be based upon the principle of a reasonable self-sufficiency, from the household to the local community and on through the categories of political organization.
Such an economy, within the variables of weather and human capability, would be formed within certain prescribed limits. To the extent that it would be limited and formed or formal, we might assume that it would be stable. Because such an economy has never been tried, we should not think of it with too much confidence. But there is certainly nothing limited or stable in our present casting about the “globe” for supplies and demands. This, like our present society, is disorderly if not chaotic.
The so-called global economy, because it is predicated on the exhaustion of natural sources and of the land-use economies, is far from a sure thing. An interesting question, then, is whether we might intentionally reform our economies upon the principle of self-sufficiency or be forced to do so by the failure of the global economy. Farmers by themselves can’t protect themselves in a “free market” economy whether it is national or global. At present they have only the very limited self-protection of supporting their own lives so far as possible from their own land — that is, by producing their own food and fuel, and by harvesting energy from their own sunlight.
Olmstead: An Iowa farmer recently told me that industrial agriculture is inevitable — the natural fruit of technological progress and globalization. The farmer reminded me of others I have talked to who, when asked about farming practices that are industrialized and isolating, reply by saying “We must feed the world.”
Berry: If you can persuade farmers that their hardships are “inevitable,” then you have got them very securely trapped and they can be safely forgotten by their political representatives and exploited by agribusiness corporations. Inevitability and objectivity, like pessimism and optimism, are the names of programs offering freedom from choice and responsibility. If “technological progress” is the same as technological determinism, then there are no remedies.
It can pretty well be demonstrated, however, that technological progress is the result of choices that have been made all the way from the inventors and manufacturers of technologies to the people who buy and use and pay for them. The important questions all have to do with the standards by which these choices are made. If the standards were different, different choices would be made.
And in fact we have plenty of evidence that choices can be made that evidently were not made by your Iowa farmer. That the alternative choices often have to be made against powerful social pressures does not mean that they cannot be made or that they are not valid choices. The finally inescapable standards by which agricultural choices must be made are the ecological health of the farm and the economic health of the farmer.
The problem of feeding the world should be addressed, first of all, by calculating the waste — from farmland and topsoil to thrown-away food — in the world’s “food systems.” Perhaps somebody has done this. If so, that is the place to start. The people, fairly numerous and highly credentialed, who argue that only industrial agriculture as we now have it can feed the world are arguing in fact that we can feed the world only by an agriculture that destroys both farmland and farmers. There is a point, obviously, beyond which this kind of agriculture will not be able to feed much of anybody.
Olmstead: As farmers grow older, we seem unable to attract or keep young people on the land. For some, this is because of the cost of procuring land and starting a farm. But I have also talked to farmers who were told they were “too smart” to farm by high school counselors and mentors. These admonitions align with a larger cultural prejudice against manual labor and blue-collar work. Considering the challenge to farming’s future which this represents, how can we foster and renew a passion for farming?
Berry: That smart people are “too smart” to farm is one of the set of clichés by which industrial agriculture has maintained itself. Another is that farming is “drudgery” or “mind-numbing work.” Another is that ex-farmers have been “liberated” from their hard, narrow, and depressing lives.
These clichés are sustained by the “larger cultural prejudice against manual labor,” which you mention. But there also are active prejudices against farmers, country people, the country, small-town people and small towns. This at least begins the description of a large cultural problem. Because of such prejudices, and also because of economic adversity, farmers encourage their children to leave farming. Their departing children, so few of them as they now are, amount to an invaluable cultural and economic resource, to which our present economy attaches no value at all.
What can we do about this? First, those of us who care must keep trying to bring about improvements, which we can do, and are doing, locally — where, in any event, the improvements will have to be made. Second, we have got to be patient. That this is a cultural problem means that it can’t be simply or quickly solved. What you speak of as a “passion for farming” can grow only from an understanding of the intelligence and the learning involved in the right kind of farming, and we should add an understanding of the better cultures of husbandry and of the traditional agrarian values. These things we must try to keep alive, not because of their “potential value” but because they are now and forever right.
Gracy Olmstead is an Idaho native living and writing outside Washington.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Getting a Nafta Deal

I've written a lot over the years about my support for supply management. Canada cannot give up on it because of the mindless bullying of Donald Trump. But I think Canada must be willing to give up something.  There's a complicated part of this story that I first wrote about back in June.  It has to do with Canada exporting milk powder and competing with U.S. farmers. I think Canada should give this up, especially if it means retaining the basic integrity of the system. It gives Trump a win, and apparently it's the bottom line for U.S. agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue.  Here's the background from a column in the Island Farmer.

Looking a Little Deeper

Canada’s national newspapers have been very consistent over the years in their condemnation of supply management. President Trump’s erroneous bombast on dairy has given them fresh material to work with. However there was one editorial in the Globe and Mail that revealed more about the newspaper’s  biases than any problem with the regulated system itself.

Opponents of supply management get one thing right. Canadian consumers do pay more for dairy poultry and eggs than Americans, who enjoy the cheapest food in the world (underpinned of course by $25 Billion a year in taxpayer subsidies to farmers).  Canadian dairy, poultry and egg farmers get no government support. What was revealing is how the Globe characterized the way the farm gate price is determined. Here’s what was written: “Canada’s agricultural supply management system is an outdated, protectionist racket that uses tariffs and quotas to limit the country’s supply of dairy, eggs and poultry, and sets prices for them based on production costs instead of demand.”

That last part is true. What’s shocking is that the Globe thinks there’s something wrong with this.  Think about it for a second. Consider if there is any other industry where a smart editorial writer would argue that recovering the cost of producing a product shows there’s something wrong with the price. We’ve seen how taxpayers had to bail out the auto industry when it wasn’t recovering costs. We’ve seen giant retailers fail for the same reason.  If the Globe had written that there’s excess profit because of protectionism (hello Canadian banks and airlines),  fine, let’s argue about that. But this is saying when farmers can pay their bills it’s wrong.

Even Sonny Perdue, the U.S. agriculture secretary who travelled to Lawrence MacAulay’s farm in Midgell two weeks ago to do a little fence mending after the G7 fiasco, had smarter things to say. Defying his boss he said Canada can keep supply management. What he doesn’t like is a new pricing agreement between Canadian farmers and processors for what’s called “class 7” milk. In simplest terms: northern U.S. dairies had been exporting diafiltered milk (think of protein powder) to Canadian cheese producers. It was a product created after NAFTA was signed, so came into Canada duty free (think cheap). Canadian farmers have now agreed to produce milk at the same price, so the Americans lost the market.  As well, international trade rules prevent Canadian dairies from exporting dairy products at prices below what farmers get in Canada (always higher than the world price until now).  The new class 7 has created a cheaper domestic price for skim-milk powder.  Combine that with the low Canadian dollar, and now small amounts of Canadian powder are competing in traditional American export markets. Perdue put it this way: “You just need to manage it and not overproduce to create a glut of milk solids on the world market that’s being dumped at unfair prices.”   That’s not an unreasonable concern, although the amount of product Canada puts on export markets is tiny and hardly the cause of U.S. dairy farmers problems.  We will probably see complaints to the U.S. International Trade Commission, and the World Trade Organization on this issue.

One more thought on milk. Maybe the U.S. dairy industry should stop using Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) to artificially increase milk production in cows (it’s outlawed in Canada). There are well documented health concerns for both consumers and cows from its use.  Banning the product would cut farmers’ costs,  decrease the over production of milk,  and help with the bottom line. And the U.S. would join the many other countries who ban this product.  I know this won’t happen.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

How Columnists Get Into Trouble

When writing a column you do want feedback. The ones below gave me a little more blowback than usual, and from both sides of the issue (a good thing??).  So I guess it's important to read both, and love to know what you think. These first appeared in the Island Farmer.

A Better Way to Find Justice

It was the retrial of Brookfield Gardens earlier this month on charges related to a fish kill in the North River 4 years ago that got me thinking about how the justice system deals with environmental infractions. Understandably we want those responsible for fish kills or other environmental violations held accountable, but these trials create enormous bitterness and cynicism amongst farmers, the very people we want using good sense and judgement in their day to day use of pesticides. Is there a better way?

Restorative justice is a legal concept that’s gaining support for dealing with certain kinds of crimes, where there has been loss of, or harm to,  property not persons. It’s based on the idea that the person found culpable acknowledges and takes responsibility for the harm done in a way that satisfies the people who were harmed, and because of that understanding doesn’t re-offend.  I know it sounds a little soft-headed, but let’s think about how these cases are handled now.

Investigations of fish kills aren’t easy. Soil samples, and water runoff  are collected, dead fish are analysed. Finding a “smoking gun” only happens occasionally.  Instead spraying records are collected from all farmers in the watershed.  In some cases charges stem from this paperwork investigation that have no actual link to the fish kill.  Alex Docherty, a high profile potato grower has never been shy about arguing he’s the victim of a witch hunt related to a fish kill in the Clyde River 2 years ago. There’s been no evidence presented so far that he had anything to do directly with the fish kill, but he was charged with administrative offences under the Pesticide Act related to spraying a neighbour’s field.  To Docherty it feels like there was political pressure to lay some charges related to this fish kill, and he was a good catch.  Emails Docherty has collected through an access to information request show a variety of government officials including in the premier’s office were informed once the charges were laid.

It’s the cynicism and lack of respect Docherty and many other farmers have developed for the enforcement system that worry me the most. Why?  It’s the farmers themselves responsible for filling out the paperwork that is so important to these investigations:  wind speed, air temperature and so on.  I can’t help but think that if I had had to fill out paperwork every night about how fast I was driving commuting to Charlottetown I’d never admit to more than 10 clicks over the speed limit and probably not even that, even though I always drove much faster. Are farmers any different? 

Then when farmers do end up in court smart and very expensive defence lawyers twist and turn words to try to get their clients off: What’s the definition of a waterway? What does cultivate mean? This just feels so unproductive.

Let’s think about Brookfield Gardens again.   Anybody who knows them recognizes that the owners, the Dykermans,   are good people, producing a variety of important vegetable crops, and transitioning over the last decade to an organic operation. They acknowledge that they made a bad mistake  in the summer of 2014, producing a conventional carrot crop on sloping land. Some of the charges they faced were because they were trying to add forage  to expand the buffer zone to prevent run-off. Chief justice Nancy Orr, who’s shown common sense in cases like this, found Brookfield not guilty in the original trial. However her decision was later overturned  because other judges ruled she didn’t have enough evidence to support the verdict.  I think she did,  because she knew the most important thing: these farmers would never do this again. Had it been handled through restorative justice, the Dykermans could have acknowledged their mistake to the community, the local watershed group, and recommitted to the good farming practices they already use.  That’s how you develop accountability.

One more example of the importance of farmers finding the right reason to farm responsibly, rather than just fear of the law.  There is a lot of sloping land, and potato farming in and around Souris, but so far no fish kills over the years.  Can this be linked to the long standing effort of the local watershed group to have farmers and others talk to each other and try to understand the challenges farmers face, and the need to preserve natural areas to support fishing and tourism?  That’s very different from other rural communities where farmers can be regarded as troublemakers and even shunned.

I’m not suggesting we can all have a “kumbaya” moment and everything will be OK, or that regulations and an enforcement regime aren’t needed.  I want responsible people handling pesticides, committed to protecting the health of their neighbours, local wildlife and waterways. I want caution and good judgement, not a tape measure used to determine the size of buffer zones.   I’m not convinced that lots of red tape and paperwork, and the threat of the heavy hand of the justice system, gets us that.

I’ve Got Some Explaining To Do

I’ve had a fair bit of reaction to my last column, some positive, much more of it negative. I always appreciate the feedback. I’d argued that a legal concept called restorative justice might be a better way to handle some environmental infractions like fish kills.  Anyone found responsible would have to answer to the community of people who were harmed rather than the courts. I’m going to dig the hole I’m in a little deeper.

My concern is that too many farmers, most who act very responsibly,  feel cynicism and disrespect for environmental regulations and the people who enforce them.  If they are charged it’s like the rest of us stopped for speeding, anger at getting caught, rather than any sense of guilt.   At the same time many in the public have little confidence in the willingness and the ability of the province to properly manage farmers, especially in the use of pesticides. They feel that the system is too full of carrots and not enough sticks.

What makes environmental laws different from other criminal matters is that those charged are guilty until proven innocent (thanks to a course I’ve been taking at Holland College on water management for that).   Something has happened, and the person responsible is considered guilty and liable for punishment.  The only defense is “due diligence”, did the person take all the reasonable steps expected to prevent the damage from occurring.   This can frustrate many because judges will issue “not guilty" verdicts even though the persons charged were clearly responsible.

It’s why record keeping is so important. It’s the only way someone can prove that he/she did practice “due diligence”.  Unfortunately most farmers don’t see it that way, but simply more paperwork and red tape.  And it gets worse.  In the last column I raised questions about whether farmers (or anyone) would voluntarily record damning information. As some farmers have put it  “Why would I provide  evidence for my own prosecution?”

And we have to remember there’s another kind of “due diligence” farmers have to practice.  Banks and other lenders, crop insurance agreements, contracted buyers  and so on require farmers to manage their crop properly, including using pesticides to control disease and insect damage.

Most of the criticism I received (from people I respect)  was that restorative justice doesn’t properly punish those  who commit serious environmental crimes, that farmers who treat the legal system and the environment with contempt shouldn’t be given another “get out of jail free card”.

When I first read about restorative justice a decade ago I had much the same feeling, that the courts, crown attorneys and judges, were the best way to judge crimes, and meet out punishment.  I began to think a little differently because of an idea that’s central to restorative justice:  normally those charged feel they’re answering to “the state”, with all of the resources and power that entails. They feel every right to fight back, and resent the fact that, in their minds, it’s not a fair fight.  With restorative justice they’re answering to the actual people who were harmed, made to understand the damage done. The people who were harmed get to agree on restitution, how to make things right.  Restorative justice supporters say when people have a proper understanding of the harm they’ve done, rather than anger and resentment towards the legal system,  there’s a much better chance at deterrence. 

I’m not so dumb that I don’t recognize that there are cases where farmers are not prepared to meet with neighbours or local watershed groups, or even acknowledge they’ve done anything wrong.  These cases can continue to go through the normal court system including, where appropriate, use of the much heavier fines under the federal Fisheries Act, for allowing a “deleterious substance” to enter a waterway.

I also think there are generational issues here. Most of todays older farmers started driving tractors, cultivating and spraying when they were teenagers or younger. They’re now being told they have to write tests,  keep records, and many resent it. The next generation is probably more prepared to accept food safety protocols, traceability requirements, the need for certification, and so on.  They don’t necessarily like it, but know this is what’s required to satisfy the demands of the marketplace. (I wish they could be properly compensated for the extra work.) 

Technology is helping too. Newer sprayers can better calibrate application rates and use GPS to prevent spraying in environmentally sensitive areas. The sprayers don’t have surplus mixed pesticide at the end that has to be dumped.  These sprayers are not cheap, but will better protect people including the applicator, and the environment. 

I wrote about this because I’m concerned we’re becoming very tribal when it comes to pesticide use, unwilling to listen to or believe “the other”. With extreme weather becoming the norm, the day to day decisions of farmers are becoming that much more critical.  PEI doesn’t have the resources or the political will to monitor every farmer (a drone over every field?) so we have to find other ways to have confidence that farmers are acting responsibly.  Using fear of the justice system, layering on the paperwork, is one way to do this.  Is there a better way?