Rural Voice Contribution for November

For pig farmers the NAFTA renegotiation period was an emotional rollercoaster; it was marked by misinformation, threats, and a general feeling of uneasiness given how desperately our industry needed to maintain tariff free access to US markets.  When the three countries came to an agreement in principal on September 30th I felt like the sun was starting to poke through the clouds.  It is never a good idea to overreact to a trade agreement given the long timeframes required to properly evaluate a deal but given the importance of the US market to our industry it was hard not to feel a sense of great relief.

While our industry needed this, our farming brethren in the supply managed industries did not share our happiness in the proposed deal.  This agreement, like CETA and TPP before it traded away supply managed market access in return for market access in member countries for export oriented industries like red meat and grains, not to mention our diverse manufacturing industries.

The reaction amongst supply managed farmers has been diverse, ranging from ‘it could have been worse’ to ‘this is the worst thing to happen in the history of Supply Management.’  One thing that all criticisms of USMCA have failed to do is explain what the perceived alternatives to this deal are.  Ultimately, Canada is a small nation in terms of population but rich with resources, making it absolutely necessary to have robust export markets for our varied products.  You simply cannot sustain economic growth with a slow growing population of 36 million people when you are in a developed state like Canada.  For arguments sake, let us assume that not having a free trade deal with the US is untenable and USMCA was the best deal Canada could get.  How does Supply Management adapt their system to ensure it is viable going forward?

I know it borders on heresy for a pig farmer to comment on Supply Management policy development however we do know a thing or two about managing businesses through prolonged periods of financial upheaval and uncertain market conditions so humour me: Here is a pig farmers guide to reshaping Supply Management for a post USMCA world.

Step One:

Conduct a one-time only quota buy back, financed by the Federal and Provincial governments using the pre-existing 60/40 cost sharing funding formula for all producers that wish to exit the market at current market rates in each jurisdiction.  As extra motivation for producers, exempt these sales from capital gains taxation.

Step Two

Create a merit based formula that indexes producers on past performance, variables to consider could include

  • Current Quality Metrics, for example, SCC count and component scores for dairy farmers
  • Current Quota Utilization, those currently filling their allocations receiving the highest score and then deducting points for under filling allocations
  • Adherence to Quality Assurance programs, use scores from inspections to rank producers on their ability to meet national programming
  • Time Elapsed Since Purchasing Quota, this is the hardest to quantify, but in my conversations with friends and family, capital debt loads for those that have entered the industries are rigid and they are the most sensitive to cash flow reductions while also representing the future of the impacted industries
  • Ability to accommodate increased production within current facilities

Step Three:

Using the merit scores, create a grid system to rank producers and prepare a market for the government held quota.  Pricing for the government held quota would be determined by a producers ranking, i.e. the highest ranking producers could access the lowest price point for government held quota while the lowest ranked producers would have the highest price point.

Step Four:

After knowing their ranking, producers apply for their preferred amount of quota based on the pricing accessible to them in their grid.  Applications would require proof of ability to finance the purchase and pre-existing capacity for the additional production.In theory, this system should allow the farmers that are invested in the system and delivering a good product to grow and adapt for the future while farmers who are lagging in compliance or production are forced to consider exiting the market.

The nature of farming is that we are better off working together whenever possible but at certain times that can be difficult.  When it comes to Canadian agriculture and trade, there are always going to be winners and losers given the diametrically opposed nature of export oriented and supply managed industries.  The goal should be that we can emerge on the other side of turmoil still feeling like the other is empathetic to our situation while never fully understanding how the opposite system works.


Trading Coveralls for a Lab Coat


“Clean Meat Could Make Livestock Obsolete” was the headline I read on January 5th, 2018.  You might see that headline and wonder why I was reading the latest periodical from some extremist animal rights publication, but the problem is that I was reading the Wall Street Journal…and this article was just one of many getting mainstream coverage about the new phenomenon of lab grown meat.  I have watched with interest (and growing fear) as lab grown meat products have moved from a fantasy to a reality we are going to have to deal with in the near future.

In August of 2013 The Economist published an article entitled ‘A quarter-million pounder and fries’ about a 140 gram patty that cost over $350,000 CAD to produce.  It was created by researcher Dr. Mark Post at Maastricht University and all he started with were stem cells from two live cows.  The article noted that the base stem cells Dr. Post used provided the foundation for the creation of 20,000 tonnes of cultured beef…the equivalent of 440,000 slaughtered cattle.

The most frightening aspect of this to me is the head spinning speed that scientists are moving at to reduce the cost from these processes.  Lab meat has seen exponential decreases in cost: in 2016 it cost approximately $18,000/lb to produce and then last year Memphis Meats, a leader in the space, produced the product for $2,400/lb.  Innovation only requires two ingredients, ideas and money and this industry has plenty of both.  Plant based protein and lab grown meat have received millions in funding over the past couple years and it isn’t just from “fringe” groups.  There have been significant investments from agriculture heavyweights like Cargill and Tyson.

I will be the first to admit that I got lab meat entirely wrong.  It never worried me in the past; why bother losing sleep about a niche product targeted towards vegans when they barely make up 2% of the North American population.  But I started thinking about the possible future ramifications in earnest after hosting friends over the Christmas season.  One of our guests had a dairy allergy and we had purchased some dairy free cheese (our dairy friends are safe, the stuff tasted more like cardboard than cheese). This got me looking into alternative proteins and how they are changing product positioning in the marketplace.  What I found was very enlightening.  The Globe and Mail ran an article last fall about Canadian Hollywood star James Cameron, who has invested millions in a Saskatchewan based pea processing plant and in this article one marketing executive shared that their company had begun to avoid the term vegan.  They are replacing it with “plant-based” because of the negative connotations that come with the term vegan.  A quick Google search will yield copious examples of companies that are working to replace animal products with either a “plant-based” alternative or lab-grown meat.

Perhaps you are wondering why we should be worried.  I know many people that I have spoken to recently about this who haven’t given it a second thought.  Most people will cite current consumer concerns and their rejection of agricultural technology as the primary reasons we don’t have to worry about lab meat. I find this ironic, because while my friends are correct in identifying fear of technology as a primary driver to current niches like Organic or non- GMO, they are forgetting how the majority of people buy their food.  Most people only care about three things: safety, taste, and cost.

Lab meat producers were able to cut their costs by 86% from 2015 to 2016.  If they continue to cut costs at this rate, by 2021 the cost of lab meat would drop below a dollar per pound.  If that happens, it will not be hard for lab meat to surpass consumer expectations for safety and that only leaves taste…a frontier that the plant based food producers have not been able to conquer.  But designing food flavours is nothing new and I wouldn’t expect this hurdle to remain.  Once they’ve accomplished that, we may need to look out as even though lab meat has never mooed, oinked, or clucked, it is still meat. They may start with nothing more than a collection of cells, but when given energy, protein, and the right micro and macro nutrients they will grow and a steak, sausage, or egg.  You may think that it is unrealistic that the lab meat process could maintain such dramatic decreases in cost year over year, but this should not be dismissed; in five years it has moved from a $350,000 pipe dream to $2400/lb and there is a very real chance that it could become cost competitive to traditional meat within a decade.

I can’t help but wonder if I am no different than a blacksmith in the late nineteenth century watching an early version of a car go by.  At the time cars were dismissed as nothing more than a novelty for the rich and the famous.  A generation later everybody had a car and the craft of blacksmithing had almost vanished.  Food and cars may not be exactly the same thing, but people have always shown themselves to be willing to buy something new and different if it meets their needs and the price is right.

Encouraging Self Care

I took a day off and unplugged completely.  Shut off my phone, turned off the wifi, and headed to my basement to play one of my favourite childhood computer games.  It was the type of day that in my earlier years I would have been ashamed to admit that I did such a thing, now I know that it is all part of taking care of me.

Farmers across the country have started to talk openly and honestly about mental health and it couldn’t have come soon enough.  Farming is an incredibly rewarding occupation; we get to manage delicate biological systems that use every part of our brain and the fruits of our labour are the base of human life.  The aforementioned biological systems however make our job stressful.  We have many challenges that are beyond our control and with some regularity we face varying levels of disaster.  We make decisions in real time and we don’t always get things right.  Beyond the biological challenges, we have to manage price risk, human resources issues…the list goes on and on.

Research done at the University of Guelph by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton found that stress levels among Canadian farmers were two to four times higher than our counterparts in Europe.  There is no Canadian data set for tracking farmer suicides but statistics from the US show that the rate of suicide among farmers was the highest of any occupation, almost 40% higher than construction which was next on the list.  I was one of the 1100 farmers who filled out Dr. Jones-Bitton survey because there are few things as important to me as moving the discussion about mental health on the farm forward.  It is so encouraging to see the research community support us as we seek better options for those of us who struggle on the farm.

I am no stranger to depression and anxiety; I have written and spoken numerous times about my battles with mental health.  As I have gotten older, my approach to mental health has changed.  Once upon a time, I felt that when it came to dealing with depression that there would be a finality to it, some sort of end point where I would feel better.  Today my thoughts have changed; I believe that our mind is no different than any other muscle in the body.  We can build it up through exercise, it can atrophy if not used correctly, but it never stops working entirely until death.  To some, the thought of depression not being some sort of acute time period may seem disheartening but for me, the acceptance that mental health is a lifelong journey has made the lows easier to bear.  More importantly, it has allowed me to build a regimen and support system that is making me more resilient for the challenges that farming throws my way.

So back to my day off…if farming is hard, expanding a farm business is even harder.  Jess and I have been blessed since we founded our own farming operation and we have been able to grow our business over the past year and a half.  This growth has not been easy and we are finding new bumps in the road at each step.  For the past couple months it has felt like we are bouncing from one crisis to the next and  I hit a wall.  My tank was empty.  So I decided to fill it up in the most expedient way I know how, a few hours of mindless activity playing a game from my childhood followed by a long sleep.  I cannot explain how or why this makes me feel better but it does and my journey has taught me that self-care needs to take priority if things are getting rough.  I would encourage you to think about your own mental health.  No one questions why someone may dedicate themselves to physical fitness because it is generally accepted that keeping the body healthy is a smart thing to do.  Treat your mind the same way.  Take stock in how it is performing and don’t be afraid to work it out every once and awhile.  

We will never be able to stop suicide entirely but we can sure do better at building a support system for our fellow farmers.  Mental health services are woefully inadequate here in our rural areas so it is left to us, the members of the community to fill the void.  Never underestimate the power you have by just being a decent person.  If someone you know is struggling don’t run away from the difficult conversations, dive in head first with a message of universal love and acceptance.  Don’t pretend to know how to make them feel better, just reassure them that they are loved and valued then help them find the help they need.


Merriam-Webster defines truth as ‘the body of real things, events, and facts’.   There are many voices clamouring to share the truth about food production with the consuming public and each has their own bias and agenda.  Pork production can elicit polarizing feelings, ranging from those who believe it is a deplorable industry raising animals in inhumane factory farms all the way to those who envision idyllic family farms raising healthy, nutritious pork.

When it comes to the reality of meat production, I wonder if for too long we have ignored a truth that we all recognize but hope our consumer doesn’t think much about.   This truth is at the root of the animal activist’s argument for why people need to become a vegan and on our side of the story we have hid from it.  We have developed terms like “processed” or “harvested” to try and keep from saying it.  The truth is simple…we kill pigs to produce and sell meat.  Our whole industry is built upon raising animals for slaughter and maybe it is time for us to stop ignoring that fact when we tell the consumer our story.

It is not an easy conversation to have because death has become one of our deepest societal fears.  We often recognize that people are typically a few generations removed from the farm now and while the vast majority of baby boomers had a connection to a farmer in their formative years, much of my generation was raised with no connection to the farm.  And just as we have become removed from the farm, we have become less comfortable with death.  If we turn back the clocks to 1921 the average life expectancy was 57.1 according to Statistics Canada.  Even beyond the harsh loss of life in two World Wars, death was more prevalent in general.  Men were killed at work, women died in childbirth, and young children succumbed to diseases that have long been conquered by science and vaccines.  Death was more a part of everyday life and while it was no less painful to lose a loved one then as it is today, perhaps society had a better understanding that death happened.  I do not think that the men and women of my grandparent’s generation feared death like we do today.  Perhaps that came with the stronger prevalence of faith witnessed with their generation, or maybe it was just because they were hit with the realities of human survival on a far more regular basis than we are today.  Or possibly it is a combination of both.

When I was a kid Disney movies were a staple in our house and the Lion King was watched with regularity.  There is a scene in the movie when Simba’s father Mufasa, explains the ‘Circle of Life’ (which also was a great Elton John song on the soundtrack) how the wildebeests eat the grass, the lions eat the wildebeests, and when the lion dies their body returns to the ground to feed the grass.  Our circle is not much different: sun feeds our crops, the crop feeds the pigs, and in turn the pigs feed us while their manure feeds the soil for the next crop. Our societal fear of death has corrupted the understanding of this circle and has made us wary of admitting to the truth when we explain animal production to the general public.

So how do we go about explaining what we do and why we do it in a society where death is feared almost universally?  We tell the truth.  We explain that while the pig is alive, it is free of fear of predators, that every day it has fresh water and plenty of food, and when it is time, their death will come swiftly and as humanely as possible.   It is also true to say that meat is a valuable part of a healthy diet.  As much as animal activists would like us to forget this fact, humans are omnivores and meat provides a multitude of nutritional benefits.

Animal activists are not going to stop sharing with people that eating meat ends life; it is at the crux of their belief system.  If a person decides that they do not wish to eat meat because of that, that is their choice and we are best to respect that.  At the same time, animal activists will also continue to push their narrative that livestock are treated inhumanely throughout their lives up to and through the end.  It is here that we can make a stand and have the truth on our side once more as we defend exactly what we do and why we do it.


This past Saturday I did something I had not done in a long time…I spoke publicly about my struggles with mental health.  I had been asked to speak at the Ontario Agriculture College Leadership Conference a couple months ago and true to form, I sat down at my computer on Thursday night with very little insight into what I was going to say.

I ended up creating a presentation called “It’s My Journey…You Can’t Have It” and I talked to students about my path from a 19 year old farm boy at Guelph to today.  It was a simple 13 slide deck and each slide had a picture or two about a particular time or event in my life.  I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to fill 90 minutes with 13 slides but I had faith that in the moment that right words would flow.

I had two slides in the deck entitled ‘Our First Detour’ and ‘The Big Detour’.  The first slide had a picture from OAC Goodtimes Banquet from 2007.  That was the day I had a doctor’s appointment in Listowel after persistent lung problems and the doc told me that he wanted to do some tests but he was convinced that it was from time in a pig barn and I should rethink my career path.  That was a massive shock for me and it set me adrift into an insular depressed period.  It killed my motivation; I rarely went to class, I drank excessively and started to cut myself off from many people I cared about.  Thankfully that period ended when further testing revealed that my problems were coming from my mold infested basement bedroom at school and not the barn.

The Big Detour slide had a graph showing the corn hog ration for the last 10 years.  I told the group about how I returned home to farm full time after grad school and after careful planning; we launched an expansion project with a second sow herd.  That project taught me some important lessons like just because something looks profitable in Excel does not necessarily translate into actual profitability.

That project was an unmitigated disaster from a production standpoint and the timing coincided with a run up in corn values and collapsing hog prices.  As fall turned to winter in 2012, our financial position deteriorated rapidly and losing the everything that Mum and Dad had built became a real possibility.  I internalized this, blaming myself entirely for the failure of the project and causing the extra level of vulnerability for my parent’s finances.  I could not sleep nor I could not communicate with loved ones as I retreated down the dark path of depression.  My self-hate knew no bounds, I would scream at myself in the barn when I made simple errors, I would be paralyzed in the seat of my car when I got to the barn, dreading actually going in to the building.  Weirdly, my only refuge from the self-hate came through a podcast about Fantasy Football called Fantasy Focus with 2 guys named Matthew Berry and Nate Ravitz.  That 50 minute show gave me something to look forward to each day and gave me a much needed reprieve.

Things came to a head in early December 2012.  I was preg checking sows and had failed miserably to get sows pregnant. (Turns out farming is even harder when you are fighting depression)  I grabbed an extension cord and was searching the barn for a place to tie it off securely.  That moment was the darkest moment of my life.  Thankfully, I had a glimmer…a voice that spoke to me saying not today, this is not how my story will end.  I went to the barn office, grabbed my phone, and called my Mum and Dad asking them to get to the barn as quickly as possible.  My parents responded with unconditional love.  My Mum walked through the door of the barn that morning and wrapped me tightly in a hug and I knew I made the right decision.  I was loved, I had value, and even if our family lost everything, my parents love for me would never waver.

Getting through that day was not the end of that round in my fight with mental illness.  I remained in a very fragile state.  A couple weeks later I went to Stratford on a Saturday afternoon to listen to Boston Marathon winner Wesley Korir speak.  I called him a couple days after that presentation, asking if he could meet to share more about agriculture in his home of Cherangany, Kenya. He told me he would be at my apartment in 30 minutes.  He drove up that afternoon, we sat down at our kitchen table and he looked me in the eye and said, “Stewart, I have been praying for a farmer to come from Canada to Kenya with me and you are that farmer.  You are coming to Kenya.”  I was a little dumbfounded but thankfully I embraced it and less than a month later I was on a plane destined for Kenya.

My slide about the Kenyan chapter in Saturday’s presentation to the Aggies was titled, “The Kenyan Reset” because it was that first trip to Kenya that I was able to get back to living.  I penned this blog, entitled Rediscovering Happiness towards the end of my trip and many of my discoveries remain true today.

I am publishing this today because Bell has started something wonderful with their #BellLetsTalk initiative.  On Saturday, before I started my presentation, I said that if I reached 1 person in the crowd who was fighting their own battle then I would deem the presentation a success.  I say the same again today, if this post helps 1 person find the courage to reach out for help then I have done my job.   Remember, even in the darkness of a struggle, you have value, you are loved, and you never have to face your demons alone.


Love Stewart


This Took Longer Than I Thought

I was in a funk for a couple weeks following the US election.  Much of my negativity showed through emotional responses in social media forums, (I should really try to find a better outlet). I was overtaken by fear.  I fear President-elect Trump’s protectionist view on trade and the impact that could have on my business. I fear for the rights of vulnerable people in an increasingly polarized world where leaders sell hate to gain support, and I fear because the man that will have access to the American nuclear arsenal can’t control his temper when Alec Baldwin makes fun of him on SNL.

Thankfully, I am married to a brilliant person and one day Jess sent me this wonderful piece by Daniel Dennett.   I have left this open on my computer, rereading it from time to time.  Nothing will be accomplished through bellyaching on Twitter and I have found myself trying to apply Mr. Dennett’s method when facing something that normally would infuriate me.  A month ago when the youngest MPP in the history of our province was sworn in I found that this approach allowed me to identify that I had some things in common with Sam Oosterhoff.  In an interview where he was badgered continually to give some clarity on his thoughts around same sex marriage he managed to communicate that he felt that investment in infrastructure and energy prices were more important than his socially conservative views.  While we might not agree on social issues, it appears that Sam and I agree that good infrastructure and affordable energy are key to a well-functioning economy.  Old Stewart probably would have just shut his ears when Sam started talking and I never would have learned about the common ground we share.

Working at Queen’s Park allowed me to confirm something that Terry Fallis’s character Daniel Addison discovered at Parliament Hill in his novel, Best Laid Plans.  People who work in and around politics are either an idealist policy wonk or a cynical political operative.  I fall into the 1st category and I’m not a huge fan of the cynics.  I don’t like the operatives because they prey on people’s base instincts and they can allow the pursuit of power to derail good policy implementation.

Cynical politics are powering a couple prominent campaigns in the Conservative Party of Canada race and it is coming at the cost of the general public ignoring some very interesting policy because there are too many dog whistles blowing. Cynical operatives know the best way to get power is to do the calculus on their voter base and then make statements that appeal to the base emotion of powerful subgroups within their party.  I doubt very much that Kellie Lietch herself suffers from Islamophobia but she knows that by making seemingly innocuous statements about Canadian values it will tap into the current wave of Trumpian Nationalism that is sweeping the globe right now.  Cynical politicos rely on the high engagement levels of single issue voters and because overall participation in partisan politics is so low, this can be a very successful strategy.

I think the current Conservative leadership race is an excellent time to throw a wrench in the plans of the cynical political operatives.  They are not expecting a group of people to band together to ensure the Conservative party does not get hijacked by a Trump of the North.  This data is a touch old but according to StatsCan only 9% of Canadians were members of a political party in 2013.  My rough math says that means there are 25 million people eligible to join the Conservative Party of Canada before March 28th, 2017 and vote in the leadership race.

A strong Conservative party is important for a healthy Canadian democracy and they have good candidates running to be the leader. Micheal Chong acknowledges that inaction on climate change is unacceptable and he has a plan to address it. Maxime Bernier has some thought-provoking ideas on monetary policy but his narrow interpretation of Supply Management, which is incredibly important to the health of rural Canadian communities, drops him off my list.  Erin O’Toole would be best for agriculture and I think that Lisa Raitt and Deepak Obhrai deserve to be considered.

Canada needs a Conservative leader who embraces real Canadian values. Someone that has an alternative to a national carbon tax instead of a refusal to acknowledge the threats of climate change.  Someone that cares about fiscal responsibility and doesn’t care who you love. Someone who understands that there are more than just economic deficits; they need to have a plan to address infrastructure and knowledge deficits.  If you are interested in having a say in this leadership race start here

The first political party I ever joined was the Federal Progressive Conservatives and I really do believe that Canada needs a strong Conservative party.  The historical balance between the two governing parties is what has made our country so great.  My last post I said I would be back in a week, that was silly.  Family and Farming leave very little time for writing. However, I am going to continue to write once and awhile about the race.

Until next time


Underpinned by Faith

The origin of this post lies in a private exchange I had with a fellow farmer this week.  This person disagreed with some of my tweets from the US election season and wanted to ask for my reasoning.  We shared our opinions with each other and eventually concluded we had a philosophical divide on the particular subject. It was the most civil social media based argument I have ever been a part of and I am thankful we had it; it forced me to examine my own position and it got me thinking about my faith.

I woke up Wednesday morning scared.  I respect the democratic institution that has given the world President-elect Trump but I do not respect the man.  I found his hatred in his campaign speeches repulsive and his brash, prideful and not entirely stable temperament should never have been given the nuclear codes.  My fear is not unfounded. History has many cautionary tales of what happens when a rise in isolationist nationalism is coupled with poor economic conditions.  This piece by Tobias Stone gives some excellent reasons on why fear is an acceptable emotion at a time like this.

As this week has worn on however, I have started to find comfort.  Whether you call it God or Allah, Shiva or Jehovah, billions of people around this world believe in higher powers.  We believe in something that we cannot see, touch, or always understand but yet so many have an unwavering faith. Jess and I named our business Imani Farms, Imani is a Swahili word for faith. Farming is a challenging occupation where much of the outcome is determined by factors beyond your control.  Having faith helps me to keep a healthy mind when stressful circumstances arise. Faith can take many forms and for me it is my acknowledgment that there is a greater power guiding the tiller for humanity.

Today I am heading off to Germany for Euro Tier, the world’s premier livestock show.  I am going because I have dreams for Imani Farms and regardless of who is President of the United States I am going to work towards them.  Faith is not an excuse for inaction; it is what gives us courage to take risks and achieve our potential.

When I get home I’m going to renew my membership with the first political party I ever joined, the Conservative Party of Canada.  I have to accept that for the next 4 years I will have to say President Trump but by buying a CPC membership I can play my role to ensure that his northern surrogate never reaches the ballot. I’m going to join #NeverKellie

More on #NeverKellie when I get back.

A Great Man

This morning Bryce Sharsel Skinner left us peacefully, surrounded by family.  Though one is never glad to lose a love one, I couldn’t help but smile because all I can picture is Grandpa making it to heaven in time to have breakfast with Grandma.  I believe they are probably sitting across from one another in loving silence, just happy to be together again after their short time apart.

For a brief time I had 2 Bryce Skinners in my life.  One of them played a huge role in shaping the man that I have become, the other has ushered me into the wonderful world of fatherhood and I have no doubts that I will be drawing on my memories of ‘Old Bryce’ as I do my best to shape ‘Young Bryce’.

I was blessed to get to spend over 32 years of my life with Grandpa Skinner.  My memories start sleeping in the little room off their bedroom and Grandpa tickling my toes to wake me up in the morning.  My favourite memory from recent past happened a couple months ago when for a short while, Grandpa shook of the chains of dementia and we played catch with a bouncy ball at Strathmere Lodge.  In between those bookends was a lifetime of good advice and the provision of a living example of how to be a good man.

I actually said my goodbyes to Grandpa about a week ago; Jess, Young Bryce, and I went for one last visit because we knew his time was short.  Since that visit, I have spent much of my time reflecting on what Grandpa saw throughout his lifetime and the lasting positive impact he and the other members of the Greatest Generation have had on our world.

Grandpa provided a foundation for many of my core beliefs and there is one piece of advice that I wrestle with often.  During one of our regular Tuesday lunches that we would have when I worked in Mitchell he told me, “Stewart, good men stand up and speak up, and we need more good men.” That phrase on its own seems pretty easy to follow but when you couple it with how Grandpa lived, it made it a bit harder to understand.  In my lifetime, Grandpa was not one for grandstanding or being the centre of attention.  Others have told me that Grandpa had a knack for knowing when to stand up and when to speak.  He did not speak often, but if he did, people stopped and listened.  I have painted vivid pictures in my own mind of what Grandpa may have been like as a younger man and I think I only need to look to my own father to see a reflection of what Grandpa was talking about.  When I was a teenager, I would watch my Dad with awe as he spoke with passion about the pig industry and moving it forward as Chair of Ontario Pork.  Something tells me that if I had a time machine and I could go back to 1950s and 60s, I would see an almost identical picture of Grandpa.  I believe that my Dad, like Grandpa, did not seek out leadership positions out of a lust for power but by an intense desire to serve, whether it was the church, agriculture, or community.

Grandpa and Grandma also worked together to instill in me a love of history and the importance of family.  In the nineties, a relative recorded Grandma and Grandpa talking about Skinner history and my Grandma had a wonderful quote when asked why it was important to understand our family’s history, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, how do you know where you are going?”  Without a doubt, my favourite memories will always come from sitting and listening to Grandma and Grandpa share stories of previous generations of our family.  They had a marvelous ability to tell a story in tandem, each augmenting the other when a detail was missed or a perhaps too much creative license was being taken.  Grandpa’s love of history went far beyond family history, local history, steam power, political history…I am very blessed to have had a person like him to show me just how important history is.

I am going to miss Grandpa, there is a part of my soul that comes straight from that man, and I will endeavour to be like him when I can.  Like Grandpa, I love to tell a good story and hopefully someday my children and grandchildren will sit around my table and listen to stories about the time my Grandpa Bryce finished cutting his hay early and decided to knock off early and he and his friends jumped into a car, headed to London for a night of dancing or the time he and his threshing mates threatened to walk off the job after 3 days of being fed nothing but fried baloney for every meal by a bachelor farmer.

There will be tears today and in the days ahead, but the tears will dry and we will be left with our memories of one of the finest men to tread this earth, love you Grandpa.


When 140 Characters Isn’t Enough

Twitter has killed civil discourse. 140 character limits make having a discussion about complex topics like food production next to impossible but for some reason it has become a platform of choice for exchanging ideas.  I have watched many of my fellow food producers howl when A&W, Subway, and other food businesses work to create supply chains that go beyond the base standards laid out by the CFIA and various provincial regulations.  From time to time, I will wade into the fray and often my view is rather unpopular among my counterparts.  Rights of the individual is very important to me, it is part of why we live such wonderful lives here in Canada.  Our rights are respected and protected by a series of laws and ultimately, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  For me, there is a logical extension to businesses and when a company in the food industry makes a decision that they feel is best for the health of their business, I skip over the indignation and go straight to looking at what new opportunities this opens up for growers.  We can bluster all we want, but this trend will continue and we will see greater segmentation within our food industry.

This is a large part of why Jess and I are working to start up a certified humane production loop to produce pigs.  We weighed the options available for growth of our business and this avenue offered long term price stability in of one of the fastest growing segments of the protein market.  We don’t think that the pork we will produce is ‘better’ and I will admit that I don’t like the way the label implies that commodity pork is somehow now ‘inhumane’ because it is not.  Regardless of production system, farmers care for their livestock, ensuring that animals’ needs are met and the grocery shelves are always full with safe, affordable food.  That said, a growing segment of consumers have said loud and clear that they are concerned about animal welfare and they are willing to pay a premium for an audited production system that adheres to specific requirements.  We have made a decision to take part in that.

The larger issue at play for me is how defensive Agriculture has gotten as an industry.  Case in point, yesterday I got into a back in forth with an author who published a blog criticising Temple Grandin for an article in which she shared her concerns surrounding the long term implications that genetic selection for higher production is having on dairy cow longevity.  I have serious issues with someone going after one of animal agriculture’s strongest advocates in the public eye because she had the audacity to say that everything is not perfect on the farm.  He cherry picked quotes and sprinkled in some anecdotal evidence using Gigi, the 9 year old wonder cow.  My former thesis advisor had a saying, “an n of 1, a study does not make.”  Trying to use one cow as justification that Grandin is wrong is misleading when we know that the average age of a dairy cow has declined as productivity has increased. Oltenacu & Algers published peer reviewed research back in 2005 highlighting this phenomenon; a long term study of Holstein cows in Northeastern USA showed that 80% of cows lived to 48 months in 1957. By 2002 this had dropped to 60%.

Switching to our farm, I will be the first one to admit that our longevity of sows has a negative correlation with productivity.  In 2012 we weaned an average of 21.84 piglets per sow per year and our average parity on the farm was 2.98.  In 2016 we are weaning 29.91 piglets per sow per year and our average parity has decreased to 2.6.  Our animals are healthier, better fed, and better cared for than ever before, they just are not staying on the farm as long.  This leads to a bigger question; does a reduction in longevity equate to poorer welfare?  I don’t think it does, as I stated above, our animals are better cared for than ever before but we do need to consider the long term ramifications of basing much of our genetic selection on productivity traits.

We as food producers need to come to grips with the fact that we are not perfect and in this world of instant communication, the drive for transparency in food production will continue to intensify.  The odd thing is, I think we all know that we are not perfect but for some reason most of us are very defensive.  My guess is that much of the anger is rooted in the fact that we are doing a great job of producing more food while greatly reducing the environmental impact of said production. All we want is to be left alone to continue doing what those who came before us did, feeding people. Rightly or wrongly, this simply isn’t an option and as long as there is Twitter, Instagram, Insert New Social Media Platform Here, and full grocery store shelves we are going to face continued scrutiny around our practices.  Each generation of food producers have had to grapple with new challenges; maybe ours is learning to accept that non farming people will play a significant role in shaping how we grow food.


“We can talk all we want about the safety and the science, but if we can’t convince consumers, producers must find other markets or change their practices.” Michael Von Massow

Rediscovering Happiness

As my time here in Kenya comes to a close my thoughts have started to become more introspective. Anytime you force yourself outside of the ‘comfort zone’ you give your mind a chance to ponder things that get lost when caught up in the hustle of North American life. Before I left on this trip I knew that I needed to have such an opportunity, I just don’t think I realized just HOW much it was needed.

My departure for Kenya on February 5th marked the end of an incredibly tumultuous 6 months. I have been fighting with depression since late summer in 2012 and while I have dealt with mental illness before, this was the fiercest battle I have faced. Last spring, I convinced the rest of my family to expand the farming operation…I did the planning, I made the contacts with suppliers and buyers, and I was to be the one responsible for managing the project. I learned the hard way that while things may look good in Microsoft Excel, it doesn’t mean that they will automatically translate into real profits. As the summer progressed and corn prices skyrocketed, our financial position deteriorated while at the same time my inexperience with sows caused production challenges in the new barn. I (irrationally) blamed myself entirely and the downward spiral of depression took hold. I have found that when it comes to depression, you know that on a good day, you can look at the situation and separate what you can control and what you can’t…but on a bad day, it doesn’t matter what happens, you feel like you are completely and utterly worthless, like you just can’t do anything right. Depression makes life pretty tough, and not just on you, but your spouse, family, and close friends. Thankfully, I have a wonderful, supportive, and understanding wife; plus a family that even if I did do something that caused our farm to fail, they would still love me as much as they always have.

Kenya has given me the opportunity to step away from everything, to give my mind a break. I couldn’t tell you what the price of corn or pigs are today, I don’t really know how things have gone at home (other than that we had a barn roof partially collapse, and that only came up because I joking asked dad on the phone if everything was still standing and after an awkward pause, he said no) and I am completely ok with it. My mind needed this chance to switch off while at the same time be reminded of just how lucky I am.

Being in the midst of so much poverty has allowed me to think about what really makes a person happy. I see kids here that can find joy for hours with a homemade car constructed out of twigs, water bottle caps, and some cardboard. I see families enjoying a simple meal in the dark and while I have no idea what they are saying (My uptake of Swahili has been slow) the laughter that I hear makes me think they must be having a good time. It is suitable I think, given the situation, that I am reading a book given to me by my brother in law entitled “How Much is Enough? The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life”. A mix of philosophy and economics, the book challenges our obsession with monetary growth, asking at what point are we ever truly happy.

Back home I was so worried about how Jess and I were going to buy the farm, I was obsessed with the question of whether I could be a successful farmer or not, I fretted over the fact that we were still renting an apartment while all of our friends were buying houses and having babies. I was doing so much worrying that I forgot how to be happy. I’m so thankful that I have had the chance to take stock and realize that just like the kid with the homemade car, the things that make me happiest cost nothing (or next to nothing).

I realized that happiness is a random Wednesday night of video games and a beer with my brother. Happiness is eating lunch after church at Mum and Dads (Mum, Kate, and I destroy a bag of chips while Donald constructs the most complex sandwich projects known to man). Happiness is walking in to the farrowing room at the right time, seeing a piglet take its first step. But most of all, happiness is being beside a beautiful girl named Jessica, it doesn’t matter where…in the car, on the dock at the cottage, on the couch in our apartment, to be honest I have realized that you could ask me to live in a refrigerator box and as long as Jess was there with me I could find happiness in it.

When I come home I know that I will be thrown back into the fire and it will be a challenge to remember what I have learned here. I’m going to have to go back to work in the barn so I will be forced to face the demons that plagued me there prior to this trip. I will have to work really hard to not allow myself to determine my self worth by what I perceive my friends to have that I don’t have. Most importantly, I can’t allow myself to forget what can truly make me feel happy.

I have been forever changed by this experience, the Cherangany has become a part of me and even if I return to “normal” life for a bit (I need to pay some bills) this trip is going to have a lasting impact on my future. I’m not saying that I am going to pick up and move here, but 2 posts ago I alluded to the vision that Wesley has for this region and I intend to uphold my end of the bargain. While it is too early to know what my exact role is, I have every intention of trying to pay back the people of the Cherangany for the invaluable (and potentially lifesaving) lessons they have taught me. To close, I want to take a chance to thank the people that made this trip possible for me. To Wesley and Tarah, thanks for making me feel so welcome, it is hard to believe that this whole trip was based on one lunch at Joanne’s house. To my Mum, thanks for always picking up the phone whenever I needed to talk (and also making sure that I always know that I am loved). To Dad, I’m sure you are starting to get exhausted given you are doing the work of two people, I’m so lucky to have a father/boss that allows me so much freedom. And Jessica, thanks for never doubting in me and continuing to love me, even at my darkest moments. I am such a lucky man to have you as my wife.

Be happy my friends…