Hoping For Better In Election 44

With less than a week to go until Election Day the outcome of Canada’s 43rd general election is no clearer than the first day of the campaign.  The only thing that has become clear throughout this election is that Canada is more fractured than ever, regionalism is rearing its head and contentious issues are being exploited by political puppet masters for political gain.

People may blame their anger on a particular issue but at a foundational level, much of the dissatisfaction can be traced back to a society that is obsessed with stuff; how much stuff we have, how much we feel we ought to have, and jealously surrounding how much stuff others have. As long as we don’t kick our addiction to materialism, our political parties will keep using the time honed practice of bribing us with our own money to get our vote.  At a time when household debt in Canada has become the highest in the G7, promoting policies that will deepen household debt border on dangerous.

The Liberals and the Conservatives have based their entire pitch around ‘affordability’ by promising tax credits for this and rebates for that.  What no one acknowledges is the majority of the promises made this campaign still require us to spend more than we will get back.  You can’t get a home renovation tax credit without renovating your home just as you can’t enjoy a subsidy for a new home purchase without actually purchasing a home.  When talking to friends and neighbours about this phenomena a common theme arises…instead of offering all of these targeted programs that cost millions to administrate and ensure that deficit budgets are a permanent fixture, why doesn’t government let us keep more of our own money? The fact is that as long as political operatives can influence the outcome of an election with goodies, they will keep rolling out this strategy.  Until people stop falling for this, nothing will change.

Beyond the issue of materialism fuelling dissatisfaction and political fracture, we are remaining blind to the fact that it is this consumerist obsession that is the greatest threat to the environment. As long as we remain a society that would rather browse Amazon for a new trinket that will be delivered to our door in excessive plastic packaging in an oversized cardboard box instead of going for a walk to visit with our neighbours we will fail to truly address the environmental issues facing us right now.  Every item you buy, from the most basic necessity to the most lavish of luxuries, has an environmental cost not captured by the purchase price.

If we are serious about wanting to address environmental degradation we should use it as the motivator to tackle the household debt crisis.  Instead of policies that incite more spending; let’s encourage savings and frugality at the household level.  Lower income tax levels, get rid of the plethora of complicated boutique tax measures, and replace the forgone revenue with consumption taxation.   If household debt continues to be swept under the rug, the bubble will burst at some point and it will far more painful than a gradual cooldown.

The 43rd general election will go down as a missed opportunity to address a divided country. It seems like everyone is angry right now.  A collective deep breath is needed.  We live in a beautiful country that offers all residents blessings that billions in this world can only dream of. Looking ahead to the 44thgeneral election, which could come much sooner than we think, there will be another opportunity.  Let’s hope that we do better next time.

A Case for Minority Governments

The federal election campaign has moved past the midway stage and is about to enter the homestretch.  Here in Perth Wellington, only the most unlikely of unlikely scenarios will see an outcome where John Nater isn’t the Federal Member of Parliament for our riding.  Regardless of political stripe, if you are a resident of Perth Wellington there is a degree of comfort to be found in having a representative as smart and compassionate as John.  His first term showed that he works hard and, if a constituent has an issue, his team works to take care of it.  He knows our parliamentary process inside and out and most importantly, he is a genuinely good guy.  On a national stage however, things are looking like a coin flip.  The Conservatives and Liberals are neck in neck with every poll and there is a real possibility of ending up with a minority government.

With the increased likelihood of a minority, I find it interesting to see the negative attitudes of many Canadians towards a minority parliament with one of the most common refrainsbeing, “a minority government doesn’t get anything done.”  This is a curious statement to make, not to mention historically inaccurate.  Some of the things we treasure today are products of a minority government.

Throughout the 1950s, Tommy Douglas championed the development of a universal healthcare system saw residents of Saskatchewan receive healthcare through publicly funded systems.  The rest of the country watched on as the prairie province forged ahead on what was in essence a pilot project of one of our most beloved public institutions. Throughout the early 60s, a national debate on the merits of public healthcare intensified and by the time Lester B Pearson became Prime Minister a royal commission, dubbed the Hall Commission had begun a nationwide study into health services in Canada.  After Pearson’s second win he still had a minority government but decided to forge ahead with a national healthcare system in spite of the fact that it was not universally supported, even in his own party.  After the bill passed first reading Pearson’s own deputy Prime Minister, Mitchell Sharp publicly declared that medicare would have to be abandoned for fiscal reasons and showed thediscord among the governing Liberals.  In spite of these challenges, Pearson’s Liberals worked with opposition parties and universal healthcare managed to make it through second and third readings.  Indeed, this minority government laid the foundation for the system that we have today.

Fast forward to 2008 and once again a minority parliament was forced to deal with a matter of national interest that impacted Canadians from coast to coast. The global economy was deteriorating rapidly and the US economy was in a free fall.  By the fall of 2008, large automakers were out of cash and thousands of jobs across the country were in jeopardy.  Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was forced to abandon a balanced budget and worked with opposition Liberals to pass a 2009 budget that saw rapid stimulus spending across the country in order to blunt the impacts of the global downturn.  This approach, coupled with strong Canadian banking regulations, allowed Canada to emerge from that global downturn with one of the healthiest economies in the world while maintaining a relatively secure banking sector.

The idea that minority governments cannot get things done is simply untrue.  These are only two examples from our history when a minority government ‘got things done’ while in office.  Our current flag, balanced budgets, the first female cabinet minister, and autonomy from Britain were all achieved by minority parliaments.   In this current election where both leading contenders for Prime Minister have serious question marks surrounding them, it may be that a tempered minority government that would be forced to build consensus and compromise is just what Canada needs right now.

Almost 20 years ago, an excited 19 year old at Listowel District Secondary School demonstrated much enthusiasm about getting to cast his first vote.  So much so that a lawn sign was brought home to declare his support for his chosen candidate (a sign that was promptly removed by his Dad with the message that political lawn sign privileges come with owning your own home) and news about that by-election was consumed with gusto over our old dial up internet connection.  Side note, today’s news is consumed with less enthusiasm but sadly at nearly the same internet speed.

In less than two decades I have lost the joy that came with my first vote.  I voted then because I believed in something, but today that has morphed into a feeling of democratic responsibility that comes with real no pleasure.  The erosion of excitement around voting is underpinned by sadness at the division that continues to grow in our country. Right now, instead of bringing people together, this campaign is showingthat the modern political party can do nothing more than seek power through division; it is a demonstration of willful disregard to the long-term impacts of political decision making to Canada’s future while instead focusing on nothing more than winning the next election.   Each political party is capitalizing on building coalitions of individuals to eek out the 40% or so of Canadians they need to form government instead of being courageous in efforts to bring a divided populace together.

Declaring that the world is going to end in twelve years if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels is as damaging to the climate as the deniers who stick their head in the sand.  But instead of finding ways to bridge the gap between binary groups like this, our party system exploits the division and they stifle the ability to make meaningful long-term progress.

Right now there are matters of national interest that need to be addressed.  An unwillingness to find common ground on energy policy is stoking western alienation, distrust of people who don’t look, believe, or think like ourselves is growing, and we are failing to adapt to the changing demographics of our population,something that impacts everything from labour markets to healthcare.

Canada is at its best when we embrace our differences and celebrate that Canada has aspired to be a place where you can believe what you want, love whom you want and, regardless of social standing, you and your children will have access to public healthcare and education if you wish to use it.  Canadian prosperity has been propelled in the past by our populace’s willingness to seek consensus on matters of national interest.  Building consensus requires respect for those who disagree with you and abandonment of the thought process that anything beyond ‘winning’ is a failure.  At the midway point of this campaign, it looks like consensus is no closer than when it began.

Listowel Native Aims to Serve

Alan Keeso has called many places home since leaving Listowel as a teenager to play Junior B hockey in Strathroy.  A passion for hockey then took him to school in Boston where he goaltended at the NCAA level. He also studied at the University of Oxford in England for graduate school.  Both prior to and after earning two Master’s degrees from Oxford in Biodiversity and Business, he worked in management consulting, travelling across North America, working with businesses of all sizes to improve their bottom line.  Throughout this period, he also served as an infantry officer in the Canadian Army reserves.

A common theme for Keeso is the drive to serve; service is what drove him to be a member of the reserves, it was a core value in his work as a consultant, and service is what has led him to enter the political ring as a candidate for the Conservative Party of Canada in the riding of Kitchener South–Hespeler.

When Keeso and his wife Jacqueline were looking at where they wanted to put down roots they were drawn to Waterloo Region.  Jacqueline, who met Alan while also studying at Oxford, joined Waterloo based company DigitalEd as a Director responsible for Global Customer Experience, while Keeso continued to work as a consultant based out of Kitchener until idling his business to focus full time on campaigning earlier this summer.

Keeso did not have longstanding political allegiances but he felt that 2019 election was the right time for him to embrace service through politics and the Conservative Party was the right choice for his philosophy.  “My career working with entrepreneurs and small business owners allowed me to see first-hand where the current federal government was failing our economy,” said Keeso. He continued, “poorly conceived tax changes, increased regulatory burden, and the destruction of multiple trading relationships have unnecessarily jeopardized economic growth.”

Beyond economic issues, Keeso’s educational background and upbringing in a household of conservationists mean that environmental policy is important to him. “Canada needs credible policies that make tangible impact versus more virtue signalling.” He added, “the current government’s carbon tax penalizes everyday Canadians and small businesses while letting large emitters off the hook.” The Conservative plan will replace the current carbon tax with climate action incentives and stricter caps on emissions for large emitters.  Instead of taxing households, the Conservative plan will incentivise green home renovations and mandate that large emitters who exceed their cap invest in innovative green technology.  This approach will foster home grown technological solutions right here in Canada.

While policy is important, Keeso has found that the most rewarding part of political life so far is going door to door to meet with voters.  “Nothing tops the opportunity to meaningfully connect with neighbours across my riding and hear from them how their government can address the issues and opportunities they face in their lives…hopefully come October 21st, the voters of Kitchener South–Hespeler will entrust in me the honour of serving them in Ottawa.”

A Chance to Wash Off a Lasting Smell

There are many different smells you come across in the profession of pig farming. Handling small piglets all day will leave your hands with an unholy stench, pressure washing may leave a faint scent in your beard for a few days, and there are a plethora of ways for a manure system to become plugged that ends with at least partial body submersion in liquid manure.  These smells are not pleasant to you or the people around you and sometimes it takes more than one shower to leave it behind…but stay out of the barn long enough and it always fades away. The stench of partisanship, however, lasts longer than any manure induced aroma I have come across.

Back in 2013 when I was asked to run for the Liberal party in Perth Wellington I was somewhat surprised.  I had never been a member of the party (fun fact, the first party I ever joined was the federal Progressive Conservatives) but I always had a keen interest in politics. I do not regret my decision to run and the three years I spent working around politics was exactly what my life needed at the time.  That said, there was one detail that I never considered until it was too late. By putting my name on the ballot I was branded a Liberal in the eyes of others and, for many in my stomping grounds, this brand is not connected with complimentary language, for life.  It is a smell that I have never been able to wash off.

The years spent campaigning and then working at Queen’s Park taught me that the vast majority of individuals serving in our elected chambers are good people with good intentions.  It also showed me that over time, there is a culture in the system that encourages you to start looking through a lens which blurs the lines between doing what is best for the people you serve and what is best for your party.  Even the most noble can fall victim to the “groupthink” mentality that partisanship breeds.

George Washington, the first President of our neighbouringUnited States said this about political parties: “They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority.” Washington had learned just as I did over 2 centuries later that the party system drives people to lose sight of the entire population they are meant to serve, and somehow encourages people to stoop low enough to deliberately create division and hate among fellow citizens.

This spring, as the scandal surrounding SNC-Lavelin erupted, there were two people who refused to put party above what is right; and they were rewarded by being kicked out of the Liberal Party. Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould were two of the most accomplished members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.  Both had sparkling resumes from their lives before politics and both performed admirably as Ministers.  Now both of them are running for re-election to be independent members. If you are like me and are disillusioned with our politics and you feel like we’re constantly forced to pick the least worst instead of best during election season, then I would encourage you to rally behind these two people.

Independent candidates are not able to accept fundraising eligible for tax refunds until the campaign actually starts, making it difficult to compete financially with official party candidates.  Now that the campaign is going they will need all the help they can get. Money is the lifeblood of a campaign, it keeps the lights on in the campaign office, buys the ads in the local paper, and pays for the pizza bought for the army of volunteers that make campaigning possible.  If you can spare a couple bucks and are concerned about the direction of your democracy then help them out. You can support Jane Philpott here and Jody Wilson-Raybould here.  The donation will come in handy at tax time as you get 75% of the money back for all donations under $400.

There are many skeptics who would say that independent politicians are powerless, but such thinking is antiquated.  The power of the party intensified with television and the expensive nature of marketing through that medium means an individual person could never afford an ad on national television.  We don’t consume our information on the tube anymore and the power of social media and the internet means that independent candidates can spread their influence across Canada with nothing more than a cell phone.

Getting these two women back to the House of Commons will dispel the notion that an independent can’t win in a general election.  But more importantly, electing them has the potential to create a movement that will take back control from the backroom political operatives that drive partisanship.  It would allow members of parties more freedom to actually represent the best interests of their particular constituents.  More than anything else in this election, Canada needs Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould heading back to Ottawa on October 21st.

An Open Door

Canadians got fooled.  In 2015 millions of us believed Justin Trudeau when he said he would bring real change to federal politics here in Canada.  We believed that he would govern in a more collaborative manner than his predecessor, that he would reform a first past the post system that encourages voter apathy, and that he would represent us on the world stage with a little flare. Sadly, we were duped and the past four years have demonstrated that Justin Trudeau is no different from Stephen Harper when it comes to obsessive party control over his duly elected caucus while lacking Harper’s keen intellect. Electoral reform turned out to be an empty promise and at times, perhaps there was a little too much flare.

In 2019 Canadians won’t be fooled again.  Promises won’t cut it; the Prime Minister is going to have to run on his record.  A record that wasn’t stellar to begin with and has been further battered by the recent report from Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion demonstrating that Prime Minister Trudeau directly meddled in the SNC-Lavalin affair.  The door to the Prime Minister’s Office is wide open approaching election season and if Andrew Scheer does these three things, he will cross the threshold on October 21st.

“Scrap the Carbon Tax” makes for great retail politics and we are going to hear variants of that slogan ad nauseam from Conservative campaigns. Canadians are divided on the impact of the tax but are united in their desire to see credibleenvironmental policies.  Scheer released the framework of his plan in June and it contains a good strategy concerning large emitters.  Instead of collecting a tax, it requires the polluters to invest in private clean tech companies using a set cost per unit across industries for emissions.  Beyond that, details are still quite vague however it does appear to make our already convoluted personal income tax code more complicated. The environment may not be the top issue for the swing voter Scheerneeds to win, but it still registers in their top five. That means that between now and election day, he needs to demonstrate how this policy is credible and not just window dressing.

The biggest issue facing employers today is labour availability.  According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business there are 429,000 vacant positions across the Canada that have been vacant for at least four months in the second quarter of 2019.  Canadian unemployment rates are at historical lows and new entrants to the labour pool are desperately needed.  Rural communities like Listowel have to grapple with a labour shortage intensified by an out migration of young people.  If the Conservatives were to release a plan that would liberalize immigration for targeted industries and areas being hit by labour shortages, it would improve their voter share among the entrepreneurial class.

So far the Conservative campaign has done a great job telling us how bad Justin Trudeau has been.  The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t reach the voters they need to form government.  Here in vote rich Ontario, the non-partisan swing voters may not be impressed with Trudeau but they know that it is clearly better than the cat herding boondoggle that is Doug Ford’s Ontario.  To assuage the Ford fears of the precious swing voter, Scheer needs to focus on telling Canadians who he is instead of who he is not. “I may not fly in helicopters with billionaires or wear fancy socks…but I drive a really nice minivan.”    That was the joke Andrew Scheer told about himself when I listened to him in Stratford not long after he became leader.  He has everything one needs to identify with regular Canadians; he has far more in common with the average voter than the current Prime Minister yet to date, the Conservative campaign has failed to capitalize on Scheer’severyman persona.

Andrew Scheer needs to prove to swing voters that the Conservatives have the policies needed to address key issues like the environment and immigration.  The right mix of policies combined with a communications strategy that highlights Scheerhimself instead of endless Trudeau bashing will propel him from the opposition benches to the Prime Minister’s office this October.

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.

Truth

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.