Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Importance of Family Farms in Canada

A few weeks ago I tweeted that my sister had won a national essay contest that was sponsored by the National Farmers Union.  The topic of her essay was the importance of family farms for Canadian agriculture and beyond a little bit of grammatical help from our parents (sometimes I think Dad was an English teacher in another life) it was written lock, stock, and barrel by Kate.

Before you read the essay you might be interested to learn a little bit about the author.  Kathleen is a grade 11 student at the local high school where beyond excelling academically, she plays field hockey and soccer while also accompanying/singing with 3 different choirs.  Kate is active in the barn as well and she is my favourite assistant when I need help delivering meat from our farm.

 

On to the essay…..

When my geography teacher posed a question along the lines of “why should we work to preserve our local farms when there will always be other places to get our food from”, I had to make an argument.  My one goal that day was to prove to my teacher, and others with a similar mind set, that family farms in rural communities are important.

 

One factor that often set family farms ahead of other food producers is their care for the environment. Small farms are more likely to work at being stewards of the land, with a common goal of sustaining the land for future generations. Farmers see their farm in a personal way, caring for it much like it was part of them.  Family farms are closely connected with their communities and their neighbours; consequently they are more inclined to use sustainable farming techniques that preserve resources and the health of the community.  On the flip side of this situation, industrial farms work to capitalize both cost and products. As a result, the environment can be left to deal with excessive chemical sprays, fumes or manure.

 

Family farms are the centre of many rural communities and play a vital role in sustaining the local economy.  Recently, we travelled to Newfoundland and saw a parallel to farming in the fishing industry.  For over 400 years, the maritime provinces had booming fisheries.   Many outport towns were developed and settled on the strength of the cod fishery. However, when the cod moratorium took effect in 1992, thousands were out of work, and the most prominent natural resource driving these small towns was immediately extinguished.  When the fishermen lost work and had to travel elsewhere for employment, the merchants, teachers, and various other occupations felt the toll of their absence.  Farming is not immune from similar effects.  Family farms provide work for people in the community, in addition to spending money back into the local economy.  I have watched my dad buy his feed from a local supplier, get his farm truck fixed by our neighbours, and locate local repairmen.  Just one farmer provides business for multiple enterprises; in essence, they are the heart of a rural community.  A large scale farm covering thousands of acres is another option for local food production, but very little money is put back into the local economy as a result of these farms employing few workers and purchasing their supplies from commercial sources.  The final option for food production is importing, which supports no local development or economy whatsoever. Thus, family farms are the most optimal food production source for our country, and are vital to the economy of rural communities.

 

The diminishing number of family farms is having a slow, but obvious effect on the awareness of adults and children alike with respect to the food they eat.  Years ago, a large majority of people lived on farms or in a farming area.  In modern days, however, the population balance has tipped to city dwellers.  When looking at a dinner plate, one may not make the connection between that pork chop and the work that was put into it at the farm, and many don’t think that this connection is important.  However, consider the mentality of many people eating this food.  A vast number of people take the food they consume for granted; the super markets will always be stocked with every need.  Recently, I have met new peers, who seem to have no concept of where their food comes from.  I was shocked to find out that a fellow teenager was clueless to the fact that turkey farms exist! Where did that drumstick come from?  The lack of connection between food and farm clouds respect for not only the farmers that produce the bounty, but the land that makes its all possible.  In addition, many do not see the correlation between the land needed for farming, and the food; the result being thousands of acres of prime farm land being transformed into cities and suburbs.  Furthermore, the general public is incapable of supporting themselves. This may not be an issue at the present time, but it certainly would be if somehow our outside food supply was cut off.   Imagine the chaos that would come when people could not find everything they needed in a store.  The idea of being self-sufficient is slowly dwindling to extinction, especially in cities, and people have no idea how to create their own food supply.   Family farming can aid in a person’s ability to understand where the food comes from, and in turn support oneself, whether it be through gardening or raising animals or preserving fruits and vegetables.   In conclusion, family farms can help to educate individuals and make people more aware of their food source.

 

Perhaps the most important aspect of family farming goes beyond the environment, supporting the local economy or enhancing knowledge about food.  It is in the values learned by the family members themselves.  Take learning to work for example.  Occasionally, I look with envy at the “town kids,” who have never experienced waking up at seven to get the chores done before church.  However, this work has taught me discipline and I can look at how far my skills in the barn have come over the years; each new duty I take on comes with a sense of accomplishment.  Moreover, I have learned to work as a team member, to do my part so that the family succeeds.  I have learned patience when tempers start to flare over stubborn animals that will not move.  I have learned to pitch in and help when another family member is sick.  Finally, working on my family farm has taught me that everything we do, whether is be a small job or big, is important to the function of the business as a whole. And, hopefully, when all play their part, there is success at the end to enjoy.  To sum it all up, skills and values learned on the family farm are unquantifiable, and, as we have seen, these farms give beyond themselves to the environment, the economy and in education.  What better model is there for successful agriculture in Canada?

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Birth….

There are lots of cool things that we get to see on the farm but there is one thing that is more awesome then any other….witnessing birth.  After sitting here for 15 minutes trying to think of a way to describe it I’ve decided to cut bait and say that seeing it is beyond words.

Since I find watching a sow farrow (that’s what we call it when pigs give birth) so neat I decided that the next time sows were farrowing I would head out to the barn with my camera and try to catch it on film. One important point before you watch the the YouTube video below; I can’t take the credit for the camera work.  My sister Kathleen did the hard part of filming, I just edited it.

Before you watch the video, remember that the birthing process is not always pretty in fact; some times it is downright messy.  If you don’t like the sight of blood then this movie may not be for you.  That being said, I’d encourage you to send me any questions about what you see.

 

On to the video….

 

Time for Fair “Trade” Pork

Dad was nice enough to give me the morning off today so I can do a little Christmas shopping with a pretty girl named Jessica down in London but I woke up this morning and the mall here is closed till noon as London tries to dig itself out of the snow.  To replace shopping, I headed over to the Starbucks close by to indulge in an expensive coffee and the newspaper. While I sipped my $3 coffee I got thinking (I know, that’s a dangerous thing) about why people are willing to pay such a premium for fair trade coffee but when they go to the grocery store they want their food as cheap as possible.

When I got back to the house I was discussing this phenomenon with Jess and her roommate Nadine and a couple things came out of the conversation.  First off, people feel like holding the Starbucks cup in their hand signals some sort of status to others and they may not be concerned with the welfare of coffee farmers at all.  If that is the case though, why would people be willing to buy the bulk beans for their coffee makers at home?  This aspect is particularly interesting for me because there was one bag of coffee branded, “From Farmers for Farmers” (may not be the exact wording, but it was something like that).  If Starbucks is willing to give shelf space for this bulk coffee then I feel it is a safe assumption that they have customers that derive some sort of utility from the knowledge that their purchase is helping to directly support the people who worked so hard to grow the product.

At first I was a bit upset because I automatically assumed that people were willing to help coffee farmers by paying a premium from coffee that ensured that the farmer was receiving a fair price for their products but they aren’t willing to pay a premium for the pork that my family works so hard to produce.  But then I started to think more about it and two key things came to light.

Firstly, I have never missed a meal and while the losses on our farm have been staggering in the past few years; I still live in a country with the social services that will help to ensure my basic needs are always met.  Coffee farmers in the developing world don’t have the luxury of social services and depend on their farm income to provide absolutely everything for their family.  That being said, whether we are farming in the developed or developing world, I feel that farmers still deserve to be paid a fair price for the fruits of their labour.  Herein lies the problem; if a Canadian consumer wants to ensure that their coffee dollar is distributed equitably they purchase fair trade coffee.  If they want to do the same when they buy ham at the grocery store, there is no easily accessible mechanism do so.

To fix this problem, why not develop “fair trade” brands for more things then just coffee.  If we look globally, certain countries are already making steps to make it easy for their consumers to buy domestically produced products, helping to support the prices for their farming neighbours.  The UK launched the Red Tractor campaign, essentially creating a full line of food products that are certified to be produced by British farmers to the highest standards of quality and safety.  Today this brand is carried by multiple retailers in the UK making it much simpler for British consumers to support British farmers with their food purchases versus their tax dollars.

It is time for Canadian government to start working with our retailers to start similar initiatives.  Cynics will disagree with me but I have faith in my fellow Canadians.  If we make it easier for them to buy Canadian then they may be willing to pay just a bit more for the assurance that they are getting domestically produced products of the highest quality while supporting Canadian farmers at the same time.

Interested in learning about the Red Tractor? Check out www.redtractor.org.uk

Back to Blogging

Its been almost a month since my last post; my involvement in Farmers Matter seemed to takeover the blog writing section in my life, lol.  That being said, Farmers Matter was an awesome event to be a part of and I wouldn’t trade the experiences from the last couple of weeks.  The event was larger then we ever dreamed it would be and we achieved our goal of raising awareness about agricultural issues in a positive manner.   I’d like to personally thank all of our sponsors; so many industry partners pitched in to make our meeting a success and the event wouldn’t have been possible without their support.

On to the Blog…..

One of my earlier posts touched on difficulties facing young people that want to enter into a career in farming, most notably the sheer size of investment that must be made to enter the business.  I did manage to end that post with a positive example of a young farmer who tackled the problem and has managed to carve out a successful business but today I want to focus on the other side.  I have a friend from school that came from a family with very successful farm businesses who had always maintained a desire to return to the farm to become the next generation in their family to farm.

Today his dream seems to be fading as the challenges seem to pile on top of each other; each problem representing a new roadblock to finally living his dream.  At the same time, his professional career is blossoming because he is using his knowledge to help make other farmers successful.

From my point of view, the most frustrating thing is that the challenges that he faces don’t stem from on-farm issues, they are created by inept policies that stifle growth and keep young people from entering the business.  He has told me that he would have no problem putting together a business plan that would create the necessary cash flow to maintenance his debt but it would require the expansion of his family’s current business.

Enter the problem….current quota policies for supply managed industries. (For non-ag readers, supply management is a system that uses production quotas to match domestic production with domestic demand to ensure that the farmer gets paid a price that is equal to his cost of production).  I have criticized this system in the past but one thing cannot be denied; supply management makes it possible for small family farmers to earn a decent living.  This system has been a beacon of stability in the agricultural landscape here in Ontario since the inception of the quota system in the early 1970s.

Over time, quota values increased because of the lucrative nature of the business and in an attempt to curb their values the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (the group that regulates the dairy quota market in Ontario) put a cap on their value.  While this change may have been well intentioned, the policy makers failed to realize that if an individual holds an asset that they deem to have a value greater then the capped price they won’t sell it. Because of this, young farmers cannot purchase the quota required to produce even if they have a sound plan to finance the acquisition. Young farmers are faced with hurdles stemming from market conditions; we don’t need further barriers created by bungling bureaucracies.

In the end, I still think my friend will figure out how to farm; we have had shared our fears of not getting to farm in the past but I think he has the passion to figure it out and overcome the problems facing young farmers.  However, if he doesn’t get to farm his story will be added to the pile of young people who yearned to return home to farm but couldn’t.

This story expands beyond the emotional side, we cannot deny that our farmers are becoming older at a rapid pace (the average Canadian farmer is 52) and if we don’t have an influx of young people into the industry soon the knowledge to produce food will die off with the farmers from the baby boom generation.  Canadian consumers should take notice of this problem…if you want your children and grandchildren to eat locally grown food you need to make sure that the children of farmers are able to return home to produce the food.