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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.

#BellLetsTalk

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.

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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…

Playing a Dirty Game

As the days progress in the campaigning period here in Kenya my observations have left me with a range of opposing emotions. For me, election time in Canada is usually accompanied by a healthy dose of optimism and joy, primarily because I love debating with people about issues that I am passionate about. Election time is a season of change and renewal; it is a chance for me to give my input on how my country (which I love dearly) is run. Some people allow themselves to be consumed by cynicism, painting politicians as liars while feeling like their singular vote has no impact on the overall outcome. The true value of their single vote is lost in this cynicism and I believe that this type of feeling has a deteriorating effect on our democratic system.
Here in Kenya, I have felt a feeling of cynicism creeping in, albeit for different reasons. I have witnessed blatant lying and a despicable amount of capitalization on the poverty that holds the vast majority of the people here in the Cherangany region.
I don’t know if there has ever been a politician that has snow white hands, I think the game necessitates at least some dirty play but the lying that goes on here is astounding. It makes our attack ads in Canada seem pretty mild mannered. I will give you an example…Wesley and Tarah’s foundation, the Kenyan Kids Foundation has donated the first ever ambulance for the Cherangany region. (it delivered the first patient to hospital this week) Now, I will grant you that the timing of the ambulance’s arrival was not a mistake, accessible healthcare is a pillar of Wesley’s social platform and this was a tangible example of his commitment for potential voters. That being said, it is something that the region sorely needed, even if it is being used for political gain. Now here is the lie; the main opponent, Joseph Kutuny has begun telling people at every campaign stop that the ambulance is not really an ambulance but a van that Wesley has merely rented for the duration of the campaign and it will disappear following the election. Given how easily the “mob” can be swayed here, it comes down to how much people believe the individual and now Wesley has to spend time at every stop assuring people that the ambulance is not rented and is indeed here in the Cherangany to stay. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal to my readers, but this is just one example of many lies that are told on a daily basis. There is absolutely no honour or respect between candidates here. Political opponents will often disagree with each other, they may even strongly dislike each other, but to be suitable for public office, you need to have at least a strand of moral fibre that keeps you from pulling stunts like this.
Far worse than the lying is the bribery that seems to be commonplace in Kenyan politics. Kenya recently passed a new constitution that outlawed bribery but it seems like this has been largely ignored. People here try to justify it to me, saying that it is cultural, they use the phrase “this is Kenya or this is Africa”. Muzungus wade into dangerous waters when they start criticising cultural norms but I have a difficult time with this one. Bribery takes advantage of the poverty people are stuck in, giving them a small sum of money that does nothing to change their economic situation yet they are so desperate for anything. On the flip side, influential people extort candidates for their support by demanding payment in return for public loyalty. Some of the bribery is flagrant …earlier this week, Wesley’s opponent had people form a line at a campaign stop so they could distribute 50ksh (about 50 cents CDN) to each person attending. Other examples are a little murky. Every morning people line up at Wesley’s family compound asking for help with various ailments (school fees, hospital bills, etc.) or at least food. If he helps them is this a bribe? My moral compass points towards yes although since I am biased and close to the situation at least the money is being used for something constructive.
Earlier this week I played a round of golf and enjoyed some good conversation at the Kitale Club in Kitale Town. When our conversation turned to the topic of bribery; I was the only one to object at all to the practice so maybe I should accept that this is cultural and it is not up to me to judge what goes on. I will have a tough time doing so however. In this conversation I learned that the estimated cost of this election when bribes are factored in will top 5 billion, not million, BILLION USD.
Every time I drive through a town centre or rural area I am forced to see poverty. I see young people desperate to find non-existent jobs, mothers trying to care for a sick child when they have no money for hospital fees, or young teens on the street because their family cannot afford to pay their secondary school fees. Once again, the rich political class has failed the very people they are supposed to serve. Their hunger for power and money blinds them to the real problems going on right in their backyard.

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The ModernFarmer is Playing Politician

When I was in Grade 6 our class participated in a 3 day program at Wilfred Laurier University and part of the experience was writing and performing a play.  I took the lead in creation, developing a political satire; I don’t remember much beyond a scene where Shelia Copps was crying because she didn’t get her way but characters included Preston Manning (I think I played that part), Mike Harris, Jean Chrétien, and of course Copps.  As a child, politics fascinated me and it carried over into adulthood. I always dreamed that someday I would be blazing the campaign trail, staying up late into the night discussing strategy, and giving speeches that brought people to their feet.  I just didn’t envision it happening in Kenya.

My connection to Kenya was through Wesley and Tarah Korir.  Tarah went to high school with Jess and went on to run track at Louisville where she met Wesley, a native of Kenya.  Wesley has gone on to be a successful marathoner, he is a 2 time winner of the Los Angeles marathon and current Boston marathon champion.  He, together with Tarah, created the

Kenyan Kids Foundation and have become philanthropists in Wesley’s home region of Cherangany.  Leading up to the 2013 Kenyan elections, Wesley decided to take things one step further by entering his name in the race for Member of Parliament.

Jess warned me not to have any concrete plans in my mind for what I thought I would achieve when I got here.  She spent 3 months in Tanzania and learned that having a mandate when you leave North America may be useful but if you gauge your success by fulfilling that mandate then you are setting yourself up for failure.  My wife is a wise woman.  When people asked me what I would be doing in Kenya, my stock answer was that I would be visiting farmers, collecting information about local agricultural systems, and seeing if there were ways to improve the welfare of farmers.  Boy, I was wrong.

Since arriving last week it has been non-stop campaigning with Wesley, helping to spread his vision for agriculture in the region. (yesterday I spoke to thousands of people as we made stops throughout the beautiful Cherangany Hills)  Wesley and I are both dreamers (and married to realists, its an important combination) and the dream for the region is big.  The Cherangany has approx 150k acres (not sure how much arable but there is no large urban centre and it seems that almost every square foot is under cultivation) and we estimate that there are approx 50k dairy cattle. (never thought I would say that I miss StatsCan) It is a very productive region yet farmers remain trapped in poverty.  While farmers grow good crops of corn every year, they have no access to dryers or storage (over 30% of the crop spoils most years) and are forced to sell to brokers at harvest lows or risk even more spoilage by storing it in their homes until Feb-April.  Very few farms have electricity so excess milk that the family cannot consume from evening milking is often wasted.  They have no access to credit either, interest rates range from 25%-30% and that is if you can even get a loan.

The dream, while big, is simple.  Wesley wants to build Maize and Dairy processing centres (note for my North American friends, farmers here are growing white maize for human consumption) right here in the Cherangany.  Its going to cost millions of dollars to achieve but being a dreamer, I have always felt that finding money is the easy part, the hard work is in setting things up so that when you do find the money you don’t fail. (One more reason why dreamers should marry realists)

When I have been speaking to crowds, I have stressed the importance of taking baby steps on the way to achieving this dream.  Storage and dryers needs to be built so that spoilage can be reduced and a mill has consistent supply throughout the year.  Infrastructure needs to be improved so the product can get to market.  Most importantly, farming systems need to find a balance between modernization and current practices so that soil health can be improved and maintained.  On the dairy side, more cooling centres are needed and farmers need to be provided capital so that they can make investments addressing the dire nutritional state of cows. (When you are forced to choose between food for your family or dairy supplement, food generally wins).  I have spoken to numerous dairy farmers who want to transition from pasture based to zero grazing dairy production because they know they could sell more milk but lack the capital to do so.

I cannot explain the feeling I get from being a part of this; my scalp tingles and I feel such a rush when we talk about these dreams with people.  The message that we bring goes far beyond a corn miller or milk processor; we are bringing hope to a people that for too long have been a victim of circumstances far beyond their control.  I am by no means an expert on the area, but for far too long corruption among the ruling class has caused the suffering that I see every day when we travel. 

I am sure there are those of you at home thinking that this boy has bitten off more than I can chew.  I am by no means the first well intentioned mzungu thinking that they can help change things here in Africa, why do I think that this is any different?  Because I have hope. The day we stop having hope is when the fight is lost.  My friends, we cannot afford to lose this fight.  The world is going to reach 9 billion people by 2050 and if we don’t solve these problems millions of people will starve.  The world will need Africa just as much as Africa needs the world, don’t forget that.  I am closing with a quote that Jess sent with me, I’m married to such a smart lady.

“Never doubt that a small group thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

Looking over the Cherangany atop the Cherangany hills

And I’m Spent

My mental gas tank is almost on empty…in just over a month I have published 6 blogs containing 5475 words in total (and about 20,000 you never saw).  Within those words I have tried to shed some light on what really goes on at a Canadian hog farm instead of seeing it through the lens of an animal activist.  Beyond information, I have endeavoured to write these posts in a way that translates my passion for feeding people into word form.  It is the second part that has made this tough, pouring your soul on the screen of your desktop takes a lot out of a guy.  I struggled with how to best approach tough subjects, I agonized over the way that things were worded and all said it has been an arduous yet rewarding experience.  So here goes my final post…and folks, I kept my trump card for the last hand.

Manure, dung, poop, the world’s greatest skin moisturiser…call it what you will but at the end of the day I hold the Right Bauer in the game of food production. (I promise that is my last euchre reference).  Though I never got to meet him, the idioms of my grandfather in law, Murray Selves, will often pop up in conversations with Jess and my MIL, Joanne.  Murray was a brilliant man, he used computers for production records long before the Commodore 64 (only those born before 1990 will get that reference), he designed and built a biogas digester long before Dalton McGuinty dreamed up the Green Energy Act, but most impactful for me was the concept of “farming the circle”.  To Murray, the way we raised pigs in Ontario was the pinnacle of sustainable farming.  Our corn and soybeans capture solar energy from the sun and nutrients from the soil, we feed some of the grain to our animals and some to humans, and then we replenish the soil for next year’s crop by applying the manure from our animals.

This simple concept is the backbone of our food system, if soil nutrients are not provided by manure then they must come from some other source.  Nitrogen and Phosphorus are the two most important nutrients when talking about plant life.  While nitrogen can be produced synthetically through the Haber-Bosch process, this requires a non-renewable like natural gas. Phosphorus is a little scarier; there is no way other than to mine it from the ground as there is no synthetic replacement.  The Global Phosphorus Initiative has estimated that peak phosphorus could occur as soon as 2030.  I guess peak phosphorus just isn’t as sexy as peak oil but it is just as threatening for humans.  Without nitrogen and phosphorus, you can’t grow food, period.  Livestock manure provides adequate levels of both that can sustain plant growth without the application of inorganic mined phosphorus or synthetic nitrogen.

Manure and soil enjoy a symbiotic relationship that goes far beyond nitrogen and phosphorus.  Soil is not a renewable resource; it can take thousands of years for soil to form.  However, unlike other non-renewables like oil or coal, soil can be reused year after year if properly maintained. The application of manure is the best possible way to meet the diverse needs of the soil.  Organic matter (old dead stuff, kind of like oil in the sense that is takes millions of years to form) is what makes soil fertile, without organic matter plants cannot grow even if there is nitrogen and phosphorus available.  Here is an analogy for you:  Many of you readers probably take some sort of multivitamin supplement to ‘ensure’ that you are getting all of your nutrients but you know that the multivitamin cannot sustain you on its own, you still need to eat.  In the case of plant growth, organic matter is the food and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are the multivitamin.  Manure is the only thing that can rebuild the organic matter in soil, thus maintaining the non-renewable resource. Without animal production the circle is broken…you simply cannot have sustained food production without out livestock agriculture.  Our food producing system has evolved (or has been designed) to include animal production.

I want you to picture something; I want you to picture the vegan world animal rights activists so desperately want.  It is a picture of hunger.  It is a picture of desolate exhausted soil, unable to keep producing food for HUMANS or animals because it has been mined to the point of collapse.  It will not matter if you are a vegan or meat eater when the soil loses its capacity to grow a carrot.  We will all starve.

Today groups like Mercy for Animals Canada are trying to sell you an agenda of caring for animals; they are actively trying to discredit farmers like me in hopes of convincing the public that they are the champions of the common animal.  Well sorry folks, I, and farmers like me, are going to be champions of humans.  We are going to do everything in our power to try and eliminate human hunger while ensuring that we preserve our ability to feed future inhabitants of our planet. We feed people; it’s why we signed up for this job.

#FarmProud my friends