Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Tractor Tour Explores Farmers’ Role 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday,  July 25 / 11

Zack Gross

The average urban Canadian driving across the country or just heading up to the cottage sees (or ignores) the farmers’ fields along the highway, thinking that some things never change and that the rural way of life is irrelevant to city-dwellers. 

It’s like the old joke that people think their dairy, vegetables and meat are produced at the local grocery store and the old bias that farmers are people who flunked a test that would have gotten them into the city.

As a matter of fact, Canadian agriculture has been evolving over the centuries of its history, and not always for the better.  There are more and more people in the world needing access to the food grown in Canada and other breadbasket regions, especially as climate change, conflict and poverty impact on global farm production.  At the same time, Canadian agriculture has itself been impacted by the growth of large and corporate farms (reducing the number of family farms and rural population), by the demise of the Crow Rates that supported transportation costs in the agricultural sector, and now potentially by threats to the Canadian Wheat Board.

Our food comes from hardworking, resourceful producers, based in our own country and abroad.  A new study is looking into the experiences of Canadian farmers as they deal with the changing reality of their craft. 

Taking on these issues in a unique way is Dr. John Varty, a professor who has taught history, agriculture and environmental studies, and is traveling across Canada in a Massey Ferguson tractor to meet directly with farmers in their element and get the word, so to speak, from the horse’s mouth for a video documentary. 

Says Varty:  “For the next year, I’m not a professor – I’m learning!”  His own background is a five-generation family farm located in east-central Ontario.

Unfortunately, Varty’s travels will only cover the eastern half of the country – P.E.I., Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario.  As his corporate sponsor is Massey Ferguson, he’ll stop at twenty MF dealerships along the way, as well as at a variety of art, music and theatre festivals and sports events. 

Business leaders, politicians, academics, community activists and working farmers will be invited to share their perspectives on food and food production in Canada.

Varty claims that all sectors of the agricultural landscape need to put aside their biases and emotions, and take a rational look at today’s farming environment.  He says that 75% of Canadian farmers will retire by 2025 with few of the next generation carrying on.  Thus, as much as $50 billion worth of land may change hands. 

Fewer farmers on the land could mean a continued loss of political power for producers. 

Varty sees the growth in farm size and reduction of number of family farms as neither good nor bad – just what is. 

He says that while hobby and specialty farms (such as organic) are quickly growing in number, the overwhelming situation is of much larger farms that are run as businesses.

At the same time, aside from growth, the food industry should also be about strengthening local agriculture and promoting healthy eating.  Farm policy, then, must be about taking advantage of opportunities in the global marketplace, strengthening the technological and business acumen of Canadian farmers, supporting our rural communities, and being responsible for people’s health in what we serve, and also in how we grow our crops (chemical use, for instance). 

This is a tall order for policy-makers down to the individual farmer.

Back in the mid to late 1970s, the National Farmers Union and other groups organized an “inquiry” called the People’s Food Commission.  Community events were held across the country to gather the opinion of rural and urban folks who were concerned, a generation ago, about the future of Canadian and global agriculture. 

A report was written after a great deal of debate, but two things are doubtful:  that this effort had much of an effect on the direction of farming and that anyone not involved in this effort back then is even aware that it happened. 

This is a sad comment.  As ever, if we don’t know our history (and our mistakes), then we are doomed to repeat it (and them).

The fact that this it was called a “People’s” Food Commission tells you that it wasn’t a government or corporate initiative.  We need to bring more of a focus to the sustainability of our rural areas and our farm policies and practices, and to engage the majority of Canadians, who now overwhelmingly live in cities, in the debate.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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