Friday, April 16, 2010

Boards, Blogs and Beliefs

My recent absence from the blog can be explained for a few reasons, although there certainly exists no list from which I can say, "HERE's what I've been doing with my time!"  I feel like things have picked up the pace around here with the illusion of spring arriving, but there haven't been any MAJOR projects undertaken that have eaten up my time.  I think mostly I'm going to blame it on my very recent involvement in various boards and the ensuing meetings that go with them.  I told myself to get more involved with the associations we are members of, and now I'm wondering just how wise of a decision that was.  I don't feel like I'm making a particularly big difference, but I am certainly learning a lot about people, myself and agriculture, so I guess there's nothing bad about that, right?

In any case I've got some issues for this platform (the blog) and I look forward to spewing them onto you.  The first is the plight of agriculture in general and how it relates to the average person out there in the world.  A few weeks ago now I got a call from a journalism student at Holland College here on the island doing a piece on agriculture on PEI, looking for an interview.  This isn't a rare occurence around here and although I usually hand the phone off to Mark in favour of doing something more productive (and besides its always more interesting to listen to his answers) he wasn't around that day, so I settled in for some discussion.  The student had done his research and talked to a few different stakeholders as well as regular consumers and was well prepared if not a bit nervous.  Anyway, he was curious as to the image of agriculture in the region and the perception that farmers are always whining for more help, but yet many of them have big 'fancy' trucks, etc.  He said that he had talked to one frustrated consumer who was fed up with food costs and said that she didn't care if the Canadian farmers all fell through. If other countries could provide her food for cheaper and she didn't have to listen to the whining and keep 'dumping her taxdollars' to the farmers, that was fine with her.
Hmmm..hard to argue with that really.  I mean, there's a reason that the grocery stores bring in meat from Argentina and Brazil and a reason that it sells more than the Atlantic Beef.  There's a reason that people base the majority of their current food dollar decisions on cost over anything else.  But maybe we need to look at the reasons.

I'm convinced that there is a cost for everything.  Let's just take that beef for example.  As consumers, we have no idea how that beef is raised, what conditions it lives in, is killed in, etc.  More than likely, it is on huge feedlots, with very little standards as to the feed quality/content and very few standards in terms of living conditions.  Oh, who cares, it's a cow right?  Well, actually, the living conditions and feed quality of an animal has a direct and obvious effect on the quality of the meat. I've written before about the reasons that e.coli has only in the past 10-15 years become a regular occurence and nearly acceptable risk of eating beef.  That shouldn't be the case.

So our first cost is our own health.  If that's enough of a cost, let's move on.

As I said, the living conditions are unknown so the environmental impact of that feedlot are unknown.  Canada and the Atlantic Provinces in particular, have some very good standards when it comes to manure storage and distribution.  Run-off has the potential to cause serious environmental harm and we are fortunate that so many of our farmers are on-board with taking serious and occasionally costly steps to prevent it.  Many other countries do not have any standards so contamination of soil and water is a way of life.  Entire communities' water supply is totally unusable due to the feedlot that exists miles and miles up the stream.
So there is an environmental cost.  But that's somebody elses' problem right?  I mean, we don't live in Argentina.

Well, what about our farmers?  Do we really need them?  Obviously someone else is doing it bigger and better somewhere else, is there true value to them as members of our communities?  Currently, that argument might actually hold up somewhere, in some obscure corner of a city where kids think eggs grow on trees and cheerios grow in fields somewhere out in the world.  It's too true that we import so much of our food and so much of our food is processed to fit our 'busy' lives.  But times they are a changin'.  As the cost of oil creeps up and the price of shipping food climbs higher and higher, that cost is going to get passed on.  At some point, in the not so very distant future, we will stop considering food to be a right and it will suddenly become a privilege.  Buying asparagus in November will be laughable and accessing fresh bread with Canadian whole grains will be a treat.  Then we'll look around and ask, "Where are those damned farmers now!?  Now that we need them, of course they're not here.  Figures."

That's the trouble with farming; it's a skill, a lifestyle that is best done when it's passed on from one to the next.  It's true that there is a whole group of 'back to the landers' out there who are buying up the derelict acres of old farms in an attempt to make a living at growing swiss chard and pumpkins and I sincerely wish the very best to them. I hope that they will be enough to sustain an entire generation of people who are so disconnected with their food that they truly consider that chocolate milk might actually come from the brown cows.  But it is the old farmers, the ones with no one to pass their life's work onto because their progeny has gone (wisely) off to make an actual, monetary living doing something unrelated to producing food, the old farmers who we are losing and with them, the skills to sustain ourselves.
So, to that woman who could do without her local farmer, I'll leave her with this quotation;

Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country. - William Jennings Bryan 

Ah, to be so wise.  So next time you go to pick up that steak on sale or that squash from Mexico, or those apples from Chile all because it's so much cheaper/easier/more accesible stop to think about the REAL cost.

Hoping this hasn't scared you off from the blog. Will return to lighter fare next time.



  1. Very well written, Sally!
    ...I heard the chocolate milk story a few years ago at the Ste. Marie Exhibition--a mom was explaining to her daughter that THESE cows make white milk, and the brown cows in the other barn make chocolate milk.

  2. A saying; there are no dumb consumers,just those who are too blind to see and those who don't want to think.And then there are those who just don't care...

  3. I love your post. So true in so many ways.

  4. Sally you should be writing for the Island Farmer, your own little column.

  5. Hi Sally,

    Just stopped in to browse and visit for a bit.
    I'm so glad you picked up this topic.

    Down in the States this winter we came to the conclusion that it's time to move. So after 10 years of back and forth, we're finally coming home to stay in PEI and happy to find our place in the community.

    As to your post, I suppose it reminded me most of the general issue of food security. I used to see food security as a third world problem. You know, the natural heritage of the poor, the ignorant and the disadvantaged.

    But I think a different reality is creeping up on us. The statistics on long term unemployment and the dramatic rise of food insecurity in major US cities make it clear that when it comes to basic human needs, many more of us in the first world are coming up short.

    The addiction to cheap food is actually bankrupting our communities and costing us more than we realize.

    I'll enjoy reading along with you here and I hope we can meet one day.