Thursday, April 11, 2024

Brazilla vs Kong

If Brazilian ag was a creature, I picture it as Godzilla, emerging from the ocean, preparing to eclipse a nearby North American city, as seen in the movies. Maybe it's a friendly Godzilla, well-intentioned and not dangerous at all. But there’s no denying its scale and strength. And at this point we don’t even know how much is still hidden under the water. Each year, it’s still growing in production and exports, from 20-40%, depending the commodity.

Before I went to Brazil, I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. I was worried about the Amazon and knew that soybeans and beef were a big deal there and that was about it. None of that was misplaced but there’s a lot more to it, obviously. For scale, Brazil is roughly the same size as the contiguous US, or Australia with equally varied landscapes and growing conditions, although proximity to the equator means they can achieve two harvested crops per year, plus some grazing in between (following under-seeded corn to grass).  It wasn’t unusual to see a combine harvesting soybeans, followed closely by a corn planter. It was also common to see a crop in all its various stages within an hours drive. Soybeans being planted, harvested and at every growth stage in between. The lack of highly varied seasons makes for accelerated rotations that can do a whole lot more than us northern hemisphere folks limited by winter.

While Brazil has historically been through a roller coaster of export-driven markets from brazilwood to coffee to sugarcane to rubber, it’s been a roller coaster that has been steadily climbing up a hill with no great downfall anywhere in sight. Large scale agriculture there really only took off in the 1970s so it’s a relatively young country in the big ag world and it has taken some valuable lessons from those “developed” countries who are now trying to recover from decades of soil exploitation. The ground is rarely bare in Brazil, partly due to those two crops per year, but also because there is an acceptance that cover makes sense. They have put all their eggs in one particular grass basket which seems like a bit of a vulnerability but the Brachiaria variety of grass resists pests and grows well under Brazil’s conditions. It is sensitive to herbicides so requires lower doses in a no-till system and does well as fodder for cattle.  There is quite a robust network of researchers and extension agents for farmers at all scales and the trust and respect between the two seems very strong. 

The rules around deforestation are clear but enforcement may be spotty and it depends on who you talk to when it comes to the perception of fairness. The policy makers are clear on the rule being 20% of any private land holding must not be cut down, which is to say that 80% can be cleared.  Within the bounds of the Amazon, those numbers are reversed and it is 80% of any land holding must be maintained and not cut down. The governor claimed that penalties for breaking these rules were very severe, from large fines up to jail time.  But this also means that 20% of deforestation in the Amazon region is perfectly legal.  More than one farmer, when pressed about international pressures in regards to deforestation in Brazil said, “Bah, all the rest of you already cut your forests centuries ago, it’s our turn.”  One cannot help but be simultaneously dismayed and empathetic with this perspective. 

As a country that can grow a full sized hardwood tree for timber in 7 years, compared to our 45 years, can harvest two cash crops in one year and is still continuing to increase exports and yields year over year, Brazil could be the biggest ag-Godzilla the world has ever seen. But with great power comes great responsibility and to turn a blind eye to the crisis of the Amazon in favour of focusing on productivity, no matter how successful, is to ignorantly accept the “if I’m going down, you’re going down with me” adage, to detriment of us all. 

In a world convinced that it will be unable to feed itself soon (totally false but propped up by the “science” and the deep pockets of chemical and fertilizer companies), Brazil is doing its damnedest to fill the gaps and as it stands today, will continue to grow in leaps and bounds for years to come. By that measure, Brazil will soon reign supreme but by failing to recognize its very strong dependance on tenuous inputs and economies of scale that are exactly as efficient as they are vulnerable it will be very interesting to see what it looks like in a couple decades from now. Will Brazilla (see what I did there?) become the force that dwarfs King Kong (the other major producing and exporting countries)  or will they fall on their sword of currently-justified hubris? 

(Not Godzilla, just an ANACONDA that was in the same river I snorkelled in!! Glad I didn't see it while I was in there with it!!!)

Thursday, January 11, 2024

'Nuffin' to see here

 I thought I had worked through all my insecurities when I primed myself up to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship. It took me several months of thought and internal debate. Months of trying on the idea of travel and time away from the farm. It was the inspiration for my solo bike trip to the Maggies, proving to myself that I could do scary things. I filled several pages of a couple journals, working out all kinks in my confidence, convincing myself that I was worthy, clever enough, experienced and not just doing it to prove  to everyone, but especially me, that I am a legitimate farmer. 

That was 2022, 2023. Yet here I am in the early days of 2024, making real travel plans to places where I'll be sitting down with folks who might ask me questions that I probably should know the answers to and I'd rather crawl under a nice wide tree canopy and stay there. 

As a young woman, in the final days of waiting for my first baby to arrive, for some reason I became fixated on having enough receiving blankets, those soft flannel, rectangular burp catchers and baby wrappers.  My recurring nightmare in those last days was coming home from the hospital to not having any receiving blankets. Laughable even then, in the tornado of hormones and insecurities. 

And now, in the final days of making plans, spending money, booking flights, finalizing connections here I am, worried about not knowing the answers to questions like :

PEI's average annual rainfall, our farm's soil type, the variety of clover in my pasture mix, seeding rates for everything, the number on the side of our grain drill, how many horsepower our tractors are, the current price for beef on the commodity market, average yield for grain corn in the Maritimes, going price per bushel for every crop, organic acres on PEI, and on and on. 

The kind of easy, friendly chatter that creates a comfortable bond, a reciprocal sort of agreement between farmers that we're all in this together. But I don't know those things, not off hand. I'm not great at farmer small talk at all.  I could easily find the answer to all those things in a matter of minutes, mostly by mining the mind of my very legitimate farmer husband. He sits comfortably in a room of farmers, able to chit chat with any of them. 

And yet, I know both of us would claim I'm the people person. But farmers aren't regular people are they? They carry a library of facts that they've built over generations of working with the elements and they carry a certain reverence for those in the same boat, and a very quiet surprise that there are those who don't carry the same library. 

I know by the time this is over, those questions will feel as silly as a deficiency of receiving blankets but right now I'm entirely caught up in the minutiae of human relations at a farm level. I thought maybe putting this out in the world, it would help get it out of my mind and set me free, but maybe writing down just a few of those questions that so many farmers just unconsciously learned as barefooted kids only highlighted my foolishness. What am I doing on this adventure? How did I think having the Nuffield name to open doors would also lend me credibility when it comes to relating as farmer to farmer over a kitchen table? They'll see through me so fast, know that I love cattle, but don't understand the cost of production like I should, don't appreciate the depth of the current reliance on synthetic fertilizer in our globalized food system, don't know the first thing about equipment maintenance, am as debt-averse as it comes, am often confused by the lingo at annual accountants meetings, etc. 

How did I fool Nuffield Canada so thoroughly that I'm at this point in the game?  

And don't worry, I know I've got lots going for me, and that these things won't matter that much. It's more of a sign of this becoming real, this hyper fixation on foolish, irrelevant things.

Mostly I'm posting this so that future scholars who get themselves to this point, can see that they're not the only ones.  And for me, to read later on and remind myself how far I've come. I'll probably never remember the model number of every (any?) tractor we own, but I can talk to anyone and my Mom always said I've got the kind of smiling face that makes people feel comfortable, so I'll just rely on that I guess? *laughing/crying/mostly laughing I think*

Quite a post for my first Nuffield one eh?? Inspired to follow along or WHAT!? :)

Monday, April 24, 2023

When The Opposite of Popular is Depopular.

 Renting hens is far from central to our business, but it is the most profitable thing we do. And even at that, it's not a make or break part of the farm.  But it does fulfill a value I have of promoting food awareness and food security. It brings agriculture to those who would otherwise not know where to start, not have the opportunity. It builds confidence in people to try things like gardening, canning, try other livestock, start to notice the difference in the quality of food. It gets people thinking about the food their food is eating, which is something most people don't do. 

Yes, renting hens is a cute story and a cool side hustle, but last year we opted not to do it because of the new threat of avian flu. 

I had decided that this year, I would give it a go, on a smaller scale. Partly because the demand was SO high and because there haven't been any cases of the flu here in domestic birds. There were lots of wild bird cases in the sea around the Island last year, but none managed to infect the thousands of poultry that live here. So I felt like maybe it was ok to give it a try again. 

Until we had a little visit from someone representing the perspective of the egg producers board. It was a very cordial visit and ended on good terms but it was clear that how we're farming is a threat to the livelihood of others, farming differently.  We're within a couple kilometres of a couple egg farms who would be affected if my farm was affected. Although, similarly for me, should they get it. 

And when I say affected, they could be forced to depopulate (euthanize) their flocks. Same as me, should they get it. Or similarly, if one of my rental hens should get it, it could be decided that my flock is a threat, even if the rental hen is in Souris and then we're all 'depopulating' (what an odd euphemism). 

While renting hens may not be a cornerstone of our farm profitability, making feed is, and that business could be halted if avian flu is found here due to vehicles being unable to move on and off the property. Kind of hard to sell feed if it can't leave the grounds. Let's not even begin to talk about all the folks who come here to get their feed for their backyard hens. 

So here I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. The pressure and risks of avian flu which may or may not happen and the potential to introduce the love to hens to a bunch of new folks this summer and foster a love of real food connection. 

I lean more and more into libertarianism as I get older and if I lived in the states, I'd likely be laughing in the face of something like the egg board, renting more chickens than ever just out of spite. But I want to be a good neighbour. I want to ensure we keep our feed business going. I don't want to feel like a threat to an entire commodity. I also want chickens to live lives outdoors. I want folks to experience cracking a still warm egg for breakfast. I want kids to train a chicken to follow them around. I want folks to ask what's in their chicken feed and care about the answer. 

I can't help but wonder if our egg and chicken industry in North America is so incredibly vulnerable to a disease because we've built it around breeding of chickens that are designed for one purpose and have no ability to cope with exterior threats? So much so that the barns are airtight, light-tight and so biosecure that workers have to change clothes to go in. What a surprise that they might be vulnerable to different pathogens. 

I suspect that Avian Flu will become like Covid is for us now. Always in the background, a real threat to some and less concerning to others. Does it mean I will never rent hens again? I'm sure some would hope that would be the case. 

So what do I do?  Forego the few thousand dollars and share my values in other, less effective ways? Or snub my nose at the 'guidelines' and my neighbours and send my little hens across this sandbar, spreading the chicken love, one feather at a time?

Friday, March 31, 2023

Duplicitous Denny

In college, at the end of the year, we'd have a night called "Drink the Pub Dry" in the name of clearing out the fridges for the season, in the form of cheap liquor. 

In the agricultural debate that the PEI Federation of Ag hosted this week in the run up to the election, I was reminded of that night, for the first time in years. I listened as my premier bragged about the time he approved a Pump the Dunk Dry during a "drought that was as high as it's probably been" for farmers whose irrigation permits had been 'shut off'. He foolishly went on to compare the sprinklers being used in downtown Charlottetown to the watersheds of the potato belt here in "the middle part of the province".

Denny King's own civil servants had to sit in committee and answer questions from concerned MLAs following that decision by the premier, that he was so proud of and those very civil servants agreed, time after time, that it was indeed detrimental to the watershed, it was against the rules and was a bad decision.
Why the needs of a potato crop would be put before the needs of residential wells or the water needs of a livestock farmer would be difficult to fathom anywhere else in the world. But not here in the Potato Republic. Apparently thats exactly the kind of thing that you can be so proud of that it's central to your debate strategy against the other party leaders in a provincial election. 

My main concern is not even the rash decision or the bragging about it. My primary frustration with this scenario is Denny's duplicity. You can be sure that his debate notes (spoiler, he doesn't really have any because he's so condescendingly confident and cocky) for the Environmental Forum didn't mention this wonderful decision he's so pleased to take responsibility for. Pulling from the handbag of tricks of the greasiest politicians of yore, King will say whatever it is that he thinks the people he's talking to want to hear. This was evidenced when he was recorded making statements about the drag and trans community, or even, for heaven's sake, CBC radio! He had to backtrack and pretend that they were out of context and apologize. But we all know that he is that kid in high school, so eager to be voted onto student council, that he'd sell cigarettes to the smokers, while simultaneously helping to draft the petition to get rid of the smoking area with the try-hard kids.

I started this election as a sincerely undecided voter, but it's become increasingly clear to me that the current government has no interest in my opinion, my water security, land use, reforestation or any other number of topics relevant to voters here on PEI. To our faces, maybe, but once we're out of earshot, it's just an eye roll and a shake of the head, a dismissive snort and back to the game of selling PEI and her resources to the highest bidder and the best lobbyist.

PEI is not a pub to be emptied of the old booze, and we're not a bunch of college students, all too eager for cheap drinks that we'll swallow whatever drivel you're feeding us. 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Questions for Candidates

The Canadian stereotype of politeness is often dismissed by some and certainly there is no shortage of examples to prove otherwise, but I think that Maritimers may be particularly polite, if not downright friendly, as a default. With the provincial election called here on PEI this week, it reminds me that sometimes folks find it hard to strike a balance between polite and assertive when party candidates show up at their door. 

I've only ever had one politician come to our house and it was years ago, when nitrate levels were the topic du jour, particularly in our potato belt district. This particular politician tried to convince me that what had been overlooked in all the hullabaloo about fertilizers, was graveyards and the amount of nitrates coming from decaying bodies. Needless to say he did not get my vote and he remains a household joke to this day. 

Here are the nominated candidates running in the P.E.I. election | CBC News

Mark's family are not overtly political, unlike my roots. So I expected to have more politicians arrive through the years, vying for my/our affection. Then I made the move of outwardly supporting one party, which likely quashed any chances for candidate visits. *sigh*

But this year! This year, I'm a clean slate, a truly undecided voter. I'm certainly leaning but its not definitive like other years, so I'm hopeful for a door knock and an opportunity to be swayed. To prepare, I've made myself a list of topics from which I'd like to hear candidates' thoughts and figured maybe other polite Islanders might find useful as a reference.

  • If you could pick two main priorities for yourself as a candidate and also for your party as a whole, what do you think they would be?
  • How do you spend your leisure time?
  • If you had a significant surplus, can you think of a better way to spend it than to give everyone making less than $100,000, a $500 bonus at tax time? (hint, the answer should be yes)
  • Deforestation is a major concern of mine and there seems to be very little willingness to wade into the topic by government. What do you think should be done to address deforestation in the province? What can be done to encourage diverse plantings of native species on available land? Are you aware of the impacts of deforestation on a region and the greater community?
  • Just what the heck is going on with the GEBIS and the land down in Kings County anyway? The whole thing is shady and I want to know what your party has planned to address the issue of land limits and those who are skirting them with loopholes.  This includes the Irvings. If your party is elected, how would you address conflicts of interest in land sales when currently final approval comes from Executive Council?
  • On a related topic, how do you feel about the water use legislation and the permitting process for new irrigation wells? What is your party planning for water conservation going forward? Does your party have anything in the platform regarding water use in this province?
  • What's your take on the rent control situation here on PEI? Has it been fair to both renters and landlords do you think? How could we do better?

  • This one is particularly for the incumbent candidate but regarding health care, it was nice to see some ideas and plans in the platform but why were these held off until an election?  They seem like ideas that should have been implemented a year ago when it became clear that we were headed for disaster. Why wait until now and why should I believe that you'll implement anything now and not just decide to wait until the next time you need votes? 
  • And if it's an opposition candidate, what are you most proud of from your party in the last term?
That would probably take as much time as they could give me for that day, and the answers to the first couple might tell me everything I need to know to form an opinion. 

Feel free to make use of these questions when you get a knock at the door!  This might be the only time you ever hear from your representative so you might as well make it count now!

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Let the Games Begin

I've been spending the last few days trying to figure out why I haven't been reading commentaries like the one I'm about the make.  Is there some risk to one's social license? Is it politically dangerous or unpopular? There must be some reason because surely I am not the only one critical of the current wave of temporary green and blue garbage covering the Island in the name of the Canada Games. 

In a province crumbling under a health care crisis, dealing with their first real experience of a significant community of folks suffering from homelessness, still very much in recovery from a hurricane and shaking off the weights of pandemic restrictions, it is truly astounding that no opposition politician is asking a single question regarding the budget for the Games and how any (inevitable) overages will be managed. 

Tickets for P.E.I.'s Canada Games selling well, say officials | CBC News

One oil truck driver claimed that he has been dispatched to the nordic trails every day since November, to fuel up a generator for a snow-making machine, which made the snow onto a wagon that hauled it into the woods by a Games-purchased tractor, only to melt over the following days. Like some kind of manic, oblivious manifesting would keep this mild winter at bay and continuing to throw money at the problem would solve Mother Nature's shortfalls in the snow department. 

That is but ONE tiny part of this massive undertaking, so lauded as the saviour to the local economy. A local economy that is seeing a VERY significant portion of its population gone to the tropics, taking advantage of the unnecessary extra week of holidays as a result of the Games.

But my questions about foolish choices and over-spending are nothing compared to the shock I'm experiencing from the lack of empathy or consideration for the folks hardest hit by this whole show of fiscal foolishness. Working parents who cannot afford to take one or two week's vacation and must now find child care that they also cannot afford for the extra time their kids have off school. And those lower and middle income kids for whom even the $10 entry fee to any of the events is cost prohibitive.

So essentially, we've asked the folks who are already hurting, to take on just a little extra financial stress in the name of the goddamned Games, that are not even accessible to them. 

Perhaps the thing that irks me most, is that rather than standing up and giving me a hint that any of the politicians share even one of my concerns, they're all too eager to get big toothy photo ops with the Games mascot, Wowkwis, causing one to wonder which has more stuffing in their head. With the writ expected to be dropped before the green and blue banners have even been taken down, or the jackets taken to the Value Village bin, there is a drunken energy in the air around any incumbent, no matter the colour. The tone-deafness of politicians celebrating about taking in multiple events, during most people's working hours while for many families, even one event would exceed the entertainment budget of many households, rather than taking the opportunity to take the government to task is a bit of a shock. 

If I have to see one more picture of a local politician with their arms around that fuzzy, big-headed fox, grinning like fools, expecting that their enthusiasm for this show of money and mismanagement will impress me, they can Wowkwis me arse.

Edna Flood - Chief Operating Officer - 2023 Canada Winter Games | LinkedIn

Friday, February 3, 2023

Extreme Cold Prep

 Frigid. Arctic. Extreme cold.  Whatever you want to call it, the weather is finally doing what it's supposed to be doing, which is to say, getting cold. Perhaps a bit colder than we'd all like and maybe for not quite as long as the traditional "two-week cold snap" we often encounter in January or February but at least this winter we're going to get temperatures cold enough to hopefully give some of those summertime pests a dent. Last year's mosquitos seemed more numerous and voracious than I ever remember (do I say that every year?) and I attributed it to the too-mild winter. So I'm hoping that when I'm walking out to water the bull on Saturday morning in -50 degree, 100km/hr winds, I'll remember those August nights of mosquito swarms while I shut in the hens. 

The curls on Beowulf, the Belted Bull. Doesn't he have the best head?

I know the Galloway cattle are better prepared than most for cold temperatures. Their ears are covered in long, shaggy hair and they've got curls for days all over their heads.  Their thick coat is lush, they're pretty fat and they've got pretty stellar instincts.  Combined with the barn I shouldn't think twice, but of course I worry and wonder if there's more I should do. One of the girls seems to have shed some of her ear hair and I know when I'm laying in bed on Saturday night I'll be wondering about her ears. Oh #13, I hope you snuggle up close with #16 who seems blessed with especially long hair. 

We've had to designate one cattle barn as beef and the other as dairy, which is hilarious, given that only one inhabitant produces milk but "the cow barn" was leading to far too much miscommunication in a relationship that already has its fair share of communication mishaps.

Anyway, the dairy barn is housing the beef heifers while they are weaned, along with Petunia, and their door is to the west so we're planning to shut it once things start to really cool off but the heifers have never really been in a barn, and are still a little worked up about the weaning so I hope they appreciate the warmth more than they're stressed about being shut in. 

The other animals of concern are the hens, who will hopefully avoid any frostbitten combs. We put plastic over their windows and made alternative watering arrangements for when it inevitably freezes up. I'll give them some cracked corn the next couple evenings to warm them up from the inside out while they sleep and try to gather the eggs every hour or so in the mornings. 

Other than that, I'll be curious to see if Hagrid, the maremma opts to head to the barn at night. He so loves the cold and snow that it's so rare to see him choose the indoors, but Lennox, the Australian shepherd has been sleeping in the barn at night for a few weeks now. 

As for me, I'm off to NB to pick up our bacon and hams and sausage from our favourite butcher and tuck in with my parents in what we jokingly are calling the hottest place on earth, which is my Mom's kitchen with her sweltering wood stove working overtime at all times. Mark is going to hold down the fort, on pipe duty and Lucy is going to be on egg gathering and animal watering. 

In unrelated news, I have been having a horrible week on the board game/card game front. I have lost miserably and I don't just mean not first. I mean, I've been bringing up the rear in the score of a 5 person game! I am not accustomed to this, nor comfortable with it.  Last night after losing badly in Carcasonne, I insisted on Five Crowns, which I promptly lost as well by 200 points. I was tempted to insist on one more game of something in an attempt at redemption, but opted instead to go to bed, knowing if I lost another one I'd hardly be able to sleep.  Ugh. Tonight is hockey, so let's hope my losing streak doesn't translate to the ice!

I'm trying to think about what my future self might want to read and I think they will feel like I'm already stretching it with board game stats, so I'll sign off for now. 

May this find you putting up your thermal curtains and digging out your heaviest quilts and looking forward to the hunkering down.