Whenever supply management is under pressure, the anxiety I felt as a kid during the World Trade Organization’s tariff negotiations always comes back to me.
Far too young to understand what a tariff was, but knowing from my parents’ conversations at the dinner table it could mean something bad for us, I started asking friends at school if I could live with them when we lost our farm. When my parents found out, they insisted that wasn’t going to be necessary, and I don’t really remember paying too much more attention to supply management after that.
Until university and Alfons Weersink introduced me to the economic model that
is isn’t supply management. It was the first time I learned the system, which allowed my parents to steadily grow the farm and the lifestyle I was raised with, was not “normal”.
Before then, all I really knew was we had this system and my beef farmer friends did not. So, not much. Suddenly, I was paying more attention to what happened in our sectors compared to others.
With all sorts of farmer friends, debates about supply management were common. They usually happened near the end of the night when it was just a few tables of us stragglers. They typically had no clear winner, and concluded with a round of drinks before singing “Oh Canada”. True story.
When I went to Cal Poly in 2005 to study the California dairy industry, it was the first time I truly realized how different supply management was compared to the rest of the world. An economic model can’t capture it.
This was a dairy industry like nothing in Canada. We focused on breeding nice cows, who would live as long as possible and have more calves. I still knew a lot of people with only 40 or 50 cows.
The smallest California dairy I visited milked 350 cows and most milked over 1000. The average cow was 2-3 years old and costs were always top of mind. I made lots of dairy farmer friends, and I learned lots about running an efficient dairy farm. I also learned how many people are needed on a farm of that size, and how water rights put major constraints on California farmers. I saw some amazing herds, with happy cows and caring, compassionate herd managers.
I am grateful for how much I learned. Thanks to what I learned, my beliefs also changed. I still believed Canada had some of the best cows and genetics in the world. I now believed supply management truly was a unique system although I now believed that big farms could also be good farms. And, I believed that farming at the intense level I saw in California was not for me.
I didn’t know why exactly I felt that way, and I would spend almost ten more years coming up with an answer. Many more debates (now with Western Canadian wheat farmers), an MBA, trips to India and China, and reading piles of articles followed. When I met several other young people, from totally different socio-economic backgrounds, passionate about food security at the 2013 Youth Ag Summit, then led a 4-H club in my own community, it became clear.
Farming is not just about producing food.
I believe farming is about continually improving your land. I believe it’s about being a good community member by being a good neighbour, good employer, good customer and good volunteer. I believe it’s about producing the healthiest food, not necessarily the most. Farming produces far more value than that which we sell out the laneway.
Unfortunately, I believe society has forgotten this and in our quest for cheaper everything, we’re no longer accounting for the full value of that bag of potatoes or litre of milk. Those California farmers are doing everything they can given what society (and food companies) have decided we will pay and right or wrong, that means economies of scale drive most of the sector now.
I believe supply management has helped protect all that farming is about. I will write more about this in my next post. For now though, I want to stress I am in no way suggesting non-supply managed farmers don’t do all these things also. The supply management system has made it far easier for the dairy sector though to maintain what farming is about. And I believe that is worth fighting for. Because there is more to farming than just producing food.