What is the Value of a Farm?

Stand up straight,” my mom scolded me as I stirred a spoonful of honey into my coffee and picked up a card on the counter.

Thanks for allowing our class to tour the dairy farm,” the card read. It was from our local high school’s agriculture class and accompanied a small jug of maple syrup, made from the school’s small sugar bush. I frown.

If all goes as the school board has planned, the high school will close next year and this great program which teaches how to grow plants, raise chickens and lambs and encourages students to pursue an agriculture career, will be over. I say so and my brother starts into a rant about the government.

It’s a typical morning on our farm. Both brothers and our parents are in the house for breakfast to discuss the plan for the day. This is our boardroom. Among the kids’ toys left around by my nieces and nephew, a lazy chocolate lab lounging by the door and the endless dirt that collects on a farmhouse floor, our family makes decisions for the day and discusses what’s happening in our community, industry and politics.

Politics dominate much of our discussion lately. The previous night at the curling club, several of us had a lively (and loud) discussion about the current Federal Conservative leadership race. Farmers or not, we were pretty much all the same page.

Canada needs a leader who isn’t going to keep racking up debt, forcing us and our kids to work til death to pay it off. But very few of us identify with the social conservative values the party, and many of the leadership candidates, espouse.

And so, based on observations at the Chesley Curling Club, I can say young rural voters share much the same values as their urban counterparts. But alas, this is not a post about how Conservatives are missing their opportunity to connect with millennials.

This post is a follow-up to my last one about supply management. At the curling club that night, everyone agreed supply management is an important system, whether they farmed in supply managed sector and not.

They are all young farmers and parents. The non-supply managed farmers also work a full-time job. This is what “starting to farm” looks like in Canada today. It’s not easy, no matter what sector of the industry you are in. The dairy farmers at the table (including my brother) are only there  because their parents still help on the farm. Otherwise, they are at the farm, basically on-call 24/7.

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Our dairy farms are around 60-70 cows. Average, by Canada’s industry standard, which is also business-speaking, about the right size for “one” employee. By employee, I mean farmer. The days where a couple like my parents could milk 40 cows together and that was enough to make a living and raise a family are over.

Any sound business mind would say we should grow so we can afford more employees and not be so tied to the farm. The same can be said for non-supply managed sectors like pork and beef, where the margins available to cover costs are even lower. Whether you’re buying quota or land, at $25,000 per unit and many young farmers already mired in debt, growth is much easier said than done.

Inevitably though, that’s what a lot of farmers have to do though to maintain a quality of life that justifies the extreme stress that accompanies farming.   Those who don’t grow sell the farm to those who do, resulting in fewer farmers. Fewer farmers means fewer people buying from local businesses, fewer kids in our schools and fewer volunteers in the community.

So, what does supply management have to do with this? It hasn’t protected the sector from consolidation. Nor has it accelerated it as some would argue. The 91% decrease (Stats Canada) in the number of dairy farms in Canada since 1970 is directly comparable to the United States.

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U.S. Dairy farm numbers have declined 88% from 648,000 in 1970 to 75,000 in 2006.             Source: Medill News Service

Wither fewer than 12,000 dairy farms in Canada, a phase out of supply management will  accelerate this decline as farms like ours will have to decide if we get bigger or get out. Not everyone will exit but many will. In 2015, 80% of the herds in Ontario (according to DHI and assuming its a good measure) were less than 100 cows. That’s a lot of farmers in a lot of rural communities who will make that decision.

When it comes down to it, I believe we need more farmers, not less. If keeping supply management prevents a mass exodus from farming, then that’s reason enough for me.

Here’s why:

Starting a farm is hard

It’s not impossible, but starting a farm is hard no matter what you’re trying to do. See above. Sector makes no difference. Ask the organic farmer at the market. Follow the sheep farmers on Twitter. Visit a dairy farm. Farming requires a huge investment and it’s 24/7. And whether it’s a modern North American farm or sustenance farming in Africa, most young people want nothing to do with it.

 

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A Moroccan farm woman with her cow.

 

Farms support local jobs

Either directly by hiring people or indirectly through the businesses they buy from, farms support jobs. And it’s generally accepted when farmers make money they spend it. They buy a newer tractor from the local dealership, put up a grain bin, maybe do some renovations in their house, trade in their truck or do some landscaping.

The difference is that for non-supply managed farmers, they have to weather significant market cycles, so there are years they can’t spend money. For ag businesses and the people they employ, the supply managed sectors help even out some of those cycles.

Is food too cheap?

I’ve written about this before because I strongly believe cheap food comes at a cost. Yes, we must continue innovating and adopting technology that improves the quality of our food and reduces its footprint. But competing on a “cheap food” platform that uses a model built on low-paid, migrant (and illegal) workers isn’t the measuring stick I want to use. Furthermore, food insecurity in Canada is not due to food prices. It’s lack of income. Full stop.

Well-paying jobs (or a basic income plan) would go much further helping low-income families than saving a few bucks on their grocery bill. Jobs like working in an agribusiness…

 

IMG_2646Farmers shape our nation

It’s 2017. There is renewed interest in where our food comes from and we are celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday and the people who built our nation. Among them are many farmers, from the First Nations People who grew corn, beans and squash and shared this knowledge with the traders to the brave settlers who broke the prairie soils.

Two of my heroes, Agnes MacPhail and Nellie McClung were both born on Grey County farms not far from me. Dr. Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin was born on a farm. In recent history, Chris Hadfield credits his farm upbringing with giving him the foundation he needed to become arguably our most famous astronaut.

Respect, hard work, empathy and compassion are just a few of the values considered to be part of the “farm kid factor”. Values widely viewed to be in short supply in today’s society. This obviously isn’t dependant on the number of farms, but it certainly makes me wonder why anyone would advocate for shutting down farms?

What’s the value of farms in Canada?

 

Farmers account for less than 2% of the Canadian population and sadly, this number will continue to decline. There is great value in thriving family farms; value that isn’t captured in the price of food alone. We should look for ways and support the systems that ensure more farms prosper, which may mean different systems for different sectors.

Because not only are they an important part of rural communities, but farms are vital to Canada’s character and strength as a nation.

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One thought on “What is the Value of a Farm?

  1. Lillie Ann Morris

    Very thoughtful piece, Jen. Hopefully, policy makes and politicians in all parties and at all levels of government will heed the message!

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