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> Monday, March 26th, 2012 > Opinion > Notes from Day Seven: The death of farming - Should we care?
Notes from Day Seven: The death of farming - Should we care?
Click here to read more Interrobang articles written by Michael Veenema
Published: Monday, March 26th, 2012
One of my nephews is in his late teens. He always wanted to take over his parents’ farm. And his parents once looked forward to the day they could hand over a well-managed family farm to their child. Too bad that’s not going to happen.
The farm, about 100 acres, near the town of Drayton, Ontario, was a mixed farm. What I remember seeing there is chickens, hogs, some dairy, and in the fields, hay and soybeans. In later years the family also farmed sheep. Once I came over on a hot summer day to help with the haying. That meant stacking bales of hay on a moving wagon. It’s back-breaking work, really, but in its own way, fun. And when the day was over, it felt good.
Today, the family lives in a large house about 10 kilometres from the farm. They don’t own it anymore. My nephew’s father had a hard time finding other work but now is with a farm equipment company, and his mother works at a local feed mill, dispatching trucks of cattle feed to the farms of the region, likely including the farm they once owned.
What is the main reason for the crash of my nephew’s dream of farming? Look no further than the mirror. We consumers want cheaper and cheaper food and more of it.
How do we at the same time increase the food production of farms and drive down the cost? Industrialize the farm. Make farms part of the globalized economy.
Farms get bigger. The number of people on them declines while the machines on them grow in number and size. Before World War II, one in three Canadians lived on a farm. According to Statistics Canada, in 2008 that number was one in 46. As one article in the Regina Leader-Post said, it’s all about economies of scale. More goods produced per person-hour.
So, it’s all good. Our food is cheap. And we have lots. My nephew will get a job as a plumber or mutual fund advisor. His parents will retire one day in a decent house. Everyone is happy. What’s not to like?
According to Wendell Berry, plenty. We lament the closing of plants when they leave town. But the closing of family farms should be of much greater concern.
Why should we regard the death of the family farm as a catastrophe? In his 2009 book, Bringing It to the Table, Berry tells us. First, there is the environmental cost. As more and more farmers grow fewer and fewer crop varieties, they depend increasingly on chemicals to resupply the soil with the nutrients that would otherwise be supplied by crop rotation. Besides that, much farmland in North America is dedicated to only one crop, which means that for a significant part of each year there is nothing growing on the land. The result is that the rate of soil erosion has risen greatly, plugging up natural waterways with sediment.
Second, there is the human cost. In the socalled developed world, very few of us can take satisfaction from knowing that we are supporting our local farmers, workers and community organizations. The industrialization of farming means that farmers are pitted against each other in a quiet but lethal Darwinian game of get bigger or die. Eat or be eaten in the global economy. Kill or be killed. As for supporting local businesses, especially the local farm, I will bet a cup of (fair trade) coffee that few of us care much if our grapes come from California or Niagaraon- the-Lake or if the hamburger in our Big Mac comes from Australia or St. Jacobs.
Just like Europeans used to tell native North Americans to become like them or die, today the developed world tells all agrarian communities to industrialize or perish. Globalized industrialization grows more powerful daily, and it is the most dangerous movement human beings have ever hatched. And while the family farm is not its only victim, it is an important one.
Last week I promised to draw on Berry’s appreciation of Amish farming communities and the hope such communities may have built into them. I see, though, that the end of the column is here. So, next week.