Friday, December 30, 2011

Radical or not?

On another blog I sometimes comment on, I was recently very gently accused of being "radical" and "anti-private property" by someone who surveyed the posts on this blog. I think there's a little more nuance needed here, so let me explain myself.

First, let me say that I embrace the term "radical" in its etymological sense of "going to the root" of something. Yes, I have radical views. I am not satisfied with explanations or solutions that scratch the surface of issues. I also like to look at the historical and cultural contexts of ideas. Relating to this, then, I wouldn't say I'm "anti-private property." I'm not keen on sharing my underwear with anyone else. I am, however, against the commodification of land. I do not think access to land should be determined solely by ability to pay. And I think community ownership and commons should be more widespread.

Historically, the idea of land as private property that was bequeathed upon North America is only a few hundred years old. It was by no means a "natural" progression, even if one does believe in a teleological notion of history. It stems from the British enclosures, a centuries-long process with two thrusts: changing and consolidating open-field systems to enclosed fields owned by individual farmers, and eliminating rural peoples' use rights to common and waste land.

In this process, many farmers were robbed of land – their means of production/reproduction – and the feudal guarantees of security they once had. Enclosure changed land from a life-support system to a commodity to be owned and exploited for private profit. And it did not happen smoothly or easily; generations of people resisted, were killed, were impoverished.

Prior to the enclosures in Britain, there were complicated rights and obligations of various resource users. For example, villagers often had the right to collect fuel from uncultivated land, and pasture animals on common land – all subject to local and frequent negotiations. The enclosures appropriated the commons, and took those various rights and bundled them all together and gave them to the owner of the ground.

This “dominium plenum” (total lordship) way of thinking about property is “common sense” to us today. The owner has a right to use his/her property; it is wrong for all non-owners to interfere with the owner in his/her use of it, and non-owners may use the property of the owner if and only if the owner gives permission. The owner has also transference rights. There are rules in place to punish non-owner interference, regulate cases of damage and liability. (This is more complicated, since rights can variously be permanent, temporary, absolute, exclusive, transferable or nontransferable, etc. One small example: the state retains the right to expropriate land for a highway)

Although private property is dominant in Canada, there are other ways of organizing ownership in natural resources, such as land or water, today. The suggestion that land should not be treated as a commodity is admittedly fairly radical in North America, outside of the land trust movement. But it isn't just an idea relegated to those heathens in the Global South who have not received the enlightenment of capitalism in all its glory. There are two examples from northern Europe - Norway and Scotland - that could teach us a thing or two.

Norway has extensive areas of land owned in common, basically governed by the same legislation since the 12th century. There are three types: farm, community, and state commons. In the case of farm commons, a farm usually holds infields privately and the outer uncultivated lands, for timber, grazing, hunting, fishing etc., are held jointly with other farms. More than 50,000 farms had shares in jointly owned land in 1986. Community commons also exist – their profits (under law) must first be used to secure and improve the commons, then can be used for developing more industry, activities, and community projects such as hydroelectric power generation. Thus, lots of resources go back into the local community.

This type of ownership is possible because property rights are not unified, but more like a “bundle” of rights which may be parcelled out to different owners. This is called resource-specific property rights. For different types of resources there are different rules regulating who has access to the resource, how regulations of use come about, and how it can be transferred to any successors. The ground-owner and the user/owner of a specific resource are often different persons. On joint farmland, for example, one farm may own timber rights to coniferous trees, another a certain percentage of grazing rights. These rights are negotiable between parties and local solutions are more easily arrived at. Note that I said the farm owns: in Norway the right to use the farm commons is attached to a particular property rather than a person. This was intended to keep farmland in the hands of farmers.

Is this possible here in Canada? Or perhaps a form of community ownership, being undertaken in Scotland, is more appealing? I'll go into that example in the next post.
Further reading:

Sevatdal, Hans and Sidsel Grimstad. 2003. Norwegian Commons: History, Status and Challenges. Landscape, Law & Justice: Proceedings from a workshop on old and new commons, Centre for Advanced Study, Oslo, 11-13 March 2003. Available at:

Berge, Erling. 2002. Varieties of property rights to nature – some observations on landholding and ownership in Norway and England. In Schmithüsen, F.; Iselin, G.; Herbst, P., Eds. Forest Law and Environmental Legislation – Contributions of the IUFRO Research Group. Available at 
Berge, Erling and Hans Sevatdal. 1993. Some notes on the terminology of Norwegian property rights law in relation to social science concepts about property rights regimes. Revised version of a paper presented to the IV. World Conference of IASCP, Manilla, 15-19 June 1993. 

Goodale, Mark and Per Sky. 2001. A comparative study of land tenure, property boundaries, and dispute resolution: Examples from Bolivia and Norway. Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 17, Issue 2, 183-200

Saturday, December 24, 2011


I think my subconscious knows the days are getting longer.

I've been a bit itchy without anything growing in our house or yard (for some reason, I kill houseplants) so I decided to go to the last Farmers Market of the season and get a sprouting kit.  Then I forgot to.

Last night, I dreamed our neighbour came over and planted two rows of perennial flowers in our front garden bed. I was pleased that we'd attract pollinators and admiring glances, but - THERE WAS NO ROOM FOR TOMATOES!

It was a rough night, so when I fell asleep again, I dreamed that my husband had planted our front lawn to the sidewalk with cold-hardy plants. The cabbages were a foot and a half tall. (They must have started them in the fall, I thought.) But again - NO ROOM FOR TOMATOES! I was trying to decide if I could squeeze in a couple plants at the end of each row when I wore up.

Just a couple more months, and there'll be enough daylight hours to start thinking about bedding plants. But darkness is good for dreaming in.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Contest Results! ...Soon.

Are you on tenterhooks, waiting for the results of the Squash Recipe Contest?

Will the winner be the recipe my son dubbed "Creamy Delight?" Will it be the first risotto I've ever made?

Or will I cop out, claiming my teacher training and experience and the relativism prevalent in society make it too difficult for me to evaluate "best"? (I should have made a rubric to use in evaluation.)

Stay tuned - I don't know the answer yet. But don't go away upset. Look at my failed attempt at thumbprint cookies, and laugh!

I have no idea what went wrong. The next batch was much better.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Confession: I am a Landlord.

I am still coming to terms with the fact that I am.... a landlord. That's right. After the settlement of my father's estate, I now own 1/3 of two quarters of land shared with my siblings. I do not farm it. (We are renting it to a cousin to run cattle on). It feels weird to me to make money not due to any merit of my own but simply because I inherited. I do not labour at all, and yet I directly benefit from the labour of others. I don't like it.

However, I have to admit I do like owning land. Yes, even though I research alternative land tenure and am terribly committed to it in principle... I have an attachment to this land. This rooted place that belonged to my great-uncle and then to my father, with coulees that still contain echoes of primal prairie. Is it an attachment to possession, or to history, or to experience - the brome and alfalfa mix that I lay down in for shelter from the wind while waiting for the post-pounder to catch up to me as I surveyed fence for my dad five years ago? Is it an attachment to... possibility?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Comfort Food

I know that I should be posting informative, politicized information. But it's December, and I just want to hunker down in a warm nest and fatten myself up. If you like, you can read Barry Estabrook's take on organic agriculture's ability to feed the world (after the proof, a zinger: "Given that the current food production system, which is really a 75-year-old experiment, leaves nearly one billion of the world’s seven billion humans seriously undernourished today, the onus should be on the advocates of agribusiness to prove their model can feed a future population of nine billion — not the other way around"). However, this post is going to be about comfort, and soup.

Some unanalysed part of me feels secure when certain numbers increase. Not money in my bank account, which would be sensible, but quantity of food that I've put up makes me feel happy. I'm not talking freeze-dried packets to be eaten in a steel bunker in the nuclear aftermath. I mean jars of applesauce and tomatoes, bags of potatoes and onions, and a freezer of pies and meat. I ascribe to Sharon Astyk's principle of food storage: store what you like to eat, so in a situation where you have to eat it (job loss, ice storm) you will enjoy your food rather than have it add to the suffering. Last week, I decided to make a meal entirely from stored food.

I grew onions for the first time this year. I've come late to an appreciation of onions, and I didn't know how many to plant in our limited space. It turns out that I planted enough to last until last week in storage. These are the last onions, and the last carrots. (I grew many carrots, but correspondently ate more and found more ways to use them in recipes because they were so tasty.)

 I added canned tomatoes. I added garlic:


Vegetarians, avert your eyes. I added ground beef:

I added spices, and noodles, and voila:

I made comfort.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Company's Coming for the Holidays

Do you know Jean Paré?

I feel certain that you do - if not by name, then in your subconscious, the primal palate that has been shaped by your earliest holiday dinner experiences, your first taste of sugar, and the vegetable you had to sit at the table until you finished. Purple cabbage with sesame seeds and soya sauce, in my case.

Jean's recipes have been shaped by generations of prairie cooks, and have in turn influenced another generation through the publication of her "Company's Coming" line of cookbooks. She is one of the main reasons that, in this era of rural population decline, we are still served Those Squares at potlucks, funerals, and weddings:

Yes, those squares. In 1981, Jean published her first cookbook: "150 Delicious Squares". Now, her books have sold in the tens of millions.

One of the appeals of the cookbooks is Jean's principle that recipes should only include ingredients you could easily get at a local supermarket. Unfortunately, I was raised by a hippie mother, so it goes against the grain to keep ingredients like coloured marshmallows and graham cracker crumbs in my pantry. However, they soon will appear. I am going to begin my holiday baking, and it must include squares.

I inherited "150 Delicious Squares" from my husband's great-aunt. Last year, I tried "Flat Truffles". After I'd made them, I realized that the ingredients - icing sugar, cocoa, butter - were the same as those in the recipe for icing on the Roger's sugar bag. Basically, I made a log of icing and rolled it in nuts and sliced it. My husband loved it. I think Jean went a little too far with that one. However, the Lemon Bars and Apricot Chews quickly became a favourite.

This holiday season, stop by my place and I'll feed you up. And remember Jean's homespun wisdom: "The horse is such a respected, noble animal. So if you eat like one, why would you be any different?"

P.S. The squash recipe contest has closed. I am busy testing and will announce the winner soon!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Want not.

As we approach the Giving Season, my Scrooginess has lead me to think about waste. A while back, I read an editorial in the Manitoba Cooperator about a study on Canadian food waste that had just come out of the University of Guelph. I was curious about it, so I asked the editor, Laura Rance, where I could find the study. It has been published online since.

I had a fair number of criticisms of the study's methodology and foci (who, me?), but Laura gently suggested that the study had value in sparking interest and further research. I think it is spot-on in its premise: 'Along with the rest of the world, Canada invests enormous resources in seeking ways to feed a growing population through increased production.  Far fewer resources are invested in making more effective use of the food already produced, even though doing so would have immediate results.'

The most startling revelation is that 40% of food that is produced in Canada ends up wasted, and the great majority of waste in the food supply chain - 51 percent - occurs at the consumer household level.

Because the authors are 'value chain' specialists, they only briefly address this household waste. Primarily, they look for ways waste is created as food moves along the chain, such as poor cooling of raspberries post-harvest and feeding animals until they are overly fat. They talk about waste due to processors receiving "products that do not meet the required specifications" and their recommendation is to change things on the farm.

A Maclean's article they reference deals with this issue in a much more comprehensive way, addressing retailer and consumer preferences for cosmetically pleasing produce and the laws (such as retailed carrots in Britain having to be a certain diameter) that facilitate this waste of imperfect produce. Paul Roberts tells a story in The End of Food (link) about green beans heading from Africa to a European market - 7 of 15 tonnes were waste because they were not of a certain length and straightness. We, of course, also pay the price of having to eat long-lasting uniform tomatoes, for example, instead of tastier ones.

I am curious about what the authors of the Guelph report do not address - any sociological reasons why waste occurs. What, in addition to techno-fixes, could result in the changes in production and consumption habits that lead to waste. For example, I would estimate that a fair amount of food waste is due to deskilling of the consumer. If you don't know how to use less popular cuts of meat, or that you can freeze celery leaves and vegetable ends for stock, then those things will be wasted.

I'm also curious if you have seen any initiatives that are working to address waste.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Love apple: the complicated tomato

I don't mean to suggest by my last post that tomatoes are not a vegetable. Although, of course, many will argue that they are a fruit, and some purists even argue there is no such thing as a vegetable, I generally use commonly accepted notions rather than botanical definitions. Whatever the tomato is, it is delicious and nutritious.

Of course, it is not without dangers. Perhaps because of its resemblance to deadly nightshade, colonial Americans thought it was poisonous and used it only as decoration. While that was disproven (for the fruit; all other parts of the plant are toxic), it now turns out that because of their acidity, canned tomatoes are particularly adept at leaching bisphenol-A from the lining of the cans. BPA has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Conventionally grown, they also pose a danger to farmworkers: fields are sprayed with  more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides - and fieldworkers have been found in conditions of slavery in Florida.

If one can navigate these dangerous waters, the tomato is indispensible for certain types of cuisine, e.g. mine - tending towards the one-pot meal where things can be dumped in and simmered or baked. I came across a woman the other day who didn't know what people would use a lot of canned tomatoes for in cooking. She only used them for chili or spaghetti sauce, which they ate maybe once a month.

In addition to chili, here's what I use them for:

  • jambalaya
  • bruschetta
  • lasagna and other pastas
  • zucchini parmesan
  • lamb and chickpea stew (with or without lamb)
  • soup bases - lentil or peanut or hamburger or Manhattan clam chowder
  • shirred eggs
  • cabbage rolls
  •  ...and yes, pizza sauce
 Fresh, could they need any more enticement than the company of fellow vegetables?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ketchup may no longer be a vegetable, but pizza is.

If you've been following American food news, you've probably heard that the US Congress has voted to make pizza a vegetable. (No, the link isn't to a Wall-E clip.) More precisely, the guidelines for nutrition in  school lunches now assert that the two tablespoons of tomato sauce on a slice of pizza counts towards the weekly calculation of vegetable servings. The proposal to limit servings of potatoes (often in the form of hashbrowns and fries) per week was also dismissed.
Probably not this pizza.
I went to a "community school" for grades seven and eight. It was located in a newly gentrifying area, and had a mix of incomes represented, tending to the lower end. It didn't have a cafeteria or lunch program (very few schools in the city did) but I remember getting weekly donations of free muffins. I usually chose chocolate-chocolate chip: sweet, fatty, calorie-dense, likely nutritionally void. It didn't occur to me at the time to wonder at the donation. Cynically, I wonder now - was it a tax write-off? Past-date goods? An attempt to make us future muffin customers? Or just a treat for the poor kids? What, exactly, was the purpose of the muffin?

It is hard not to be cynical when looking at the lobbying that was behind Congress's decision. Food companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan argued that the proposed rules would raise the cost of meals (14 cents per meal according to the Department of Agriculture) and require food that many children would throw away.

Here's some background on school lunches in the United States.
In fiscal year 2009, federal school nutrition programs underwrote more than five billion meals served to over 31 million students. Students are entitled to free lunches if their families’ incomes are below 130 percent of the annual income poverty level guideline established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and updated annually by the Census Bureau ($29,055 for a family of four in 2011). Children who are members of households receiving food stamp benefits or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, as well as homeless, runaway, and migrant children, also qualify for free meals. Students with family incomes below 185 percent of poverty are eligible for a reduced price lunch. Of the five billion meals provided to 31.8 million students during the 2008-09 school year, 55 percent were free of charge, 10 percent were reduced price, and the other 35 percent were paid.
That's 17.5 million children living in poverty. Surely there is a duty to provide them with nutrition, not the cheapest mass-produced schlock available. If the government is not going to address societal problems that perpetuate poverty, is not properly funding and regulating school meals the least it can do?

Libertarians will cry, "It's the parents' responsibility!" Sure, in an ideal world, with parents who have nutritional knowledge, cooking skills, and access to cheap, healthy ingredients. We don't live in that world. Let's work with the one we have.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It's still important.

I apologize for the lack of meaty posts here (and I mean that in the figurative sense). I'm in a slump where all the food news seems depressing, coinciding with the most grinding work on my thesis. But here's a grain of hope: at least my thesis is on an important topic.

In the United States, the National Young Farmer’s Coalition released a study on barriers for young and beginning farmers in starting a farming career. Building a Future With Farmers: Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help Them Succeed surveyed 1,000 farmers from across the United States and found that access to capital, access to land and health insurance present the largest obstacles for beginners.
Land access was the second biggest concern. Farmers under the age of 30 were significantly more likely to rent land (70%) than those over 30 (37%). Over the last decade, farm real estate values and rents doubled making farm ownership next to impossible for many beginners.

“In Nebraska the main barrier to new and beginning farmers is access to land.  Unless an aspiring farmer inherits land, it is very difficult to have access to it,” says William A. Powers, farmer and Executive Director of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.
There are answers. But is there the will to help young farmers?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Contest and Giveaway!

I know you're thinking about it already... next year's garden. I'm going to fuel that hunger with a contest.

I just bought some beautiful winter squash from a local farmer. Provide me with your favourite squash recipe in the comments. I will evaluate the recipes, and on December 1st I will choose the recipe my family enjoyed the most. The winner will receive a package of Burgess Buttercup winter squash seeds and a package of Bohemian Flat Podded Sugar Snap pea seed (yes, the pea seeds you cannot buy in stores!).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Lost skills?

A relative of mine had the chance to travel around to a lot of small-town museums this fall. The museums tend to have a lot artifacts from the European pioneers who first settled the area as farmers - a cream separator, a forge, an old school desk, a horse-drawn carriage...

Most of these museums are volunteer-run, and open only in the summer. To close the season, a big event at some museums is the old-time threshing demonstration.

Unfortunately, as the overwhelmingly elderly people in one small town told my relative, there aren't any young people who know how to operate a threshing machine, or who have the time and inclination to learn. One of them went on to list other old-timey skills that they have difficulty finding people to demonstrate: canning chickens and darning socks were at the top of the list.

It so happens I can do those domestic things. (Don't ask me to operate a thresher.) And when I think about it, I know more than a few city folks who are able to. Canning, I think, is making a renaissance; I volunteered this summer with a group of undergrads who gleaned fruit trees and learned how to can the proceeds. They had a blast trying out different recipes from the Bernardin website. Knitting has also come back into style, and if you put all the effort required into knitting socks, you're going to want to darn them. Believe me, I know:

An acquaintance commented on the city-rural divide that she saw in our area during a debate on urban chickens. "People in the city were just like, why would you want to do that? we left the farm for a reason." Maybe the younger generation doesn't have as much of that. The city is slowly coming to appreciate what once were rural skills that you shucked off along with your manurey boots as soon as you could leave the farm. The values of good food, manual labour, the pleasure to be taken in creation and craft, and a spiritual yet practical connection to the soil can be universal.

Will there be a renaissance in the rural areas too?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy Food Explosion!

I thought I was being rather clever, tailoring Tom Philpott's "Occupy Food" article for the Canadian situation. Turns out I was just on the leading edge of a meme. Lots of takes on Occupying Food here, with a lot of great points:

Marion Nestle promotes an Occupy Food rally in New York.

Eric Holt Gimenez argues for repoliticizing food, taking a page from the Occupy movement to create a broad-based movement.

Siena Chrisman talks about the ballooning influence of speculators on food prices since deregulation in 2000, consolidation of food corporations, and the need to unite to take back power.

It's catching on! Will you join in?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Vegetable Hits and Misses

I tried a lot of new vegetable varieties this year, in two different gardens at opposite ends of the city, so I thought I'd review a few of them. Bear in mind that we're Zone 3 here, and I grew organically, so your mileage undoubtedly varies.


The clear winner was the Witches Fingers pack I got from Tourne Sol farm near Montreal. I am going to have to write and ask them what varieties are in the pack - I know the seeds are open-pollinated varieties. They germinated well, were early, long, big, delicious, and untouched by insect or disease.
A loser was Purple Haze, which I got from Veseys. In both gardens, it was skinny and small, and in one it succumbed to Alternaria leaf blight (although the Red Cored Chantenay inches away did not).


I was really excited about Andrina, a cute little 6" high cherry tomato that I got from Heritage Harvest Seeds and grew in a pot. Two disadvantages: first, the leaves grow so low on the plant that I had a lot of backsplash when watering. Second, it tasted TERRIBLE! My sister grew one in Montreal and disliked the taste as well.

However, Silvery Fir Tree was a winner, also from Heritage Harvest Seeds. This pack was thrown in my large order as a freebie, so I only planted one. Reasonable size plant, medium sized tomatoes, quite tasty, and a good yield.


The Bohemian flat podded sugar snap peas that we got from a friend who got it from his mother who got it from an elderly neighbour who immigrated to Canada decades ago yielded decently, had a long harvest season, and were still tasty when they looked like they should be overripe and overgrown. Unfortunately, you can't get any of these unless you ask me very nicely.

Sugar sprint snap from Veseys had so many problems. An unidentified insect ate the life out of them in one garden, and in the other the yield was very poor. They succumbed to powdery mildew and had leaf miners. A cousin of mine also grew them and had problems.

Leafy Greens:

I had way more lettuces than I needed - Black Seeded Simpson and Matina Sweet. But what I really liked was the Mizuna from Veseys. A delicate taste hinting of cabbage, a very fast grower (we got four cuts), the only problem was that eventually the cabbage butterflies found it.

Mizuna at the bottom, Matina Sweet at the top, BSS in the middle

Would you believe, I still have seed packs in my fridge that I didn't even crack open this year? I look forward to more experimenting next year!

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Myth of the Small, Inefficient Farmer

Here's an interesting bit of data from Cathy Holtslander that I think deserves to be widely seen. Counterintuitively, large farms in Ontario get less of their income from the market, and more of it from government program payments, than smaller farms do - and this is an increasing trend.

The first pie charts show that in 1995, the share of market income obtained by farms with over a million dollars in annual gross revenues was 15%. In 2008, that number fell to 5%.*

Gosh! Since this isn't due to a decreasing number of big farms - the number of million dollar farms tripled over this time, as the number of smallest farms dropped by 25%, I gotta wonder: Where did those big farms get their money, then? During that time, as the second pie charts show, the biggest farms increased their percentage of program payments received from 6% to 26%. (And the value of program payments increased from $30 million to $150 million at the same time.)

Would you rather have your tax money support large corporate farms, or smaller farms? Surely not the former, on the grounds of 'efficiency', because this data explodes that myth. If the latter, the suggestion of a lower cap on program payments to your MP might be a first step.

*Data for these charts is from Statistics Canada, Canadian Farm Financial Database

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy for the Love of Food!

Tom Philpott has written a great article on why food movement actors should support Occupy Wall Street. He makes the argument that the occupations (which have spread across the world, starting today!) challenge the concentration of power in the hands of the elite, and the agrifood industry is a prime example of this concentration, elite control, and marginalization of the consumer and small producer.

I thought I'd take three of Tom's key points, which use American examples, and make the case for his argument applying to Canada. (Of course, many of his examples of multinational corporations apply to us here as well.)

1. The food industry is a big fat monopoly
  • The top five food retailers in Canada account for 60% of sales (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)
  • Nilsson Bros. Inc. is Canada’s largest beef packing corporation, owning nearly half of Canadian capacity. In addition to its packing plants, holdings of the Nilsson Bros. conglomerate also include (wholly-owned or in partnership) feedlots, most of western Canada’s large auction facilities. ('Losing Our Grip', 2010)
  • Three companies -- Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill -- control an estimated 90% of the world's grain trade (USA Today) and the prairies export 80% of the grain they grow.
  • The largest 5% of food manufacturing establishments accounted for over 50% of sales in 2003 whereas the smallest 80% of establishments accounted for only 15% of sales. (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)
  • And, since transnational corporations sell the majority of Canadian farmers' inputs, some global stats are relevant: the top 10 seed companies account for 67% of the global proprietary seed market (Monsanto is 23% of that number); the top 10 pesticide firms (the six largest of which are also in the top 10 seed companies) control 89% of the global agrochemical market. (ETC)
2. Wall Street's greed leaves millions to starve—literally
  • "In recent years, the financial markets have discovered the huge opportunities presented by agricultural commodities. The consequences are devastating, as speculators drive up food prices and plunge millions of people into poverty... Since last June alone, higher food prices have driven another 44 million people below the poverty line, reports the World Bank. These are people who must survive on less than $1.25 (€0.87) a day." (Der Spiegel, trans.)
  • "Holdings in commodity index funds ballooned from US$ 13 billion in 2003 to US$ 317 billion by 2008...The promotion of biofuels and other supply shocks were relatively minor catalysts, but they set off a giant speculative bubble in a strained and desperate global financial environment. These factors were then blown out of all proportion by large institutional investors who, faced with the drying up of other financial markets, entered commodity futures markets on a massive scale." (De Schutter briefing note, 2010)
  •  Some advice from a Canadian investment advisor: "the biggest and most worrisome near-term crisis of all, is a food crisis; and you will have the opportunity to make a ton of money from it. Speculators love crises as well, and only add fuel to the fire, which multiplies your gains. The writing is already all over the wall for a pending food crisis; the west just hasn’t seen it on a domestic level yet, but believe me, we will. It’s time to get ahead of this trade." 
  •  The extension of food speculation, as you know from reading this blog, is speculation in land. "Bay Street investors like Sprott Resources and Lawrence Asset Management have been buying into farmland in Uruguay and the Democratic Republic of the Congo." (Canadian Dimension)

3. Our politicians are in bed with agribusiness.
  • A homegrown prairies example: Assiniboia Capital Corp, "the largest farmland investment management company in Canada, with almost 100,000 acres under management" (from its website). Organization includes: Co-founder Brad Farquhar, who is the former Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Party and former Executive Assistant to Sask. Party leader Elwin Hermanson; Gord Nystuen—General Manager of Assiniboia’s farm input financing division, Input Capital—is former Saskatchewan Deputy Minister of Agriculture, former Chief of Staff to the Premier, and former Chair of Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation; Advisory Board member Lorne Hepworth is President of Croplife Canada and former
    Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Energy and Mines, Minister of Education,
    and Minister of Finance.
    (Assiniboia Capital website)
  • Assiniboia Capital has tripled its land base over the past two years.  In light of this, it is interesting that Assiniboia’s primary capital source is taxpayer-owned and federal-government-controlled Farm Credit Canada (FCC).  ('Losing Our Grip', 2010)
  • Five of the 100 lobbyists named in the Top 100 Lobbyists list compiled annually by the Parliament Hill insider newspaper The Hill Times have agriculture or food sector clients. (Western Producer)
To borrow a phrase from Dave Oswald Mitchell's excellent essay,

Occupy the market. Occupy the commons. Occupy the future.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


What's a food blog without a post about Thanksgiving? Unfortunately, even with it, this post will be less than compelling because my camera is broken. You will have to simply imagine the dilled carrots from the crop dug the previous day, the mashed turnip (is there a way to make that sound appealing?) and the pepper-corn salad we contributed to the meal at the in-laws'.

Many reasons to be thankful. For the food crop, and the time and resources and help that I had that allowed me to experiment with it. For new employment, with excellent benefits. For good health. For family, and for friends who are family.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lentils of Superiority

"Why do poor people eat so much junk food? Don't they know it costs more? Why can't they cook and eat nourishing, protein-laden, inexpensive beans and legumes?"

Leaving aside the issue of a potential lack of kitchen appliances, cooking knowledge and skills, implements, access to certain foods, and time, here’s George Orwell’s opinion on why the poor may eat the way they eat, from Wigan Pier:
“When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty.’ There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea ! That is how your mind works…. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water.”
 Brown bread-and-dripping, or, lentils of superiority.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


from Frances Moore Lappe writing in The Nation:

"[T]he global food movement challenges a failing frame: one that defines successful agriculture and the solution to hunger as better technologies increasing yields of specific crops. This is typically called “industrial agriculture,” but a better description might be “productivist,” because it fixates on production, or “reductivist,” because it narrows our focus to a single element.

"This rising global food movement taps universal human sensibilities—expressed in Hindu farmers in India saving seeds, Muslim farmers in Niger turning back the desert and Christian farmers in the United States practicing biblically inspired Creation Care. In these movements lies the revolutionary power of the food movement: its capacity to upend a life-destroying belief system that has brought us power-concentrating corporatism.

"Corporatism, after all, depends on our belief in the fairy tale that market “magic” (Ronald Reagan’s unforgettable term) works on its own without us.

"Food can break that spell. For the food movement’s power is that it can shift our sense of self: from passive, disconnected consumers in a magical market to active, richly connected co-producers in societies we are creating—as share owners in a CSA farm or purchasers of fair-trade products or actors in public life shaping the next farm bill.

"The food movement’s power is connection itself. Corporatism distances us from one another, from the earth—and even from our own bodies, tricking them to crave that which destroys them—while the food movement celebrates our reconnection.

"As the food movement stirs, as well as meets, deep human needs for connection, power and fairness, let’s shed any notion that it’s simply “nice” and seize its true potential to break the spell of our disempowerment."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I have in my hands an advance copy of the book "Food Sovereignty in Canada" put out by Fernwood Publishing.  I am very proud! I would tell you exactly what I did for this book, but then my thin veneer of anonymity would be blown. I will say that I did copy-edit half of it, and did substantive editing for three of the chapters. Please don't tell me about any typos I missed. That was probably the other copy-editor.

The rest of you will have to wait until November to get a copy, but I'm going to whet your appetite:

"The language of food sovereignty was initially introduced by La Via Campesina to express both the truth of power relations within the food domain and the hope for the democratic, widely dispersed, just distribution of those powers over food...In order to transform the dominant forces, including those related to politics, economics, gender, the environment and social organization, we need to be able to imagine and articulate new relationships to food, community and ultimately the earth."

"Instead of the current construct of farmers producing and individual consumers buying food, where both the access to and production of food are determined by the market, food sovereignty begins from the position of citizens engaged in decisions about providing life-sustaining good food."

From the publisher: "Achieving food sovereignty requires conceptual and practical changes, reshaping menus, farming, communities, relationships, values and policy, but, as the authors clearly demonstrate, the urgent work of building food sovereignty in Canada is well under way."

"Advancing Agriculture by Destroying Farms? The State of Agriculture in Canada"
"Indigenous Food Sovereignty: A Model for Social Learning"
"Growing Community: Community Gardens as a Local Practice of Food Sovereignty"
"Community Nutrition Practice and Research: Integrating a Good Sovereignty Approach"
"Transforming Agriculture: Women Farmers Define a Food sovereignty Policy for Canada"
and more!

Friday, September 16, 2011


In honor of Friday, something apolitical - unless you're a breatharian: Kids take good eating seriously.

Gourmand from Eden Balfour on Vimeo.

Plum-eater's mom in 1977. Good genes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wisdom of the elders, CWB edition.

Farmers who were born out of the Depression-era have a long perspective on farming issues. A couple of my interviewees who are in their 70s weighed in on the Canadian Wheat Board. A historical perspective:

"The first generation struggled to get it established. The second generation fully understood why it was so. The third generation got the most benefit out of it. The fourth generation have no idea what the background is and don't make any effort even to try to find out or care or what. And it seems to be something in the human psyche that – are they going to have to learn all over again?"

And a comment on ideology:

"It's true, if we don't have a Wheat Board you get your freedom, but then the other people that support the Wheat Board don't have the freedom of having the benefits of a single desk that works... But the farmers think that they're going to be able to load up their trucks and take it across the border and get the premium price. But when you get down there you're going to find out that all the grain companies up here have got farmers' grain that they bought, they're down there selling too – and often times to mills that grain companies like Cargill up here own, they own the mills down there, so who do you think they're going to get it from? And the only way you can sell it to their mill is if you undersell what they're buying it from from the farmers up here. Why should they pay you more for what they can buy from the stupid farmer who sells it off-Board here? And that's the argument. They say, 'well, yeah, but I want my freedom I guess.'"

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tyranny of the Majority

I've changed my mind about the Canadian Wheat Board. I now actively welcome its demise, as the result of an irresistible argument that you may have heard making the rounds. It goes like this:

24.32% of voting-age Canadians voted for the Conservative government and gave it a majority. These voters included Torontonians who couldn't tell a wheatfield from a field of flax and have never heard of the Canadian Wheat Board. Nevertheless, this win obviously gave the government a mandate to repeal the Act of Parliament that gave the CWB its monopsony over prairie wheat and barley. This is a far more democratic way of dealing with the farmer-funded organization and its farmer-elected representatives. In the name of 'marketing freedom', the Conservatives will overturn this tyrannical majority rule and wheat and barley farmers will be able to sell to whichever of the four multinationals that control 80% of the grain trade they choose.

In light of this persuasive argument, I too have chosen to embrace the principles of 'minority rules' and 'freedom of contract'. I hereby announce my choice to disregard the laws of my country, some of which I personally do not benefit from and did not personally approve of. Therefore, as an underrepresented minority, I refute our electoral system whereby the majority controls the political system, and the unfair laws that support that system. My household and I have freely contracted with the government of Norway and are now Norwegians.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tantalizing Quotes from "Decolonizing Food"

Briarpatch Magazine has just put out a food and agriculture issue, "Decolonizing Food". This covers a wide range of food and agriculture issues in Canada, with implications for beyond. Some excerpts:

"As a result of destroyed livelihoods in their countries of origin due to free-trade-facilitated corporate expansion (in which Canadian multinationals are often complicit), thousands of farmers come from Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere to work in Canada’s SAWP. Canada creates and perpetuates an unjust situation for these farm workers, who are usually poorly paid, given harsh accommodation and denied access to do we make these spaces safe for the most marginalized among us while also building an effective resistance to the systems that create and perpetuate food injustice?" Maryam Adrangi and Laura Lepper, "Food for all! Food justice needs migrant justice"

"Farming, in my experience, is too rich, too complex, too full of pleasure and agony to be learned from a distance. You need to wade ankle deep into mud, gorge on warm berries, toss bales until your fingers bleed. Farming as an art is interconnected and complex and requires a method of instruction that reflects this essence." - Anna Kirkpatrick, "Learning to grow: The proliferation of hands-on educational opportunities for wannabe farmers"

"The need for commercial, artificial human milk has been manufactured through the same intentional degradation of community that has manufactured doubt in our ability to produce milk from our breasts or food for our tables. It is not at all surprising that the years that saw dramatic decreases in breastfeeding are the same years that we gave up more and more of our gardens, our chickens and our recipes in exchange for supermarket solutions. We have been told that the work required to feed ourselves and our infants is drudgery and that time spent washing bottles and standing in line at the till is freedom." - Erin Laing, "From apple pie and mother's milk to pop-tarts and formula: How will we feed the next generation?"

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Community helps prepare for natural disasters

With farmers becoming as scarce as hen's teeth, where you used to be able to get advice at the local coffee shop, feed mill, or elevator, you have to sometimes go further afield. New communities of shared interest rather than shared geographical proximity are filling in some of the gaps. One such, for computer-savvy farm folk, is the #agchat community on Twitter. Although a subset of avid internet and social media users, it's a fairly diverse crowd of vegetable, grain, livestock and dairy farmers, big and small. In the wake of Hurricane Irene, last night during the weekly chat on Twitter, people offered tips on dealing with natural disasters.

I live in a pretty disaster-free area. Landlocked and far inland, we aren't affected by hurricanes or tsunamis. The last earthquake my mom remembers, in the 80's, knocked a picture off the wall. Land flat as a dinner plate means no volcanoes. We've had some spring flooding lately, but the main disasters that threaten agriculture here are drought, hail, high winds, and the odd tornado.

I posed a question about limiting hail damage (besides using insurance) and got some good replies. Bonus: only 140 characters each, max. 

- ensure proper shelter for livestock, machinery
- For fruit growers and produce ... there is hail netting
- depending on the crop (mkt/csa veggies) & where located, putting on layer of row cover for some protection
- Diversify! Some crops recover from hail better than others. Squash & lettuce get wrecked, but onions and tubers have reserves 2 recover
- a big tarp? For silage bags, we keep a lot of duct tape around to repair holes
- with 150 year old hardwood trees for cover -- hail is just a way to fill the cooler before the game.
- another consideration 4 crops wld be where to plant...w/in natural borders & protection via trees, tall grasses (permaculture)     

The question on dealing with high winds or tornadoes also got good replies.

- You know all those century old Midwest barns built into a side of a hill? Pretty smart huh?
- Our Coverall buildings bend in the wind. They have held up pretty well to tornado and high winds 
- Our farmhouse is concrete up to the rafters. It can withstand tornadoes. No other buildings have ever gone down in high winds
- Tough to fortify against tornado, but for high winds, we did plant a windbreak many years ago around our grain storage facility
- get rid of items sitting around that become missles n windstorms. Put equip n bldgs. Clear clutter.
- hoop bldgs fared better w less damage 2 bldg contents than pole bldgs n r area n July 11 windstorm
- Future farm infrastructure development should consider geodesic domes for rock solid structures, tornado resistant
- ''portable'' hoophouses & similar structures can be taken down in prep if ahead of storms..transporting delicate crops elsewhere
- keep trees trimmed away from power lines, bldgs. Put in underground power lines where possible 2 minimize damage. 

The drought question did not garner any replies that I found useful, living in a region where climate change is predicted to create multi-year droughts. "Pray" and "Irrigate" were the two answers given. I would suggest that diversification and drought-tolerant plants would mitigate some damage. Ultimately, I think the more links we have with different communities, the more resilient we will be.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Detective Work: Following the Money in the Consumer Food Dollar

In 1911, a bushel of wheat cost $1.
Today, that $1 is worth $23.82.
Today, a bushel of wheat costs $9.28.

Is there a problem? Yield has gone up, so farmers get more bushels per acre than in 1911. And farmers own more acres than in 1911 - average farm size grew from 297 acres to 1450 acres.

So how is it that Canadian farm net income from the market was near zero, and often negative over the past couple of decades?

Here's a clue: only 5 % of the consumer dollar goes back to the grain farmer. "Using his farm in East Selkirk, Man., as an example, [KAP president] Chorney said he would receive $90,000 if he grew 300 acres of wheat that yielded 50 bushels per acre. However, the bread, cereals and other products from his wheat would generate $1.8 million in sales for grocery stores."

Where does that 95% go? Transportation, packaging, advertising, retail and storage costs like rent and business taxes, fuels and electricity, and labour.

Oh, and profit for global agribusinesses. Remember the food crisis in 2008 that saw food riots in many countries? The Wall Street Journal reported that in the midst of the crisis, "grain-processing giant Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. said its fiscal third-quarter profits jumped 42%...Monsanto saw its profit in the latest quarter more than double...Cargill Inc.'s profits jumped 86% to $1 billion in the latest quarter...Bunge Ltd.'s earnings rose about 20-fold to $289 million."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Food Sovereignty In Motion

La Via Campesina in Movement... Food Sovereignty now! from La Via Campesina on Vimeo.

"According to the FAO, 800 million people suffered from hunger in 1976. Nowadays that figure exceeds 1000 million. Why? Because the system doesn't want to solve the issue of hunger." - Carlos Marentes, UTAF, USA

"A production model that has turned food into financial speculation and land into financial speculation. The Green Revolution and the transgenic revolution don't aim to eradicate the hunger of thousands of millions of human beings. They want profits for the few owners of those large companies. - Angel Strapazzone, MOCASE, Argentina

"This agriculture is an agriculture without people. It's an agriculture that doesn't accommodate nature and human beings."
- Itelvina Masioli, MST, Brazil

"It is essential to reclaim the importance of agricultural work in the world and the importance of people who dedicate themselves to agriculture and who feed humanity." - Luis Andrango, FENOCIN, Ecuador

"It's the strength of the organization that produces change into practice. Being in La Via Campesina and being organized gives me the hope I can change the world and create a new society."
- Dayana Mezzonato, MST, Brazil

Monday, August 22, 2011

Concentrated Beer

I knew that three companies control 90% of the global grain trade. That's the kind of stat you run across in my line of work. But I didn't know that two companies control more than 75% of all beer sales in the United States. Philip H. Howard put together this amazing graphic to illustrate it.

If you go to this website, you can zoom in and discover which companies control which beer, as well as seeing a map of breweries per capita per state, just in case you're planning an American vacation.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Taking Control of the "Feed the World" Meme

One of the techniques I used a fair bit to prepare students for a lesson when I was teaching was brainstorming. There are more or less intricate ways of setting up a brainstorming exercise, but I'm not going to get all fancy here. I'm just going to pose a question to you, one that was posed to the general public on a website I stumbled across the other day. I think it was meant to be rhetorical, but I also think it shouldn't be.

"How can we feed a growing global population in an era of climate instability without genetically modified crops?"

Here's some answers I came up with, off the top of my head:
  • curtail waste in the food system (40% of food is wasted at the household level in Canada; postharvest losses in developing nations range from 15-50% of production)
  • stop producing food for inefficient biofuels (ie, almost all biofuels)
  •  maintain and perpetuate biodiversity in order to respond contextually and locally to climate changes
  • support and develop greenhouse gas-reducing farming methods
  • put money back into public research in agriculture because even the USDA admits that Monsanto's 'drought-tolerant' corn has yields only equal to that of corn conventionally bred
I'm pretty sure the answer is not "giant plantations of monocultures from one seed source that require massive amounts of chemical and fossil fuel-based inputs to produce". That sounds like a textbook definition of a vulnerable food system to me.

What can you add to this list?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Harvest Update

The garden is taking care of itself now, except for the occasional watering. Here's what's fresh:
Carrots from Tourne Sol Cooperative Farm's Witches' Fingers seed pack.

Mini hot peppers: Grandpa's Siberian (L) and unknown variety (R). I plan on keeping the Grandpa's Siberian as a house plant over the winter.

Tomatoes, of course. So far: Golden Cherry, Bison, and Silvery Fir Tree. I really like the Bison - unblemished heritage plum tomato and a nice consistent size.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why Land?

When I started grad school, I received the good advice to create 10-second, 30-second, and 2-minute spiels in response to, "And what is your research about?"  I received the advice, but I didn't follow it. I have a 5-second spiel - "Alternative agricultural land tenure in Saskatchewan" (I talk fast) - and then I have a lot of flailing about as I add explanations and qualifications.

Truth is, I don't know why I ended up focusing on land. I remember having to come up with an idea for a grant application at the same time as I was reading Pierre-Joseph Proudhon ("property and robbery are synonymous terms") for a class on theories of justice, just months after my father passed away and left the state of the family farm in limbo. Out of that stew, an idea about land emerged. And then it mutated.

If you've ever had to explain to an 18-month old why he can't walk across a neighbour's lawn, you might realize how ridiculous ideas about property are. If you go on to read Locke, you realize his ideas about labour and property conveniently justified dispossession of aboriginal peoples. Then when Jun Borras tells you that property rights are not things, but social relationships, you get interested. And when, with Jennifer Franco, he tells you that "Ultimately, food sovereignty is about effective control over wealth and power", you get excited.

So. Today, I am starting a draft of my thesis, trying to sift through my data and analyses, trying to unite all the pieces that I have written for classes and conference presentations, trying most of all to sieve out all of the fascinating, but unfortunately unrelated, food systems information I have amassed in the past two years. Trying to focus.

I'll let you know what my research turns out to be about. Then I'll answer the question I posed in the title.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I've been working on a couple of essays these past few weeks, and reading a lot, but haven't put together enough ideas for a meaty blog post. So, in lieu of theory or reflection, here are some statistics.* Let me know what you think of these trends.

The most recently published Statistics Canada census of agriculture, in 2006, saw a decrease of 5,196 farms in Saskatchewan from 2001 – or, 10.9%. The number of young farm operators in Canada (under the age of 40), including those working with older family members on farms, decreased 58% from 1991 to 2006: a decrease of 33% to 16% of all farm operators. In Saskatchewan, 10% of farms are operated by young farmers.

Farm size has increased correspondingly - from 2001-2006 alone, average farm size increased by a quarter section, from 1283 acres to 1450 acres. Changes in provincial land ownership laws in 2003, whereby land was opened up to non-resident, non-farmer ownership – residents of other provinces, numbered companies, investment companies - have opened the doors to investment in farmland by non-farmers, a growing trend. For example, One Earth Farms, controlled by investment firm Sprott Resource, leases 250,000 acres of First Nations land in Alberta and Saskatchewan to produce grains and livestock. Assiniboia Capital Corporation, based in Regina, owned roughly 100,000 acres of Saskatchewan farmland and had about $65-million in assets under management in 2010. Although foreign ownership of more than 10 acres is still prohibited, exemptions can be granted by the Farm Land Security Board, and foreign players can be minority partners in corporations that own land. 

Prices of farmland in Saskatchewan, while still on average less than those in the other prairie provinces, have also been steadily increasing since 2002 according to the Farm Credit Corporation, including an increase of 2.7% in the last six months of 2010. This adds up to a 44% increase over 2002 prices. 

*I have sources for all of these - Statistics Canada, FCC, various scholarly or news articles - but thought it would be a bit much to post them. Available on request.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Garden Update: Early August

We're in the midst of beans - my favourite vegetable.

These are the first tomatoes. Finally, they're starting to catch up to the basil. I see pizza in our future.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How to Pick Saskatoon Berries

Picking saskatoons is a family tradition. I started picking when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, going to the coulees on my grandpa's land with him and my dad and learning this skilled technique. I may be a city girl right now, but baby, I've still got it: I went to a U-Pick the other day and picked these pails in 1.5 hours.

You too can be a lean, mean berry-picking machine. Here are my tips:

Outfit: long-sleeved light-coloured shirt, jeans, and running shoes for protection from mosquitoes, sun, and miscellaneous scratchy plants 

Accessories: belt to hang pail on for freeing up both hands - two to pick, or one to pick and one to hold down a branch within reach (saskatoon bushes are very supple - they can take it).

Equipment: ice cream pail with handle (and lid if you fear spills). They used to make sturdier ice cream pails with metal handles, which were much better for berry picking - held up to the weight of the berries - but the contemporary kind are adequate.

Method: grasp cluster of ripe berries in hand, gently strip downward (almost like milking a cow) so the berries fall into your palm, then drop into the pail at your waist.

Cleaning the berries: I sit at the table with a large bowl in my lap and a small one on the table by my right hand with a towel of some sort on the table in front of me. Dump a cup or two of berries on the towel and roll towards bowl in lap, scanning for aberrations such as unripe, wrinkled, or just ugly berries*, and picking them out to put in the smaller bowl. Much of the detritus - leaves, bugs, etc - will be left behind on the towel (and you can use it to squish the bugs). After that, float berries in a bowl of water to rinse and drain in a colander.


Does anyone have favourite saskatoon recipes they'd like to share?

*My dad used to go through my bowl of discards, picking out many that I thought were too gross to eat, and putting them in the edible bowl.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


Oh no! Scientists brought dinosaurs back to life and they're in my house!
Sometimes, I like to indulge my paranoid side, especially as it links up with my imaginative side. I love making lists and thinking of possible contingencies. I know exactly how I should prepare to have enough food and water in my house to survive a months-long disaster of unspecified cause. I know various methods of food preservation requiring no electricity or other fuel. I know methods of gardening for dealing with drought and methods for extending the season. I know how to build a solar powered water distiller.

Unfortunately, all of this is in my mind. I'm a planner - not necessarily an executor of said plans. Other than freezing two gallons of water to take up freezer space (a full freezer is more efficient), I've done nothing to prepare for an emergency. (I don't like to think about what happens to my freezer half-full of locally pastured beef if the electricity cuts out for more than 24 hours. Since I only have the vaguest notion of how to smoke things, a block party, maybe? Hmm, that bears thinking about...)

I don't think I'm unique in not being prepared for a major disaster, or even a minor one. I'm sure more than a few of you have heard that, if supply lines are cut, grocery stores have about three days of food - perhaps less if people go crazy stockpiling in the first day. I have enough food around the house to survive for a couple of weeks without shopping, although I would probably be missing some key nutrients by the end of our reliance on rice, dried beans, and the aforementioned beef, and I'd have to find a toilet paper substitute. More than a few weeks? That's where it get sticky.

My friend Tracy told me that if a disaster happened, the first thing she would do is gather her extended family together. She's lucky enough to have them close to her. I would probably take my family, my seed supply, and head out to a relative's farm. But what about people who don't have those connections?

I read a quote the other day that in our society "the interdependency of individuals [is] not mediated through political, social, or religious institutions but via the market and contract". When that market contract fails - when the stores have no food, when the city's water treatment plant is malfunctioning, and we can't purchase what we need to live - do we have connections, institutions, that will help us and wherein we can help others?  Who's going to save you? Your church? They don't have the resources. Your family/friend network? Not if they are likewise dependent on purchasing the essentials of life.

This is not a hypothetical situation in many parts of the world, where the water supply is unreliable or too expensive, where food prices may rocket out of reach and droughts annihilate subsistence crops. However, in some of those places, people do have something we lack here, in our "independence" of one another: interdependence. And this interdependence can cushion catastrophe.

Monday, July 25, 2011

July Salad

Butter lettuce, mizuna, peas, snap peas, walnuts, pansies, centaurea. Best served with friends.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Saving Someone's Bacon

Piglets are among the cutest of baby animals. No, really. Go find some and coo over them.
I can guess what prompted this campaign: increased public attention on the treatment of pigs in confined systems, with pictures like these readily available on the internet, and stories about the Manitoba barn fire that killed 7500 pigs hitting close to home.

According to the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, the swine industry in Saskatchewan produces about  two million market hogs a year and employs about 8,000 people. "To put pig production into perspective on a local level," the article's writer says, "a typical 1,200 sow barn farrow-to-finish uses 8,600 acres of feed grains annually, provides employment for ten full-time and five indirect personnel, has annual sales revenues of $5 million, and provides nutrients in the form of manure to 3,600 acres over a three-year nutrient management program."

I'm more familiar with other aspects of the hog industry in Saskatchewan.
Like the fact that in 1976 there were 12,246 farms raising pigs in Saskatchewan and by 2006 there were only 930. In 1976, 85% of the pigs were raised on farms with 2,600 or fewer animals. By 2006 over 90% were raised on farms with over 2,600 pigs.

Like the fact that Big Sky Farms, Saskatchewan's largest hog producer, applied for creditor protection in 2009, 90 million dollars in debt, and ended up repaying farmers whom it owed more than $4,000 (for purchases such as feed) 10 cents on the dollar. Oh, and if you were ruined by their bankruptcy? Maybe you can get a job - they're hiring. And don't worry - the more dangerous, low-paying jobs in the sector will probably go to immigrants.

Like the fact that intensive hog operations contribute disproportionately to water pollution, as Manitoba has found: this year's rapid algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg resulting in the Manitoba government tightening hog-industry regulation. Increased phosphorous levels are entering the lake from livestock farming, pollution from cities and through wetland loss. "Phosphorous levels in the lake are now worse than they were in Lake Erie when people were describing that lake as dead," said Dr. Peter Leavitt at the conclusion of his five-year study of the problem.

I think the hog industry has a ways to go to counter these perceptions. Perhaps by changing the facts. I'd like to see them go that distance!