Thursday, April 28, 2011

Homespun Wisdom

In December, I was very fortunate to interview an amazing 69-year-old farmer from Manitoba with an incredible knack for turning a phrase. Fred is erudite and down-to-earth, humourous and sober, gentle and passionate. You can hear an interview with him on Shaking the Tree Radio, but these quotes are from my interview with him. We talked about the demise of the family farm, the loss of rural communities, the future of agriculture, and public consciousness. Fred explained how the logic of the capitalist marketplace means that wealth and knowledge are transferred out of rural areas into the hands of monopolistic corporations as citizens' democratic control over the economy weakens.

"I remember when my dad first sprayed a field for yellow mustard. This was such a novelty I rode on the tractor with him to watch him apply 24D to a field, which now is total lunacy. But all of a sudden it changed the way we farm.It created a dependency where the benefit of the technology was all captured by the price of the technology. And then because prior to that the knowledge was passed from generation to generation when I was probably at maybe preschool I can remember my grandfather taking me by the hand and showing me things. You see, that was that intergenerational transfer of agricultural knowledge that goes back right to the Euphrates valley 10000 years ago. All that linkage and all of a sudden, when my dad hooked on that sprayer, that knowledge was not important anymore...The transfer of knowledge from community to a place where community rents and buys knowledge from a knowledge supplier is not a sustainable system."

Fred contrasted our situation on the Prairies to the situation he saw in the Philippines a decade ago, where politicians were eager to embrace - and to force people to adapt to - the industrial farming that we model, with all the losses that would entail.

"There's another thing that I didn't realize we'd lost until I'd done that trip to the Philippines. In the evening, because of their poverty to a degree, the community there functioned as a community. They got together, and adults sat around talking about the problems of agriculture. Which never ends, it's universal. And on the outside of the circle, the children were sitting listening in. I thought, “I've been there.” But it's a long time ago, and we don't have that anymore. We come in off the long day and we turn on the idiot box or we pick up the paper and the nodding heads and the golden hands direct the conversation. Because you know, it's got to a degree that a lot of people in social circles think that it's impolite to initiate a conversation about the social and economic problems of our community. They just want you to go away, don't bother me with that. I want to turn on something like Dancing With the Stars. And there I get to participate 'cause I can vote! That's democracy!"

And finally, on community:

"I always look towards the collective way to do things, because I desire my neighbour more than his land. Because without my neighbour, the land isn't much good to me, because an agricultural desert is not the place I want to live."


  1. I have read that in the 1930's the average Sask farmer was a member of three to four socially active organizations which, in and of itself, is absolutely amazing. I have no doubt that this in turn led to the radicalization of the farm movement during the Depression. With greater mechanization came larger farms, fewer farmers and a loss of community. A sense of community does still exist in rural Sask today but it is not the same as it once was.

  2. All the older farmers I talk to are concerned about the loss of community, but most feel they can't do anything about it.

    Is mechanization the chicken or the egg? Made necessary by capitalist expansion imperatives as it facilitated them?

  3. I think more than just mechanization, it was the takeover of farming by agribusiness. Large companies peddling a variety of products and encouraging farmers to be hostile to collective organizations such as the CWB and even to each other. In the early days of the province, communities were new, farms smaller and many of the newcomers were unfamiliar with farming in general so people had to rely on each other or not survive. The Depression only served to crystalize this reliance on each other and further hostility to eastern Canada. The post-Depression brought more prosperity, more self reliance, larger farms, greater isolation from one and other and less collective spirit.