Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Doomed to repeat history? I wish.

Elderly people in their 70s are my favourite interviewees in my masters' research so far. Born just after the Depression into frugal families, young and idealistic during the civil rights era, farming through decades of boom and bust, these men and women have a wide perspective of agriculture in Saskatchewan. I was mining my interviews today and ran across this quote from one of them:

What the hell's wrong with this whole set-up? You know, our fathers and grandfathers would have revolted against it. And now people just don't have a thought about, you know, there's something wrong with the system.

Last summer, I read a lot about early agrarian movements on the prairies.  My favourite read was Hopkins Moorhouse's Deep Furrows*, a creative nonfiction book from 1918 about the Grain Growers Grain Company's origins with lines like "industrious little mallets were knocking away on the Xylophone of Doubt" and an unabashed bias towards the farmer activists. I found his enthusiasm to be contagious.

Agriculture here has always been capitalist - we had no peasants - and geared towards export. So I don't know how deeply our grandfathers questioned capitalism (although the Communist Party had several thousands of members here in the 1920s).**  However, there's no arguing that they effected large-scale change of a more radical nature than many in the food movement contemplate today.

In the early 1900s, when the wheat boom began and Saskatchewan saw the beginning of an immigration rush, farmers faced daunting array of organizations eager to bleed them dry. There were only two major railways, and they serviced different parts of the province. Elevator companies often owned all the elevators on a line and sometimes colluded on prices. The Winnipeg Grain Exchange was dominated by Eastern dealers and millers that farmers perceived as milking them. Federal tariffs made their agricultural products cheap for Eastern consumers and the Eastern industrial goods expensive for the farmers.

So the farmers organized. They formed the Territorial Grain Growers Association in 1901 and took legal action against a Sintaluta station agent the next year (and won). They formed the Grain Growers Grain Company in 1906 and managed, despite opposition by all the other dealers, to get a seat on the Winnipeg Grain Exchange and sell grain on a commission basis, returning profits to its farmer-investors. They formed the Wheat Pools in the 1920s, farmer-owned cooperatives that at first traded and marketed grain but became cooperative elevator companies after the 20s. Local retail co-operatives joined together in 1928 to form Federated Co-operatives Limited, which still administers over 160 co-ops in Saskatchewan today. And when farmers' lobbying pressure on politicians didn't result in desired results, they formed their own political parties. They were the nucleus of the Progressive Party which formed in 1920 and got 65 seats in the 1921 election. The United Farmers of Canada were instrumental in the the formation of the CCF in Saskatchewan (now the NDP).

All of these were collective, community-minded solutions because, as another 70 year old told me, "just like the working man, a farmer needs an organization to speak for him. By yourself you're nobody." Hopkins Moorhouse tells us that the directors of the Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator Company in the early 1900s warned farmers that if the goal was only to produce dividends, they would “reproduce in another form the evil it was intended to destroy” and that the idea of service must be foremost in mind: their goal was to organize, educate, agitate, and socially and economically uplift farming. Their alternative system did not have generation of profit as its highest goal, social considerations be damned.

The corporate dominance of the food system in Canada today is not much different from how it was then. What is our response? We compete with each other to increase production, which drives down prices. We blame the faults of the system on individual failings - for example, if speculation wreaks havoc on prices, we say the answer is that farmers must learn to hedge. We accept the status quo as natural, even common sense. We think that we are taking action by buying something - "voting with our dollar"- without recognizing how the limited choices have been set out for us. Only 61% of us vote and those who don't likely aren't engaging in action to either change or make obselete the political system that they deem irrelevant or unimportant. We are kept in constant fear of national and personal financial insecurity and told that circling the wagons, excluding others, and getting what we can for ourselves is the way to stave off doom.

Well, I've worked myself into a funk. I'll post something more positive in a few days, but for right now, does anyone have any examples of some positive movement?

* Subtitled: Which Tells of Pioneer Trails Along Which the Farmers of Western Canada Fought Their Way to Great Achievements in Co-Operation
** I am compelled to write this geeky footnote: They were likely more Narodist than Lenin would have liked (although he would have expected no different).

No comments:

Post a Comment