Thursday, May 19, 2011


Yesterday, I made the mistake of using the term "small farmers" in a discussion.

Immediately, I was accused of longing for the days of Old MacDonald's little farm, with the unspoken implication that those hardscrabble, parochial, stultifying days were well left in the past (the appealing part of that life is just a fairy tale for children). Small farms are perceived as inefficient, unreasonably labour-intensive, technologically backwards, and soon swept away by progress.

Accusations of romanticism also dog those who are involved in peasant movements - or even use the term 'peasant' to refer to anyone living today - despite the fact that peasants often self-identify as such, with pride. The problem, however, is in the critics' view of the peasant or small farmer, as static, backwards, a relic of the past. I recently met two young members of a five-farmer cooperative that produces vegetables on five acres. They are educated and active. They choose the technology that best suits their practices and utilize leading-edge techniques for data collection and analysis of their production and markets. Each of the members makes a good living, both income-wise and in doing something they love. This is an anecdote, but it is by no means an isolated example. If small farmers were truly anachronistic, they would not still persist in the face of overwhelming odds.

My late father had a response to the accusation of romanticism.

I wouldn't worry about the romanticizing of small farms. If you want a romantic notion to banish, how about the romantic idea that companies can self-regulate. Or the notion that the unrestricted, unencumbered marketplace will bring prosperity to all. Or the idea that people who run big companies (into the ground) are such geniuses they deserve to become billionaires. What those romantic notions and the policies they drove brought us was Enron, WorldCom, AIG, the Ponzi schemes of Bernie Madoff and ultimately near economic collapse.

Worry too about the romantic notion that we will cure this recession with more of the same – the "hair of the dog that bit you" school of economic theory.

But leave the small farm alone.  Is it so bad to be romantic for a time when the country was full of people, when small towns were the cultural, social and business hubs of the prairies? Do we celebrate the fact that national and global economics has forced us to the point where we need to farm half the country to be viable? Or should we try instead to romanticize the notion of serfdom, since that is increasingly where agriculture is headed. If you doubt that, ask the contract growers of turkeys, chickens and hogs in the U.S. 

The present state of rural Canada is surely not one to celebrate unreservedly. At least not for this romantic…

My biggest problem with the accusation of romanticism is that the accuser gets to decide what is possible and what is rational. Why is the desire for social justice a romantic dream, while the desire for more money is not? Are moral values unrealistic?

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