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.