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."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rural Development

Gentle readers, those of you who are back-to-the-land types may want to vote Conservative if Scott Feschuk's predictions of what a minority government will mean are accurate:

But what if we decline to give Harper what he wants? Dear citizens, the potential consequences are too imaginary to imagine! Our prosperity may crumble. Quebec may separate. Within a week to 10 days, our financial system may revert to a farm-based barter economy. Friends, you’re going to wish you voted in a Conservative majority when you try to purchase a bindle and the sales clerk doesn’t have change for a rooster.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011


For me, the deep satisfaction I find in gardening and food preparation occurs because it is a combination of what Kropotkin called "brain work and manual work". If I sit in front of a computer too long, or read for hours, I start to feel detached from the world around me, not to mention headachey and restless. But I can't be happy running on a track or treadmill; I need meaningful exercise that accomplishes something and gets my mind to work as well.

Working with food also connects me to the earth. It grounds me; I am in the present when I am working, not daydreaming of the future or dwelling on the past. My senses are attuned to the smell of newly-turned dirt, to the moment when the bread dough becomes smooth and elastic under my hands, to the buzz of a heat-dazed fly emerging from hibernation.

These experiences were a part of my childhood, and have become kinetic memories for me. I realized this three years ago, when I was helping my father plant a garden, and picked up a rake to tamp down the earth over a row of beans. I hadn't gardened in years, but my arms and hands knew how much pressure to put on the rake, at what angle to hold it, and how to move efficiently down the row.

Discussing the deskilling of the consumer, JoAnn Jaffe and Michael Gertler* put it like this:

"Food production has traditionally been learned through apprenticeship, with children learning first-hand while their mothers cook. These skills are sentient, practical, and in some senses non-discursive forms of consciousness, with the learner acquiring a knack, or a feel, that comes with the continual engagement with the physical and sensual qualities of food. (This is exemplified in the experienced cook’s instructions to add a pinch of this or a smidgen of that, or to knead until the dough is elastic.) It requires a fine-tuning of all the senses – a good cook knows how things ought to taste, smell, look, feel, and sometimes even sound through different stages of the cooking process. She recognizes off-notes and textures. Cooking involves body knowledge, such as the movement required to whip an egg, knead biscuit dough, or skillfully cut a chicken. Putting together a meal involves juggling several tasks at once."

I didn't remember that it was Earth Day today until half way through the afternoon. Unconsciously, however, I chose an activity for Earth Day that, for me, connects me to my history, my environment, the production of farmers in my region, and my family - my future. I am using my mother's recipe to bake bread.

Happy Earth Day.

*Jaffe, J. & Gertler, M. (2006). Victual vicissitudes: Consumer deskilling and the (gendered)
transformation of food systems. Agriculture and Human Values, 23, 143–162.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Democratic Food Policy

Everyone likes democracy, right? I admit there are days when I think I'd make an excellent benevolent despot -  preventative health care would be a priority and your neighbour down the street wouldn't be allowed to rattle your windows with the bass from his car speakers if I were in charge. But I'll choose democracy over corporatocracy* any day. That's one of the reasons I'm a big fan of the People's Food Policy Project.

"Things are clearly cooking in food policy, and citizens, often left out of key processes or afforded token consultation roles, are not content with last minute seats at pre-set policy tables. It is time for strong citizen and civil society involvement in the construction of a new food policy for Canada – a policy which places the well-being of the majority and the health of our planet at the centre of all decisions. It is time to reset thetable." (Resetting the Table, p. 7)

The Project just released the outcome of two years' work with over 3500 Canadians through three hundred and fifty Kitchen Table Talks, hundreds of policy submissions, dozens of tele-conferences, ongoing online discussions, three cross-Canada conferences, and support from organizations including Dietitians of Canada, Food Secure Canada, and Food Banks Canada.

"Resetting the Table: A People's Food Policy for Canada" ties together health and nutrition, food security, sustainable livelihoods for farmers and food workers, the environment, international relations, and many other aspects of our food system, comprehensively uniting them in recommendations for a food sovereign food system. However, it is also an ongoing participatory process, providing a model for collaboration, fora for discussion, support for initiatives, and connections between groups and individuals.

They also seem to be having fun. What more could you ask for?

*Corporations and global capital have undue influence and control over the food system, operating beyond the reach of government or public oversight. Rather than being recognized as a biological requirement of life, this has turned food into a volatile commodity. (Resetting the Table, p. 6)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Gardening Interlude

There's at least four inches of snow on the ground right now, but my bedding plants are happily sunning fluorescentlighting themselves in the basement, oblivious.

The peppers are happy. They were planted a month ago.
The onions have also been growing for a month and have been trimmed once already.
The pansies - maybe not so happy, but I think they're just late bloomers.
The tomatoes are decidedly sad. Any tips for me?

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Folks, I have to do it. It's not going to be pretty, but I feel that it's time to get to the ugly heart of it all. I know that some of you will be shocked, others disgusted, and many will turn their eyes away, perhaps for good. But there is a cry arising in the land, a cry that must be answered:

    “Please – won't someone think of The Economy!”
The Economy, that giant demi-god infant threatening to throw a tantrum that we, the fearful permissive parents, must court, pacify, but never, ever restrict. That volatile baby whose motivations we can only guess at with baffled dimness, or the guidance of experts who study the demanding creature in a controlled environment instead of in our messy, complex everyday lives. Instead of something that serves us, that is embedded in our social relations, The Economy is our foremost concern and society a mere adjunct to the market. The Economy has a life of its own, and in that it controls all of ours; the economic sphere is depoliticised, naturalized, privatised, and thus "rendered democratically unaccountable".*

What does this have to do with food?

It is my firm belief that food, and the other essentials of life such as water and air should not be commodities. They should not be ruled by economic considerations, and indeed, have not been for long in humanity's history. In most other times and places, they have been regulated by considerations such as equality, redistribution, status, religion - not accumulation of wealth.

When food is sold and traded for profit, it is pretty obvious, if you look at how any other commodity functions in our society, that the results are not in the best interests of the population. It will be scarce at times; overabundant and devalued at others; speculated upon; hoarded; shoddily and mass-produced under the guise of efficiency; underregulated as far as safety, and overregulated as far as trying to fit it into one nice, neat, industrial box; increasingly homogenized; overpackaged and overmarketed; increasingly unsatisfying of our deeper hungers.

This results in injustice. Unequal distribution. Unequal access. Bad tasting food that is nutritionally marginal. Haiti having been self-sufficient in rice now dependent on imports from the US. Kenyans working in greenhouses to produce 7 tons of perfectly straight beans to send to France and 6 tons to rot in the fields**. One Earth Farms intending to own one million acres of land in Saskatchewan and employ seasonal wage-labourers in neo-serfdom.

The costs of externalities such as the eventual costs of declining soil fertility and tilth, water pollution from factory farm sewage and crop overfertilization, and climate change exacerbation from oil-dependent agriculture, are not borne by those who have defined the system, commodified the food, and profited from its turning into a commodity – the retailers, wholesalers, marketers, shippers, processors, speculators, and input manufacturers.

I'll discuss some possible answers to "what can be done about this?" in future posts. For the present, attempting to provision oneself outside the capitalist industrial agri-food system is a good start. And I think Canadians, in particular, at this moment, need to think about what is being sacrificed, and what is being gained, in the name of The Economy, in the short and long terms. (Here's a link to the food policies in the platforms of each of the federal parties.)

* borrowing an idea and phrase from Rupert, Mark. (2003). Globalising common sense – a Marxian-Gramscian (re-) vision of governance/resistance. Review of International Studies 29, 181-198.
**Roberts, Paul. (2008). The End of Food. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Monday, April 11, 2011


There were over 138,000 farms in Saskatchewan in 1941, and it's gone downhill from there - there were just over 44,000 farms in 2006. I don't have comparable stats on the population of rural towns, but of course it has largely decreased in lockstep as well. I've observed a lot of fatalism, and some arguments that increasing urbanization is the best route for Saskatchewan, but I have recently gotten to know a small town of about 120 people that's putting up a big struggle to stay viable.

Hazlet has a lot going on. They have a new wind turbine to power their recently renovated rink, an international students program at the high school, an affordable housing initiative to attract residents, and a project underway to bring back the old railway station for a tourism information centre. Their economic development officer (another sign that the town is serious) is a grant-getting machine. And the town thrives on its volunteers.

Now, this is oil and gas country; the revenues from the patch are keeping a lot of farmers on their farms and the local oilfield companies support the town's initiatives through donations in cash and in kind. The financial stability this offers for the time being has definitely contributed to the town's viability.

Still, it's fairly unique to find a can-do attitude in this era of rural depopulation. The school is an example: many rural schools have closed in the past few decades in Saskatchewan, despite heartfelt protests from parents and communities. Hazlet did more than protest; they created the international students program as a way to bring money into the school and keep it viable.

So, my question is - given the optimism and hard work of the community, why, when topics turn to farming, is the fatalism still evident there?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Agricultural research: Follow the money.

I recently attended a presentation from the director of Research and Development at the Ministry of Agriculture. He was explaining how to apply for funding from the R&D fund, and what type of research was likely to be appealing. New crop varieties and biotechnology were at the top of the list. They pretty much were the list. You can check out the funded projects there.

I can't quibble with some of the research. Heck, I'm government-funded right now myself and I'm sure there's plenty who would scream in horror if they knew the tack of my research. So, I can't complain about $51,500 for a solar-operated irrigation system. Kind of cool - for application in other places, since we happen to live in a drought-prone province with looming water shortages. New grape and apple cultivars? That would make life more pleasant. Someone may as well get funding for developing the things that experimental gardeners and farmers do for free, I guess.

I have a few more questions about their funding of "Integrated production systems and practices that reduce agriculture's impact on the environment". First, I didn't see very much evidence of it in this year's funded projects. The word "sustainable" is very appealing, but if you can tell me how it figures in the project "Cool Season Corn Grown in Saskatchewan in Sustainable Livestock Production" I'll give you a prize. Corn is a "heavy feeder", requiring lots of nitrogen that, without suitable crop rotations (and even with, at times) our farmed-out soil requires massive chemical injections to provide. Corn is also used primarily in feedlots, not by farmers or ranchers pasturing cattle on grasslands which primarily made up this ecosystem before settlement. Feedlots may be "efficient" - bringing cattle to market in a shorter time than grass-fed - but can contribute to environmental degradation with results like those in Walkerton.

And in the end, I have to question who this research is serving.

Funny that I've never heard farmers who couldn't make it and had to give up farming, or those struggling, say, "If only there were a new crop variety I could have tried - that really would have made the difference!" or "If I had an efficient way to finish my cattle a month earlier, that would have made up for the US ban on Canadian cattle during the BSE crisis." Why is that?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Family Meal: Easier than Ever!

There's a lot of talk lately in certain circles about the importance of the family meal. A typical internet post on the topic will tell you that "research shows" eating together as a family will result in a cornucopia of positive results:
  • Everyone eats healthier meals.
  • Kids are less likely to become overweight or obese.
  • Kids more likely to stay away from cigarettes and alcohol.
  • They're less likely to use illicit drugs.
  • School grades will be better.
  • You and your kids will talk more.
  • You'll be more likely to hear about a serious problem.
  • Kids will feel like you're proud of them.
  • There will be less stress and tension at home.
I like to cook, and I come from a family who always sat down to eat dinner together. I am doing the same with my children. Works for us. However.

There seems to be an unstated assumption that you could be running a crack house but if you started sitting down to dinner with your kids - even take-out pizza, as one site suggests -your life would turn around. I don't know about you, but it seems a little suspect that the one commonality amongst high-performing families in these studies is that they sit down to dinner together.

But let's suspend our disbelief, and ignore the probability that families that have the time and resources (knowledge, tools, money) to prepare meals and eat them together probably also have the time and resources to help the children with homework.

I have discovered an even easier way to increase your children's grades and nutritional intake:

Eat Broccoli Together.

Specifically, Romanesco broccoli.

Broccoli Romanesco florets (photo by Alfredo Matacotta)

How cool is that? Fractal vegetables. As the blogger from Love Apple Farm says, "You could steam this baby whole, present it to your perpetually bored lachanophobic teenager, and with any luck, get him to eat his veggies AND start a conversation about molecular nanotechnology."

Let me know how this magic bullet works for you! I'd especially appreciate if you could introduce this to some malnourished poor families, preferably with a tone of condescension, and report back on the results!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Abject Apologies

That post yesterday - it was too long, wasn't it? I've turned you all off. Here... this is easier to digest.

The four places I bought seeds from this year:

Where do you get your seeds?