Saturday, April 28, 2012

Farm Safety: The Real Story

U.S. Labor Department has just withdrawn a set of proposed safety regulations for young people working in agriculture. The regulations proposed to disallow children under 16 from operating machinery with power takeoffs, and from working in feed lots, grain silos and stockyards.

Under these regulations, my brother wouldn't have been able to pay for his university education by farming my grandmother's land. And my dad wouldn't have been able to tell the story about riding his bicycle down the road when he was ten, and seeing a driverless tractor coming toward him. As it approached, he realized it was being driven by his five-year-old cousin who couldn't be seen above the steering wheel. My brother and my dad's cousin survived, just as I survived using the rotary mower, as a subcontractor mowing besides the railway tracks, at age 13.

But the thing is, my dad didn't survive a farm accident, three years ago. Farming is dangerous. A Stats Canada Report shows that "Agriculture is one of the industries with the highest rates of fatal injury. From 1991 to 1995, that rate varied between 14.9 and 25.6 per 100,000 workers in Canada... Agricultural production thus ranks as the fourth most dangerous sector, behind mining, forestry and construction ...With regards to non-fatal injuries among agricultural producers, studies indicate that annual frequencies are generally in the range of 5% to 10% of the population." It's not just because the average age of farmers is really high: the injury death rate for young children who live on farms is almost twice that for all young children in Canada.

Maybe it is more effective to educate about farm safety than to disallow children from working on farms - this is the tack the American government is going to take. However, I think there are two essential pieces to this news that have not been emphasized. First, these labour laws would not have applied to children working on their parents' farms. How many children under the age of fifteen (need to) work on other peoples' farms? Yet, it wasn't only 4-H instructors complaining about these laws. News articles were full of emotional manipulation like this:
e here:

On the Sombke family farm four kids learned everything they know about the trade from their parents..."I wouldn't have worked out here, I would have taken a completely different, completely different path in life," Brett Sombke said.
The Republicans were all over this overblown rhetoric, for their own political gain. However, despite the wholly inaccurate portrayal of the proposed laws in this article, the closing paragraph holds the key to another very important piece of the puzzle:
Brett says it's hard enough to find people to work during the spring and fall. He says that without kids being able to perform certain tasks on family farms the traditional meaning of family farm could end.
None of the farm groups protesting this law have mentioned the bigger issue behind it - the need for cheap or free labour on family farms. How many bankers or plumbers do you know who need to take their kids to work just to keep food on the table? (Hint: none.) And it's not because they are so much better at their jobs than family farmers are at theirs. It's because small family farmers are getting screwed every which way by input sellers, by processors, by commodity speculators, by consumer expectations of cheap food.

And *that* is the real problem.

And, it might even have something to do with farm safety. Stats Canada also says that farm receipts are inversely proportional to farm accidents.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Julie Guthman weighs in on obesity

I came across a book I'm pretty excited to read, via the Rams Horn. It's entitled "Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism" and it's by Julie Guthman, who gained fame in academic foodie circles with "Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California".

How can it be anything other than excellent, with a quote like this:

"Fast and convenient food has been a triply good fix for American capitalism. It entails the super-exploitation of the labour force in its production, it provides cheap food to support the low wages of the food and other industries by feeding their low-wage workers, and it absorbs the surpluses of the agriculture economy, soaking up, as it were, the excesses of overproduction to keep the farm sector marginally viable."

Triple whammy!

(And, for academic foodies, also quite reminiscent of Sidney Mintz.)

Friday, April 20, 2012

What does deregulation mean for health?

I didn't buy much chicken from the grocery store when I was in North Carolina. The "contains no more than 10% broth" label put me off. What was it hiding? In Canada, when you buy chicken, that's pretty much what you get - although the antibiotic and pesticide residue isn't listed, and the quality of muscle tissue that is confined, not allowed to stretch or move, is also dubious. 

Apparently, American chicken can get worse. Breaking American news this week: Chicken processing plants can now monitor themselves
The USDA hopes to save $85 million over three years by laying off 1,000 government inspectors and turning over their duties to company monitors who will staff the poultry processing lines in plants across the country. The poultry companies expect to save more than $250 million a year because they, in turn will  be allowed to speed up the processing lines to a dizzying 175 birds per minute with one USDA inspector at the end of the line.  Currently, traditional poultry lines move at a maximum of 90 birds per minute, with up to three USDA inspectors on line.
Engage in a thought experiment with me. Imagine film footage of dots moving from right to left. Three dots per second pass in front of your eyes. Now, imagine those dots are chickens with tumours, or chickens with traces of fecal matter on them. Are you going to spot that?

The ABC article linked above reminds us that "2010 was a record year for salmonella infection and 2011 saw 103 poultry, egg and meat recalls because of disease-causing bacteria, the most in nearly 10 years." If you were a betting person, what do you think is going to happen to those stats? (Or will we just be adding more ammonia to the meat to kill any nasties?)

This bears a striking parallel to some Canadian deregulation news this week. Only in this case, it's the health of entire ecosystems that is placed at risk, and unlike buying chicken, we can't opt out of the effects of this one.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Can't see the forest...

In the city where I live, every single tree was hand-planted. There are over 350,000 of them. "Oasis" is probably a fair descriptor, given that we are also located in the semi-desert Palliser's Triangle and get 15 inches of annual precipitation.

We also happen to be frequently ravaged by winds - 22 km/h is the average, but a recorded high wind gust clocks in at 153 km/h. And our temperatures typically range from -40 (Celsius or Fahrenheit) to +40 (Celsius).

So, despite the fact that tall trees are not native to our area, it's understandable that our ancestors planted so many. On farms, they prevented soil erosion from those constant winds, reduced moisture evaporation, provided wildlife habitat and increased biodiversity, protected livestock, trapped snow, reduced heating and cooling costs by sheltering nearby buildings, and made everything look nicer. Now, we also value them as carbon sinks.

This is why the federal government's decision to cut the Prairie Shelterbelt Program is ridiculous. This 111 year program has provided more than 650 million seedlings to farmers, and was a major factor in ameliorating the effects of the Dirty Thirties.

Our ag minister argues that, due to no-till and continuous cropping, trees aren't needed to prevent soil erosion; in fact, they get in the way of the big machinery used by big farmers - or, as our premier calls them, "producer-entrepreneurs of the highest order". Maybe our ag minister, a failed ostrich farmer, doesn't know about all the other benefits of trees. It's certain that he's not listening to the scientists who are trying to tell him.

I'll let William Blake have the last word:

"A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees."
William Blake, Proverbs of Hell, 1790   

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Recently, I heard about the value of being a generalist from two different places. First, I attended a workshop on permaculture by Rob Avis of Verge Permaculture. He suggested that being a generalist was valuable for permaculture because you need to be able to see whole systems and integrate a lot of different parts. You can, of course, specialize in mycellium or straw bale building, but you need to be able to put that together with a working knowledge of botany, climatology, animal husbandry, energy flows, nutrient cycling, etc. in order to create a permaculture system.

On her science blog, Sharon Astyk reviews some homesteading/small farming how-to books and says,

Agriculture requires a wide-ranging set of skills vaster than almost any field I can imagine, and while one becomes deeply expert in some parts of the work, it is still necessary, even imperative, to constantly be gaining some superficial understanding of a host of new things. The generalist is jack of many trades, but master of few. That's not a criticism.

This is good news if you're a person who's highly curious, who likes to see how things fit together, or who has a five year old who asks 'why' and 'how' a lot. In a way, it's what attracted me to my first career, teaching. A mentor told me, "You will never be bored." It was true, except for during staff meetings.

I also think there's danger in our becoming a world of specialists. For one, it results in certain metaphors being transposed where this may not be appropriate - so that, for example, everything is a business. To a businessperson, this seems axiomatic. Post-secondary education must produce workers trained for a specific career, and must pay for itself. I am expected to do a financial cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether to take a job in another city, and if I decide to turn it down for family reasons then I am not a serious candidate. If I sell vegetables with business profits foremost, then I must try to achieve a premium price and lower my costs, which may mean that my produce is only available to the rich, or that I use free municipal waste, replete with pharmaceutical residue, to fertilize my crops. If I sell vegetables with the goal of increasing food security, biodiversity, and community engagement, my practices will look quite different and I may use a different metaphor to guide my practices - perhaps the metaphor of an ecosystem.

It's at this point that Gregory Bateson weighs in with the suggestion that

"whenever we pride ourselves upon finding a newer, stricter way of thought or exposition; whenever we start insisting too hard upon "operationalism" or symbolic logic or any other of these very essential systems of tramlines, we lose something of the ability to think new thoughts. And equally, of course, whenever we rebel against the sterile rigidity of formal thought and exposition and let our ideas run wild, we likewise lose. As I see it, the advances in scientific thought come from a combination of loose and strict thinking" *
In other words, a wide experience helps us to think of new ideas, to see new things, which can then be refined and tested. Perhaps all the things that I am learning, seemingly dissociated, will be used in ways I can't yet foresee. Learning many ways to learn may be the best strategy.

* Bateson, G. (1941). Experiments in Thinking about Observed Ethnological Material, Philosophy of Science, 8(1): 53-68.

Monday, April 2, 2012

DIY Compost Tumbler: A Photo Essay

55 gallon barrels that formerly held mold inhibitor for animal feed.

Hardware and tools purchased for the project.

Hammering old nails out of fence pickets to reuse for the base.

The base on which the barrel will turn.


Helping by putting the nuts on.

The paddle inside the barrel - more repurposed material.


The finished tumbler!