Monday, March 2, 2015

Do our farm policies really support stewardship?

1910 steam tractor breaking the land with the new Saskatchewan Legislature looming on the horizon

“These producers are outstanding stewards of the land and . . .  they are in the best position to ensure the future protection of the land they have devoted so much of their lives to.” Lyle Stewart, Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture

“Relatively small investments in small farms would achieve a number of public and private socio-economic benefits.” Paul Hanley, Eleven

I spent part of the afternoon re-reading “A New Agriculture,” Chapter 8 of Paul Hanley’s outstanding new book Eleven. As a central piece in Hanley’s cogently argued re-visioning of the planet’s destiny with eleven-billion humans to feed, this chapter contains the surprising insight that we will have little choice but to move agriculture to the centre of our priorities.
I think he is onto something here. We seem to have fostered a civilization that measures its advance in part by how far we get away from agriculture; how far we can remove ourselves from the land by encouraging high yield mechanized production that converts the fruits of creation into global commodities. Our policy makers and the electorate itself pay little mind to the needs of farmers, though some pay lip service to supporting farm families even as they endorse policies that ensure further consolidation of farm resources into the hands of fewer and fewer producers, industrializing and emptying farm landscapes at the same time.

Hanley says that to make it through the ecological straits associated with feeding eleven billion people on this planet, we are going to have to bring agriculture in from the margins. That means investing resources in the wellbeing of our farm land and farm communities.

In this most agricultural part of Canada, we have an opportunity to take the lead. What has Saskatchewan done lately to invest in the long term viability of the land we use to grow food and the people we use to grow it?

In a couple of weeks, the government will reveal its 2015 budget. We are already being told that it will be a tough one, with cutbacks and belt-tightening to make up for a revenue shortfall from the oil sector. Will there be any new programs that help farmers take care of the land the way they would like to; any funding to foster greater sustainability, watershed protection, carbon sequestration? Any assistance for small farmers who adopt practices that protect our agro-ecosystems from the depredations of the marketplace?

Snow Buntings in a farmer's field in early spring

Or will we hear that some of the few helpful agricultural programs are being cut? I am not sure I believe it, but there are rumours that the Province may cut the Provincial Community Pasture Program, privatizing the lands and turning responsibility for these important grasslands over to the grazing patrons. That move would be one more step in exactly the wrong direction, further driving agriculture to the margins, demonstrating that we really do not care about our food-growing landscapes or the people who work there.

When our provincial Agriculture Minister says that our farmers and ranchers are “outstanding stewards” and in “the best position to ensure the future protection of the land,” he certainly sounds like he does care about the land and the people who farm it.

But the minister's statement is a little like saying that our First Nations people are in the best position to restore their cultures and bring economic wellbeing to their communities. True, but not the whole picture.

A man with the desire and some tools to build a house is in the best position to build a beautiful house to last in ways that will benefit his family and the community. No one else is in a better position. But if the tools, materials, and knowledge he has are not up to the job, or if economics squeeze him between high costs and a poor income, he may not build the beautiful house after all.

Of course farmers and ranchers are in the best position to adopt agricultural practices that steward the land well. Who else would be? No one who lives in a city is in that position. Our farmers and ranchers are the ones we need to adopt land use practices that mitigate climate change, improve soil structure, restore the health of our waterways, reduce erosion and flooding, and increase biodiversity and habitat for species at risk.

Right now, though, only a tiny minority can afford to follow such practices because, aside from political speeches calling them good stewards, every other signal they get from our policy-makers and from the marketplace is driving them in the opposite direction, where saving on costs and maximizing yields will always trump sustainability.

Until we move food and agriculture to the centre, the non food-producing majority who benefit from the stewardship practices we would like to see enacted by the producing minority will not be ready to invest in the kinds of agriculture that will make such stewardship the norm.

If we really believe that our farmers and ranchers are outstanding stewards then we must put our money where our mouths are--both policy-makers and consumers. We must invest in policy and programs that will ensure our farmers and ranchers have the tools, materials, and knowledge to bring that stewardship ethic to bear.

On budget day, will there be any programs to help our cattle producers and farmers through the economics that make it harder to adopt the best practices that sequester carbon, protect watersheds and species at risk? Or will we continue to move agriculture farther from the centre of our priorities and out to the margins?
Barn Swallows swirl around the evidence of bad farm policy



  1. Quite the reverse. We (farmers) are about to be "thrown under the bus" to take up the slack caused by the downturn in the oil industry.

    1. Thanks for the link, Ralph. I will take a look.


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