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Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Scott’

Down on the Farm

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

November 8, 2009

“Given that food is as important to our well-being as health care and education,” says Jennifer Scott, “it is curious that farmers are finding it so difficult to squeeze out a living from farming, while people in the other two sectors generally have salaries, benefits, vacation time, and pension plans.”

Never thought of it quite that way, but I should. We all should. People without medical care and education are in a sorry state, agreed. But people without food are dead.

Jennifer Scott, an agricultural economist and consultant, spoke at the first Nova Scotia Food Summit in Wolfville in mid-October. A part-owner of a farm herself, she had co-authored a 2008 GPI Atlantic report on the economic viability of farms and farm communities. The news was grim.

In four of the previous six years, Nova Scotia farmers had been operating at a loss, earning less from their products than it cost to produce them, trapped in a vise-like squeeze between high costs and low prices. Between 1971 and 2006 — except in supply-managed sectors like dairy and poultry — farm expenses went up by 13%, while farm incomes went down by 91%.

Why? A few consolidated corporations control farm “inputs” like fertilizer and seed, and another tight club of grocery corporations controls the retail sector. Between 1986 and 2006, the prices of farm products declined 15% in comparison to farm inputs, and 24% in comparison to grocery store prices. The farm suppliers and the food stores were carving themselves a much bigger slice of the pie. The farmers were getting shafted — along with the consumers.

Our farmers are also hammered by free trade and international industrial agriculture. Vast irrigated acreages soaked in fertilizer and pesticides, harvested by automated machinery. Cattle feedlots the size of small counties. Greenhouses and chicken prisons as big as farms used to be. Economies of scale. Grow the stuff in California, Chile, China, wherever it’s cheap. Load containers. Despatch ships. Reap profits.

So this province, which once had four million acres under cultivation, now has only one million. Eighty-five years ago there were nearly 50,000 farms here. Today there are fewer than 4000. Nova Scotias wolf down 100,000 beef cattle a year, and 95,000 of them are imported. A century ago we were exporters of beef.

Well, too bad for the farmers — but why should you and I care?

That’s what the Food Summit was all about, bringing together every interest group in the food system, starting with farmers. Agriculture already contributes enormously to our prosperity — over $460 million in direct spending, of which 92.5% remains within the province. Farming sustains more than 10,000 jobs in towns like Truro, Oxford, Antigonish.

The spiritual and social contribution of farming is even greater. Farming is the bridge between the city and the wilderness, the perpetual link between every human being and the natural world. It is fundamentally a co-operative venture, sustaining small towns and bringing people together to produce utterly essential products.

But perhaps the most important contribution of farming is security.

The industrial food system is absurdly unsustainable, and its lunacies place all Nova Scotians at risk. Our food, says heritage seed guru Tom Stearns, is “marinated in oil.” The fertilizers and pesticides all derive from oil. Irrigation relies on oil. Diesel delivers the products. It’s all balanced on a knife-edge, totally reliant on cheap oil. When the oil price touched $147 a barrel, the whole fantasy apparatus faltered. At $300 a barrel, or $500, it will stop.

And then what?

At that point, said Dr. Ralph Martin of the NS Agricultural College, prices will soar, and local farms will prosper — but our job is to keep them alive till that happens. That’s why the people at the Food Summit were eager to hear about the expansion of farmers’ markets, about community-supported agriculture, local-food restaurants, local food in schools and hospitals, and other ways of connecting farmers directly with consumers. One quite poignant objective is simply to increase public respect for farmers.

The Summit ended up calling for a Food Council, to pursue these ideas, and to advocate for a food system much more deeply committed to local production and distribution. Good idea. And not a moment too soon.

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