Listening and Learning Across the Table

matt in GlencoeBy Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

I had a mutually-educational supper with a friend recently.

It was a pre-planned date where I, being rewarded with barbecue and malted barley, gave a 101 on Canadian food and farming — a subject of great passion for me and great interest to my friend, though one she admitted to knowing very little about.

We hit on several common topics over the course of the evening: pesticides, GMOs, and the odd anecdote from my farm-kid childhood, just to name a few. But it was our discussions around “corporate agriculture” and what the ideal farm should be that stuck out the most. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised to discover that my view of the “ideal” farm was actually quite similar to hers.

I was however astounded to learn that my friend, whether she realized it or not, saw modern Canadian farms not as independent family-run businesses, but mere corporate franchises. In her mind, the modern farm was under the thumb of — and even directly controlled by — large agro-chemical corporations.

These ideas manifested themselves shortly after I described my family and our farm. After mentioning that we grow some GMO crops, my friend asked if we actually owned the land where we plant our crops. I said that we absolutely did, though we also rent land from neighbouring farmers. She then asked if we owned our own equipment, to which I explained that we did, though some farmers find it economical to hire others to plant, spray, or harvest.

Those questions were not asked just so she could learn about business structures, however. They were asked because she didn’t know how deep into my family’s livelihood the proverbial corporate tentacle reached. Without necessarily being conscious of the fact, she was questioning our sovereignty over our own business.

The fact that farms are independent businesses is a given to me, but it wasn’t to my friend.

Untrue as it is, the idea that farmers are under the thumb of large corporations is certainly not new. Many times I’ve responded to people asking if we are forced to use specific products, if we lived in fear of lawsuits, and other similar questions, but never had I encountered the idea that our land could be literally taken from us with such ease.

In this case, I realized that in order to connect with my friend starting with shared values was not enough. I had to one more step back and describe that the vast majority of Canadian farms (97%, in fact) actually are family businesses run by independent entrepreneurs who make decisions based on personal values, business goals, and what works best on their land.

With this in mind, I asked my friend what Canadian farming should be, and for comparison, followed her answer with my own conception of the ideal.

To paraphrase, my friend suggested Canadian agriculture should be comprised of more and smaller farms that are environmentally conscious and operate independently of large corporations. This was excellent to hear because I whole-heartedly agree with all her points, and better yet, I can say with certainty that much of what she idealized already exists.

DSC_0009I told her about Ontario’s long-running Environmental Farm Plan program, the seemingly-infinite number of crop varieties available to growers, some neat innovations I come across as a farm writer, and how an independent lifestyle is one of the most attractive characteristics of a farming career. 

Considering my friend has never been to a farm like my family’s — and the fact that, like the rest of us, she is continually bombarded by anti-modernity propaganda — it’s only logical that knowledge gaps exist. That was, after all, the entire point of our dinner date. Regardless of how close to the ideal we think modern agriculture is, though, we both discovered our idea of what was “right” was more similar than originally anticipated.

It was a good conversation, and to her credit, my friend was already quite knowledgeable on some subjects, and shared that knowledge with me. Where she knew little, though, the only real thing lacking was context, and that reminded me not to take the independent business aspect of farming for granted.

One thought on “Listening and Learning Across the Table

  1. Matt: your comments are much appreciated because on our road trip a couple weeks ago through only part of the Palliser Triangle we saw from the highway too many fields that looked neglected. I know what summer-fallow fields look like and their purpose but hundreds of acres covered with what looked like weeds is depressing.
    My perspective is based on growing up on a small hobby farm and seeing and experiencing first hand the rewards of such a privilege. My life-style values continued when I experienced the benefits of using quality synthetics for vehicles and equipment because of their reduced environmental impact and reduced operation and maintenance expenses compared to what petroleum based oils are able to provide. I enjoy reading your blog, and thanks again.

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