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agrarian economics: a letter from a young farmer

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I met Kevin Morin in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, a town on the outskirts of Montreal, and home to some of the last vestiges of agricultural land on the island metropolis. At the time Kevin was working for the Cooperative farm Tournesol. Recently Keven and Nikaela Lange both won the Beingessner Award for Excellence in Writing for essays outlining hopes for the new farming economy. Below we have reprinted Kevin’s essay with permission from National Farmer’s Union and you can find both texts on the NFU site.  

Kevin’s letter poses a question that I think many of us ask each day as we sweat and plant, weed and harvest, email clients, pour over spreadsheets and budgets, then pass out exhausted: is the current system of economic evaluation compatible with ecological agriculture and a sustainable future?  This last week I had the good fortune of seeing Dr. Vandana Shiva give the keynote address at NOFA Vermont and once again I was reminded that, like Gandhi’s call for spinning and making clothing by hand, farming is a simple but profoundly revolutionary act. 

My Future Vision for Canada’s Farming and Food System

by Kevin Morin

While talking about backyard cereal breeding, an old Cape Breton farmer once told me that the agriculture there was so far back that now they’re ahead. And if you were to have a cereal killer oatmeal stout from the Island’s own Big Spruce Brewing, you may be inclined to believe that.

I dream of a farm of my own someday, cows in the pasture, neat rows of cabbage…. Think of the rainy days spent in the woodshop, the brisk November mornings crouching in the greenhouse, a woodlot to keep me busy over winter and spring. To farm such a mixed enterprise like that of our grandparents is no romance.

While many would call a small scale approach to agriculture backwards, I prefer to think that it is the small, local producer who will lead our agricultural future. The trend of going big or  going home has led to a precipitous drop in the number of farmers in our country. What first generation farmer can afford a barn big enough to put a modern combine in? Or find the labour to pick those countless rows of cabbage? The modern saying about dairy farming comes to mind: if you have enough money to get into it, you have enough money to stay out of it. 30 years ago there were 20 farms on this road. Because of this mentality, today, there are two. I’m worried about the future of farming in Canada. Who will I share machinery with and depend on when need be? Who will my children play with? Or how long will their bus ride be to school? Will I have to drive further and further to sell my produce?

As a teenager, I was typical of my generation: two generations from the land and one from the kitchen. Two working parents meant for quick meals and the extent of my cooking was directions off of a pizza box. I came to agriculture after reminiscing over childhood summers spent on the now defunct family farm. More strawberries and raspberries than I could ever eat, broccoli that my 10-year old self actually liked and a woodstove that made very good toast. This agro-inspiration was not a godsend or serendipitous, just an attention to the superior quality of fresh food. And frankly, outside of necessity, I think that having people taste the difference is the only way that we will embody the food and farming system of the future that I dream of.

Arriving in India in my mid twenties on a funded project for my Master’s research, I was puzzled to find so much pollution and poverty in a country that the English Empire once considered the ‘richest country in the world’. It is said that the wealth it once knew came from village-level economies. Craftsmanship then was extremely skilled; garments were able to be made thin enough that an entire full sized shawl could be folded to fit into a matchbox. To compare the merchandise today to these tales is to question whether all our “development” is indeed beneficial.

It has become difficult for us to imagine a society in which global capitalism does not play a central role; a pure market economy. It is easy to forget that it is only in the past 100 years that it has taken a central role. No society, ever, has been managed in such a way. I doubt that an agriculture that is genuinely ecological, productive and accessible to everyone is possible within our current confines where the majority of the world’s strongest economic entities are corporations, not countries. Though I am convinced with steady steps and honest work, that the future of Canada’s agriculture can be reinvigorated so that folks are motivated to live in a rural setting, knowing that they can gain a healthy honest living, much like their families once did there.

My vision for Canada’s future food and farming systems is one where people know their local cattle breeds as they would know grape varieties, where a microbrew from 100 km away is considered an import. It’s one in which the local high school guidance councillor recognizes that farming can be a healthy and viable career choice. Where a diversity of local farms are competitive on the world market, that innovate according to their local region and bring about a local pride that fuels environmental stewardship.

Much like that oatmeal stout or the shawl thinner than paper, there are some things that are only possible at village-level economies. I would like to see a future Canadian farming system that facilitates me feeding my neighbors and that collaborates towards the decommodification of food and seed, to a place where taste, and trust prevail over the dollar.

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