Febuary 25th, 2021
As I have likely mentioned before, I am finding that I really like going down the rabbit hole of the socioeconomic issues facing our industry and Elmridge Farm in particular. I have seen many things happen to the industry over the last 30 years and have often burned with a desire to make my point of view known to the non-farming public My weekly “blurb” has become that to some degree. I hope I am not abusing your attention; and please feel free to forward any of my writing to anyone you think would like to, or should, see it: or let me know your thoughts. I have received some interesting feedback from number of you and it is an email I received last week combined with a link that was forwarded to me concerning the state of the Cornwallis River, that starts near Aylesford and empties into the Minus Basin, that sent me down today’s rabbit hole. The fact is that we are being inundated with new demands and regulations on a weekly and sometimes daily basis….it is anything but relaxing.
February 25th, 2021
The following two paragraphs are directly clipped from the email of an Elmridge subscriber.
“As the pandemic hit I was struck by just how food insecure most of us are, not to mention the multiplier effect of poverty for other.. (if things go so bad the usual sources of food aren't available I simply don't know how to find food!)...I should have established a more local and mutually beneficial relationship with farmers....if so, what, in addition to being a "customer", might that mutually beneficial relationship look like.....etc. etc.....without being unjust or me first in nature....anyway, again, it's your newsletters that make me reflect on such things so keep'um come'n.....best,"
"In that context I firmly believe we should be willing to pay more not less for local produce. I also think that one possible road to food security could be a simple credits or loyal customer points system.....we buy from a given farm, say you,and the more often we buy the more "credits" we earn. Credits then might allow us to have some form of "security" in times of scarcity... thereby gaining a food security status......I haven't finished my thinking and I know there are pros and cons...but, for example. We could pay an annual "membership" fee in a specific farm, over and above whatever produce we purchase. The membership would then have their orders filled as priority.....the ethics of this might be addressed by using a share of total "membership" fee income towards the food security needs of the marginalised /poor. Anyway, I'll keep thinking and learning and be ready to be a "member" if ever I can get a clearer notion in share. For now, food for thought?"
MY response and then runaway dialogue….monologue….:-)
Definitely food for thought. I have never thought of it from the a angle before. I’d like to hear your ideas once you have incubated them a little more. My initial reaction is that it’s maybe a bit too socialist; not that there is anything wrong with socialist ideas as a concept, but selfish human nature has always managed to ruin the best intensions or at least keep them from advancing beyond a certain point. Capitalism works with selfish human nature to give us what we have, which is by no means perfect. Our current lack of food sovereignty and resulting food insecurity and is evidence of that.
Honestly, another whole level of government intervention (I think that is what it would take to make the credit system work) or even just complexity doesn’t appeal to me, although it could be the answer. Just about every problem we face in agriculture right now comes down to dollars and cents. Obviously we need to be profitable to survive. As an example; what about pesticide use and the resulting degradation of soil and surrounding ecosystems? Farmers use pesticides because it reduces production costs and delivers a higher yield of cosmetically perfect crops that our society demands. It costs more to grow crops in an ecologically sound way; a lot more at first. Farmers do not have the cash reserves to ride out the transition and then once they have fully transitioned they need to get a higher wholesale price for their product on a continuing bases because their production costs will be higher. At Elmridge we have been doing our best to grow in an ecologically sound way for more than 25 years. We have get more for our products than large “conventional” farms do and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. We, and many other ecologically sound growers (for lack of a better term) have stayed profitable not by growing food but by taking on a second enterprise; retailing. Because of our chosen way of growing at Elmridge we have never made money growing food, we have made money because we take on the second business of retailing. Even if money is the only driver and we decide to buy all four products from other farmers and retail only it wouldn’t work because vertical integration is a big part of why we have been successful. (Retail is just the necessary evil we have to engage in to allow me to keep playing in the dirt….don’t tell Suzanne; the retail end has become her responsibility) The other big problem is that there is very little consumer appetite for paying more for food regardless of the positives so conventional growers would be crazy to try because there wouldn’t be market enough to sell it all.
If we were even to just have a level market playing field it would go a very long way toward improving our food security. Our society presents us, as farmers, with more and more requirements in the form of food safety, environmental stewardship and labour code requirements that we legally have to comply with. If taken on their own, with few exceptions, each and every requirement makes good sense by our social standards and is righteous in its intent. The problem is that in agriculture (I’m not even going to try to comment on anything outside of agriculture….I’m sure we aren’t the only ones) we pull the line on these social values without protection from outside competition that meets fewer of or none of the value based requirements. The values all come with a monetary production cost. At this point I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that well over half of our production costs (and maybe a lot more than that depending on how you look at it) relate directly to the social responsibility we are expected to take as farmers. If the world was a fair place and we insist that we need to maintain the standards we have set, the answer is to block entry of every product that doesn’t meet our local standards and let the free market run its course inside of our borders. Of course that wouldn’t necessarily even work. Humans are crafty and if there are products that cannot be produced here still allowed across our borders (like bananas) and they don’t carry the social costs we have here they will be a cheaper source of food/ calories than what’s produced locally and their consumption will rise at the cost of local production. Another huge problem is that the very most basic infrastructure requirement, farmland, has been lost over the decades and, even with perfect economic conditions, it would take decades to overcome our lack of food sovereignty. Our first world economic status makes us pretty food secure because we can outbid and take food from poorer countries, that selfish comfort allows us to be nonchalant about our lack of food sovereignty.
I am very aware that these kind of trade imbalances affect many manufacturing industries as well; that’s partly why so much of what we buy today comes from Asia. To stir the pot a little; our incredibly poor work ethic in the western world and lack of pride of accomplishment in the work we do and general reluctance to get our hands dirty is also a very big part of this in both manufacture and agriculture. It’s the reason for bringing so many foreign professionals in to Canada to grow our food. If a few Canadians do in fact come to work on the farm the majority of them are not really focused on accomplishing anything. Whenever we interview potential employees for summer work the most common reason given for wanting to work on the farm is “to learn”. Maybe we need to charge tuition….. Very often every hour they work becomes a net loss to the farm. That is because to become proficient enough to justify the present minimum wage they need to build a level of competency and then come back for multiple seasons.
Our Mexican employees tell us that we pay approximately 12 times as much for their labour as they would get at home in Mexico. On Elmridge Farm labour consumes more than 50 cents of every dollar we bring in and the number is climbing. That leaves us at a huge competitive disadvantage with Mexico. (Ironically the amount of spending power back in Mexico that they gain as compensation for each hour of their service to us is more than most Canadians get and way more than Suzanne and I get.)
In some countries it is Ok (or at least they get away with it) to completely alter the course of a river if it suits you; to weight a sprayer, dump the chemicals in and then back it into the water until the water gushes in the top and then some chemical spurts back out into the river; or to let empty pesticide jugs and garbage accumulate into huge piles. I think every farmer in Canada would agree that we have to do better than that in Canada and the cost is very much worth shouldering.
Another example of environmental cost:
My brother in law, a DNR biologist, sent me a link on a group that wants to “save" the Cornwallis river. It’s polluted in many ways, and the watershed has been altered to the point where it no longer even resembles its natural ecosystem and state. Would it be better in its natural state than in its current state? Of course, no one is going to argue that. Should we work toward that goal? Most people think that it would be unthinkable not to enthusiastically scream “YES!!” Well, as a farmer, I take pause. The usual way of going about these things is to regulate, legislate, monitor, demand and then penalize and shame those who don’t comply with the new demands (compliance is on a very short list of my most hated words). Reasonable compensation for financial losses is the last thing these groups ever want to do (there are some compensation models but they fall very, very short of fair compensation).
So as much as I would like to see the Cornwallis river in better shape I cringe at this proposed initiative because it will invariably result in some of my fellow farmers shouldering much more than their share of this social burden. Elmridge Farm is not in the Cornwallis water shed so this particular project will not directly affect us.
This is the link to the new Cornwallis River Watershed Alliance. (It’s interesting that to the untrained eye (me) and from above it still looks beautiful.)
To be continued.....
It looks like winter is already starting to subside so enjoy the warmer weather and…
Keep eating your veggies!