Signs of a New Agriculture

September 5, 2006

The signs are all around us. Depressed prices for bulk grain commodities, mad cow disease, droughts, pests, the soaring loonie and the control of the food pipeline by still fewer food merchants have cast a long shadow across our farm sector. But there is a new agriculture emerging out of the shadow of the ongoing farm crisis.

Farm families are changing their approach to farming. They have diversified into off-farm occupations and businesses. More than half of farm family income now comes from non-farm sources. The decline in farm numbers is slowing and is likely to disappear soon. Pension farmers, lifestyle farmers and second career farmers are on the increase. Pension farmers, defined as at least one member of the farm family collecting Canada Pension, already make up 25 percent of Ontario farmers. Farm business income has become a contribution to farm family income. On average, farm families meet most of their family needs from non-farm sources and subsidize their farm businesses — probably more than governments subsidize farming.

Food retailers are also changing. Meeting consumer needs is spawning a renewed emphasis on local food and social responsibility. Back in July a poll in the UK found that “More than three-quarters (85%) of adults in the UK believe that restaurants and pubs should use locally sourced food….” In June, the retailer, Food Lion, with 490 outlets in North Carolina launched a campaign, “got to be NC products.” That same month Japan’s largest retailer created dedicated shelf space for local produce. Much earlier, a study by the Leopold Centre, a sustainable agriculture institute in Iowa, found that more than 75 percent of the consumers chose products labelled “grown locally by family farmers” as their first choice.

Even Wal-Mart’s is changing. I suppose the transnational’s May announcement of dedicated shelf space for organic food was just part of dominating another market segment. But it means more. That Leopold Centre study also found that consumers would choose products “grown locally by family farmers” over organic options. Wal-Mart is missing out on the bigger market — shelf space for local food.

Retailers are also making interesting socially and environmentally responsible choices. At the beginning of August Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shops, famous for their ice cream, made headlines in the UK with their plan to serve fairtrade vanilla ice cream in Europe. Their message: “Don’t buy what exploits somebody else.” Two days later their co-founder was in Toronto launching a public awareness campaign to encourage Canadians to “Lick Global Warming” with Jack Gibbons of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.

Governments are changing how they view the food chain:  is it environmentally responsible? In 2005 the UK government launched a study on “The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development.” Their Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tracks the cost of food in tons of carbon dioxide produced. A July headline announced, “Cost of food miles grows to 18m tons of carbon dioxide.”  The story described a jump of 6 per cent in the number of “food miles” by road and air.

Back in August, I encouraged municipal politicians and staff at the annual general meeting of the Association of Municipalities in Ottawa to see past all the crisis talk in agriculture and recognize the renewed interest in local food as opportunity. The concern about food miles has added cache. Consider the commitment by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon to only eat food produced within a 100 mile radius of their Kitsilano, BC home. The diary of their experience has become an Internet phenomenon of sorts.

There’s a farm shop in Yorkshire, UK called Weeton’s. Their motto is “Where food is Fresh from the Farm.”  Their claim to fame:  they are on the latest “The Best 100 Shops in the World” list that includes the likes of Bloomingdale in New York.

Local food is great food.

Elbert van Donkersgoed

__________

This commentary was first published as Corner Post, Farm & Countryside Commentary #430.

The slides for A New Agriculture: A Role for Municipalities presented at the AGM of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, August 14, 2006: http://www.amo.on.ca/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Conference_Proceedings2&Template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=80315

The diary of Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon: http://thetyee.ca/Series/2005/06/28/100Mile/

Weeton’s:  http://www.weetons.co.uk/

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