June 30, 2003
“Have the competing visions in Ontario agriculture had an impact on the decisions you have made about your farm?”
That was the second challenge in the “Planning for Action to Save the Family Farm” workshop series organized last winter by the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. About 225 members and friends of CFFO participated in 19 sessions across the province.
Before this question, the workshop explored three of the visions that are driving change in farming: global, organic and low-input.
The global vision emphasizes low-cost production for international markets using lots of technology, off-farm inputs and standardized management systems. The organic vision emphasizes biological cycles, biodiversity, minimal off-farm inputs and ecological harmony. The low-input sustainable vision emphasizes reduced chemical-based farm inputs and intensive management while maintaining the productivity of the natural resource base.
Almost half of the comments about the global vision were critical. Workshop participants mentioned loss of farmer control, Canadian workers replaced by bigger technology at home and cheap labour abroad, dependence on low-cost energy, standardized systems and erosion of the value of local food. They expressed little hope that a level playing field for international trade will be negotiated and if it is: Who will do the leveling, and will it be up or down? Many identified negative impacts on their farm: degraded soil, forced changes in crop selection, less collegial activity, fewer local decisions, pressure to expand and buy more land, and a fear of the unknown, “What is it driving farming toward?”
Forty percent of those who shared their views about the organic vision expressed frustration about imports filling local markets, constant pressure on price, the challenge of weed control, and lack of a unified standard. They considered organic principles a big challenge and concluded that marketing of the product has a long way to go.
Over half of the remarks about the low-input vision added details on how to do it well: pool resources, rotational grazing, buy local, use lots of manures, be as stewardly as possible, use soil savers, go no-till and “make do with what you have.” A number spoke about adopting the biological principles of the organic vision but being less fanatic about it. Others described the low-input vision as “middle-of-the-road,” combining the best of global and organic.
Did these visions have an impact on farm decisions? Eight percent of those who shared their views pointed to organic. Thirty-one percent named low-input. Ten percent suggested that two or all three visions, in combination, affected their decisions. Over half of those who spoke said the global vision had an impact on how they made farming decisions. What kind of impact? Two-thirds said the impact of the global vision was negative.
Elbert van Donkersgoed
This commentary was first published as Corner Post, a Farm & Countryside Commentary.
Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed