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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, BC, Canada

 

April 3, 2008

 

Title: The Emperor Has No Clothes (Provincial Food Politics)

 

Producer/Host - Jon Steinman

Transcribed by James Braun

 

Theme Music

 

Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly one hour radio show and Podcast produced in Nelson, British Columbia at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY. I'm Jon Steinman and I'll be with you for the next hour.

 

The title of today's episode is "The Emperor Has No Clothes" - in this case the emperor being referred to here, is the province of British Columbia.

 

While we do often explore the impacts of policy on the health of our food and agricultural systems, we don't often examine politics head-on as we will on today's broadcast.

 

On our most recent show that introduced the topic of backyard chickens, we heard a brief clip of Member of the Legislative Assembly Corky Evans as he spoke to an audience in March 2008. And today, we will listen to more segments from that event that took place here in Nelson. Corky's speech and the following question and answer period was an enlightening education into the sheer failure by the province of British Columbia in recent decades to support food production. Corky introduced a number of key opportunities for eaters, farmers and the Provincial government, on how to better ensure food production can remain viable at a time when it appears to be more important than ever before.

 

We'll also round off the broadcast with a recording that we also compiled in March 2008 at a conference of the Certified Organic Associations of BC hosted in the community of Sidney. Presented at the conference were the winners of a contest organized by the COABC called Fresh Voices. The contest solicited submissions from anyone wishing to share their vision on how sustainable organic production and marketing systems could improve profitability, stewardship of the land and water, and quality of life for farmers, ranchers and their communities. The winner of that contest was Jordan Marr - a 26-year old ex-suburbanite who has been embarking on a path towards becoming a farmer. We'll hear him present his winning essay to those in attendance at the conference.

 

Sponsorship announcement

 

JS: Now I do want to first quickly provide an update on the research that had gone in to the Percy Schmeiser versus Monsanto story that was covered just two weeks ago here on the program, as it was on that broadcast when I had indicated that an update with more investigative information would be shared with you. That segment will have to be postponed until next week's broadcast as there just isn't enough time today to share with you the important findings that have been uncovered since that broadcast. But do stay tuned to next week's show for that.

 

But one story to share before we dive into the focused topic of today's broadcast is also in line with the political theme of the show, however in this case it involves federal politics.

 

About one month ago anyone living throughout the Southern Interior of British Columbia arrived home to discover on the very same day two political mailouts in their mailbox, and I was one of those people. Now one of these pieces of mail was the quarterly newsletter from the New Democratic Party (The NDP's) Alex Atamanenko, a familiar voice here on the program as he is the elected representative in Ottawa for the Southern Interior and is also the NDP's Opposition Critic for Agriculture and Agri-food. The other piece of mail received, was from the Conservative Party of Canada's Ron Cannan - who is the elected representative for the federal riding of Kelowna-Lake Country, located in the Okanagan Valley of BC.

 

Now the contrast between the content of these two mail-outs was astonishing, and they present a pretty telling sign of the rather opposing ends of the spectrum where these two political parties fall.

 

The mailout from Alex Atamanenko was his Winter Newsletter and the entire four pages of the newsletter was riddled with information on food security and agriculture. Located on the front page was a short summary of a recent event Atamanenko hosted on the topic of the SPP, the Security and Prosperity Partnership, that ongoing project led by the executive branches of the three North American governments alongside the heads of some of the continents major corporations. The front page also included a letter from Atamanenko in which he lists some of the threats to our food: including Peak Oil, Free Trade Agreements, Biofuels, and genetically engineered food. Included on that page is also a small primer on Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). Turning the page over, readers found more in-depth information on Peak Oil, Farmers Markets, and contact info of community food security groups operating in the region. Included was also the farmers manifesto written by well-known Deconstructing Dinner contributor  Marc Loiselle  who wrote a passionate plea to farmers to stop using genetically engineered crops. Readers found an introduction to the regional grain CSA that was a featured topic on our show a few weeks ago. And the information continued on the absurdity of bottled water, there were links to in-depth reports on the cost of eating for families in the province and there were summaries of the November Future of Food in the Kootenays conference that took place here in Nelson back in November 2007. Now I'll put myself out on a limb here, although I think it's a pretty sturdy one, by suggesting that this newsletter is likely the most comprehensive newsletter on food security ever issued to constituents by a Canadian Member of Parliament.

 

And so how does this contrast with the mailout from Conservative MP Ron Cannan? Well his mailout was substantially smaller but certainly caught the attention of many people in the region. On the cover was a black and white photograph of a bearded middle-aged male wearing a white tank-top, slouching on a couch with a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and printed on the image was the word  "jail" (followed by a question mark). With absolutely no indication what this mailout could have possibly been about, BC Souhern Interior residents would have opened the mailout only to read this, "Why should convicted thieves, arsonists and vandals serve their sentences watching TV, playing video games, and surfing web sites on the internet?"  Underneath, and written in bold, Ron Cannan writes "They Shouldn't." and it continues…. "The Conservative Government Supports Ending House Arrest for Serious Offences.  It is insulting to law abiding Canadians that thieves and other property criminals are sent home to serve their sentences. The previous Liberal government did not want to hold these criminals responsible for their own actions. This is not only disgusting, but also potentially dangerous. If you commit a property crime, you had better be prepared to go to jail.  Compliments of Ron Cannan, MP.  And then located beside the letter was a question with two check boxes, that allowed the reader to either agree or disagree to the question, "I think thieves and vandals should serve their sentences in jail", and readers were then encouraged to send their response to Ron Cannan directly whether or not they agreed or disagreed.

 

Now on its own, this mailout generated quite a bit of discussion in the area - for one, because this mailout was coming from a Member of Parliament who does not even represent this riding. But some comments that came my way were in regards to the image on the front of the mailout that was supposed to be depicting a thief or a property criminal. Now there were actually quite a few people who were offended by the image, because really, the guy looks like a significant percentage of Canadians who enjoy sitting on the couch, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette and watching the hockey game. One colleague of mine even made the comment: "that guy looks like me". But to Conservative MP Ron Cannan, such an image instead depicted a criminal.

 

Letters to the editor regarding this mailout have since appeared in regional newspapers, with one letter appearing in the Kootenay Western Star and authored by a Nelson employee at an HIV/AIDS outreach and support organization. Her letter addressed the mailout's hypocrisy given the ongoing cuts to social services by Canada's Conservative Party. And here's a brief segment of her letter that was also sent along to Ron Cannan.  And she wrote: "What the hell are these people thinking. If you cut social services more people have to steal to make it through the day. A large percentage of people who steal are addicted to drugs and trying to keep from getting dope sick. Now, you want to send them to jail where there are no needle exchanges, no treatment and nothing to come out of the joint to. Twenty per cent of people who use drugs began using them in prison. Twenty-one per cent of all HIV infections among Vancouver injection drug users have been acquired in prison."

 

The comparison between these two political newsletters is night and day, one which motivates and educates people on the importance of food security, and the other, being one that is suggestively, an outright hypocrisy disguised as a beer drinking, cigarette smoking, hockey game watching…criminal. But if we bring the two issues together, we come across a solution, perhaps. With access to on-farm labour being a major roadblock for Canadian farmers - perhaps Atamanenko and Cannan should get together, and stick some of these convicted criminals onto the farms and put their hands into the soil. Similar projects in the United States have proven that this is indeed a very successful alternative to the conventional prison systems of today.

 

soundbite

 

JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner. The comparison of those two mailouts received by residents in the Interior of BC does lead nicely into the core of today's broadcast - which will instead explore the role of provincial governments in supporting more responsible food production. Just as Canada's Conservative government seems to not quite understand where to allocate funds for social services and well-being, British Columbia's provincial governments have for decades been removing the financial support allocated for the promotion of food production. Representing the provincial riding of Nelson-Creston is Corky Evans of the New Democratic Party of BC, and in March 2008 Evans spoke to an audience in Nelson BC when he pointed out how British Columbia is the least financially supportive of food production than any other province in the country.

 

Corky Evans is currently the opposition Critic for Agriculture and Lands and was elected as the representative for the Nelson-Creston riding in 1991, was re-elected in 1996, and then again in 2005. He was at one point the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and has made his home in the community of Winlaw for over thirty years. Corky has lent his voice to Deconstructing Dinner on many occasions. His presentation in Nelson was part of a larger province-wide tour with the goal of finding out what farmers are concerned with and to ask British Columbians if they are committed to farming and food production or not. The results of his tour will be presented in May at an event in Creston.

 

And so I sat in on Corky's presentation and recorded what was a passionate and very lively presentation on the failure of the province of British Columbia to support farming. Now while the content of his talk was focused on BC in particular, the information is relevant to really anyone in North America as the state of support for food production here in BC, could very well happen anywhere (if not already), and the information learned from his presentation can indeed act as a great primer on how to avoid what has happened here in this province. BC is also a signficant exporter of certain foods including tree fruits, and for anyone outside of BC who eats our exported food, this does also concern you as the direction in which this province is heading does suggest such supply of food may not be perpetual.

 

Also at the event was Andre Piver, one of the organizers of the Future of Food in the Kootenays Conference which has been featured quite a lot here on Deconstructing Dinner. As Corky welcomed those in attendance, he first acknowledged the importance of that conference.

 

Corky Evans: This is cool.  If you're a social democrat in Canada and you call a meeting you usually get seven people.  So my cup runneth over. And I want to say to Andre and everybody that put together the Future of Food conference thank you for starting a ball rolling; typically we in the West Kootenay are somewhat ahead of the rest of the province, and they think we're weird. But they always follow us. I travel around and I talk to farm groups here and there, and they talk about us because they think that what Andre and others did here was a bit of a first in that it brought people who grow stuff, people who aspire to grow stuff, people who only want to consume stuff but think about what's in it, people who think about policy, all those kinds of people, together and took away some of the barriers and had a big conversation. And that is the way that the world has to go, and that's mostly what I'm going to talk about so thank you for doing it.

 

But mostly I want to talk about the larger question of the role of the province in sustaining or promoting food production in British Columbia, and public policy and the politics of all of that, and the history of how we got to where we are, which is pretty much at the bottom of support for farming, and lastly what we might do to change that. I'll start with the good news: Because of poisoned spinach being on TV and terrible feed lots, there is today a public awareness about the quality and the value of food which I have never known, and I have being doing this kind of work I do for a really long time. Ten years ago, people who talked about food security were a tiny fringe, and considered irrelevant. And now they appear like prophets, because the average person wherever I go is interested in local food and quality of food and thinking about climate change and Peak Oil and transportation costs. They have instantly, apparently, become connected to thinking about food which is radically different. I'm sixty years old, it's never happened in my lifetime; essentially since World War II the only thing we ever think about food is "what's on sale?" North Americans' percentage of their budget that they spent on food has gone on a downhill slide ever since the 1930s or the ending, at least, of World War II.

 

And the notion that people are talking about wanting to pay money for quality is radical and wonderful. The place that we live fits perfectly within that brand new idea. You live in a province with more varied ecosystems to grow more different kinds of crops than all the rest of Canada combined. Your ecosystem is more varied than any American state or Canadian province, and more varied than all the rest of Canada from Alberta to Newfoundland. For example, there's more natural animals and plants in British Columbia than in all the rest of Canada combined. And what does that mean for farming? Well, some crops require a blueberry bog, some crops require the high plateau, some crops require dry land that ten years ago would have had ginseng-now might have ginseng on it, ten years ago it had tumbleweeds on it. We have all of that. We have such varied ecosystems that we grow over two hundred different commodities and all the rest of Canada has consolidated, consolidated, and they have said to farmers: "You want to make money? Grow fewer things. Specialize, get into monoculture." Here in British Columbia we've proliferated what we grow.  Ergo, you live in the province with the best chance to grow the most things at a time where people are actually wanting to pay for it.

 

JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner. It was only a few shows ago when we heard from farmer Robin Tunnicliffe speak on the ins and outs of becoming a farmer. I recorded Robin speak at the 2008 conference of the Certified Organic Associations of BC (the COABC). Her workshop was titled "Starting Your Organic Farm", and also sitting in on the workshop of mostly new or future farmers, was Corky Evans, and he uses his experience at that workshop to outline how current support for farming is the lowest it has ever been, in the history of British Columbia

 

CE: I got another piece of good news, as part of this tour that I've been on I've been going to Annual General Meetings of farm organizations. Lots of times I've gone to agriculture meetings and, I know you won't believe this, but I've been the youngest person in the room, in spite of my senior position here. (laughter)  A month ago I went to the COABC-that's the Certified Organic Association of BC-Annual General Meeting, and then a couple of weeks ago Sandy and I were at the Agritourism Association of BC Annual General Meeting. In both cases the average age in the room was forty, and lots of people in the room were thirty years old. And they weren't ideologues or day trippers or make believe, they were people who wanted to go do work, who understood the complications of the business, who had apprenticed, who had been to school, who had a marketing plan, in some cases who had land. At any rate, you have now the consumer caring about the food, you have the geography that will supply the food, and you have, apparently, the beginnings of a new generation to produce the food. All of which I never saw before, and I think creates great opportunity.

 

Now the bad news:  support for the business of farming as provincial policy - a little bit national policy, but primarily as provincial policy-is lower than it has ever been in the history of British Columbia. A month ago the BC Fruit Growers Association--all the agricultural organizations tend to have their Annual General Meeting in February and March, because they've finished with Christmas, last year's harvest is either sold or abandoned, and they don't have to start pruning yet. So the BCFGA, the Fruit Growers Association, which is the oldest agricultural association in the province, had their meeting a month ago and they passed a motion, I'll just read the final part of it. They moved a motion that said: "Therefore be it resolved that our provincial government recognize the importance and potential of this diverse industry and its contribution to our general Gross Domestic Product, to our environment and the well-being of our population and immediately increase the funding of the Agriculture Ministry in line with the average of all the other provincial governments at 16.4% of agriculture GDP, and then use these funds to help increase the productivity and efficiency of our diverse agricultural sectors." Now let me explain a little bit what that means. Canadian provinces and the country, they figure out how much you're supporting farming province by province, and in the nation, by figuring out the percentage that you spend on agriculture education and extension and research and environmental stuff-what is the percentage of agriculture, farm gate GDP that you spend back on agriculture? It's a way of levelling the playing field. In Newfoundland they don't grow a whole lot of stuff, so their contribution to agriculture may be small but they figure it out as a percentage of what they do produce, or the gross value of what they do produce.  And the same all the way across the country. Canada, this year, all the provinces in the country average a contribution back to agriculture of 16.4% of what agriculture sold. British Columbia this year spent 4%, which is one quarter of the Canadian average and lowest, last, in Canada.  What does that mean? Well, for example, some of you guys  know Phil Burpee, who used to live right here in Nelson. He moved to Alberta, and I went to visit him there; and he thought "well, gee, I should have some cows." So he phones up the Ministry of Agriculture, and they actually come to his farm and look at the grass and say "you should have this kind of cows." And then they say "well, there's a creek running through your land. You know, you shouldn't really have cows in the creek. Maybe we could give you the fencing to keep them out of the riparian zone. And by the way, the wind blows here"-he lives in Pincher Creek, where they've got turbines there's so much-anyway, "so we'll help you to plant windbreaks all around your farm because it's good for the environment and it's good for farming, and generally assist you to get into this business." Now this is good, old-fashioned, conservative Alberta assisting the farmer to get started. At the Agritourism Association-Agritourism, that's where people say "well, besides buying my food come to my farm and look around, and spend a day and buy some pies, and go through a corn maze" and all that kind of stuff. There are sixteen employees in the province of Alberta specializing in agritourism, helping farmers figure out how to attract people to their farm. In British Columbia there is one. He's resigning in two months and he's not being replaced. And that's just a function of the fact that there's no money. In Alberta there's whacks of money and here we spend last in Canada: four percent. 

 

And I don't want to hold up Alberta. I'm not moving to Alberta. All the rest of my family did, but I'm not going there. But it means there's no money here for experimental farms, that means there's no money for new varieties, or varieties that fit into our ecosystem, or that might be more pesticide, or pest, resistant and need less pesticides. It means there's no money for extension. We killed extension. Remember when you were young, and we used to print out little things:  "Here's how to build a chicken coop, here's what a barn looks like," all that is dead. And the offices, like Creston. We always think of Creston as a place where we actually farm. Well there's nobody to actually help farmers in Creston. There is a guy that lives there, but he's assigned to actually work out of the Surrey office most of the time, because we closed most of the offices in towns were people farm. And all that's a function of the fact that in British Columbia we as a society don't support it. And I want to talk about how we got there, because it wasn't always like that.

 

JS: And your listening to Corky Evans speak in March 2008 in Nelson British Columbia. Corky is the elected representative for the Nelson-Creston riding of the province and the Opposition Critic for Agriculture and Lands. Rounding off the broadcast today we will hear from Jordan Marr, one of the future farmers who was in attendance at the COABC workshop that Corky had also attended, and we'll hear Jordan read an essay that he wrote that touches on this very topic of how little support he observes is currently available for future farmers like himself.

 

But first we come back to Corky Evans and his presentation to a packed room of mostly Nelson-area farmers. In addressing the poor state of food production in BC, he pointed to the historical presence of farm subsidies, which were removed as part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the GATT).

 

In this next segment Corky does also mention one acronym that listeners outside of the province may be unfamiliar with, and that is the ALR - the Agricultural Land Reserve - a topic we've covered here before on the program. The ALR is considered to be the most progressive protection for agricultural land in North America. Corky also refers to a company name that many outside the province may also be unfamiliar with, and that is the grocery store chain known as Overwaitea - which, while irrelevant to the clip, is perhaps the most ridiculous name ever chosen for a chain of supermarkets. But here's Corky Evans.

 

CE: Two things led to the present mess in British Columbia in food production. First one is international trade deals and how interpreted them, and second is the changes in how farmers think and how farm organizations function. The highest percentage of funding for agriculture was about 1980, that followed a thing called Farm Income Assurance, and at that time we were third out of ten provinces. That was our high point. But at any rate, through the 1980s and 90s we got international trade agreements. We got Thatcherism, and Reagan and Mulrouney and we got the international GATT applying food to the international trade laws. We got the NAFTA, we got the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and we decided that supporting farmers in the old-fashioned way we used to support farmers is called a trade-distorting subsidy. So we stopped subsidizing farming. In fact, of all of the countries in the worl, the three countries who moved fastest to wipe out support for farming as a national or a state or provincial initiative are Australia, New Zealand and third, Canada. We are the third fastest country in the world to wipe out support for agriculture. But in almost every other province, when they wiped out the subsidies--like paying you to grow something, or paying you not to grow something-they replaced it with some more creative way to assist people to get into the business. Here in British Columbia, when we wiped out the subsidies we just took the money and put it somewhere else, and did not return it to agriculture, creating the long slide.

 

The high point-this is important for history-of support for farming in British Columbia was about 1980. That is because the ALR was created in 1973, and farmers demonstrated on the lawns of the legislature and said "you can't do that, that's my retirement. The only way I'm ever going to get to be comfortable, since I have no pension, is to sell that land." And so the government of the day made a social democratic deal with the farm community; they said "Okay, that's a fair argument. We will therefore guarantee you the cost of production while you farm all your life. And all you have to do is be sensible enough to put some aside and you'll have something when it's finished." And a deal was struck. So cost-of-production subsidies in British Columbia came in about 1974; it was called Farm Income Assistance. And it meant you grow a tonne of potatoes, then a bunch of accountants would figure out how much it cost to grow the tonne of potatoes: this much fertilizer, this much land, rental or depreciation, this much equipment, this much labour, and the price of potatoes is X. Then they'd go to the average marketplace for potatoes, and if the price of potatoes in British Columbia was less than the cost of production then the Crown would pay the difference.

 

There was two things wrong with cost-of-production subsidies. The first thing was the right wing around the world didn't like it and it was wiped out by the GATT. But the second thing that was wrong with it was that it tended to grow lousy potatoes. Because we were paying you by the tonne, and you didn't have to grow a potato that somebody wanted to buy. You remember when all the wine in British Columbia was basically nickel wine and you drank it by the jug? That's because we had cost-of-production subsidies, so you could get just as much money by growing a large acreage of really lousy grapes as if you grew something that anybody would want to grow. Cost-of-production subsidies in apples meant you didn't have to grow an apple that somebody would buy in the Overwaitea store. If it was a scabby apple you got the same price as if it was a beautiful apple, because you were being paid by the tonne the cost of production. And a whole lot people learned how to farm the cost of production instead of Overwaitea, and we tended to grow lousy food. When we wiped out the subsidies the quality of the food grew, but in every other province in Canada they replaced it with something else to get a new generation of farmers. Here in British Columbia we just wiped out the subsidy and let it die. To the place where today we are last in Canada in support for farming amongst all the provinces and our country is third last in the world. Which basically means if you decide to go and try and raise a chicken, even if you have an abbatoir, you are receiving less support than your parents received to do the same job, or your grandparents or your great-grandparents, and there is no partner. The government is not your partner in British Columbia. Everywhere else, it is assumed that if a person ran for office they would have to have a platform to help farming. In British Columbia it's irrelevant according to the political agenda.

 

JS: And you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman. All of our broadcasts are archived on our web site at cjly.net/deconstructingdinner. We also welcome financial support from listeners through our web site, and your support does greatly help keep this not-for-profit project on the air and in your communities. Unlike most media, Deconstructing Dinner does not receive any financial support from fast food chains, conventional supermarket chains or multinational food producers.

 

soundbite

 

JS: Today's broadcast is titled "The Emperor Has No Clothes" and is a feature on provincial policies and food. This reference to the emperor not having any clothes was made by MLA Corky Evans who we will continue to listen to in just a moment. Corky has long been involved in provincial politics in BC, at one point as the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. Today, Corky is the NDP Opposition Critic for Agriculture and Lands. In March 2008, he took to the road to hear from farmers their thoughts on food production in the province. Deconstructing Dinner recorded him speak on March 22nd in Nelson.

 

And as mentioned earlier on the show, while the content of his talk was focused on BC in particular, the information is relevant to really anyone in North America as the current lack of support for food production here in BC could very well happen anywhere (if not already), and the information learned from his presentation can indeed act as a great primer on how eaters and farmers can avoid what has happened here in the province.

 

And also a heads-up that rounding off the show today we'll hear Jordan Marr read his winning essay to an audience at the 2008 Certified Organic Associations of BC Conference. Jordan is one of a growing number of people wishing to get into the world of farming, but who is finding out first hand how difficult entry into the sector is for new farmers. So stay tuned for that.


In this next segment, Corky Evans outlines what he believes is the role of the farmer in responding to what clearly has become the poorest government support for agriculture in the country. Corky believes that the first step is to end the divisions among the many agricultural sectors, and instead he encourages farmers to unite and create one voice. Corky believes that the most important time to do this is now.

 

CE: So what's the farmer's role in all this? Essentially, in the last thirty years farmers became divided from one another. And everybody knows that the political strength of a divided group is zero. In British Columbia many, many years ago, before I was born, the Farmers Institute and the Womens Institute were actually given a legislative Act that they would be the spokespersons for farming. When artificial insemination came to the West Kootenays it was brought here by the Farmers Institute in partnership with the government. Everybody belonged to the Farmers Institute by virtue of owning land. It didn't matter if you raised pigs or gladiolas, if you farmed you belonged to the Farmers Institute. It kind of eroded away and was replaced by a big union called the Federation of Agriculture. The Federation of Agriculture was not organized by just the fact that you owned land and lived in the Kootenays, it was organized by what did you grow. So apple growers had their representatives, potato growers had their representatives, cattlemen had their representatives, organic people had their representatives, and on and on. But then they went to a big room and they acted like a political party or a trade union and representatives made votes, and they had leadership, and the Minister had to come and address them, and they had political objectives such that no political party in British Columbia could actually run for office without a farm platform. 1972, the election Dave Barrett won--we all think the NDP made the ALR and of course they did, but, the Liberal Party, the Social Credit Party, the Conservative Party and the NDP all had saving farmland as a platform item in the election of 1972, because farmers belonged to all four parties and put it there. And the Federation of Agriculture drove that highest on the list that year: 'What are you going to do about subdividing all the farmland?'

 

The Federation of Agriculture fell apart in about 1996. And it was replaced by something called the BC Ag Council. The BC Ag Council, like the Federation of Agriculture, is organized by commodity group: chicken growers and egg growers and dairymen and cattlemen and on and on. 'What do you grow?' not 'Where do you live?' But it has no convention, it has no leadership, it has no political agenda, ergo it cannot make demands. So agriculture itself in thirty years went from being a whole bunch of people who met, and concentrated on what they had in common to a shattered industry that never meets, and when they do argues as businesspeople for "my sector", for eggs, or for organics, or for cows. I was Minister, I'm telling you there's no place where the person with the job has to go and answer hard questions about what you're going to do, because there is no place. There's no convention, there's no leadership, there's no voice, and there isn't a single political party in British Columbia today that I know of with a functioning agriculture caucus, farm caucus, putting forward policy-that's actually made up of farmers. I know of at least one that has such a caucus that is not made up of farmers. However, farmers are an impotent voice. And what an irony; the Social Credit party and the New Democratic Party that built this province were essentially organized by farmers. As the CCF and the Socreds in Alberta and Saskatchewan and across the prairies. Farm people built the culture of Canadian politics, and in British Columbia do not exist anywhere. You have this moment where it is time for us to make money, and no voice, no demands, no leadership, no agenda, and no political representation. It is worse now than it's ever been because of the competition between big and small. All of the farmers I know-I shouldn't say all, that's wrong-many people that I know, identify themselves as soon as I walk up and say 'I'm Corky' they say 'I'm Fred, I'm an organic producer' or 'I'm John, and I'm conventional' or 'I'm Mary and I'm a very small farmer' or 'I'm Fred and I'm a really big-' people stratify themselves. The organic people think that the conventional are agribusiness and the agribusiness conventional people think the organics are flakes, and they all think that they're in competition with one another for whatever government dollars there are. That's perfect; divide and conquer, eh? There's twenty thousand people who on the tax rolls identify themselves as farmers, make at least $2500 off their farm. They're divided into at least two categories: the five thousand that do it as a full-time living and the fifteen thousand that do it as some kind of part-time job, and they don't talk. There is no place in the province of British Columbia where those two groups actually ever come together. And they each go into the Minister's office and say 'The other guy is wrong.' Ergo, we have a broken sector at a time of, I think, monumental opportunity.

 

 JS: In the next few weeks you can expect a number of broadcasts here on Deconstructing Dinner that will address the controversial implementation of new provincial meat inspection regulations here in BC. Deconstructing Dinner first covered this topic back in May 2006, and much has transpired since then. Corky Evans has been right in the middle of the debate, and in this next segment from his talk Corky introduces both this topic and also the ALR - the Agricultural Land Reserve. Here in the Nelson area, for one, there has been controversy surrounding whether to adhere to these new regulations and construct a small slaughterhouse to serve local farmers. He believes that its divisions like these that pose a significant threat to the future of the ALR, and as he says, the two issues are connected.

 

CE: The great threat to the ALR of that brokenness is that there is a possibility that a government-I kind of promised that this wouldn't be too partisan, so I'll just say a government, never mind what government-might someday say "you've got to make $20 000 off the land in order to be a farmer," and be rewarded by some farmers for doing so. Because they'll perceive that four percent, that is all that they're ever going to get, will be come to them rather than be spread around twenty thousand people. The meat regulations for example: fifteen thousand people are making some part of their $2500 minimum by selling chickens or turkeys or hogs or a couple of cows a year. When those people become criminals for selling that stuff, even if they sell it under the table they can't report it. When they can't report it they won't be farmers. When they aren't farmers there'll be no reason for them to stay in the ALR, and we will be back to the argument of 1974 about the existence of the ALR. I do not want you to be afraid that the ALR will go away. I'm a big fan of the ALR; my land was frozen when they froze everybody else's, I still live there. The great thing is I can't subdivide it and give it to my kids, so they're not coming back; that's not bad, actually. (laughter) People assume that the more conservative parties would get rid of the ALR, not true. Social democrats love the ALR because they believe in land-based wealth and land-based production. Conservatives love the ALR because they understand capitalism, and the ALR is beautiful for making a profit. If you wiped out the ALR, everybody in this room-just about-your land would go onto the marketplace at the same time. Which would, of course, deplete the value of all the investors that have already built stuff, and there would be a recession in the price of land. But by maintaining the ALR, conservative governments can say "your land is gonna come out, and everybody else's stays in, and therefore you will make a million dollars because we've limited supply and created demand. And now we're going to let yours out and you'll be rich. And then you give me some of that as a contribution, and I'll see to it that hers gets out next year." The way capitalism works, the two fastest ways to make money in capitalist systems is a) add sugar, or b) change zoning. And the ALR works for the second one, so nobody's going to get rid of it. But you have this huge irony where you're living in the province in Canada with the best protection for farmland in the country, maybe on the continent, and the worst support for people that live there. And in politics you can't sustain a contradiction forever.  Some day somebody looks behind the curtain, like Dorothy, and the emperor has no clothes. You cannot sustain public policy if it's stupid.

 

JS: Just earlier Corky Evans outlined what farmers can do to address the sheer lack of support for food production in British Columbia, but then he moved on to address the actions that the rest of us non-farmers can take in response to these many threats.

 

CE: So I want to talk for a little bit now about what I think we should do about this situation. Some of you are farmers, or aspire to be farmers. I would plead with you that for at least a short while, you actively work to end the struggle and competition between commodity groups and methods of production. Stop your sisters and brothers from calling one another names. We have a huge problem in British Columbia. People all read the internet or magazines and they read about Tyson Foods in the United States and these huge agribusiness systems, and they think that's their neighbour, the dairyman next door. That is not your neighbour. In British Columbia we have to hang together; you badmouth your neighbour for what they do or how they do it or how big they are or how they organize their business and we will lose. Besides which, as it says in the Bible, to everything there is a season. There is time for fighting between ourselves. We carry it on now, and governments of every stripe will say "you have no voice, you have no solidarity, we can ignore you and play you off one against the other." I would beg you, farmers big and small, whatever you grow, hang together and figure out a way to put the folks in a room to create a leadership at least, preferably an electoral agenda. And if you're not willing to organize to put farmers in a room, at least stop people from carping about one another.  As consumers my request would be that you choose and you ask for food produced by your neighbours, and pay for it whenever you can afford it. And the reason I say that is that when you say "I want to buy local food," you end all those divisions and you bring it together. It doesn't matter if it's a guy with four hundred acres of cherries or if it's a person with a garden and two varieties of lettuce for sale. You bring it together and we begin to have common interests. And the phenomenon of the business opportunity of farming in this year is consumer-driven, and they need to be rewarded for that and I would ask you to lead and teach them how to ask for their neighbour's production.

 

 As citizens, there's people in this room who belong to the Green Party, the NDP, the Liberal Party and probably the Marijuana Party, or whatever. No, you don't actually belong to them. You vote for them. If you give a good rip about food and farming I am begging you to join the political party you vote for and demand that they put food and farming on their electoral agenda platform in the next election, and if you don't get it you switch parties. If you don't do that, if you're not willing to transfer your bias into politics, then this never-ending conversation about "why can't it be better" should die. We have no right to have it better unless we have some demands. And the way we do that in British Columbia is through political action. And I'm not saying join my party. You know how politics works? It works just like capitalism: it works by competition. If your party didn't exist we'd have to invent them just to run against them. We need the Liberal Party to actually have a platform so we can outdo it. If you don't join, please say nothing. And we'll just carry on working this thing right down to the bottom. And I'm not asking you to join for life; don't live like me. I'm saying pick a moment, and this is the moment of the opportunity, this is the moment for the voice.

 

JS: And in closing out his presentation, Corky Evans ended with these remarks on what he would like the people in the room to do in response to the many issues that we just heard him raise.

 

CE: And I guess the last thing I'd like you to do is not leave the room until you meet three other people. You remember what feminists used to say about women were isolated from one another in the household? They learned to get together, didn't they? They went to meetings and chatted, a bunch of women, and they found out there's power when they got together. Same with every trade union in the world.  You might hate the guy that's pulling boards next to you, but when you talk to him about how you feel about the boss you have something in common. Farmers all say to me "I'm too busy to go to meetings." That is horse puckey. If you have time to be poor, you've got time to meet those other people and solve the problem, otherwise you shut up. The CCF was built by people in the Depression. We are not in a depression, we are comfortable. You've got time, talk to your neighbour. You come to this meeting, don't ever leave the other people that you see here. Unless you wish to abandon their sector as well. Thanks a lot for coming here; I'll answer questions. (applause)

 

JS: Now there were a number of questions and comments raised by the eighty or so people in attendance, with two of Corky's responses being of interest to today's broadcast. The first was a question regarding the dumping of food in BC from other countries. For those unfamiliar, the term dumping is used to describe predatory pricing tactics that are used by manufacturers or commodity groups who export a product into another country at below the cost of production - and thereby greatly hamper the ability for local producers to sell their product locally. This has been a significant concern in BC for the province's tree-fruit industry, which, in the case of apples, has been significantly harmed by the dumping of apples from Washington State. And Corky addresses this concern.

 

CE: Anti-dumping laws means that if you grow lettuce, you allow Mexican or San Diego lettuce into your marketplace in January, because we don't have much. But then in the months where we have production, because this is Canada and at least outdoor production tends to be for six months, we don't let lettuce in at a lower price than we produce it during those months. Anti-dumping is hugely expensive. You all watched the American countervail with lumber, millions and millions of dollars to fight business interests to the south. We have anti-dumping laws in British Columbia but the Crown does not participate in assisting you to take suit, because we cannot afford to pay the bill. We can't afford to pay the bill because the Ministry of Agriculture has no money. The answer to your anti-dumping question isn't legislation; it's having some funds to pay the farmers to carry forward the suit. We have the law. What you want is already the law, we just don't use it because we can't afford to.

 

JS: And this next response to an audience question nicely leads into the next and last segment of today's show, and it was a response to a question on education, and what opportunities exist for younger farmers wishing to get into farming.

 

CE: If you wish to learn how to farm, you pretty much have to go to another province. In other provinces, states, and most of the European countries, there are programs to allow young people to be able to afford or lease land. If the issue in 1972, was urban people subdividing farmland, the issue today is that the price of farmland is beyond entry level of probably anybody in this room, especially younger people who don't have something to cash in. Other places in the world, like European countries, have laws that say for example: if you find an abandoned or unused piece of land with arable soils, and if you have a horticulture degree and a business plan, you can go to the Crown and ask that that land be leased to you, and the government goes to the absentee landlord and says "unless you put a crop on here we're leasing it to this young lady for this price, according to her business plan. Because she has gone to school and has a business plan." We have no such program in British Columbia. We have essentially nothing; there are individual apprenticeship programs, but not run by the Crown. And I disagree with your point that even if we only spend four percent we could spend that four percent better. You could not stretch it any farther. And the last thing I want to say is that somebody's benefit is required to take somebody else's something away. There's almost nothing, and what we need is for somebody to say: "the issue of the day is entry-level farmers, and whoever wants to be on the ballot had better have a resolution of that question." In the absence of that there will be no programs for young people.

 

JS: And that was Corky Evans - the elected representative of the Nelson-Creston riding of British Columbia. Corky is the New Democratic Party's Opposition Critic of Agriculture and Lands and he spoke in March 2008 in Nelson.

 

Those last comments by Corky Evans lead nicely into this last segment on today's broadcast. It was only a few shows ago when we aired the episode titled, "So, You Want to be a Farmer". That show featured one of our recordings from the 2008 Certified Organic Assocations of BC conference held in Sidney, BC, and that workshop was hosted by Victoria Farmer Robin Tunnicliffe. Corky Evans was also sitting in on that workshop. Yet another person sitting in on that workshop was Jordan Marr. Jordan is a 26-year-old self-titled "wanna-be farmer" who has been visiting farms throughout BC hoping to learn more about the practical and political aspects of farming. In the span of five years, Jordan has, as he says, gone from being a suburban kid completely clueless about food to a smug university student convinced he knew everything about food, to a humbled farm apprentice who realized he knew very little about it. In 2006 Jordan graduated from a bachelor program in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia, and then apprenticed for seven months on an organic farm in Nova Scotia. Today, Jordan is considering farming as a career, and he is also eager to become a new correspondent for Deconstructing Dinner, and you can expect to hear more from Jordan and his wanna-be-farming experience in the near future here on the show.

 

But for today, we'll meet Jordan Marr through an essay that he wrote as part of the COABC's Fresh Voices contest. The contest was launched to solicit new ideas to help the COABC meet its mandate of "a strong and sustainable community, serving the evolving needs of the organic sector and the public for generations to come." Jordan's essay earned him first prize in the contest, and he was given the opportunity to read it aloud to conference delegates. Deconstructing Dinner recorded his presentation. Here's Jordan Marr.

 

Jordan Marr: Good morning everyone. I've been fairly nervous leading up to this speech. When I wrote this about six weeks ago, the Fresh Voices contest seemed like a really, really good idea. I was pretty excited to write my ideas down. And then when I heard that I'd won and that I was invited to come and read the speech it seemed like a really terrible idea. (laughter) As I'm sure is similar for a lot of people in the room with your own ideas, I find my ideas I'm constantly refining with experience. It's been an interesting exercise reading this again this week to prepare for the speech because, even in the last six weeks I've been on a lot more farms and talked to a lot more people. And while I wouldn't change what I wrote completely, I would probably refine a little bit, because I'm always learning.

 

So then I got here this weekend and I got really, really nervous meeting everyone. I'm not a farmer, I'm a wanna-be farmer, and I realize that most people in the room have a lot more knowledge about this kind of thing than I do. And I have to say it's been very refreshing being here, because the attitude has been so positive. And I think you'll detect in my speech a slightly pessimistic tone, at least in part of it. So it's made me even more nervous checking that against all the positive energy here. And as well I've realized in meeting some of the people and attending some of the workshops that maybe my ideas aren't as brilliant and original as I might like to think. I've constantly, throughout this conference, realized that a lot of people have very similar ideas, and that's really great.

 

Anyway, I should stop stalling, other than to thank the COABC and Robin for putting on the contest, I think it was a really good idea. So I guess I'll go ahead here. (applause) Thanks.

 

Members of the COABC, any society concerned with the sustainability of its agricultural production must look to its young people and ask them if they are going to farm. This is the most crucial question, since all other discussion about best practise and healthy agricultural communities are pointless if we will not have young farmers to take up our idle ploughs. If the answer is no, we must find out why, and then set out to remedy the problem before we do anything else. Currently, I believe the answer is no. Yet there always has been and always will be a small percentage of the population who feel most comfortable in the dirt. The problem is that it is no longer financially possible in most cases. Lots of young people want to farm, but they just can't afford it. If I'm right, then the COABC could seek to fulfill its mandate by helping to make farming more profitable, and thus a more realistic possibility for young people. No easy task, but I do think there are a few concrete actions the COABC could pursue towards making agriculture more profitable.  The following are a few of my ideas.

 

Number one, creating a new market for local food: a high-rise Adopt-a-Farmer program. I've often marvelled at the sheer number of people that live in the condominiums in places like Vancouver's Yaletown, and the likelihood that most of them restrict their shopping to the upscale grocery stores in that neighbourhood. It has me wondering whether some sort of Adopt-a-Farmer program could be developed to capture that market, whereby once a week or month a farmer sets up a booth outside or in the lobby of a high-rise at the end of the business day. If we take Yaletown as an example, a farmer placed at one building would have access to literally hundreds of young urban professionals who, from my observation, are least likely to make the effort to get to a farmers market on Saturday. I can think of a number of obstacles to making this idea work, but none that are insurmountable.

 

Number two, dealing with the labour challenge. I have met farmers who experience net losses on their farm, only because they cannot attract the labour they need with the wages the farm can pay. Yet I and many others would easily trade high wages for a modest but stable rural lifestyle that included a permanent place to live on the farm we work. Thus, I've always figured that if I started a farm I'd like three or four other partners, all of whom would have a residence on the farm; and if that was the case I could circumvent the labour problem. And I want to step outside the speech and really quickly stress that for me at least, and I think, other people looking to get into farming, our own separate--however modest--residences, would be a really important selling point on a farm, to have our own place to go at the end of the day. However, I have learned there are a number of zoning rules for farms that prevent the building of numerous residences, and other such cooperative necessities. Thus, I think the COABC should review the zoning rules and help to pressure our governments to change those that inhibit a cooperative-type farm. And I should say here that I was really, really happy to attend The Land Conservancy and Farm Folk/City Folk workshop yesterday, and I saw that those specific issues were being addressed quite well by Heather and Ramona and others.

 

Number three, cooperative transport and retail. When I did my first farming apprenticeship in Nova Scotia, I met a farmer who had purchased a refrigerated truck to bring not only his own, but other farmers produce to the lucrative seven-days-a-week market in Halifax that many farmers were otherwise foregoing due to time constraints. Perhaps the COABC could help local organic farmers facilitate such an agreement here. I'm also waiting for a group of farmers to both capitalize on the rapid increase in interest in buying local, and also create a permanent place for their wares by a local food-only retail store, bringing together veggies, fruit, meat, dairy, and preserves produced locally. Customers might be attracted, and government dollars secured, if a commercial kitchen were attached to such a store so that members of the community could take workshops on cooking and preserving. I strongly believe these skills will soon be in high demand as more people desire a return to our food traditions.

 

And finally number four, gathering resources for young farmers. Having spent time searching the internet for resources that might help me start a farm, I have yet to find a well-coordinated site that attempts to bring together information that can otherwise be found in snippets all over the place. Since the COABC represents all of the certifying bodies in BC, I think its website may be a good candidate to serve as a hub for information for young farmers. And I've learned at this conference to also say new farmers, instead of biasing towards young people. Currently such a feature is lacking on the site, a search for 'young farmers' in the site's content turns up nothing.

 

That sums up my ideas. I hope they can be of at least some help, but more importantly I hope the COABC takes seriously the dire prospects facing young people who want to farm, but who currently have little reason to be optimistic, although as I've learned at the conference maybe there's slightly more reason to be optimistic than when I wrote this a few weeks ago. Thanks very much. (applause)

 

JS: That was self-titled "wanna-be-farmer" Jordan Marr who is currently apprenticing on a Vancouver Island farm near the community of Sooke. We'll hear more from Jordan and his path to becoming a farmer on future episodes of Deconstructing Dinner. Jordan's written essay will also be linked to from the Deconstructing Dinner web site at cjly.net/deconstructingdinner

 

Ending theme

 

That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly radio program  produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant John Ryan.

 

The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident Adham Shaikh.

 

This radio program is provided free of charge to campus/community radio stations across the country, and relies on the financial support from you the listener.

 

Support for the program can be donated through our web site at cjly.net/deconstructingdinner or by dialing 250-352-9600.

 


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