August 18, 2008
FRED EAGLESMITH ON AGRICULTURE AND FOOD
Deconstructing Dinner sits down with the Juno award winning bluegrass musician.
When any cause or struggle is seeking publicity, one easy approach is to employ a celebrity.
As for the struggles of farming, it seems ideal to not only employ a world-renowned musician as the celebrity, but someone who is a farmer to boot.
Meet Port Dover, Ontario's Fred Eaglesmith; a perfect candidate. Since the early 1980s, the Juno-award winner and musician has injected farming conscious lyrics into many of his songs. Much of that passion stems from his long history with farming and his firsthand knowledge of the poor state of affairs in Canada's rural communities.
Eaglesmith was born and raised on a chicken farm where his family raised between 30,000-60,000 chickens. After his family lost the farm, they moved to a mixed dairy farm until he was about 15-16, and that farm headed south too. The story echoes that of many farming families in Canada over the past few decades.
In his song Thirty Years of Farming, the lyrics help capture this scenario; "There's a little white note on the gate by the road that a man put up yesterday. And when we saw it, we all ran out to see what it had to say. And when we read it, our eyes filled with tears and we fell to the cold hard clay. Something about a mortgage, something bout' foreclosure, something bout' failing to pay."
That song hit the top of the bluegrass charts in the United States, making Eaglesmith the only Canadian musician to have ever held such a ranking.
After leaving the farm and launching his music career in 1980, Eaglesmith later returned home to begin farming on his own. He went on to purchase a 20-acre farm, however, farming and music were not enough to sustain his dream. It's a common scenario among Canadian farm families whereby off-farm employment is necessary to remain on the land.
Eaglesmith discovered a third job that proved to be more lucrative than music and farming combined. "With farming, if you don't do sales when you're farming, you can't farm, so I was always working on sales, working on music and I was working on my farm. Eventually the sales took over the farm," says Eaglesmith. "It happens to farmers and it happened to me. I got caught in this trap where I could make more money buying and selling products than I could raising them."
At only 23 years of age, his business was pulling in $6 million a year. "I had 28 people working for me and I hated my life," says Eaglesmith. "But [the business] just took off, and it caught me up, and that's a real bad thing that happens to farmers all the time."
"Thirty years of farming, thirty years of heartache, thirty years of day to day," he captures in his hit song.
Eaglesmith discovered that to make it in farming today, you either go big or go home. "The little farm; that's a lifestyle," he suggests. "The bankers always said that to me."
The alternative approach to farming and the unrealistic demands from consumers for perfect looking food are two notable factors that Eaglesmith suggests led to the demise of the conventional Canadian farm. "People think the alternative crowd is going to help the farms and really it hurts it all the time," he suggests. "They drive 40 miles to get a cup of fair-trade coffee and they think that that makes sense."
As Eaglesmith sees it, such lack of thought by the "alternative" or urban crowd further pushed the disconnection between the rural and urban populations. The unrealistic demands for perfect looking food only pushed Canadian farmers over the edge. Canadians are now year-round importers as a result of these demands, he suggests. "We had to have that fresh green pepper. We had to have no spots on our apples."
For Eaglesmith's father and many other Canadian farmers, such demands led to widespread use of chemicals. "My father loved chemicals," he recounts. "My father thought DDT was straight from Christ himself. Because these people wanted this; ok, we'll deliver this. The demands were, and are still, so unrealistic."
His song Things is Changin' captures this transition to more global purchasing patterns: "Pray for rain. Sat on the porch and watch it fall but it doesn't really matter to anybody anymore, you buy your bread at the bakery."
While it would be expected that his farming conscious lyrics would attract a wave of farmers to his shows, that's no longer the case. "It used to be only farmers that came to my shows in rural towns," says Eaglesmith. "Now it's like “my grandfather had a farm" or "I used to have a farm". I don't really meat 'em like I did in the 80s and early 90s. There just aren't any farmers left."
Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. An interview with Fred Eaglesmith can be found at (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/081408.htm).
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