Farmers expected to shoulder world’s weight

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(Metro Creative Services stock photo illustration)

As I read an article this morning about a conference in Canada to explore that country’s first-ever national food policy, I felt a little like what I imagine teachers and principals feel when people expect schools to solve students’ moral and behavioral problems. Overwhelmed.

Just like we want schools to solve all social woes, it seems like modern society wants food and farming to solve all health and food insecurity problems. And climate change and the environment. And racial inequality and injustice. And, well, you get the picture.

The Food Secure Canada recently gathered “hundreds of activists, environmentalists and academics,” as The Globe and Mail article put it, to discuss what they would like to see in a national food policy. Note the absence of the word “farmers.”

“Food policy can help us solve some of the most intractable problems we are facing as a country, and as a planet,” Food Secure Canada Executive Director Diana Bronson is quoted as saying.

“More than one speaker demanded ‘structural and systemic change,’” writes reporter Ann Hui.

This wasn’t anything I hadn’t read before. But the push in Canada is to have a new committee, chaired by Greg Meredith, an assistant deputy minister at Agriculture Canada, create a new national food policy that addresses everything. Poverty, obesity, the environment, biodiversity, water scarcity, food safety, natural resources conservation, farm worker programs — you name it, the expectation is that this new policy will cover it.

According to the article, Meredith hinted his focus will be on four areas: food security, the environment, sustainable growth in the food and agriculture sector, and health. And he said his agency will work closely with other federal departments, like Health Canada and Environment Canada.

And I thought about those bureaucrats and activists and environmentalists, and their loud voices about farming’s future, when I read another article, this one in the Erie Times-News, in Erie, Pennsylvania, headlined, “Erie County farmers struggle as milk prices remain low.”

The article detailed the struggle of all dairy farmers right now, in this multi-year period of low milk prices. Citing numbers from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the article says Erie County alone lost nearly 100 dairy farms between 2002 and 2012, dropping from 170 to 73. And that was before the latest cycle of low prices hit in 2015.

Statewide in that time period, Pennsylvania lost nearly 2,000 dairy farms. I looked up Ohio’s stats, and the Buckeye State also lost dairy farms during that time period: 2,425 of them. Once again, these numbers are from four years ago.

“This is not a good time,” Erie County dairyman Dean Curtis told local reporter Jim Martin. “We are losing farmers right and left. Pretty soon there aren’t going to be any left.”

Farmers are no strangers to cycles and periods of low prices. Most are pretty conservative when it comes to expansion and major purchases, but you also have to spend money to make money, as the old adage goes.

Still, when you’re just trying to pay the bills, it’s hard to wrap your head around everything that the outsiders are saying agriculture “should” be doing, and questioning the farming community’s “social license,” or right to farm in a way that’s sustainable and profitable for that individual farm.

Why doesn’t the general public trust us with the role of producing food in the best way we know how?

“It’s a labor of love,” said Dean Curtis in the Erie article. “We love our cows. We love the farm. I love the ground. We don’t make much money at it, but it’s the way we live.”

We can’t save the world when we’re trying to save ourselves.

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