Tuesday September 02, 2014

Family farms or farm investors?


It is not something I suspect most in Saskatchewan are aware of, but the United Nations has declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming.

There is obviously a chasm forming in farming, with the so-called corporate farm on one side, and the so-called family farm on the other.

The problem, orfcourse, is clearly defining which side of the chasm any particular farm falls.

It is simple enough if a multinational firm holds title to a farm to toss it on the corporate side, the side which carries with the shadow of doom for many people these days.

If the farm is small, and owned by Bill and Margaret who have farmed it for 40 years, it’s a family farm, and in the spin-doctored world we live in that makes what they do somehow better than the corporate held farm down the road.

But what happens when a family farm grows, and Uncle Stan, and his two sons take a share of the operation, and the dentist Phil who married Bill and Margaret’s only daughter buys in. He’ll never ride a combine, but he can invest and have a say in that fashion.

So the only solution to keeping everyone’s investments and returns straight … Does the farm then become corporate?

It gets even more difficult when you look at something like the hog sector where no so long ago communities on the Canadian Prairies built barns.

Our example farmers Bill and Margaret invested, yet neither had ever previously raised a hog, and neither would set food in the new barn.

Are they farm investors? Or corporate ones?

Is there a difference?

On an international basis it is easier to grasp why the United Nations holds interest in the idea of family farms.

In many countries of the world it is still very small farm holdings operated by a single family unit which produce the food.

Following the UN proclamation of the year the Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Commission organized the International Conference ‘Family farming: A Dialogue Towards more sustainable and resilient farming in Europe and the world’.

Dacian Ciolos, European Commissioner for Agriculture highlighted during his opening speech at the Conference that there are 500 million family farmers all over the world feeding humanity, making up 80 per cent of all farms, although again a nice succinct definition of what a family farm is was missing.

That said, small farms and the idea of family-operated generally seem to go hand-in-hand, and while in North America the trend is to massive farms, other areas of the world, including Europe remain much smaller in terms of farm size.

Within the European Union average farm size is about 14 hectares, and about 70 per cent are under five ha, and only about three per cent are more than 100 ha.

Also speaking at the Conference, U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General José Graziano da Silva stated that: “Family farmers have, over generations, preserved and perfected many practices and technologies that can support agricultural sustainability”.

In that regard Da Silva is correct. Many innovations which moved farming forward came from those on small holdings.

Seager Wheeler made huge strides in breeding wheat in Saskatchewan in the early 1900s, and was a homesteader.

Farming by its nature breeds innovation.

Hurdles arise to be overcome, and at times there are no available options, or the money to purchase them if they existed, so farmers have learned to be inventors.

Here in North America a North American Dialogue on the United Nation’s ‘2014 Year of Family Farming’ was hosted by L’Union des Producteurs Agricoles (UPA). Canadian and U.S. general farm organizations participated, including Joan Brady Women’s President of the National Farmers Union.

Brady recently sent out a media release on her attendance where she stated, “Part of the Dialogue focused on resilience – our ability to withstand crisis and adapt to ongoing change. More resilient and sustainable natural populations occur in bio-diverse, healthy environments that have more interconnections with communities. Family farmers live where we work; we are embedded in our communities. We work where we live, and thus have a high stake in assuring healthy environments. The current trend toward absentee ownership of large tracts of farmland means those owners will have little if any exposure to any adverse effects of land use.”

And this is where the debate about family farms always muddies for me. There seems an assumption because the owner isn’t getting his hands dirty seeding the crop that he will automatically not care about the long term viability of the farm.

And hand-in-hand, whoever is hired to do the work will care little for the farm either.

That seems a very questionable assumption to make, but it generally seems to be a starting point.

And then there is the associated issue that corporate farms will use more crop protection products, adopt genetic modified crops more quickly, and fertilize more to boost production. I would suggest that is true, since larger holdings have more assets to leverage input costs, but I am not about to suggest going down the road to higher production is wrong.

A lot of family farm supporters seem to suggest it is far from the deal though.

In the end there is no doubt small holdings farms operated by a single family remain important to localized food production in most countries of the world.

But for large grain exporting countries such as Canada, those small farms have been disappearing since the end of the First World War, and when a trend is so long entrenched, it is for a reason.

Bigger has been found to be better here, and while I applaud the UN for keeping talk of family farms around the world at the forefront, we have likely outgrown that side of farming.



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