Sunday, 21 June 2009

Farmers Feed Cities

"The slogan “Farmers Feed Cities!” was created as a placard for a 2005 rally and is now a successful public awareness campaign in its second year. The Farmers Feed Cities! campaign seeks to make a stronger link between farm and non-farm families by talking about the things we all have in common – the benefits we all enjoy that depend on a healthy agriculture sector.

Coordinated by Ontario Grains & Oilseeds, the campaign is focused on securing a long-term solution to the farm income crisis plaguing the grains and oilseeds sector.

The bright yellow signs, flags and banners can be seen at events, fairs, festivals and parades across Ontario, challenging everyone to ‘picture yourself getting involved.’ It’s working. Rural and urban families from every walk of life are taking the time to learn more about agriculture, grains & oilseeds and the challenges facing farm families. Building this kind of awareness is critical. While it’s clear that farmers feed cities, it’s also true that farmers need cities – to show their support of domestic agriculture.

Thanks for visiting this site, and for taking the time to learn more about us. Farm families have been growing food for generations, and we’re proud to provide safe, reliable food that tastes great."

From the Farmers Feed Cities campaign history.

Harumph.

Maybe it's the fact that I spent my first 30 years living in Toronto. Maybe it's my extreme allergy to propaganda in general and slogans in particular. Maybe* I'm just a cranky old cynic. But from the first time I saw one of those chirpy, smug little yellow "Farmers Feed Cities" sign, I have felt nothing but irritation.

Guys, do you hear yourselves? That's right, farmers feed CITIES. They don't feed fellow farmers, villagers and small towners. Well they do, of course, but that amounts to taking in each others' economic laundry. If it wasn't for cities, 80% of farmers couldn't be farmers. At least, that's the percentage of Canadians living in cities, those cities that Canadian farmers feed. Actually, I imagine that a pretty precise formula could be written estimating the number of farmers required as a percentage of the population, if you could control for variables like imported produce and the season of the year.

A healthy agriculture sector sounds like a good idea to me. I'm all in favour of a stronger link between farm and non-farm families. Hell, that's what this blog is all about. But - you knew there was going to be a but, right? - I can tell you, as a basically urban person, that slapping up what looks like a smug little reprimand to your urban customers is not the way to win friends and influence people.

There is a tension between urban and rural life that goes back as long as history. Certainly the Romans wrote about it. On the whole, urbanites have been able to dominate the debate, since they've been the ones with the printing presses (actual or metaphorical) for most of that time. Urbane, courteous, polite: words that literally mean "from the city", and would surely not apply to rural dwellers, who were beyond the pale. Literally. And how are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paree? City air makes free. On the other hand, going back to the Romans again, there has long been a view of cities as polluted, both physically and morally, and the countryside as being pure and clean, again both actually and morally.

It's interesting to note that the link to the biography of Virgil suggests that the Georgics "was actually a subtle propaganda piece for Octavian. In writing about a farmer working on his land, the idea was to give a much needed boost to the Roman Agricultural Industry".

The more things change...

Farmers need cities for much more than "to show their support of domestic agriculture". Especially if by "domestic agriculture" what is meant is a continuation of the disastrous developments of the last 70 years or so. Farming has always been a chancy occupation, subject to factors beyond the farmers control, from weather to politics, to war**. The big problems now, as I see it, are not the consumers. They are the suppliers (such as Monsanto) and the processors of raw farm commodities, wherein a few cents worth - to the farmer - of grains are magically transformed into a box of cereal that sells for $4 in a grocery store.

Many farmers are starting to think about the problems inherent in commodity farming, and are no longer treating the products of their farm as commodities, instead focusing on producing the kind of goods that appeal to particular customers. But this is absolutely a two-way street, where farmers cannot continue producing whatever they want and having a "take it or leave it" attitude towards their customers - and then being astonished and affronted when customers leave it.

Customers - that is to say, people who eat food - also have to stop and think about what they are actually putting into their mouths. The multinational food processors who now dominate every shelf of every supermarket and corner store have worked very hard to make their product ubiquitous and their methods and processes invisible, with the result that for most people food isn't even a product, in the sense of something produced through growth or work, but a substance that appears magically, like manna. The only way to circumvent this sleight of hand is to really examine the whole chain that food travels, from field to fork, and the easiest way to do this is to deal directly with farmers and small producers.

But scolding won't work. I like another bumper-sticker I saw recently, that simply asked an open-ended question, like a Quaker query: Who's your farmer?





* Maybe?

**Which shapes modern agriculture far more than most people realize.

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