When we were farming, over 30 years ago now, we were just hobby farmers. We had day jobs; our farming exploits provided us with new adventures, new learning experiences, unbelievable food, and beautiful animals in our pastures and barns. Of course, our hobby farming included some extra work and responsibilities, but that was our choice. We could walk away from it whenever we wanted to. We’d always have local family farms we could buy fresh local meat and produce from if we so chose. Or would we?
We made our choice to move our family to a more urban lifestyle after 9 years in the country. We could buy fresh local produce and meat at our farmers’ market, although, to be honest, mostly we used the convenience of our large, national-chain grocery store. And, to be honest again, until recently we never gave too much thought about where the food in our grocery stores comes from. Because we didn’t spend time in the country, we hadn’t paid much attention to the continuing demise of family farms.
There are lots of reasons for the decline in family farming. It’s a complicated story. Industrialization has hit every traditional sector, and why would farming be any different? Globalization has hit nearly every sector of the economy, so why would farming be any different?
In pre-industrialization days, every small community in North America made everything itself: barrels, stoves, wagon wheels, homes, furniture, clothes and food. Then more goods started to be available in small communities through exciting new innovations like Sears catalogue outlets. And on it went. We never looked back.
When people my age were small the grocery stores still got their meat locally and the family farms prospered. Gradually, farms became bigger and bigger, heavily mechanized, and increasingly specialized. Definitely more efficient, more economical, and able to provide products to consumers more cheaply. Like small stores, smaller farms often could not compete. Diversified farms could not compete. One thing that consumers don’t think about is that with farming there is infrastructure required, such as a regional abattoir and grain storage facilities, plus good transportation to markets. Without a critical mass of farmers using the services of existing infrastructure, these services close and existing farmers lose the ability to be commercially viable. This has been an issue in our region; a region that at one time was self-sufficient in agriculture.
Of course, as well, fewer young people want to pursue farming as a career and lifestyle, with its hard work, huge financial undertakings (land, insurance, equipment, seed, fertilizer, etc.), and uncertainty (weather, competition, fuel costs, exchange rates, etc.). But for those who do, the barriers to successful commercial farming are almost insurmountable.
Does this matter? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, we’ve never had more variety of food, coming from all over the world to our local grocery stores. Despite our many concerns about how animals are raised in factory farms, what medications they are given that end up in our bodies, and the occasional e coli outbreak, we are healthier than ever and living longer. As for the treatment of the animals on factory farms, for the most part it’s out of sight, out of mind. People just don’t know – or don’t want to know. And the food we buy is cheaper than it would be if we insisted on buying local whenever possible.
On the other hand, we have little or no idea of how the meat we eat has been produced. For the most part, it has precious little taste. People whose overriding goal is profit have made decisions about how factory farming works and it’s not always pretty. However, through this global model we are blessed to be able to eat oranges all year round regardless of where we live, and “fresh” zucchinis, asparagus and snow peas, shipped to the easternmost parts of Canada from Mexico, Peru, and China. Nobody would want to go back decades to the time when, depending on where you lived, you would eat salt pork or salt cod, eggs, a little local meat, potatoes, squash and turnips all winter long.
There are small scale options for people who are prepared to pay extra for local meat and produce. There are increasing opportunities to buy organic options in the major grocery chains, although it is unclear how these products are regulated and the taste doesn’t seem to be any fresher than their non-organic products.
But, nobody ever talks about the fact that in many parts of the continent we have lost our ability to feed ourselves. Farms have been abandoned and overgrown. Skills and knowledge have been lost. We have put ourselves at the mercy of factory farms and multi-national middlemen to feed us. Should we be concerned? At all? I’m not sure, but I do wonder.