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Reality begs to differ

‘Better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you’re a fool, than open your mouth and remove all doubt.’ Whether it was Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain who said it or wrote it, Preston Manning brought it to life with stunning clarity. Last week, in his column in the Globe and Mail, Mr. Manning opined that public policy should be enacted, rewarding farmers financially in recognition of their long-standing reputations as stewards of the land, and to further the cause of ‘green farming’. It’s a nice idea. Dumb, but nice.


August 1, 2008
By Ralph Pearce

‘Better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you’re a fool, than open your mouth and remove all doubt.’

   Whether it was Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain who said it or wrote it, Preston Manning brought it to life with stunning clarity. Last week, in his column in the Globe and Mail, Mr. Manning opined that public policy should be enacted, rewarding farmers financially in recognition of their long-standing reputations as stewards of the land, and to further the cause of ‘green farming’.

   It’s a nice idea. Dumb, but nice.

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   Now, don’t get me wrong; I recognize farmers as ‘stewards of the land’, but I also acknowledge the information gap that currently exists within government circles. They are no less enthused about enacting policies aimed at giving more money to farmers to ‘go green’ than they are willing to ban smoking.  Making the kind of statements he made leads me to believe Mr. Manning might be preparing to run for office again.
 
Across the great information divide

   Part of his argument was that industrialized agriculture takes too much investment and ‘the extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers’ is a challenge to growers.  He then cites the emerging organic industry as an example of the growing need to acknowledge efforts to create more ‘green collar workers’.

   The good news, Mr. Manning, is that organic growers already receive an incrementally higher price for their produce, unless of course, they are supplying organic fruits and vegetables to President’s Choice baby food. If that’s the case, they’ve seen their market turned into a commodity, a fact that was trumpeted loud and proud earlier this year by Loblaw’s chair Galen Weston. As if putting the thumb screws to farmers will help sell pureed peas.

   For me, this is where Mr. Manning’s drive to reward stewardship fails. For years, governments have ignored the plight of the farmer, and farm organizations like AGCare (Agricultural Groups Concerned about Resources and the Environment) have promoted the fact that growers in Ontario (and it stands to reason they’ve done the same across the country) have reduced their use of herbicides and pesticides by as much as 50 percent since the mid-1990s. Has that resulted in more money for their efforts?  No.

   Farmers are still among the most trusted professionals in the country (they rank third behind firefighters and nurses, according to the 2008 survey by Leger Marketing), yet they have been unable to wring any money out of that high-standing reputation, either.

   Mr. Manning states that Canada should do more to place a higher value on those who till the soil.

   How do you do that?  It’s typical politicking to identify a challenge, yet offer no workable solution.

   How do we place a higher value on farming when concerns about food safety in cheap imports have done little to dissuade most consumers from buying those imports?  If the purchasing power of the consumer fails to do the job, the only alternative is for public policy to impose a tax, and that idea isn’t going to float to most people in the cities.

   The basic line on our consumer purchasing habits is singular: Don’t pay more than you have to, and Mr. Manning’s proposal is 180 degrees opposite to that directive.
 
To be debated in the future

   In a roundabout way, the failing of Mr. Manning’s argument is mirrored in last year’s launch of Vistive soybeans. The Monsanto variety was introduced in answer to growing concerns about trans fats in people’s diets.  McDonald’s and Kellogg’s were said to be the food giants that helped pull the innovation to market, instead of relying solely on farmer acceptance and adoption.

   It sounded like great news!  Better health for consumers, a premium for growers, only we know now that there is no facility in Ontario that will crush those specialty soybeans; the volume is too small, and existing crush facilities can make more on higher volumes of conventional soybeans.  Instead, the Vistives are shipped across Michigan, crushed, processed and sold back to Ontario users, without any other economic benefits.

   On top of all this, our carbon footprint grows because our government won’t help agribusiness build the infrastructure necessary to take advantage of local produce. As a result, much of the goodwill aimed at improving farming and placing a higher value on Canadian agriculture is wasted.

   The same is true for motor oil made from canola (regulatory holdups last year) and apple growers facing obsolescence (cheap imports of concentrates from China and the US).

   The bottom line is that quantity always trumps quality.  For all the genuflecting by Mr. Manning as he pines for a better world for Canadian farmers, reality tends to indicate a different course.  He and many others in Canada might want to take this into consideration first, before they embark on any ‘field of dreams’.