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Urban Cowboy: Local food production is about all farmers, big and small

Although people tend to hold farmers in high regard, agriculture ranks poorly in people’s minds for its environmental responsibility. Local Food Week is an opportunity for farmer to tell the public some details about the local food they grow
Urban Cowboy is Owen Roberts' weekly look at agriculture and food in Guelph.

It’s Local Food Week in Ontario next week, and farmers are picking up steam trying to tell the public some details about the local food they grow.

That’s vital. New information is emerging that shows people know little about farm production, even though they feel very passionate about. And although they generally hold farmers in high regard, agriculture ranks poorly in people’s minds for its environmental responsibility.

Spring inputsPhoto courtesy of Grain Farmers of Ontario

Figures released earlier this week at the unveiling of the new Canadian Centre for Food Integrity shows only a fraction of Canadians they surveyed think farmers have their act together environmentally.

That’s fascinating. Over the years, society has implored farmers to be efficient and produce as much food as cheaply and safely as possible. That’s the mantra: Much, cheap, safe. Don’t pick two, farmers, pick all three.

Farmers responded in a business-like way. Even though more than 95 per cent of farms are family farms, they’re still a business. The same goes for feeding the world — it’s many things, but it’s still a business, no matter if it involve small farmers or large farmers.

Who are those farmers? During the past few weeks, there have been several opportunities to meet farmers, like the recent Wellington rural romp, and now, the newly released Guelph Wellington Local Food Map, a community guide to farms, markets, retailers, restaurants, breweries and other business that feature local food.

Local food is a mix of small business and big business. It’s seldom seen that way, in part, because people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the connection between local producers who grow thousands of acres of crops or have hundreds of livestock, and those who are part-time farmers growing extended gardens and acreages.

But it’s all part of local food. Smaller farmers keep us fed from farmers’ markets, local food sections in stores, and from stands at the end of their lanes. Bigger farmers — livestock producers and grain farmers, for example — are local farmers too. They produce local food that you might not see branded as such — bread, milk, beef, pork, chicken, apples, etc. But it still comes from barns and fields you can virtually reach out and touch, especially on local food tours or on-farm breakfasts such as those sponsored by Farm and Food Care.

How big is big? Well, the Grain Farmers of Ontario just issued a news release estimating that across the province, its 28,000 farmer members — barley, corn, oat, soybean, and wheat farmers — have invested $1.25 billion on inputs for this season’s grain crops. These include seeds and seed treatments, fertilizers, and pesticides. They’re trying to explain to the public the financial realities of commercial food production, and the risks.

“Every year farmers invest significant financial resources in their crops,” says Mark Brock, chair of the organization. “At this time of year, our expenses are high and turning a profit at harvest is never a guarantee. It’s not uncommon for a farmer to spend several hundred thousand dollars just to get their crops started.”

He’s talking about modern, commercial farmers who rely on research and technology. Despite their good intentions and actions to farm responsibly, they’re also the ones in the crosshairs of activists who lob accusations at them. For example, the whole question of pesticides and bees — a hotly debated topic — is mainly cited as the reason the public is now suspicious of farmers’ environmental intentions.

But farmers need pollinators such as bees as much or more so than the rest of us … so why would they actually try to wipe them out?

These are the kinds of issues the new Canadian Centre for Food Integrity will need to try addressing and help make people understand food production requires a social licence, an agreement with consumers about what’s right and wrong…and consideration of the bottom line, the one that we make farmers answer for each and every day when we make food choices.