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Support your local farms before it's too late

Posted 3/15/2020 10:44am by Farmer Sam.

Farmers tend to see the world in a very different way than others do. 

We see the impact of our personal choices and the choices of others amplified in what we do everyday.  

A simple example of this? Easy. 

Let’s say Mr. Funny Duck leaves the gate open when bringing the cows hay at chore time. The consequence will be his wife, Mrs. Funny Duck shouting rude things at him when she sees the cows sauntering down the driveway. They will then both go out and get the cows back.  

Cause and effect. 

A bigger example of this is watching people talk about how important local farmers are to the local food system, and then those same people supporting local farms by purchasing from them. This has a measurable, positive, tangible effect on the farm, the land, and the people.  

Again, cause and effect. 

Unfortunately, that second example of people supporting local farms is not what most local farms see.  

It’s getting worse, and things like inappropriate reaction to COVID-19 are not helping. 

Now, please understand, I think we MUST pay attention and react to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or any other contagious ailment for that matter. So many folks have compromised immune systems, and we need to make sure they are safe and supported.  

I just don’t think we should be panicking about it, nor should we should be panic-buying and hording resources because of it. Seriously, what is with the toilet paper insanity?!

I do think it is very important for non-farm folk to understand that the problems facing small local small farms are serious ones, and the problems have been there for a while; long before people started stocking up on something as ridiculous as toilet paper.  

Prices on oil have been steadily going up for years, drought and floods reduce crop yields every year, so the cost of producing grain for people and livestock have increased dramatically. And yes, the oil prices are down now, but for how long? 

Hog grower per tonne in September 2011 was $607.64, today it is over $1300 per tonne. Guess who saddles the brunt of the increase in costs?  

Abattoirs are a big problem for livestock producers. Do you have any idea how many small, local abattoirs have closed down in the last 10 years?  

We used to have at least 10 abattoirs within an hour of us, we are down to 3. Of those 3 abattoirs, 2 of them are very close to retirement age and the chances of a family member taking over or a new person coming in to buy the facility is slim.  

If a family member takes over, the abattoir can run as it has been, the regulations will grandfather it in. If a new person (not family) takes over, the abattoir must then upgrade to today’s regulations, meaning a cash injection of hundreds of thousands to cover new facilities and upgrades (that are not actually needed to produce safe food that it has already been producing for years).  

The profit margins on an abattoir are very small. New owners would have a hard time purchasing one and then needing almost the same amount of cash on hand to do all the retro-fits required to an older facility. This means they either claim a loss every year and just work for the fun of it, or the farmer has to pay more to have meat cut and wrapped.  

The farmer has lower margins than the abattoir owners, but it’s very hard to pass on the costs to consumers who see cheap meats stacked up in the stores and can’t understand why local pasture-raised meats cost so much. 

When the last abattoir closes, the farms will then raise meat for their own consumption and buying local meats may become a thing of the past. It will happen if things don’t change now. 

Farmers keep finding new and inventive ways to live and work cheap so we can keep prices from going too high. While most folks are deciding where to fly on a holiday, or what new flooring and cabinetry to install in the kitchen, farms are finding ways to increase grazing days to reduce hay usage; improving fertility of their seeds and livestock; using low and no-till options to reduce fuel usage; and finding alternative sustainable food sources for non-ruminant livestock that eat grain. 

We don’t plan holidays and home reno’s... we plan for survival.  

But, there is a change in the air.  

I can feel some big things coming and I think most farmers will be ok, but I’m a little concerned for the city folk, unless you like only having the option of one or two grocery stores.  

Small farms really started to feel it about two years ago. The public outcry to reduce single use plastics was growing. And who bore the brunt of this burden to reduce plastic? Small local farms and farmers markets. The number of farmers that have told me soul crushing stories about consumers at the market yelling at them about their plastic bags of lettuce, or saying things like 'I will not buy anything from your farm until you get rid of the plastic bags!'

This has been happening all across Canada and the United States for two summers now.

I wonder, if one were to look in all the recycling bins of those people, how many plastic containers would be in there? Of all the empty boxes in the cardboard bin, how many of those boxes also had a bag within them filled with cereal, crackers, or pasta, and maybe a layer of plastic shrink wrap on the outside too? Did those people who berated the farmers at the market also talk to their grocery store manager about all the excessive plastic in the store packaging? 

I have customers that do this.  

Not berate us for plastic of course, but that talk to the stores and companies that sell things with excess packaging. They will remove extra plastic at the store and tell the cashier to kindly please give it to their manager.  

Our customers embrace all the ways we are working to reduce plastic packaging, and we love them for it.  

These folks are serious about getting to the source of the problem, and they know it’s not the farmer. They know that to reduce plastic use on any scale that will make a difference, the pressure needs to go upwards to the manufactures, not downwards to the small-scale farmers.  

Imagine if small farms received incentives for all the plastics they didn’t use, and the fuel they saved or reduce usage of, and for all the carbon they sequester?  

Even without incentives, the small farms are doing what they can to deal with shrinking resources (less abattoirs, and don’t get me started on how many veg and grain handling places have disappeared in the last decade) and they are all doing what they can to reduce plastic use.  

And then comes along COVID-19... 

Consumers are panic buying toilet paper and food, yet farmers markets are being closed down, and farmers are scared.  

All the farm forums on facebook have been filled for weeks with farmers trying to figure out what to do as they find out their markets will not be running for the next month (or longer), their restaurant sales are plummeting, and rather than buying direct from the farm gate or via delivery, consumers are flocking to Costco for cheap, mass produced factory food.

Here are just a few posts from farmers all over the country:

 

“It’s absolutely KILLING me, seeing post, after post, after post of direct market farms in Ontario BEGGING for you to patronize them. Bringing me to tears. People. Our markets have been cancelled right now. Please, patronize these businesses, or we will not be able to serve you by providing the food you have come to love, in the coming months or years. Most, if not all, direct market farms are offering deliveries. We need your support now, to stay in business.” 

“Our farmers market is closed until June. We don’t know what we are going to do, it’s our only source of income.” 

“I have re-opened CSA membership sign-ups and offered FREE home delivery. Crickets. Ugh.” 

“We have already lost many sales this week. If they cancel the market, everyone we know will lose their income.” 

“We have ceased any and all spending above and beyond what is needed to feed the animals on site. In one short week, growth and expansion is entirely halted. This has already impacted our ability to have a supply of lamb in the summer months. Easter is the peak sales period of the year for lamb producers.” 

A farmer friend messaged me about a sheep farmer out east: “He figures he just lost 1500 in sales. he's worried. and usually he's not worried about anything, just keep calm and farm on. when he's worried....that means something. He is entirely self-sufficient for the farm as well, grows his own hay and grain. and he's worried.” 

“We have decided to stop farming this year and get town jobs. We just can’t do this any longer...”  

 

If you spent 10% less at your grocery store every week, heck even 20% less, they would not even notice. Not one little bit. If you took that same 10 to 20% and spent it even once a month at a local farm it might be the very thing that means they can stay open to grow food for another year.  

Big businesses like Costco, Tim Hortons, and Canadian Tire could survive being closed down for weeks, and could even pay all staff whilst closed so employees don’t risk going into debt or missing rent payments. 

Farms on the other hand cannot just shutter up their business for a few weeks. You cannot suddenly stop the lambs and calves being born, the chicks newly hatched, or the crop newly seeded in the greenhouse.

The big businesses do not need your help. The small farms and small local businesses that buy from those farms do. 

If you want to see a thriving local food economy, and a healthy, thriving population, support your local farms. 

If you want to see resources that will be stewarded and not hoarded, support local farms. 

If you want to see a reduction in urban sprawl, less food deserts in urban areas, and more healthy food choices, support your local farms.

Please. Support your local farms before they are gone.