The diversity of farming

This blog post stems from being a recent member of the f b page “Farming in the Maritimes”. I recently joined the group thinking this might be a good place to learn from, to ask questions, to sell or purchase farming goods whether livestock or equipment. It quickly became apparent to me that there was a diversity of farms/farmers in this group which was both helpful and frustrating. As is common in such a group, there were certain voices that dominated the post threads. There were some comments that demonstrated respect for the lives of the livestock they raised. However there were also comments that were disrespectful of those who perhaps didn’t engage in the ways of conventional agriculture, ridiculing and dismissing them. The solutions proposed to various posted problems were within the box type of thinking, so often not innovative or cost effective. I could deduce that the main thrust of this group was conventional farming despite the small scale size of many. In the end I didn’t find it a welcoming environment with these veiled derogatory comments and so I quit the group.

What anything these past years has taught me in operating my own small farming business and engaging in international development work in the agricultural sector, and this most recent experience of a f b group, is that farming is as diverse as any other sector. As the old farming adage says: ask the advice about some farming issue and you will get as many opinions as there are farmers.

Farms differ by:


# of workers, paid or not, family members or not

types of inputs

method of cultivation

type of crop

type of livestock

equipment used – hand or machinery requiring non-renewable fuel source

$ spent on various implements

post-production practices


My work in Barbados was with an organization that represented farmers, the Barbados Agricultural Society or BAS. BAS claimed to have a membership of 500 farmers which was estimated to be about ¼ of all farmers. Alas the data to demonstrate these numbers was not available. (If my posting had not been cut short due to our farm-sitters suddenly bailing on us, conducting a survey of the farmer membership would have been undertaken to gather up to date data on farming in this island nation). Due to the size of the country, and with the changes that occurred in agriculture post-colonization and post-independence (from only sugar plantations to much more diversification), the majority of farms are small holdings. Anecdotal evidence did seem to indicate that many of these ‘farmers’ were simply cultivating some crops or livestock in their backyards.

The farmers in Barbados experienced in essence the same challenges faced by farmers in North America: lack of access to capital for equipment, lack of access to and expense of land, expense of inputs, expense of and finding labour, an aging farming population with young folks not interested in farming. This was, perhaps in an odd way, reassuring. This way solutions could be shared and adapted. The challenges of farming are indeed global. However, in the end, in a nutshell, I just couldn’t help but feel that farmers are the lowest valued people in our society.

I mean for f___sakes, they grow the food we depend on. Instead of always complaining how food is just so expensive, why not stop and think for a while to realize how much work is involved in growing food, and how much of the $ goes to the farmers in the supply chain – not much in the end.

It is such a hard life. Of course there is nothing wrong with hard work. However, farming is the only job that you work 7 days a week, 365 days a year. You easily work 10-12 hour days. You don’t get weekends off. You don’t get to take vacations. You don’t have any type of benefits that you might get with a job in the private or public sector. Most farmers must incur and carry debt whether to initially get access to land or equipment or to access the season’s input. Many rely on ‘temporary’ foreign workers or interns/apprentices or family members for the labour they need, all 3 ways not actually reflecting what the true cost of operating a farm would be if fair wages were actually paid to these 3 groups of workers.

I remember learning that the majority of the membership in the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (NSFA) were deemed to be small scale where annual income was below $10,000, if I understood correctly that being considered their cut off for determining the scale of farm. Try living on that income for the year. Most could not. Of course the NSFA is not the organization that promotes organic agriculture. This would be the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN) who do amazing work in the Maritime provinces. The membership in this group is predominately small scale. There are as well various farmer associations representing the various sub-sectors, e.g. beef, dairy, egg, however these groups represent conventional agriculture thus usually large scale.

I was wondering does a group exist for those who are not certified organic (and have no intention of seeking this), are truly small scale, have a limited source of capital of whatever kind, are doing the work by hand not using equipment that requires non-renewable source of energy, are not in debt nor will go into debt thus needing to devise means to get work done with low cost inputs, and are not willing to ‘employ’ in effect slave labour. To my knowledge such a group doesn’t exist.

Conventional/industrial, slow food, permaculture, organic, biodynamic, aquaponics, rural/urban/peri-urban agriculture are just some of the lenses through which one can view the growing of our food. It has been reassuring to learn and know that many farmers are practicing a non-industrial agriculture. For example, both in Peru & Barbados, there is a Slow Food organization active in each nation. There are organizations promoting organic agriculture and permaculture both in urban and peri-urban settings.

The recognition of the intertwining issues of health and food are at the forefront of many public health initiatives, and of the expanding movements of non-conventional or alternative agriculture which are not simply fads any longer but actual trends continuing unabated.

When folks say they can’t afford organic food, I have to question this at times. The research clearly shows that organic produce is only 10-30% more expensive than conventional food. For me I have to say that for most, not all, it is a question of priorities. Where do you spend your $? On stuff you want convincing yourself you ‘need’ it: the new(er) vehicle, the latest or popular tech gadgets, the season’s latest fashion trends, eating out or having that coffee out each day. How much do you value your health and that of your family? With food, there are ways to cut your costs: e.g. simply buy in bulk and if you are just one then join or create a buyers group of organic products, join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, grow some of your own food making it a family affair. There is sufficient evidence coming to the fore about the damaging impacts of certain chemicals or synthetic substances used in conventional agriculture, whether the glyphosate herbicide (e.g. M o n s a n t o R o u n d u p), or food products grown from or containing GMO ingredients, or antiobiotic use with animals so that resistance in humans is the consequence. Maybe some budgeting or related financial skills is lacking. This can be taught, but if you don’t truly have the will to change your consumption habits well … don’t complain food is expensive when it is not.

On a related matter, I do find it strange that North Americas are the minority in the global populations to not eat all parts of the slaughtered animal. For example, while in Peru & Barbados when you went to the local markets, you could buy every conceivable part of the animal for consumption, not just the usual types of steak or roasts or ground, but also every organ and body part – tripe, tongue, heart, brain, lungs, spleen, tail, head, feet, neck, intestines, skin. In Barbados one of the national dishes is the pudding and souse (a pickled pork dish) which uses as a base cooking the head of a pig. Eating a stew of pigs tails is also very common. These two dishes stem from days of slavery when the slaves only got the parts of the animals the slave masters didn’t want and so the descendants of the slaves being ever resourceful in the face of extreme adversity, created dishes from what they could acquire. These days may be returning. I don’t mean slavery but then the world has never been ridden of slavery like too many seem to think. I mean making use of all the animal. As the debt economies continue to crumble, we will need to become more resourceful, returning to small scale production of whatever items we truly do need to live.

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