I’ve been meaning to pick up where I left off a few blogs back, reflecting on the art of digging deep — namely, in my second non-fiction book, Down To Earth: The Crisis in Canadian Farming, published by Anansi (1985). City-slickers, please don’t click off! No barnyard babble, and no, I’m not flogging a book — it’s out of date and out of print anyway (although the first printing sold out). More good news: the clarity I gained from writing that book made telling the truth a goal to live for. It helped to make me a writer.
So it’s a roundabout route to where we’re going, around the bend past Canadian Thanksgiving, a harvest feast of gorgeous fall colours and bushel baskets piled high with farm produce. Our blog-on-wheels is pulling right up to the door of farmer Frank Meyers. At age 85, he’s just lost a seven-year fight against the expropriation of 90 hectares (220 acres) of prime farmland. Located north of Trenton’s Air Force Base, Mr. Meyers’ dairy and mixed farming operation sits on land granted by the king to his ancestors in the 17th century.
Still farming, Mr. Meyers has never lived anywhere else.
Seven years ago, the Canadian government declared its need for the land (a dozen farms in all) to build a new headquarters for Joint Task Force 2, the Canadian military’s elite Special Forces squad. The local Member of Parliament supports this expansion, citing jobs, economic spinoffs, etc. etc.The other farmers sold their land. Mr. Meyers did not.
The federal government claimed the land as essential to national security. As a farmer, Mr. Meyers also has reason to make that claim. “Buy land,” said the comic Will Rogers long ago. “They aren’t making it anymore.”
Macleans magazine reports that there’s been a belated groundswell of protest, an online petition to save Mr. Meyer’s farm that’s garnered almost two thousand signatures. Mr. Meyers is very touched, but the family doubts it will make any difference. The truth is, we should have noticed his plight a lot sooner.
The farm in the picture isn’t Mr. Meyers’. But it could be, typical as it is of southern Ontario’s dwindling rural landscape. Like that spread of land, here’s what looks the same since I wrote Down To Earth: Despite our concerns for the environment, food isn’t news when it’s relatively cheap and there’s plenty to be had. I discovered this when I worked as an agriculture commentator at CBC’s Radio Noon show in Toronto. We did serious journalism, and our show placed a consistent First in Toronto’s noon-hour radio ratings, but the news was far from good. Over the years, I’d met many people being forced off the land because it was no longer profitable to farm. I heard stories of farmers who took their own lives because they couldn’t face handing over to the bank the lands their parents and grandparents had entrusted to them.
In this tragedy, you sense that beyond barnyard talk, agriculture is far more profound and complex than it appears. First of all, it’s a business, sometimes known as primary industry. Now your ethical wheels should screech to a halt when you check out what this means: food, a human necessity, only acquires value once it’s shipped, sold, packaged, processed, etc. Hello?
Farmers are independent businesspeople who fit into our economic system more or less the same way as producers of coal or iron ore. That’s not an easy fit. The farmer who runs a business and produces “raw materials” is also a steward of the land. Now farmers aren’t romantic people, and they don’t wallow in nostalgia as we urbanites sometimes do. Yet a large part of what they value is an intangible legacy embodied in the land which their parents have passed on to them. Over time, they’ve seen their stability and rootedness as a social anchor and a great social benefit; too often, when a family farm vanishes, out goes a family’s sense of permanence and worth.
Many of us value what the Meyers family has given to their country. Yet our tardiness in speaking up is shameful.
Maybe talk is cheap, but I still think (as I did when I wrote Down To Earth) that sustainable agriculture “lies at the heart of the broader movement for planetary survival. As such, it invites us to take part not just because we all eat, but because in some sense, we are all farmers who feel our responsibility for the care and protection of the earth.”
That’s how the book ended. Years later, I have nothing more to add.
HEADS UP: The Thoughtful Blogger is on the move! In a few weeks’ time, we’ll be settling into a more spacious location on my brand-new, soon-to-be-launched website. I’ll be away next week, but I’ll tell you more when I return. Followers, you’ll have to re-subscribe to keep receiving the blog in your email. Info to come!