Friday, November 2, 2012

November: Recognizing Our Farmers

Now that the farm year in Ontario has wound down, farm markets are going for their winter hiatus, and we face a winter of largely imported fruits and vegetables, it’s not a bad time to reflect on the enormous contribution to our enjoyment of life provided by our farmers.  Whether they raise poultry or potatoes, soybeans or sour cherries, beef cattle or beets, grapes or garlic, we are in their debt.  This past season had trials for some with an unprecedented early spring and killer frost and drought conditions in many parts, but for others it produced some of the best crops in memory, thanks to hot weather and timely rain.  The farmer lives at the mercy of the weather and has to have the nerves of a gambler and the resiliency of a rubber ball.
Mark Bittman observes in one of his recent NY Times columns that preparing food, even at the most sophisticated restaurants, is dead easy when compared to raising that food: a process that takes weeks if not months of expertise, investment, and hard work.
It is worth remembering when we shop for our food, that for every dollar we spend on farm-produced items, the farmer gets, on average, 14 cents.  For some products the discrepancy is greater than others.  For example, on a box of corn flakes costing $3.54, the farmer’s share is about 11 cents.  There are many factors that affect the price of food, including processing, transporting, advertising, packaging, and financing the products… but you can’t eat financing, packaging, or advertising.  This is what makes it so satisfying to go to our local markets or farm gates and buy directly from the farmers who produce the food.
Canadians enjoy some of the lowest food prices in the world.  It is estimated that we spend less than 10 per cent of our annual disposable income on food.  Compare that to 20 per cent in South Africa or 25 per cent in Brazil, 35 per cent in India or 45 per cent in Indonesia.  (Of course there are some serious consequences of that cheap food, an issue that we will look at in another column.)  Every year, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture observes Food Freedom Day.  This is the day on which the average Canadian family has earned enough to pay for their food for the entire year.  This year, it came on February 12th. 
While we congratulate ourselves on the low cost of our food, let us recognize the contribution that our farmers make to provide that food, and hope that farming remains a viable and profitable venture so that the agriculture sector continues to retain and attract young, energetic, innovative, and dedicated farmers.