I wish I had taken a picture of P. driving down our lane in the tractor at the crack of dawn this morning. He’s driving our John Deere to Parliament Hill as part of a convoy to protest trade deals that threaten supply management and to protest diafiltered milk entering Canada from the U.S. tariff free.
P. is the son of farm activist parents. He grew up hearing about and seeing farmers drive long hauls in their tractors to fight for their livelihoods and for what they think is right. I’m a real sucker for coming of age narratives and I just love that this is his, in a lot of ways. He was so excited. He took the evening last night to wash the caked-on tractor and dressed in his Sunday best, cap and all.
I know that this tractor convoy demo is to him what attending pro-choice rallies with a uterus full of very wanted baby is to me. It’s a solid and very visible aligning of life choices and convictions. I fiercely savour those moments as I know he does.
So what’s the big deal with supply management? P. and I belong to both conventional and younger/organic farm/foodie communities and the divide is very real. The most compelling reasons to support supply management to me are threefold : food sovereignty in a globalised, neoliberal world ; the survival of rural Canada ; and the need for consumer safety.
The people who farm in this country need to be able to make a living if we want a thriving agricultural sector. The incomes of dairy farmers are by far the most stable of farming incomes in this country. The product of their farms sells for a stable price, they are guaranteed through the quota system to be able to sell what they produce, and the Canadian market cannot be flooded with dairy from elsewhere. We are beef farmers. Beef, unlike milk, cheese, eggs and poultry, is not supply managed. That means that some years, we could barely afford to buy yearlings and the cost of meat in stores fluctuates wildly, sometimes because of droughts sometimes at the whim of multinational corporations, who own monstrous feed lots and can choose to sell or not (and can thus force small producers to fold at the drop of a hat).
I appreciate that a supply managed dairy sector keeps out smallholder farms and la relève, which is a problem and totally needs to be addressed. But if you think for a minute that the end of supply management will benefit the small family farm and artisan cheese makers as opposed to the Cargills and Monsantos, I’m afraid you’re in for a sad surprise.
I read a compelling argument when we had first made the move to rural living that supply management, by making an important agricultural sector so stable, ensured the survival of rural Canada. Despite the droughts, the floods, the boom and bust cycles, having folks in the community–making a living in the community and patronizing businesses in the community–made it so rural resilience was built in. Towns where fewer supply managed goods were produced have been towns where hardware stores, groceries stores, post offices have closed in harder times. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the issue of la fin des régions (‘the death of regions’ – the mass exodus of rural peoples towards cities), but having spent the past two years in a region where, historically there have been many dairy farms, and where there are now fewer and fewer, the signs of soul searching are very real.
Finally, I’m a big proponent of setting national standards and guidelines for foods. I love buying local, supporting family farms, and bartering more than the average person. I appreciate people’s desire to have access to raw milk, to produce artisan cheeses, to raise a mid-size flock of laying hens. But I also want to be able to buy ice cream in regular stores and ice cream parlours knowing that it isn’t chock-full of bovine growth hormones. And I want everyone to be protected from these poisoned foodstuffs, not just those of us who know (how) to read between the lines in the fine print ingredient lists. In the name of accountability, having a national/provincial/regional body to turn to to advocate for food safety, is key otherwise we’re at the mercy of industry and their ‘voluntary measures’ (which can be taken just about as seriously as corporate social responsibility, which is to say, not very).
The National Farmers Union, an organization of farmfolk who’ve been thinking about this issue for way longer than I have, just put out an extensive brief on the topic. Definitely worth a read.
In the meantime, here’s to a hearty dose of cross-sector solidarity. And to P.’s very first big Parliament Hill tractor protest.