LETTER FROM ONTARIO
The food is secondary
Farmers in Ontario will meet this week to fight for their share of the retail dollar before technology, globalization and society’s taste for all things processed pushes them out of the food chain all together

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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March 10, 2005: There’s lots of documentation about a piece of reality that frustrates farm families -- so much that many of them will be participating in demonstrations during the next two weeks at Queen’s Park, the seat of our Provincial Legislature.

Back in 1991, Ralph Ferguson, then Member of Parliament from Lambton County, launched the first substantial documentation of this frustrating reality -- a study he called “Compare the Share.” It demonstrated that retail prices during the 80s rose faster than farm gate prices. The Centre for Rural Studies and Enrichment in Saskatchewan, with financial assistance from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, has updated the study to 2004. The results are no surprise -- retail prices are still rising faster than farm gate returns. The gap is widening.

For example, the farm gate price of pork decreased – I repeat decreased -- by $0.15 per kilogram between 1981 and 2003. The retail price of pork increased by $3.51 per kilogram during that same 22-year period. The farmers’ shrinking share has been well documented. Do we understand the causes?

First, there is technology. Farmers are eager adopters of new technology that makes them more productive -- often increasing production beyond the needs of the market and creating a downward pressure on farm gate prices.

Second, there is globalization. The productive technology first developed in North America and Europe is being customized for local farming systems around the world. Brazil and Argentina have created low cost production systems capable of delivering commodities to our superstores at prices below the cost of production of local farmers.

Third, there is the managed food chain. The Canadian food system resembles an hourglass lying on its side: a large number of very diverse farmers on one side, and a much larger and diverse consumer population on the other. In between lies a very narrow passage controlled by fewer and fewer super food enterprises. Consumer dollars are not getting through that narrow passage back to the farm.

Finally, there is “just let me do what I am good at.” Many farmers are drawn to agriculture by the challenge of meeting real needs while working with soil, plants and animals. They would like nothing better than to focus completely on meeting society’s basic food needs – taking care of hunger. And they would, if in return they received a decent income for their families. A decent return would leave few farmers demonstrating in Toronto.

But the food value chain has changed. Consumers want super-savory, sophisticated, light and lively, fizzy, fruity and flavored and naturally gourmet. Just producing cuts farmers out of most of the value for which consumers are willing to pay.

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