For three years we carried occasional reprints of the
weekly radio commentaries of Elbert van Donkersgoed,
then Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farming
Federation of Ontario (CFFO), Guelph, Ontario. They
appeared under the column title “Letters from
About a year ago, van Donkersgoed became the executive
director of the Greater Toronto Area’s Agricultural
Action Plan. Continuing the tradition of weekly commentaries
from the CFFO is John Clement, the group’s general
manager. With his permission, we will continue occasional
use of the CFFO columns.
This month, Elbert is back as a special guest writer!
December 14, 2006: Depressed prices for bulk grain
commodities, mad cow disease, droughts, pests, the soaring loonie
and control of the food pipeline by still fewer food merchants have
cast a long shadow across our farm sector. But there is a new agriculture
emerging out of the shadow of the ongoing farm crisis. The signs
are all around us.
Farm families are changing their approach to farming. They have
diversified into off-farm occupations and businesses. More than
half of farm family income now comes from non-farm sources. The
decline in farm numbers is slowing and is likely to disappear soon.
Pension farmers, lifestyle farmers and second career farmers are
on the increase. Pension farmers, defined as at least one member
of the farm family collecting Canada Pension, already make up 25
percent of Ontario farmers. Farm business income has become a contribution
to farm family income. On average, farm families meet most of their
family needs from non-farm sources and subsidize their farm businesses—probably
more than governments subsidize farming.
Food retailers are also changing. Meeting consumer needs is spawning
a renewed emphasis on local food and social responsibility. Back
in July, a poll in the UK found that “More than three-quarters
(85 percent) of adults in the UK believe that restaurants and pubs
should use locally sourced food….”
In June, the retailer Food Lion, with 490 outlets in North Carolina,
launched a campaign, “got to be NC products.” That same
month Japan's largest retailer created dedicated shelf space for
local produce. Much earlier, a study by the Leopold Centre, a sustainable
agriculture institute in Iowa, found that more than 75 percent of
consumers chose products labeled “grown locally by family
farmers” as their first choice.
Even Wal-Mart is changing. I suppose the transnational’s
May announcement of dedicated shelf space for organic food was just
part of dominating another market segment. But it means more. That
Leopold Centre study also found that consumers would choose products
“grown locally by family farmers” over organic options.
Wal-Mart is missing out on the bigger market—shelf space for
Retailers are also making interesting socially and environmentally
responsible choices. At the beginning of August, Ben & Jerry’s
Scoop Shops, famous for their ice cream, made headlines in the UK
with their plan to serve fairtrade vanilla ice cream in Europe.
Their message: “Don’t buy what exploits somebody else.”
Two days later their co-founder was in Toronto launching a public
awareness campaign to encourage Canadians to “Lick Global
Warming” with Jack Gibbons of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.
Even governments are changing how they view the food chain: Is it
environmentally responsible? In 2005 the UK government launched
a study on “The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of
Sustainable Development.” Their Department for Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs tracks the cost of food in tons of carbon
dioxide produced. A July headline announced, “Cost of food
miles grows to 18m tons of carbon dioxide.” The story described
a jump of 6 percent in the number of "food miles" by road
Back in August, I encouraged municipal politicians and staff at
the annual general meeting of the Association of Municipalities
in Ottawa to see past all the crisis talk in agriculture and recognize
that a renewal of agriculture is happening. Interest in local food
is opportunity all around us. The concern about food miles has added
cache. Consider the commitment by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon
to eat only food produced within a 100 mile radius of their Kitsilano,
BC home. The diary of their experience has become an Internet phenomenon
There’s a farm shop in Yorkshire, UK called Weeton’s.
Their motto is “Where Food is Fresh from the Farm.”
Their claim to fame: they are on the latest “The Best 100
Shops in the World” list that includes the likes of Bloomingdale
in New York.
Local food is great food and an opportunity for all who want to
be part of the renewal of agriculture!