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Nothing Passé About Old MacDonald’s Approach

Manitoba’s farm media is full of the same story. The stories have different headlines and characters, but the main issue is as recurring as the beat of a drum. “What’s wrong with Prairie agriculture? What’s wrong with the AgriStability program? What’s happening to commodity, fertilizer, and cattle prices?”

Sometimes columnists allude to the problems that farmers need to address to stay in the game, but seldom is there serious discussion of the issue of sustainability in agriculture.

There is a story told of a lifesaving mission being set up on a particularly dangerous stretch of river – the objective being to rescue people whose boats capsized in the turbulent water. One man, on observing the construction of the rescue station, remarked that perhaps the mission was misguided. What was more important was finding out why people were falling in in the first place.

Some suggest AgriStability is not doing enough. Cattle farmers, they say for example, are facing their fourth negative year in a row and the federal government needs to extend the farm safety net beyond the three years currently covered. But why should the government fund a business that continues year after year in negative territory? Perhaps not falling in is more important than getting pulled out.

How many negative years do we accept before we realize that the problem is not with cattle prices, but with an unsustainable production paradigm?

In my view Prairie agriculture is in need of a much more fundamental shift in thinking – something more innovative than the GPS technology that eliminates overlap on seed and spray and merely requires a driver to turn the tractor at the end of the field; something more efficient than 3,000 sows under a single roof.

For the last two decades, perhaps much longer, there has been a certain percentage of farmers who have been presumably dissatisfied with the results of “conventional” farming. They have gone into a wide variety of alternative agriculture, whether as a sideline or their entire farm operation.

In my mind, these people should be applauded for recognizing that something was wrong with the system. However, what they failed to recognize was that the conventional end product was not the problem. The alternative agricultural pursuits were radical (ostriches, pigeons, etc.) not in the methods of production.

So they faced the problem of selling a radically different product coupled together with the costs of conventional farming.

So, if what is wrong with agriculture is high fuel prices, soaring fertilizer costs, and the capital cost of an enormous land base and the accompanying machinery, then would it not make sense to address these issues? Farmers have little effect on commodity prices and none on the weather. But they certainly have everything to do with how they choose to farm. Popular media notwithstanding there is more than one way to farm.

And it has almost nothing to do with what you produce.

Perhaps this line of reasoning has got you thinking of the old ways, or more likely that this young buck probably has not got a clue about the “good ol’ days.” Consider that today’s mega horsepower tractors are basically multiplication of size from the first tractors that replaced horses on Prairie farms. And further to that, horses themselves replaced the oxen that were used by many western homesteaders. So which old days are you thinking of: early tractor, horses, oxen, or hand powered? More to the point, what is backward about a method of production that is sustainable, and addresses the issues of fuel, fertilizer, and debt?

What advantage does the relatively small mixed farm and animal power have over the large farm and petroleum power?

The first advantage is that the energy source can be supplied from the farm. Secondly, the byproduct, manure, is valuable fertilizer – a nearly complete energy cycle. And thirdly, a much lower cost of production in terms of energy requires a much smaller land base, requiring smaller equipment which makes farming possible for a much wider range of people.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz once made the statement, “Old MacDonald’s farm doesn’t exist anymore,” in his defence of modifying the government farm program. If what he meant was small mixed farming doesn’t exist anymore, then perhaps he should tour the Old Order Mennonite areas next time he is down to southern Ontario.

But then again, perhaps the minister in charge of the farm rescue mission hasn’t had the opportunity to come to the aid of Old MacDonald, and that’s not such a bad thing is it?

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