Future of the Family Farm?

In our quest for convenience, we have outsourced our food system to industrial giants. But it is time to ask ourselves about the human and environmental costs behind cheap food.
Corn is a critical example of a staple crop which has supported civilizations in Mesoamerica for thousands of years, that has now been hijacked by big agribusiness. They create infertile varieties in labs that they own the patents on, claiming corporate ownership over this human legacy of subsistence. How can a corporation own the rights to the genes of a living thing? Their motive is clear. They want to control the supply chain of this crop that is now found in most of the processed foods on the grocery store shelves. What species is next on their list to patent? If they could patent unconscious, over-consumptive customers too, then they could really maximize the bottom line.
The Agro-industry converted the excess ammonium left over from World War II bomb manufacturing and turned it into marketable pesticides and fertilizers. This started an economic and environmental tail-spin for small family farms around the world for over half a century. Industry has sold farmers on the idea that chemicals will boost yields, a narrow vision that has seduced them into a vicious cycle, as chemical farm input costs skyrocket, food commodity prices plummet from globalized competition and soils are depleted from intensive chemical application. Many coffee farmers find themselves in this trap, where the agrichemical companies front them with fertilizers and pesticides at the beginning of the crop cycle and take a portion of their harvest in return, leaving them shaking their heads after a long season of hard work with little return. Some go into heavy debt or sell off their lands and assets to make payments for the chemicals. Others lose their farms altogether.
The last couple of generations of Nova Scotian farmers have faced these scenarios. The small family farms that remain in the province are at risk and many are already facing hard economic realities. No matter where they turn, there seems to be no crops that they can plant or animals they can raise that can meet the rising farm input costs they face. Whole agricultural industries, like beef and pork production, have basically disappeared as food processors and retailers increasingly consolidate their supply chains and import from cheaper sources. Most of the farms that will survive are large factory farms, with huge financing. Big farms are most often scaled operations that are in the business to profit from agriculture, whereas small farmers generally produce quality food as a way of life. Who do you want to buy your food from? The trends presented in the graphs below have big implications for the social and economic fabric of rural NS communities and for the future of a healthy, local food supply. When is the breaking point for farmers who can’t make any money? What is their debt ceiling before the family farm is lost?
As consumers, we have the opportunity to vote how we want our food system every time that we shop for groceries. Farmers will respond if our communities choose to buy wholesome foods from diverse and sustainable small local farms. Many people have been discussing these issues but there are only a few solutions with much impact that are reversing this trend at this point. Local and organic labeling, community supported agriculture shares and farmers markets are taking off, but these are still niche market initiatives.
In the 1930s, farmers in the Maritimes were led by Moses Coady and Jimmy Tompkins in the Antigonish Movement to form democratic community co-operatives and credit unions to end the exploitation they faced from marketing middlemen and money lenders. Today, there is a strong producer co-operative movement in many developing countries as small farmers are organizing to strengthen their position in the market and end exploitation from the huge multi-national food and commodity corporations.
A new wave of farmer co-operatives in the Maritimes could become a larger, systemic solution to the current economic challenges of small family farms. These co-ops could eventually be supported by wholesaling, agriculture supply, retail and credit co-operatives to create a democratic and viable rural community infrastructure
Source of graphs: GPI Atlantic: http://www.gpiatlantic.org/pdf/agriculture/farmviability08.pdf

Future of Family Farm

A recent study out of Hohenheim University in Germany and published in the journal Ecological Economics cast doubt on the profitability of some coffee farmers' participation in the Fair Trade marke. Lawrence Solomon of the Green Beanery also makes the point that certification costs can become an other obstacle to farmers.(http://journal.probeinternational.org/2011/05/14/lawrence-solomon-fair-t...).

Ali Ahmed
Ottawa, ON

Thank you for your comment.

Our co-founder Jeff Moore recently wrote a response to that article when it appeared in a national newspaper.

May 25, 2011

Fair Trade is certainly not beyond criticism. However, the diatribe by Mr. Solomon against Fair Trade certification this week can only be considered cheap and, possibly, ill motivated.
Mr. Solomon claims to be seriously involved in the business of coffee. He founded the Green Beanery seven years ago to raise funds for his employer, Energy Probe, a respected environmental think tank. Just by coincidence, I visited the Green Beanery when I was in Toronto last week. I would have to say, he “dabbles” in green coffee. He obviously buys fairly small amounts of a great variety of “green”(unroasted) coffees from large coffee brokers. I would doubt if he has had much, if any, direct contact with coffee producers as he suggests.
The question is, why would he want to totally discredit Fair Trade certification when even the studies he quotes in his column and has on his website (www.probeinternational.org) attest to the fact that indeed “fair trade does benefit coffee communities” in spite of its limitations?
It is perhaps no coincidence that Solomon ’s boss, the chair of the Energy Probe board, is none other than Gail Regan who is also head of Canadian food giant Cara Foods. Cara owns, or has owned, Second Cup, Harvey’s, Swiss Chalet and institutional catering operations that included services on Air Canada. They have been a long time detractor of Fair Trade. I can vividly remember a screaming match at a Canadian coffee conference in the late 90’s between a Second Cup executive and the head of Fair Trade Canada..
It is somewhat understandable, if inconsistent, that Mr. Solomon and Ms. Regan would use non-Fair Trade and non-organic coffees to raise funds in support of Energy Probe. However, it is clearly disingenuous when they move from the politics of energy to the politics of coffee and pretend to do so out of concern for the welfare of small coffee producers.
Thoughtful coffee drinkers do value independent third party certification to verify corporate marketing claims. Renu Mandhane, Director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, Facility of Law, commented this week on the ethics of Canadian mining companies working abroad. He said: “We need to move beyond corporate self-regulation in the area of human rights. “ In the end, Fair Trade is ultimately about human rights in the face of large corporate interests.

Jeff Moore, Co-Founder
Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op