A Farmer’s Perspective—OPINION PIECE

Sally Bernard explains why public discourse and panels on food policy and food sustainability need primary producers’ voices

“Food policy is the area of public policy concerning how food is produced, processed, distributed, and purchased. Food policies are designed to influence the operation of the food and agriculture system.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Food policy—it likely sounds vaguely interesting to most, dead boring to some, and tantalizing to a few. Given the centralized food distribution systems that most people rely on for their groceries, food policy is probably something that should be talked about daily, at every kitchen table, but for the most part it’s handled at boardroom tables. Sometimes it’s the topic of panels with various industry stakeholders who share their perspectives and over the past summer, PEI played host to at least two food policy discussions.

On August 9th, a consultation on the pending Food Policy for Canada took place in Charlottetown. While there was opportunity for members of the public attending the session to voice their thoughts, it was Chef Michael Smith that was invited to the stage to share his comments. And a few short weeks later, during the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) conference in Charlottetown, a panel discussion on food sustainability was held. The panelists invited to speak on this important topic were: Chef Michael Smith, Chef Ilona Daniel, Peter Crooks of Canada’s Smartest Kitchen, and Bryan Inglis of Food Island Partnership, with John Jamieson, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries for PEI, acting as moderator.

The question that begs to be asked is this: why wasn’t a farmer invited to the stage on August 9th, and why did the IPAC panel feature two chefs and two food business stakeholders, but not a single farmer?

One farmer would never have been able to represent the perspectives of all farmers and might have shared ideas that irritated other farmers. But surely that is the same for the chefs on the panel. Still, it’s probably safe to say that everyone would agree upon the same goals for a sustainable food system: improving health and food safety; increasing access to affordable food; growing more high-quality food; and conserving our soil, water and air. Those also happen to be the four pillars of the proposed Food Policy for Canada and they’re broad enough to make most eaters in this vast country feel like their concerns are being considered to some extent.

From a farmer’s perspective these pillars likely represent some of the very challenges that they face on a daily basis. Challenges that are unique to primary producers, challenges that would not necessarily be related by other food stakeholders, like chefs or food business folks. From arduous labelling rules to outdated food safety regulations, farmers often find themselves struggling to stay on top of paperwork that prevents them from further innovating or expanding, either because of the sheer amount of it, or because rules stand in the way of potential new markets.

A new farmer could speak to the challenges of accessing land, purchasing infrastructure, finding mentors and getting a start in this challenging and high risk industry. A veteran farmer could address succession challenges when there is no one to take over their aging business. A market gardener could present some interesting findings from their farmers’ market experiences, while a large scale producer could talk about the challenges of working with the futures market and export rules.

A farmer from PEI could talk about the province’s Alternative Land Use Services Program in which funds are allocated for environmental stewardship that benefits the community at large, but which evidently do not go far enough to prevent clear cutting or hedgerow removal. A farmer could defend why this sort of program, that benefits everyone, should be funded by public monies.

A farmer from PEI could address the prevalence of GMO crops like corn and soy and explain that market demand drives production. Farmers grow what the market demands and currently the demand for cheap, processed food (with cheap corn and soy as base ingredients) outstrips the demand for a diversified fresh vegetable market.

A farmer could also highlight how the requirements to deeply invest in the infrastructure for one commodity make it very difficult to consider switching to another commodity or way of production due to the significant blow their bottom line would incur.

A study from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity in 2015 found that Canadians trust individual farmers much more than agribusinesses and the food system in general. With our federal and provincial governments both pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into public trust organizations like Farm & Food Care Canada in order to better educate consumers about farming, it seems like inviting actual farmers to speak publicly about food policies at every opportunity should be a priority.

Many farmers spend significant time in boardrooms, participating in meetings for various levels of policy-making that directly affects their commodity or industry as a whole. If food production in Canada is to be represented by the stakeholders that underpin it, then panels that address food from a sustainability or policy standpoint are missing an important perspective when they fail to invite a primary producer to participate.

Sally Bernard is co-owner and operator of Barnyard Organics, a family farm located in Freetown, PEI, that includes the following crops/services: growing, mixing and selling complete organic feed rations for livestock; selling bulk organic grains; custom seed cleaning and soybean roasting; managing a Community Shared Agriculture program for organic chicken and eggs; and custom poultry processing. Sally, along with her husband and co-owner of the farm, Mark Bernard, are also busy raising four farm kids. 

About Richard Schroeter

Richard has been in the multimedia game for a long time. He has a background in art and computer design and has used this experience working in television, film and photography. By day he works at Veterans Affairs, building presentations, restoring photos, editing Veterans video clips, and creating learning modules for Canadian students of all grades. By night he forages for food and figures Salty will be his go to starting point.

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