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The CFFO Commentary: Key Questions for a Changing Agriculture

By John Clement
May 20, 2011
 
Farming is changing. And it’s not just changing in the scale of operations we now have, or the increasingly diverse markets we now supply. It’s also changing in how we view the vocation of farming and how it connects to rural communities and our fellow farmers. Simply put, our emphasis on the business of farming now often overshadows other dimensions to farming that we used to take for granted.
 
At the core of this change is predominately the continuing pressure for farmers to adapt to large-scale production, marketing and distribution systems that create an overall context for on-farm decision-making and planning. Agricultural policies for Canada have increasingly worked out to be trade policies, plus societal pressure is ratcheting up both standards and expectations regarding food. All these factors combine to create continued pressure on farmers to either increase their production capacities, or seek out niche, alternative or value-added opportunities.
 
It’s against this background of change that key questions arise regarding our most basic assumptions about farming. It used to be that how the business of farming was conducted was as big a discussion topic as the business of farming itself. Cooperation and community used to rank a little higher in the overall context of how farming was conducted and were seen as important dimensions to be built into the agricultural infrastructure. Given the continual change in both agriculture and our perceptions about it, I recently posed some “values based” questions at one of our CFFO district association meetings. They include:
·         What role does our fellow farmer have, at home and abroad, in our approaches to the bigger questions and challenges? Are we colleagues or competitors?
·         Should our marketing systems for farm products continue to reflect the “greater good” of the industry, or should we start slanting them towards maximizing the benefits for individual businesses?
·         Are we food producers or are our products destined for industrial purposes? And are we okay with that? Is there something different about food?
·         How are we treating the Creation in our pursuit of profitable businesses? Are we just okay with our practices, or could we be doing better than we are?
·         Does it matter if each county only has one or two large-scale farmers, with the rest being part-timers? Do we care about the “missing middle” in farm scale?
 
My own answer to some of those questions is that some of our traditional assumptions about farming and how it’s conducted need to be revisited in light of the relentless pressure to adapt to business realities. I’m not saying that some of our assumptions about the value of community and cooperation need to be abandoned. But I do think we need to be more intentional about giving our values concrete expression and not expect that they will easily survive in today’s business environment without giving them due attention.
  
John Clement is the General Manager of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. The CFFO Commentary represents the opinions of the writer and does not necessarily represent CFFO policy. The CFFO Commentary is heard weekly on CFCO Chatham, CKNX Wingham, and UCB Canada radio stations in Chatham, Belleville, Bancroft, Brockville and Kingston. It is also archived on the CFFO website: www.christianfarmers.org. CFFO is supported by 4,200 family farmers across Ontario.

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