National | Opinion

Romance of small farms is fine

The Jan. 15 Western Producer editorial entitled “Banish romantic notion of small farm” left me a trifle uneasy.

While it seems to be a critique of very small farms in poor countries, it implies that North American romantic notions about small farms constitute some kind of danger. It then tries to link that romanticism with the situation in Africa and the Ukraine where, according to the editorialist, small farm size is preventing agriculture from progressing.

Perhaps my unease came from the lack of clear definitions in the editorial. What exactly constitutes a small farm? What type of progress does it forestall?

In North America, one of the most romanticized types of farming is not the small farm, but rather the cattle ranch.

Witness the periodic cult popularity of cowboy costumes on the streets of major North American cities, and the continuing fascination with TV shows such as Heartland and Wild Roses.

But cattle ranching is surely on the ropes, as any cattle producer can tell you. Should we stop believing in the romantic notion of the Marlborough Man, minus the cigarette?

The history of western Canadian agriculture, brief as it is, tells us that today’s large farm is tomorrow’s small one.

When my grandfather came here in 1905, a half section was a good sized farm. In my father’s time, two sections made you exceptionally large. When I began farming it was three.

Now? A large farm in our area could be anywhere from six to 10 sections. Do we celebrate the fact that national and global economics has forced us to the point where we need to farm half the country to be viable?

If you don’t want to romanticize small farms, but you want to romanticize something (where would we be without some myths?) you will need to be able to hit a moving target.

Or should we try instead to romanticize the notion of serfdom, since that is increasingly where agriculture is headed.

If you doubt that, ask the contract growers of turkeys, chickens and hogs in the United States.

I could agree with the thesis of the editorial, that there should be no romance in a small farm, if I thought this romantic notion was somehow guiding government policy. That would be a mistake.

But we are far from that. What has guided government policy for at least three decades has been the hallucination of Samy Watson and his successor clones – that there are too many farmers, always too many farmers.

This is indeed a policy, but it is hardly a vision. We haven’t had a vision for agriculture at the national or provincial level for at least three decades.

Of course, the editorial was really a lead into the story about the state of agriculture in the Ukraine. Here, farms too small to be viable in an industrialized economy are the legacy of the end of the Soviet Union.

But in much of the Third World, small farms are not only appropriate, but far better than the alternative, which is to become the poorest of the poor in the cities, and to go from some measure of food security to food insecurity.

Nor are small farms intrinsically unprofitable. In the early 1990s small cotton farmers in some of Africa’s most impoverished countries earned a substantial living. A farmer in Mali, one of the 10 poorest countries on earth, earned about $1,000 a year growing cotton. This was three times the national average income.

The foreign currency earned from cotton exports provided Mali with money for health care, education and development.

When the U.S. government ramped up cotton subsidies to American farmers in the years that followed, and to companies processing and exporting cotton, the result was overproduction in the U.S. and a crash in cotton prices.

Small farmers in Mali did indeed end up in poverty, not because their farms were too small but because ours were too big and too powerful – at least when it came to obtaining government handouts.

I wouldn’t worry about the romanticizing of small farms. If you want a romantic notion to banish, how about the romantic idea that companies can self-regulate?

Or the notion that the unrestricted, unencumbered marketplace will bring prosperity to all?

Or the idea that people who run big companies (into the ground) are such geniuses they deserve to become billionaires?

What those romantic notions and the policies they drove brought us was Enron, WorldCom, AIG, the Ponzi schemes of Bernie Madoff and ultimately near economic collapse.

Worry too about the romantic notion that we will cure this recession with more of the same – the “hair of the dog that bit you” school of economic theory.

But leave the small farm alone.

Is it so bad to be romantic for a time when the country was full of people, when small towns were the cultural, social and business hubs of the Prairies?

The present state of rural Canada is surely not one to celebrate unreservedly. At least not for this romantic.

by Paul Beingessner

Paul Beingessner
About the author

Paul Beingessner

Paul Beingessner was a farmer, an activist, and a writer who defended Canada’s family farms until his tragic death in a farm accident in the spring of 2009. His widely-read and respected weekly columns brought a fresh and progressive perspective to rural and farm issues. Some of them are collected here. Through his words, his insight and wisdom continue to inform, raise important questions and encourage action. Working with Paul's family, the NFU has established an annual literary prize in honour of Paul and his contribution to rural and agricultural journalism.

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