There’s no question that the seeds of civilisation were sown with the beginning of agriculture. In fact, at dif- ferent times, agriculture has shaped the rise of civilisation in every region of the world. In the “fertile crescent” between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, it was rye. In Mesoamerica, it was squash and maize. In Egypt, it was the precursor of modern wheat. In China it was rice. Most of these were wild grasses that became domesticated, likely through a combi- nation of the effects of climate change and inventiveness by small groups of people trying to feed themselves.
Between 13,000 and 7,000 years ago there were anumber of alternating cold-dry and warm-wet periods.
During these times, hunting and gathering wasn’t as suc- cessful as it had been, and the ranges and habitats of plants and animals changed. As regional climates grew cold and drought-ridden, people collected wild foods to take with them when they moved to warmer, wetter areas and culti- vated them.
“Necessity is the mother of invention” and, because humans are resilient and adaptable creatures, agriculture, or the use of deliberate practices for growing and harvest- ing plants and animals, came into being. People learned about genetic selection. And the fabric of civilisation has ever since been interwoven with the threads of agricultural innovation.
As agriculture spread, people began in earnest to take ownership of places where food grew. The more successful families created wealth for themselves and their communi- ties. It wasn’t long before agriculture came to be associated with political power. The pharaohs of Egypt, Rome’s sen- ate, the Aztec kings controlled the food stores of their civi- lisations. It’s not much different today. Only it’s not govern- ments that wield the big stick of control over who grows what, where, and how much farmers get paid for their la- bours—or even who gets to eat—it’s “global market forces” and, increasingly, biotech corporations like Monsanto.
While the marketplace is the determinant for the cost of food commodities, governments set policies and regula- tory controls, and sometimes enter into trade agreements that result in ruinous effects on farmers. In the past few decades, this has certainly happened in Canada and in Brit- ish Columbia.
In Vancouver Island’s Alberni Valley, agriculture as a contributor to the local and regional economies has shrunk by about 70 percent from what it was, in part due to chang- ing government policies. For instance, 25 years ago there were ten dairy farms, four or fi ve hog farms, and a number of commercial poultry, beef, potato, and fruit and vegeta- ble farms. Today, there may be four dairy farms left, no commercial hog, poultry or beef producers, and one or two comparatively small-scale vegetable and berry producers. There is one commercial greenhouse that grows mostly tomatoes and cukes.
When asked why this happened, former dairy farmers Bob and Ann Collins said it was due to a combination of factors. The price of grain rose. All the supporting infra- structure disappeared. Services, such as processing and transportation, were controlled from farther away. Where it used to cost one cent per litre to get locally produced milk to markets, soon all the local milk was trucked away and it cost producers three or more times as much money to get their products to market.
This meant as much as a 20 percent decrease in their already narrow margins. Profi tability dropped like a stone. Farmers were told to “go big or go broke.” The few who could afford to “go big” are still in business, but they took up the slack and the others either went broke or went out of the farming business. Some stayed small and took outside jobs to make ends meet. This was hard on farmers and hard on families. Some farmland was sold and subsequently lost to farming.
How does this affect the local economy?
Collins explained: “Take McKinnon’s Dairy. They used to employ 16 people. There were a few part-timers, but mostly full-time employees who made a decent living. The workers lived in the Valley and they spent their money in the Valley, and all the infrastructure that supported the business was in the Valley. But the public, ever on the lookout to save a penny, didn’t give enough support to local producers. A quart of locally produced milk may have cost a few cents more than mass-produced milk from big farms outside the region. So local milk was trucked away and we traded those 16 jobs for a truck driver who brings milk into the Valley a couple of times a week and who might buy a cup of coffee and a sandwich at the local Tim Horton’s.”
Collins says, “I have absolutely no passion for growing food anymore because people have no respect for where it comes from. People have to be consistent and aggressive about seeking out and supporting local producers. But it’s too easy to go to the supermarket and buy cheap food that was grown in Chile or Mexico, or wherever, and that’s been soaked in pesticides and harvested while still unripe.”
About 10 years ago, Ann Collins and Lisa Daniels started Port Alberni’s Farmers’ Market under the auspices of the Farmers’ Institute. It’s been very successful for providing a venue for the public to buy some home-grown produce, including eggs, fruits and vegetables in season, honey products, cut flowers, locally processed meats, and locally made crafts. It’s probably the only farmers market in BC that operates 12 months of the year. While it’s successful and is in the process of expanding, it currently doesn’t allow for the financial scale that farmers must maintain to keep their farms viable and support a family.
Says Collins, “People say they want to save farmland, but if they won’t support local farmers, then they’re asking us to save it at our own expense. It isn’t going to happen. I’m just waiting for the day when a banker and a lawyer come walking up my driveway looking for something to eat.”
“What will save local farming in the future will be for producers to get away from commodity production. Farmers will need to become innovative, to embrace some value-added component that people will pay a fair price for. Whether it’s some form of agri-tourism or a specialty crop, such as a winery, farm diversification is key to rural sustainability.”
[See Watershed Sentinel, Vol 13 No 4, Aug-Oct 2003; “Farming in the New Millennium” and “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?”]