By Jeff Carter
I have been following the activities of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, including annual conferences, for a number of years. It was only recently, though, that I learned just how long the organization has been around.
It was founded in 1979 under a different name, the Natural Farmers Association, according to the EFAO website. In reading the article, many names were familiar to me, including that of Alvin Filsinger who was a key early organizer and Diane Baltaz who wrote a brief history of the organization in 2004 on the occasion of its 25th anniversary.
Baltaz is an insightful person whom I have known for several years through her long-standing support for matters related to social justice.
In considering her article, I was struck by how my own experience with Ontario agriculture lines up. In the 1950s and 1960s, farming throughout Ontario was dominated by a network of small, “mixed” farms, many roughly 100 acres in size, but that began to change in the early 1970s – an era of consolidation – heralded by such political luminaries as “get-big-or-get-out” Earl Butz, the United States secretary of agriculture from 1971 to 1976.
Chemicals were embraced, typically mixed with a wooden stick and pair of leather gloves, or no gloves at all, and the transition intensified. Yet, as farmers tend to do, some balked at the change, dug in their heels, and remained affixed to the precept that the long-term future of agriculture is bound to natural systems which rely as much on giving back as taking away.
Not that the agriculture that came to dominate the North American industry is entirely without merit. Each spring, when the tractors and planters roll onto the fields, I am amazed and impressed at how thousands upon thousands of acres can be sown to crops in a matter of days by a relatively small and certainly dedicated workforce.
Yet the world of agriculture and food in 2024 is an uneasy place. One might even surmise that the system envisioned by Butz has failed. Food bank usage has risen to precedented levels in Canada and the U.S., diet-related ailments are pervasive.
Being a gardener, my reliance on the system is buffered and I often look to alternatives as the need arises, venues like the Sarnia Farmers’ Market where, during a visit a few weeks back, prices seemed reasonable compared to most of the big chains.
The EFAO has changed over the years but, I think, still reflects the organization’s roots. Under the leadership of recently retired president Brent Preston and the board and staff that has been in place, the diversity of Ontario’s wider community is now better reflected.
I am not one for labels but do note, with a strong degree of satisfaction, that the effort to engage Canada’s indigenous organization has indeed borne fruit.
I was also pleased to see many familiar faces at the EFAO’s annual conference, including that of Lucy Sharrat who I mention because of her longstanding association with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. It is an organization that provides counterpoint to the position represented by the unholy alliance of industry and Health Canada.I also had a chat with the speaker from Connecticut (though I didn’t attend any of his sessions). As we spoke of North American politics, I managed to generate a laugh by offering a salute of an inappropriate nature and he expressed concern that the natural features surrounding his farm appear to be “sick”.
We also discussed my knees and he asked what I did for them to which I replied, “tai chi.”
There are roughly 1,000 EFAO members. Many are small or even “micro” in terms of scale but there are a number of significantly larger farming operations represented.
During the conference there were references to the “them-and-us” of today’s agriculture, “the them’representing those who embraced and managed to survive the transition to industrialization and “the us’ representing farmers who tread a different path.
Sewing further division is not helpful, I think, and it can be observed that not all is well with big agriculture. As I explained last summer to a visitor from Bangalore, India, the wealth of land, equipment and animals he viewed during our day trip through the countryside was real but at the same time the margins of profit are typically narrow.
It has been expressed to me that the future of agriculture lies with family dynasties, the children of large farmers taking their operations to even more ambitious levels. Yet at the same time cracks are showing. For instance, agriculture in Canada today is reliant, to a large degree, on temporary migrant workers – many of whom are struggling to become permanent – and there is no guarantee of profitability with scale as is clearly evidenced by the current, gut-wrenching state of the Canadian pork industry.
Small farmers will persist too, I think, and so will their children, a number of whom attended the EFAO conference.
I took note of several: the baby announcing its dissatisfaction to something or other; the child strapped to the back of the organization’s incoming president; the little fellow who from his shoulder perch appeared to be control the movements of the largest market gardener in attendance; the girl skipping past me down the flight of stairs; and the small person who informed me she had lost her front teeth in a cycling mishap.
Refreshing to have children at a farmers’ conference as opposed to a sea of grey heads. ◊