Underlying much of the consumer and main-stream-media commentary about supply management prior to and since the signing of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement I’ve sensed that old urban condescension that farmers are rather backward people who want taxpayers to support their dying industry.
Having grown up on a farm, lived all but a few years of my life in the country surrounded by farming neighbours and spent nearly 50 years writing about farmers, I find these clichés maddening and frustratingly hard to combat. In fact, my experience is that farmers are among the most creative people I know – and I’ve spent part of my life involved in theatre, an industry built on creativity.
Urbanites are totally unaware of the sophistication of modern farm equipment – heck, I can’t keep up, and I live among farmers. But in a way, farmers’ willingness to adopt new machines that save time and work is to be expected given boys and their toys. It’s the open-mindedness and curiosity in other parts of the business that I find most impressive.
Creative farmers, for instance, have always been ready to adopt new crops, from the 1970s when new varieties of soybeans made growing the crop viable in more northern counties to experimenting with unusual crops like switch grass. In recent years I’ve been impressed how quickly innovations with planting cover crops have spread beyond the early innovators. Now, fuelled by the explosion of craft breweries, some farmers are planting hop yards.
Farmers often modify equipment to make it meet their needs better. In the early years of no-till planting, they often reconfigured the equipment they already owned to make it work, before going out and buying purpose-built planters once they became confident no-till would work. And how about the rapid adoption of no-till farming! From the day when all land was plowed, cultivated and planted to today when plowing is something reserved for plowing matches, the transition has been amazing.
I’ve met farmers who put their minds to work to build more animal-friendly housing, such as group sow barns, before the leading researchers knew it was even possible. I’ve written stories about farmers keeping cattle outside all year round and growing outdoor pork.
Farmers I’ve had the privilege to meet have been creative enough to look at new livestock options from wild boars to alpacas. Farmers started dairy sheep operations before most of us even knew sheep could be milked.
Farmer creativity has led to seeking new niche markets for farm products. I’ve watched determined entrepreneurs visiting big-city chefs to sell them on the benefits of buying the specialized products of their farms. I’ve been amazed at the persistence of farmers who have fought their way through bureaucracy’s red tape to be able to create on-farm processing of their milk into cheese or ice cream.
All of this has created a strange contradiction in farming country. On one hand the old-time mixed farm has given away to mass scale with thousands of acres of soybeans and corn and large-scale, specialized livestock barns. On the other, here and there through even the most intensive farming regions are little pockets of people carving their own niche, from on-farm breweries and wineries to craft cheese makers to young people making a living from small market gardens.
I wish I could get this creative aspect of farmers across to urban critics. Somehow, however, I think they might choose to ignore it. The old clichés about backward farmers are too comfortable to discard.◊