At 8 a.m. one recent morning, when the milking of 110 cows was complete, I helped Jeannie van Dyk feed her calves and give them clean bedding.
The calves are fed milk twice daily, individually according to size, appetite and age. Then they’re taught to drink from a bucket and they start solid food at around three weeks.
At 8:20 a.m., the milk tanker arrived, collecting 8,000 litres that would soon reach homes across Nova Scotia. The conversation at the farm shifted from cows to macro forces shaping the Lellavan Farm family’s world: supply management and international trade deals.
Our dairy industry has been in the news a lot in recent years as a focal point in Canada’s many international trade negotiations.
First, there was the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union, known as CETA. Then came the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, dubbed the CPTPP. Most recently there was the sticky renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, resulting in the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or the USMCA.
Every farmer in Canada rides the waves of these negotiations. Concessions and deals are cut in faraway urban environments, sometimes with little input from the rural communities that depend on agriculture for cultural and physical survival.
I’ve worked with the agricultural industry for more than 20 years, in at least four different countries. But until this past Thanksgiving weekend at Lellavan Farms, I didn’t really know what it was to be a dairy farmer, to stomp a mile in their muddy boots, kicking my day off in the darkness at 4:30 a.m.
As we worked our way through the various chores, I chatted with Jeannie about her job, her farm and what these trade agreements mean to her. The three aforementioned agreements have collectively given other countries access to more than nine percent of the Canadian milk market.
That is more milk than is produced in all of Atlantic Canada. Van Dyk shared with me a report commissioned by the Agropur Dairy co-operative, whose members are spread across five Canadian provinces, called Analysis of the potential impacts of the end of supply management in the Canadian dairy industry.
It says opening up the Canadian dairy system risks a net loss of $2.1 to $3.5 billion of Canada’s gross domestic product. Approximately 24,000 direct jobs would be affected.
Other studies suggest that countries that have transitioned away from supply management, such as Australia, have seen an initial spike in dairy production, then a steady reduction in production, farms and farmers. Many producers have been forced to exit the industry due to soft market conditions.
Van Dyk tells me that she writes 50 business cheques each month to local companies, a substantial contribution to the local economy. Her farm employs people from the community and hosts a student each summer, so future farmers have applied knowledge.
Being a dairy farmer is more than a job. It’s a way of life. The recent concessions in trade agreements are eroding farmers’ livelihoods, and thus that way of life.
In the language of reports, the Agropur report states that the dairy industry “contributes to the regional fabric and territory occupations.”
I’ll put it this way: you cannot separate farming from the fabric of rural Canada. The families, animals and land are fully integrated into the community and landscape. The survival of rural Atlantic Canada is dependent on this, and it is something we must keep in mind during all of our trade negotiations.
Agriculture is our future; it’s that simple.
David Gray is dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University. This article first appeared on The Conversation website. It was edited here for length.