NFU pushes agriculture’s boundaries

The National Farmers Union is moving into the future focusing on new farmers and different types of farming.

Instead of being consumed with the traditional issues of big acres, export-oriented grain and livestock farming, the organization spent much of its 50th anniversary convention talking about other types of farming.

“We need to think about agriculture and flip it on its head and push its boundaries and become innovative and create and move together for solutions and systems,” said just-elected NFU vice-president for women Bess Legault.

She and two other producers were the speakers for the Looking 50 Years Ahead panel, and while it offered no simple vision of the farmers of 2069, it painted a picture of farmers being closer, smaller and more tightly connected to their customers.

“Really, we’re about grassroots community,” said Aric McBay, a Kingston, Ont., farmer, activist and NFU organizer.

“Isolation is what keeps people from taking action.”

McBay, author of the book Full Spectrum Resistance, said local groups of farmers, consumers and other community members can build systems that provide them with power and autonomy that most dominant commercial and industrial systems don’t allow.

Those sorts of grassroots organizations can work almost anywhere if people are brought together.

Legault is a type of farmer that was well-represented at the NFU convention: young, focused on small-scale production providing direct sales to the urban consumer, and not necessarily from a farming background.

She moved from urban Ontario to British Columbia and established a locally focused vegetable farm in the Peace region, capable of producing melons “closer to Yukon than Vancouver.”

Supplying the local market has been working and demonstrates how close connections between farmers and consumers can create new food systems.

“Community connection to food is absolutely necessary to make system change and it has to occur in Canada,” said Legault, who also works as an environmental consultant.

A growing focus of the NFU is on connecting farmers and indigenous people. Byron Beardy of Wasagamack First Nation in Manitoba said his efforts at bringing vegetable production back to reserves comes from a desire to see indigenous communities regain food security.

Relying upon imported food undermines the benefits of being connected to the food a community subsists upon.

“We’ve been introduced to these foods from overseas from wherever, when we should be eating the food from our own community,” said Beardy, who is involved with a number of indigenous food security initiatives.

A common thread running through the speakers and the NFU members at the convention was the desire to eliminate much or all of the “supply chain” that most Canadian farmers rely upon.

While most farm organizations emphasize ensuring that farmers be treated fairly and benefit from the complex supply chains that go from the consumer through transportation, processing, marketing and grocery links, many in the NFU strive to divorce farmers from those who stand between them and the consumer.

“We wear many, many hats in order to be able to capture that marketplace and not have that distribution, and have all the people who make money of our food production system,” said Legault.

Some of the big issues of NFU history, from defending the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly powers to opposing biotechnology to concerns with rail transportation, do not play a central role with many of the NFU’s younger members, who are involved in farming operations operating outside the traditional Canadian farm and food system.

Legault, challenged by long-time NFU member Butch Harder to provide a more concrete vision of the farmer 50 years from now, said she doesn’t have a narrow model.

“There is no one vision for a farmer 50 years from now. I think there is room for large scale organics that are rotated. I think that grain production doesn’t need to be villainized when we talk about climate change,” said Legault.

“We are the people on the land and we are going to find the solutions.”

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