Thursday, June 26, 2008

why should *I* save the farm???

For the past couple of months I've been volunteering with the Friends of Madrona Farm Society. In a nutshell, the FOMFS's mandate is to raise $1.4 million dollars for The Land Conservancy, so TLC can buy Madrona Farm. The farm's owners want to sell; the farmers (my friends David and Nathalie) don't want to see it end up as some rich guy's estate with the fields turned into marginal pasture for his ponies. Which is exactly what has happened to MOST of the other farms along Blenkinsop Road. Dave and Nat don't have the money or the desire for the soul-crushing mortgage that would be required for them to buy the farm, so they convinced the owners to go the conservation route, then they went to the TLC, who were amenable to taking ownership of the land and placing covenants on it to protect its current food-producing status -but TLC didn't have $1.4 million hanging around. So David and Nathalie then went to their loyal customer base - those of us who lined up in January rains hoping for just a couple bunches of kale - and asked us to actually raise the money.

I jumped at the chance, of course. Not only are Dave and Nat friends, but the farm is my primary source of vegetables, and I am a huge advocate of local food production generally.

Volunteering on something like this isn't easy. Everyone has limited time, we have limited resources generally, and nobody has any experience with fundraising. But more than that, actually getting the money rolling in is HARD. Even from the customers at the farm stand - the ones you would think would actually care about this farm in particular, if not the whole concept of saving farmland - the money is hard to come by. And gradually, from conversations I've had with people at the stand, it seems the reason for the reluctance to donate is that the land is theoretically already "protected" because it's in the Agricultural Land Reserve, and isn't the government supposed to be protecting farmland or something?

Well, here's a newsflash, kids - this is a democracy, and corporate lobbying notwithstanding, policy generally bubbles up from what the populace wants, more or less. And what the populace has wanted for the last 40 years is climbing property values, and cheap produce from Mexico. And thus the ALR protections developed in the 1970s were specifically designed to merely restrict development on land with established agricultural use, since the farmers of the day protested that restricting the actual use of the land to food production would lower their property values too much. Even then, BC farmers were having a hard time competing with cheaper produce coming from the USA and elsewhere, so the farms were barely if at all profitable, and lowering the property values would have destroyed the farmers' exit strategy: if all else fails, sell the farm to some rich guy who wants a pastoral view. In this respect, the ALR actually preserved real estate agents' incomes far more than actual farmland.

Fast forward 30 years and you have some of the most fertile land in the whole entire world, valued at such astronomical amounts that it's insane to purchase it for food production. If you buy it, though, you can always improve on that base valuation by doing things like building a mansion, landscaping it for horse ranching, or better yet actually building a riding circle... or applying for its removal from the ALR, then subdividing and developing it. Don't think that doesn't happen - land has been steadily removed from the ALR since the program's inception.

So when a farm is on the brink of extinction, is it right to expect the government to step up and save it? The government has, historically, merely responded to the priorities of the populace, which sadly have been more along the lines of wanting huge houses in ever-more-distant suburbs (carved in many cases out of agricultural lands), and cheap food so they can afford the huge houses and the gas to commute to work.

Nowhere, in the pressures on the government for the past 30 years, has the general populace ever called for affordable farmland OR even fresh and healthy food. The average BC citizen wants things he needs - like food - to be cheap, so he can afford things he wants.

Food prices have been steadily driven down through price controls (as on milk), and free trade arrangements that mean cheaper produce can always come from somewhere else, where labour is not so likely to complain about wages or conditions. The food didn't taste as good, had god-knows-what sprayed on it, and nobody actually producing it saw any money from it, but it was cheap and plentiful, and that was what mattered.

Now people are rediscovering the joys of local eating. They're finding that a tomato tastes a hell of a lot better when it's picked that morning and you haven't had one in 6 months. They marvel at how sweet a new potato is when it's fresh. And they're starting - slowly - to understand that the cost of California strawberries, Mexican tomatoes, and Arizona lettuce is more than what they pay at the till. The carbon footprint of such well-traveled veg is only one aspect. There are continuing concerns of the effects of pesticide use on farm labourers, plus the ever-present threat of widespread bacterial contamination through improper irrigation and cleaning methods.

Promising as the new trend towards sustainable local eating and building actual connections with food is, it's still limited to certain sectors of the populace. They're not uninfluential, these sectors - they typically comprise us overeducated white folk with time and money on our hands - but they're by no means the whole of the population. There is still the vast bulk of the population of BC that shops happily at Safeway for lettuce from California and LIKES it, especially if it's on sale.

Yes, locally produced, sort-of organic produce will always be tastier and healthier and better for the environment, but don't fool yourself that any more than 10% of the population is ever going to make a decision on those grounds. So you know what? Everyone who IS interested in preserving what little remains of our agricultural capability is going to have to step up to the plate themselves, because frankly most of the people in our lovely province would far rather have their tax dollars go to subsidizing cheap food or better yet, gas. And even more sadly, but perhaps inevitably given the long-term lack of respect afforded them, most farmers today would STILL oppose more limitations on ALR land use, for the same reason - food production is so unprofitable, there has to be value in the land itself or individual farmers are screwed. Unfortunately, unless food production is valued more highly by everyone, eventually we'll all be screwed. And we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

If we as individuals actually care about our health, the health of the planet, and the taste of our food, we need to start supporting projects like Madrona Farm or other TLC initiatives to preserve farmland in BC. We will not be in the majority, at least not for probably another 5-10 years, I'm guessing, maybe longer. And we will be putting our cold hard cash towards something that will benefit even those who are still driving SUV's and eating California-grown broccoli now. But we will be taking a stand, a stand that will be noticed, in the long-term - a consumer decision to put money towards community food security infrastructure rather than consumer goods or even personal investment or security. Money talks, and if the government sees its citizenry putting money towards projects like this instead of spending it on consumer goods, gasoline, or imported food, the government WILL notice, the rest of the province will notice, and maybe the bulk of public opinion will back sustainable food production as a real priority.


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