Farmers have been disappointed by their treatment by society over the past decade, as nitpickers have taken on everything from pesticide use to animal welfare to carbon impact.
What farmers considered ordinary and every day practice became a target.
Well that ordinary is now extraordinary. In a world where food system hiccups have caused concern about whether nourishment will be available, farmers are essential, and what they do is now in the extraordinary camp.
They deserve our thanks, and they’re getting it from many areas of society and political leadership.
I’ve had farmers lament to me for years that people just need to get a bit of taste of hunger to appreciate the importance of simple nutrition.
Luckily hunger is rare and food plentiful and available in the current global health crisis, but the sight of empty meat and flour shelves could be enough to make people appreciate the food system they’ve taken for granted.
Or maybe there will be an imagining of the food system we could have, with the farmer at the centre.
The just-in-time, highly coordinated and efficient system we have enjoyed is the one that is showing the most cracks. It’s hard to rectify that dairy farmers are dumping milk, we have more eggs than needed and chicken farmers are taking a large 15 per cent cut in quota, when those commodities are in short supply in grocery stores. It makes sense that such systems could not turn quickly when restaurants and food service markets collapsed. The large volume system will right itself, but there will be more shifts ahead as we move out of isolation and back into a fully functioning society. Long shifts could become tiresome to consumers.
There’s already some good examples of how the changed market is getting the system to move. Makers of everything from flour to pasta have reduced their product diversity and are just getting needed, basic products out the door and into the homes of those who need it. The large companies like Sysco and Flanagan Food Service who have been the food delivery backbone for restaurants are now delivering to grocery stores.
On the other hand, the cover story in our April 20 issue tells about farmers who provide food directly to consumers encountering a huge increase in demand. They are having trouble sourcing the food to fill that demand.
A question for astute thinkers and business people to figure out is if that increase in demand for suppliers of local food is a permanent change, or will the most efficient system win again after we’re out of social isolation. If the food system is going to change, then more infrastructure, from local processing to rural internet will be needed. There will be opportunities, but challenges. Some farmers are going to have a tough year if their commodities are adversely affected by COVID-19’s market gyrations. Other farmers could do quite well.
There’s been a lot of focus about the swings around the edges of the food system, but the truth is that it could be a decent year for farmers, if crop production returns to normal, after a few strange and uninspiring years of challenges.
The farm supply chain will continue to do its thing, although with an extra burden of expectation and hopefully even more appreciation.
In a crisis, the good in people comes out
There’s lots of good happening in the world. I’ll keep mentioning a couple of examples in each of my columns. Let me know if you have seen good deeds being shared in Ontario’s agriculture community.
Take the case of Ravensbergen Greenhouses in Smithville, Ont. They, like most other greenhouse flower growers, are in tough because flowers aren’t designated an essential service, meaning there’s an abundance of Easter and Mother’s Day flowers with no route to the market. According to CBC, the Ravensbergen family, with the help of an anonymous donor and several churches, delivered 10,000 flowers to the doorsteps of people in Hamilton.
Egg producers have delivered 10s of thousands of eggs to food banks, as supply chain issues have roiled most markets. Ontario farmers donating their unmarketable eggs resulted in egg companies sending eggs back to farmers to deliver to local groups in need. Unlike milk, or chickens, or hogs, eggs can be donated with minimal processing.