PUTTING 'CULTURE' BACK INTO AGRICULTURE
It is time. It is time to differentiate between agri-business and agri-culture. It is time to recognize the international subsidy spiral progressively reduces prices further and further below production cost. It is time to put the 'culture' back into agriculture.
Since the days of John Diefenbaker and creation of the Agricultural and Rural Development Agency (ARDA) in 1957, the Government of Canada has recognized that there was more to farming than business. ARDA explicitly recognized the family farm as an engine of traditional values. More recently, the French Government, at the tumultuous November 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, noted that the family farm helps maintain and conserve the land, rural infrastructure and a way of life that keeps modern, urban society in living contact with its historical and cultural roots.
Unfortunately, Government has responded with 'supply-side' subsidies, that is, financially rewarding increased production by offering subsidies per bushel of output or per acre planted. This approach has lead to a frightening subsidy spiral. In effect, production subsidies reduce the final price of farm output below the cost of production. This, in turn, means that even efficient farmers cannot earn enough to maintain operations. This, in turn, leads to more subsidies that lower prices further. And, so on and so on and so on...
This is bad enough at the national level but when other countries engage in the practice and offer even higher subsidies to their farmers, it turns into the mess we have today. Thus the most efficient grain farmers in the world (measured by output per acre), those of Saskatchewan, cannot get a price on world markets that permits them to make a living. The result: farm aid concerts, more Western alienation, the hollow threat of separatism, public protests and civil disobedience to force the Governments of Canada to increase subsidies further to compete with those available to farmers of the European Union and the USA.
Perhaps it is time, as the French say, to "reculer pour mieux sauter" - to step back in order to leap forward! If the family farm is a critical element of our culture, if it is essential in maintaining and conserving the land, rural infrastructure and living contact with our cultural past then it is time to offer cultural or 'lifestyle' grants to the family farm rather than production subsidies. In France today, after nearly a century of de-ruralization, the Government is so concerned about maintaining rural life and infrastructure (villages, roads, rail lines, schools, hospitals, etc.) that it now offer subsidies of up to 20,000 British pounds per family for English sheep farmers to live in central France (all paid by a EU support program). Perhaps it is time to offer Canadian family farms the option of receiving cultural grants rather than production subsidies: Grow what you want and maintain the family farm and its life ways so all Canadians benefit now and in the future, but do not expect to receive production subsidies per bushel or per acre. Such grants could be targeted much more effectively. Family farms, not massive agri-business, would receive the benefits. In the long run such a program could: foster diversification - 'green', solar, alternative crops; reach the small family farm rather than massive agri-corps; and, be significantly cheaper than the continuing subsidies wars with the EU and USA. It is time to put culture back into agriculture.
January 29, 2000