Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December AM writing

Keeping the Skills and Knowledge on the Land
Over the years it seems I have always been one of the younger farmers and ranchers in the room. The problem is, it is still the case, and I am not getting any younger. True there are younger ones coming along but for the most part many of us have children who are interested in many things but sadly none of them are agricultural in nature. The next generation today defines themselves by what they do in their life, not what they do for a living, as we do. Many of these sons and daughters of agriculture talk fondly of growing up on the ranch and would move back to it so long as they had weekends and holidays off. Like that will happen! So farms get bigger and bigger with fewer owners and people working on them. More and bigger machinery does the work and many of the old skills are lost.
I know of grain farmers in the Prairies who are told by the company who supplies their chemicals and fertilizers when to spray, feed and weed their crops, and which day the products are available for pick up. The company field agent drives around with the farmer checking his crops and “advises” him on what to do next and which is the best product. The same company has contracted the crop at a locked in price so the farmer has to sell to them even when the market changes and prices go up. Here was me thinking the days of Serfdom were over. Well I guess they are, as the farmer still owns his farm and he pays the mortgage and taxes, but with all his inputs and crops handled by the only company in a 50-100 mile radius one could hardly call it a free market. Similar things happen in the pork, chicken and dairy industries, vertical integration they call it. Much has been written about the above from Philosophical, Economic or Political perspectives, but the one issue I fear that has been over looked and in the long term is the most important, is the loss of the knowledge base and agricultural husbandry skills that has been passed from one generation to the next.
Many of these cannot be learned from a book, much less taught over the Internet, and even a University lecture would come up short. These things are learned by doing and working along side skilled men (or women) who act as mentors and teachers. Like an apprentice of old, over seen by a Guild of the specific trade. From the age of 3 till 16 I walked, talked and helped my father on the farm soaking up all his skills and those from before who had taught him. Along with Livestock Husbandry, crop and soil management skills I learnt about “cutting and laying” hedges, making dry stone walls, “Coppicing” trees to produce fence posts and pegs, weaving and making hurdles for sheep (a type of fencing panel). Latter while working on large estate farms I was the boy as the average age of the workers was 55 plus. There I learnt more than all my time at College from those wise and weather hardened farm labourers. All these skills teach self-reliance and sustainability ensuring the continuation of small and family farms. No wonder they were dropped from the curriculum of modern Colleges and Universities who receive large sums of money from the agribusiness companies, who’s profits are linked to a vertically integrated system with a weakened knowledge base at the farm gate.
With many small farms in the Southern Interior and nowhere to go for workshops and training or mentorship I felt there was a need for an agricultural training program. I started workshops in a small way two years ago and they were well received but with all my extra workload this year I let them slip. Now we have the Mt Ida Hall to teach in and lots of critters outside to work with I plan to teach sustainable agricultural skills again this coming spring. If you or someone you know has a particular topic you wish covered let me know on the email below and I will put a class together. If you or a group you represent needs a talk on a specific topic I can help with, the same applies. Heaven forbid that I am the last farmer/rancher in my family, but if so I hope to pass on my skills and knowledge to the next generation, if only to foil big business and keep small farms and farmers viable and local food tasty! Have a great Christmas and all the best in the New Year.
Rob farms in the city and can be reached at harmonioushomestead@live.ca