Selling out the farm

*Ray Burley*’s story is all too familiar to Canadian farmers.
Ray and his sheep

‘Why do they bury dead farmers only two feet deep?’ asks the farmer. ‘So they can still get their hand out…’

It is gallows humour, the kind of canary-in-the-coalmine commentary used by race comedians.  Many farmers tell the story because they want to pre-empt what they believe the rest of society is already thinking. It is also has the echo of the bittersweet hopelessness of bluegrass music.

‘Carry me away’ is not an expression of religious zeal. It is a plea to be relieved of suffering.

After 20 years of farming, my wife and I made the decision to quit. We were forced out because in the world of corporate monopoly of processors and supermarkets, there is virtually no price competition for the food we produced. At the same time the costs of farm inputs – things like fuel, machinery and fertilizer – were rising precipitously. These sectors too are controlled by giant agribusiness corporations that reap usurious profits. For us, the arrival of Mad Cow Disease was the tipping point, but in truth our enterprise would probably have perished anyway.

No matter how powerful a person’s ability to rationalize, there is a sense of failure and loss in being forced to abandon a fulfilling undertaking. To farm is to enter into a union with nature that is as foreign to most urbanites as the surface of the Moon. There is a close association with the tenacity and cycle of life, with the weather and the seasons. Each season is a preparation for another: planting in spring to harvest in the fall, haying in summer to feed in winter, breeding in one season to calve or lamb in another. The years flow together in an indefatigable, bucolic continuum.

We bought our farm in 1988 and, starting with just three cows, built a herd of 80 beef cows and a flock of 45 ewes over the next decade. We were part of a rural community that was generous with advice and help. As on most family farms, my wife and I also worked away from the farm, in order to earn extra money.

The land was a slice of Ontario paradise, gently rolling with abundant woods and wetlands. It was as close to pristine as a place could be in industrialized North America. The farm was based primarily on growing grass to feed livestock. Grass agriculture was efficient, reducing the dependence on expensive inputs like fertilizer, pesticides and energy, as well as being more environmentally sustainable.

Storm clouds

Our problems began on 20 May 2003, when a case of BSE or Mad Cow Disease was discovered in western Canada. Borders in the US and around the world were slammed shut. Before BSE was discovered, 75 per cent of Canada’s beef stock went to the US as either processed meat or live animals. A glimmer of hope came in September when the US announced it would permit the import of processed boxed beef from animals less than 30 months old. The US transnationals that control 70 per cent of the processing industry cleaned up – they were able to buy Canadian beef for a pittance and then process and ship it to the US, where it sold at inflated prices. As a result, the profits of the Canadian subsidiaries of Cargill and Tyson Foods increased by 280 per cent.  

By fall, calf prices had risen slightly but were still barely half those of the previous year. We, like many farmers, decided to keep stock that we would normally have sold. This meant not only a loss of income, but also the added expense of feeding the cattle through the winter. The crisis was not resolved and we continued to haemorrhage money.

Four years later the market had still not recovered. Over this period other economic factors came into play. The price of commodities like grains, oilseeds and other livestock fell. By trying to farm we were subsidizing corporate agribusiness and consumers by producing food at a loss. It was time to sell. But a farm developed over two decades is a complex organism and it took a year to sell the cattle, the sheep, the machinery and the farm.

‘What have you lost?’ people ask. ‘How do you feel?’

Twenty years is barely a heartbeat in history. Yet over that time an entrepreneur built a nine-square-kilometre water plant next to our farm. Pig factories soiled the air. Tractor-trailer tankers of city sewage sludge were parked in neighbours’ fields. Giant wind turbines, to feed the urban need for air conditioning, sprouted like burdocks. Depressed land prices allowed wealthy stockbrokers and lawyers to build monster ski chalets and horse palaces.

What is lost? First, a dream. Second, a steward of the land. Third, a bond with a culture and a community. Fourth, an engine of the rural economy. Fifth, a sustainable and safe source of food.

How do we feel?

Relieved. In the end some Mennonite farmers bought us out. The land was not suited for stockbrokers. Too close to the water factory.

Ray Burley used to farm in the Blue Ridge Mountain region of Southwestern Ontario.