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After reading Ian Petrie’s article from The Island Farmer, Green doesn’t come cheap, I was inspired to write down a few of my own ideas from a small-scale farmer’s perspective.

Ian is right that the marketplace (AKA people at large) tend to think more about getting the lowest price for food, or just about anything, rather than reducing the unseen environmental and human impact of how their food is grown. However, cheap food is actually more expensive in the long run because of the invisible costs to the communities whose personal health and tax dollars are used to subsidize the broken industrial food system.

Prices in commodity food markets tend to only reflect the labour and physical resources that go into producing that food. The negative impacts on society over time, such as toxins in our air and drinking water, climate change, topsoil loss, and precarious livelihoods of farmers and farm workers — none of that is built into the price of the food. All of these costs are ‘externalized’, burdens that are passed on to our health care system, environment and generations of taxpayers in the future, rather than accounted for in the balance sheets and farming practices of the world’s mega-farms.

The best farmers don’t merely think of the short-term. Responsible farming is stewardship for the land. It’s not viewed as optional, but as an obligation. Responsible farmers take these long-term community risks into account and build their farms in order to counteract these future consequences, even though they are not being paid for it. Take Joel Salatin in the US as an example in the sustainable meat sector, or Jean-Martin Fortier in Quebec, who is proving that an organic mixed vegetable farm can provide millions of dollars of economic benefit and grow food at scale for the community.

These farmers focus on growing quality food, while building up organic matter in their soil, which actually sucks carbon out of the atmosphere rather than contributing to climate change. They also strive as best as they can to provide themselves and their workers with a livable income, rather than paying workers pennies on the dollar for hard labour. All of this extra thought, work and expense takes place within the constraints of a marketplace and an economy that undervalues a forward-thinking approach.

The value of foresight is only appreciated in hindsight, when trouble arrives at our door.

This reminds me of about four or five years ago, when the price of cauliflower shot up to $8 per head in large grocery stores due to a widespread shortage. There was a particular pest or disease that affected large-scale monocrop farms all over North America.

Meanwhile, organic cauliflower at the farmers’ markets and small local grocery stores across the country was selling for its regular price of $5/head because it was grown by smaller diversified farms that grow many different crops. As a result, these farms were not and are not as vulnerable to pests and disease. When pests and disease do affect them, it doesn’t impact 100% of their operation, it represents a tiny fraction of their crops. Healthier soils on well-tended farms also provide plants with better general resistance against diseases and pests that the damaged soils of monocrop farms don’t tend to provide.

Unlike the monoculture mega-farms growing cauliflower that year, these small diversified farms had the same harvest they normally do. No need to hike up prices to turn a profit because all was relatively well.

This is one example that illustrates the invisible resilience provided by agricultural diversity and sound environmental stewardship. The value of a locally resilient food system is only revealed when the weaknesses and vulnerability of the industrial food system are nakedly exposed by times of crisis.

The argument in favour of contemporary large-scale agricultural practices is these farms are more productive at producing cheaper food, and therefore more efficient.

This is like arguing we should build houses with half of the wood to increase speed and scale of construction. While we’re at it, let’s forget about doors and windows because they aren’t cost-effective. Sure, that’ll serve fine as a house in perfect conditions, when the weather is calm in the mild months of the year in a nice neighbourhood with zero risk of crime. But how about in the middle of a 100-year weather event such as a nasty September hurricane or a record-breaking January snowstorm, or simply when a thief learns about the neighbourhood filled with doorless and windowless houses?

This is why we have construction standards so things are built up to code. You cannot buy or sell a house that is built to come crashing down on the family inside, complete with a bring-your-own-door policy. Why then do we pay for a food system that is built for cyclical periods of crisis, complete with a grow-your-own-food-in-case-of-collapse policy?

As for a poorly constructed house, the same goes for a poorly constructed food system. For the benefit of efficiency and short-term profit-seeking, fragility is intentionally built into the system. The profits are privatized when the system works, but the costs are socialized when the system inevitably fails. Where is the incentive for responsible long-term management when the costs of ignoring it are paid for by others?

When the winds blow and the house comes crashing down, the failed system is allowed again and again to be propped up by taxpayer-funded subsidies and insurance programs. We don’t need to have better houses, we just need to build more when they fall down. We don’t need to have better farming methods, farms just need to be more productive and absorb the ones going bankrupt.

Rather than doing the work of identifying weaknesses and rectifying them, the costs of bailing out the broken system again and again is passed onto our communities which are made to believe they depend on the broken system’s survival.

We’ve done this with our global industrial food system. And we saw with our own eyes when a hurricane came in and blew it to bits like a house built of sticks at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Items in grocery stores were cleaned out in days or even hours in March of 2020 without certainty of when, or if, they would be restocked. The illusion of confidence and abundance that our industrial food system provides is utterly and foolishly dependent on a just-in-time international supply chain, which only works when conditions are perfect. This is why a facade can either mean the face of a building with no house behind it, or an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less credible reality. The industrial food system is a facade.

To make better farming practices more competitive with industrial agriculture in a shorter period of time, the carrot is better than the stick. Taxpayer-funded programs that focus on creating more incentives for good practices, while removing subsidies for poor farming practices, rather than the disciplinary approach of introducing new laws, restrictions and penalties for poor farming practices.

Let’s build rigidity into our food system by helping diversified farms proliferate. It’s a matter of more farms, not bigger farms; scaling out, not scaling up. The legislative route tends to suck up money on proliferation of enforcement officers and court fees that could better be spent directly on expanding and developing training and infrastructure programs in the organic and regenerative farming sector.

By promoting and incentivizing readily available, sustainable, modern farming methods, we can create a better food system built to stand up to the test of time and nature, stronger to withstand a more volatile climate and more persistent pests and disease. That way, when the industrial food system continues to falter and fail, all we have to do is simply let it.

Complex systems do not collapse instantaneously without any warning. Like the once wealthy man who was asked how he went bankrupt: “Very slowly at first, then all at once.” Rather than propping up a dying way of producing and distributing our food, we have to allow a better food system to develop and take the old system’s place because the warning signals are showing us it is failing slowly right now, but all at once could be just around the corner.

Just like the little pig who built his house from bricks instead of sticks, it’s more work and requires more investment to set up a more resilient system, but when nature or economic calamities come in like a wolf trying to blow your house down, the foresight and effort pays off when it doesn’t come crashing down on you. Let’s provide incentives for building with bricks, rather than penalizing someone for building with sticks.

We need to approach the construction of our food system this way, in a concerted effort from both the public sector and private marketplace. In many cases, demand creates its own supply. The demand can be driven by both our taxpayer-funded subsidies and incentives, as well as your patronage, the choices you make when you buy your food.

Choose local supply chains over global just-in-time chains. Choose organic and regenerative farms over industrial agriculture that treats the environment like a strip mine and dumping ground.

We must learn to value strength and resilience that is built to last over scale and efficiency that is built to crumble. Bricks, not sticks.

Jordan MacPhee,

Maple Bloom Farms,

Grand Tracadie

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