Friday, March 24, 2006

Ploughshares

When I was six years old I had an epiphany. I remember it like it was yesterday. We have recently moved from Toronto to Edmonton. It's early spring and I'm helping my father prepare the vegetable garden for planting. The heavy black soil is still thick with the remains of the previous summer's harvest and I'm gleefully squishing the glorious rotting mass through my pudgy fingers.

As I bend closer to smell the rich earth, something catches my eye. I reach down to retrieve a small cross, created by the intertwining of two long dead plants. As I place the cross in the palm of my hand, my six year-old heart understands that this is the spirit of resurrection: life after death; warmth after our first frigid Alberta winter; the miraculous rebirth of spring.

Flash forward twenty years or so. I'm a young bride who has recently given up her trendy apartment in Toronto's even trendier beaches district for my husband's ancestral farmhouse in the country. During the week we commute daily to Toronto, but on the weekends we tend our two-acres of paradise and make a concerted effort to grow our own vegetables.

My mother calls me a farmer's wife and I reply that it's an insult to the women I have come to know who really deserve that title. These are noble women who rise very early to work with their husbands milking the cows, and then head off to fulltime jobs to help with the increasing debt load that modern farmers face. A half a century ago, with hard work and long hours, farmers could support their families on 100 acres. Even with outside incomes, most farmers must now manage 1,000 acres or more just to make ends meet.

Living so close to Toronto, the farmland around us is under constant threat of development. Developers offer local farmers millions of dollars to give up the land and the backbreaking, heartbreaking work of farming. Our neighbour Stan quietly yet deliberately tells them no. "You don't understand," he says, "Farming isn't what I do; it's who I am."

Another twenty years fly by and many of our neighbours, so tired of 18 hours days and million dollar debts, sell to the highest bidder. Apparently, the most valuable crop farmers can plant is houses.

Fortunately, gratefully there are those who still hang on. Stan struggles against all odds, and so does Terry, the 5th generation farmer who tends the fields around our property. We wave to them as we pass their huge combines lumbering along the county roads that connect the fields that they work. Most of these fields are rented back from developers who wait for the land to be re-zoned so that they can rip off the topsoil and replace it with "50 foot luxury lots in the heart of the country." Our new urban neighbours, whose houses are planted in the fields to the north of us, are less understanding. They honk their horns in loud protest, unable to pass the slow moving farm vehicles, so eager to get to their important jobs in the city.

Last week I turned on the television, and saw those very same farm vehicles, only this time they were moving slowly across Highway 401, like giant prehistoric beasts. Their owners, too tired to fight anymore are fighting, nevertheless. They have had enough. They are turning their ploughshares into swords, struggling to survive, protesting a government that callously allots four times more funding to automakers than it does to farming. What we still don't understand is that this is as much about our own survival as it is theirs.

There is an ancient Cree proverb that warns, "Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money."

Perhaps we should add, "And the last field is paved." Maybe then, only then, we'll get the message.

I am reminded of a conversation that my husband Brian had with our local councillor, so many years ago now. It was at the same meeting where Stan turned down millions of dollars for his farm.

"Where will we get our food when we've paved all our farmland?" Brian asks.

"At the grocery store, of course," was the reply.




In 1952, Canadians paid 21.6 percent of their incomes for food. By 2000, that figure had dropped to less than 9 percent. In slightly more than half that amount of time, the average farmer's take-home pay, as a portion of total farm cash income, dwindled from 28 percent in 1971 to 10 percent in 1999.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Helen said...

Suzanne, I heard you speak in Belleville last night...you broke through my apathy and spoke right to the place in me that feels hopeless and overwhelmed by the healing that is needed for us on this planet. I recycle, I can write to Ernie Parsons, MPP this morning to cast a no vote on a new nuclear power site, I can call out for sanity...I can start...but it seems too late...do we just keep plugging away in our own lives, hanging up laundry, picking cans out of the garbage at work...I feel overwhelmed and afraid. I admire your courage. Helen

March 30, 2006 8:15 AM  

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