Size does not matter when determining worth of farmers

A commentary from the National Farmers Union

Recently on CKNX Radio’s call in show hosted by Bryan Allan there was a somewhat heated discussion on small versus large farm operations.

First though, a disclaimer; I like Bryan Allan and his show a lot, his calm professionalism and gentle curiosity make his show something that can make you laugh and cry in short order.

As entertaining radio, the show was a great one, but as actual useful discussion, it fail­ed. This of course was not the host’s fault, but rather the guests.

As a farmer, what was truly disappointing was the extremism of all of the guests. While I might have expected this from the guest from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) an ex­tremist animal rights organization, what was disappointing was hearing the extremist views coming from an Ontario Veterinarian, a farmer and author, and a representative of the Ontario Farm Animal Coun­cil (OFAC).

As a moderate sized family farm operation owner, it was clear to me that no one was representing our farm or very few, if any, of the people I know.

A second disclaimer – I call­ed into the show to try to make the point that looking over the neighbour’s fence and complaining about what you see rarely deals with any of the problems on your side of the fence. That point seemed lost on the four guests, and instead they chose to focus on a misunderstanding on the size and nat­ure of our own farm operation  and riff on that for a while.

The most alarming part of the show was how much total misinformation was being spread by all of the guests.

On the one side was the de­piction that large farm operations are inherently evil (with no sense of what the threshold for large even meant) and on the other was the claim that smal­ler farm operations are backwards and unable to feed enough people.

I guess my expectations are not high for PETA so the representative’s completely false but expected claim that a vegetarian diet in and of itself is healthy for the individual and for the environment could be easily dismissed.

For me what was shocking was hearing the representative for the Ontario Farm Animal Council claim that smaller farm operations were essentially backwards and unable to feed us so we must dismiss them in favour of much larger operations.

The vet, involved in avian animal health, even made the claim that large farms are professional, the clear implication being that smaller farm operations are unprofessional.

As a specialist in poultry health it was alarming to hear completely spurious claims around different production methods – the claim that free range chickens, for example, are all disease ridden, injury prone, bacteria shedding death traps would be News to our flocks of chickens.

From the so sad it is funny file, a visit to the OFAC website reveals lots of bucolic pictures playing up the mental image of the small farm.

So while the OFAC representative was disparaging small farmers she is also supposed to represent, her organization is using their images to promote its work.

OFAC made the completely invalid claim that small farms cannot feed enough people – the implication being that larger farms are somehow preferable. That is a completely nonsense argument. We have a finite amount of land in Ontario – it can only support so much animal and plant farming. Whether that food production is spread out on many farms or on a few large farms makes no difference from a production standpoint. Many smaller farmers support the broader economy and communities better; a few larger farms can serve food distribution in terms of efficiency.

As Ontarians, we have the luxury and duty to determine what we value most and shape our food system from there, but time is running out. I know this might be a controversial statement, but small farm operations are neither inherently good nor bad, nor are large locally centred farm operations. 

In my time in the National Farmers Union, I have had the honour of working with NFU farm families that operate very large farm operations, and farm­ers that operate very small farms.  What distinguishes a good farmer is not the size of the family’s operation but the stewardship of the food they are growing. People trying to speak for farmers that disparage one farmer to promote the other are helping no one.

Grant Robertson is the senior elected official with the National Farmers Union-Ontario. As Ontario Coordi­na­tor Robertson is also a National Board Member of the NFU. Grant and his family farm near Paisley, Ontario. The author can be contacted at