By Brian Low
Farmers are an interesting lot. Most of them (on the prairies at least), subscribe strongly to right-wing politics. They support the Ralph Kleins and Mike Harrises of the nation. They wish they could still store loaded weapons on the rear window of their pick-up trucks. They don’t even blink when you talk about privatizing health care. Yet, when it comes to grain and hog subsidies, farmers back right off of that right-wing-free-market-laissez-faire stance.
For more than a week, farmers have camped out in front of the Saskatchewan Provincial Legislature. During the night, they sleep in the cafeteria. During the day, they protest wherever they can find an audience. The sit-in is meant to convince the Saskatchewan government to increase its subsidies to the rural agriculture industry, which floundered in the face of foreign farm subsidies, low livestock prices and a world grain surplus. This means increasing difficulty in keeping the family farm, if you have any inclination of, say, feeding your family. The farmers are united and vociferous in their conviction that it is up to the government to bail them out this crisis. One determined lady has even started a hunger strike to press the point.
Arguments abound as to why all the non-farmers of Canada should support the plight of those in the agriculture industry. They mostly centre on the following points: farming is a valuable and historic way of life; farmers from other countries receive subsidies; and Canada has an interest in maintaining agricultural self-sufficiency. Each one of the arguments has a few holes in it.
Farming is indeed a historic industry. Farmers have made an invaluable contribution to Canadian history and society. Had it not been for them, Canada couldn’t have expanded as it did, couldn’t have met the needs of its growing population, and could never have been as successful. But the same goes for fur traders, and gold panners, and railway builders. The only difference is that those industries went the way of the dodo long before it became standard practice to look to the government for handouts every time life got difficult. Farming is a unique and historically valuable industry, but keeping the past alive at the expense of the future has never been a good policy.
It is also very true that farmers in other countries receive huge subsidies. This, in fact, is much of the reason that our farmers have such a difficult time competing in the global economy. So the playing field isn’t fair–was it ever? It may be unfortunate that Canadian farmers are uncompetitive largely due to the spending proclivities of foreign governments, but if farming is no longer a profitable way of life, then maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. There is no shortage of work in other areas that can and do compete on a global scale. The fact that everyone insists upon subsidizing the traditional rural lifestyle at great cost still doesn’t make it good policy for us to do so.
Depending on your view of national security, it may be reasonable to say that Canada has an interest in maintaining an independent food supply, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. The real issue is that the family farm is no longer able to break even. The truth is, even if the family farm becomes a byword and an anachronism, Canada’s sovereign food supply will not be at risk. So we will still be able to feed ourselves when the rest of the world colludes to starve us out. Phew!
So the position of the farmers is clear: they want more money. Less clear is exactly why anyone should care. Last time I checked, Canada still had a quasi-capitalist economy. In this sort of economic Darwinism, when an industry becomes unprofitable, it is up to those involved to recognize it and get out, ASAP. Unless the farmers are advocating a sort of extreme-rural-protectionist brand of socialism for all (which they’re not), they need to take responsibility for their own economic futures. This means diversification, finding new markets, or simply getting out of the business. It doesn’t mean starving yourself until the government finds the money to subsidize an unprofitable lifestyle. It is simply not up to everyone else to throw money at the dream to keep it alive.