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July/Aug 2004 – Will Someone Open A Window?

The first issue of Small Farm Canada couldn’t have been on newsstands for a more than a day when Dan called on his cell phone. He had picked up a copy in Waterloo and read it while his boys were in swimming lessons. Now, driving back to the farm, he wanted to ask a question. I could hear the kids in the background. It sounded like they were eating potato chips. “I like the magazine,” Dan said, “but what kind of farmer do you support?”

“Kind?” I said, thinking: Big? Small? Family? Corporate?

He clarified: “There are two kinds of farmer. Those who snivel every time a mall goes up on farmland, and those who fart in meetings. Which is your magazine for?”

And I thought journalists asked tough questions. I told Dan that while his question deserved further consideration, the magazine’s policies favoured farmland and open windows.

When Small Farm Canada was launched I believed agriculture was complex, with more shades of opinion than there are greens in a field of wind-combed wheat.

Wrong.

As we are discovering, for some people it’s a toggle-switch world of either/ors; either you’re an organic farmer harmonizing with the soil or you’re a chemical company groupie who slathers on herbicides in reckless disregard for biodiversity; either you’re a real farmer, with a 300-horsepower tractor, or you’re an irritating hobby farmer on a ride-on lawn mower; either you’re a business-minded producer with an eye on the spreadsheet or you’re a stinking hippie with your hand on a nickel bag of Sudbury Gold. It’s good guys, bad guys and a middle ground you could measure with a micrometer.

Who knew farming was so simple?

I don’t buy any of it. Ramming people into simplistic categories creates divisions where they don’t always exist and it forces people into unholy alliances.

Case in point: Percy Schmeiser and Monsanto Canada. Even though the Supreme Court of Canada found the Saskatchewan farmer guilty of patent infringement for growing Roundup Ready canola (containing a Monsanto-developed gene) on his Saskatchewan farm, he still has a cadre of followers who, if they don?t worship him, are extremely fond of the ground upon which he strides. Either you are for ?Percy? (like he was everyone?s favourite uncle) or you are a lackey of Monsanto Canada (as if they held the mortgage on your farm).

I am 100 per cent in favour of a farmer’s right to save seed, and I am 100 per cent certain that what’s good for Monsanto’s shareholders is not good for Canada’s small farmers. Yet there is much to be uncomfortable with about Schmeiser—he’s too deft at the aw-shucks celebrity and deficient in sincerity. And his claim—that Roundup Ready canola somehow seeded itself in his fields, perhaps from passing trucks—is beyond belief. Certainly the Supreme Court thought so. As the justices wrote, Schmeiser never did:
“[E]xplain why he sprayed Roundup to isolate the Roundup Ready plants he found on his land; why he then harvested the plants and segregated the seeds, saved them, and kept them for seed; why he next planted them; and why, through this husbandry, he ended up with 1030 acres of Roundup Ready Canola which would otherwise have cost him $15,000.”

I know a farmer?s right to grow and keep seed is important, but if in our rush to categorize good versus bad in this or any other agriculture debate we ignore the overriding requirements of truth and honesty, we’ll be guilty of an even more serious crime.