Characterizing our dairy supply management program as “a scheme” without a strategy beyond protectionism, Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, of Dalhousie University, has suggested in a widely published commentary (including in Canadian Grocer and the Chronicle Herald) that President Trump might be in a position to trigger a necessary “complete overhaul.”
Charlebois came from Guelph, appointed last year in what was described by Dal president Richard Florizone, in a press release at the time, as “a cross-appointment as professor with tenure in the Faculty of Management and the Faculty of Agriculture.”
The old Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Bible Hill must be shuddering in its bricks at the idea of public criticism of supply management coming from within the ranks. Prior to becoming part of Dalhousie, the AC was conjoined with the N.S. Department of Agriculture. Faculty had civil service protection, which is pretty solid, but not like tenure. Charlebois can stir the pot without fear.
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” was one dairy farmer’s response to the commentary. That’s with regard to what dairy supply management does, why it does it, and with what for strategy. On the other hand, this same farmer – who, when not pulling teats, is close to the political scene – likely would be in agreement with Charlebois’s opinion that the new President Trump will play hard ball with Trudeau on trade.
In the dairyman’s opinion, talks will go something like: “He (Trudeau) is going to go to Trump and say we want to send our lumber and beef and hogs and wheat and barley, and he’ll say, ‘You can go pound sand.’” In this farmer’s view, supply management (not just dairy) and a lot more could be on the block. Auction block or chopping block? Anyone want to step into Justin’s shoes? The view from here is that dairy supply management protects a market, but does not prevent farmers from gobbling each other up, which in a democracy is crazy. When you are the last farmer on your road, who’s going to vote with you when supply management comes up for review? Who’s going to help keep your neighbourhood farm supply store open, keep your equipment dealer in business, or share a pew in the local church?
Mike McCloskey likely does not care a whit if his neighbour milks cows or moves to the unemployment line in the nearest city. The fellow, written up in a recent issue of National Public Radio’s on-line Weekend Edition, has a herd of 15,000 cows in Indiana (equal to roughly a quarter of the entire dairy herd in Atlantic Canada), and is expanding into Puerto Rico. “In recent decades, most big-time dairy farms have come to rely on workers from Mexico,” Dan Charles writes in his story about the man christened in the headline as “The Master of Milk.” This gives McCloskey an edge. Having lived in Mexico he is fluent in both language and culture.
Which brings us around to agriculture or any sector of a nation’s economy that relies on off-shore labour. Not so many years ago, we in North America were disdainful of Saudi Arabians who imported muscle from neighbouring states because they were “too good” for manual labour. Look at us now.
There is a direct link between farm size and the need to import workers. The larger the farm the more there are routine jobs that require employees to shut their brains and devote themselves to doing one thing all day, every day, week after week. No wonder it becomes increasingly difficult to find local workers. If you’ve family and friends, and are involved in your community, you’re not so ready to park that full life. Leave mind-numbing jobs to foreign workers prepared to put pleasure and fullness aside for stints in a far-off land. Relative poverty is a great incentive.
The owner of larger farms – larger the better – has the immeasurable pleasure of variety in his or her tasks. The old saying that variety is the spice of life should never be forgotten or downplayed. So what is to be done? Let’s see, this routine job: couldn’t a clever engineer figure a way to automate it? Sure. We can do this job quicker and cheaper with a robot. Of course robots don’t come cheap, but then again they don’t require vacation pay or sick days. And with automation we can produce more and grab a larger share of the market. We best get on it, though, because soon others will automate and there will be a glut of product and the wholesale price will come down and we will have to find another robot.
In a report in early February published in Canadian Manufacturing, Dominic Barton, head of an economic growth advisory council in Ottawa, said about 40 percent of existing Canadian jobs will disappear over the next decade or so due to automation. Similar reports have been stacking up across the U.S. and Canada, going back a couple of years.
There is more to it than lost jobs. Lost dignity and diminished sense of worth come with mindless work and redundancy. That we are becoming nations of doers rather than makers gets a good airing in Wendell Berry’s A Defense of the Family Farm. He quotes the late designer-craftsman Eric Gill describing “the degradation of the mind” that results from a shift from making to doing. Writes Berry, “This degradation of the mind cannot, of course, be without consequences.... When workers’ minds are degraded by loss of responsibility for what is being made, they cannot use judgement; they have no use for their critical faculties; they have no occasions for the exercise of workmanship, of workmanly pride.”
It is difficult to stop quoting this fine essay published in 2008. It’s part of a collection titled Bringing It to the Table, available at your good book store or on-line. We should, and will, add it to our list of books on offer from Rurallife.ca.
For what may come across as a total non sequitur, we look forward to seeing you at the Farm Mechanization Show in Moncton, March 9-11. The show promises lots to see and more exhibitors than in previous years. Just keep in mind, when eyeballing that robotic milker, that you would have one so you can diversify rather than covet your neighbour’s herd in an effort to stay solvent. Drop by either of two booths serving visitors with information and offering “Show Special” subscriptions to our magazines and to our Farm Focus commodity newspaper.
Best to all, DvL.