Older but not entirely growed up
As any perceptive reader will have deduced, from a glance at the cover, this is the anniversary issue of Rural Delivery. Are we having a mid-life crisis? Certainly not! But we are taking a moment to reflect on where we have come from (or “on whence we have come,” as grammarians would have it).
This magazine first rolled off the presses in June of 1976, and it has continued rolling ever since. For family farms that have successfully passed from generation to generation, that may not seem like such a long time ago. But in some respects, it was a different age. Elvis was still alive. So was John Diefenbaker. So were Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Bing Crosby. No one was carrying pictures of Chairman Mao anymore, but he was still kicking.
Gasoline was still sold by the gallon, but the leaded stuff was being phased out, and the concept of fuel efficiency was starting to catch on. It was the heyday of the Ford Pinto – perhaps an early harbinger of that company’s recent retreat from the car sector. In 1976 Alistair MacLeod published his first story collection, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, bringing a Maritime vision to a wider audience. But it was Marian Engel, the first chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada, who won the Governor General’s Award, for her weird and racy book, Bear. There were 338,578 farms in Canada at that time. (Now there are about 193,000.)
Rural Delivery has always had an interest in agricultural tradition – a profound respect for the skills and knowledge and determination that went into producing food when farmers used far fewer purchased inputs than they do today, and when farming played a more central role in society. Were things better back then? That’s not a useful line of enquiry. Nostalgia is a sticky treat that should only be consumed in moderation. Rural Delivery has always been forward-looking, though it has resisted being carried along in one direction by the momentum of the pack.
An abiding concern for community has been one of this magazine’s defining characteristics – balanced by an independent streak, and a healthy dose of skepticism. There has also been, from the beginning, a sense of fun. And above all, a sense of curiosity.
These are human traits, directly traceable to Dirk van Loon, the founder and emeritus publisher of Rural Delivery – and they account for the fact that Dirk was in the first batch of inductees to the new Atlantic Journalism Hall of Fame. At a schmancy Atlantic Journalism Awards dinner in Halifax this spring, he was honoured alongside recently retired CBC Radio broadcaster Don Connolly; Jim and Linda Gourlay, of Saltscapes magazine; and Maurice Rees, another print veteran, now publisher of the Shoreline Journal. (Aleta Williams, the first African Nova Scotian woman to work in the province’s mainstream journalism industry, was inducted posthumously for her 40 years with the New Glasgow Evening News.)
Dirk – who contributes the “Pot Luck” column in every issue, as he has done from the start – is not one to honk his own horn, but he is a big booster for print media, and that’s the horn he honked in his brief but eloquent remarks at the awards ceremony. The audience responded with great enthusiasm when he uttered the words, “Print is not dead!”
Not dead? In the scope of human history, print isn’t even that old! Johannes Gutenberg, the clever German blacksmith who introduced moveable type to the Western world, has only been in the ground for 550 years. (The Chinese, however, had figured out the fundamentals of printing technology a few centuries earlier.)
Well into the 1990s we were still firing up the hot wax machine and pasting down the pages of Rural Delivery by hand. Eventually we started using colour photos, and a few readers complained that we had sold out. You can’t please everyone. But as we continue to make little changes year by year, we are always aware that staying true to one’s roots is a virtue.
In the interest of staying true to this magazine’s early horticultural vision, we launched our “Garden Gleanings” column a couple months ago. And in this issue we are introducing a new beekeeping column called “Droning On,” with the intention of running it in alternate months. There seems to be increased interest in bees these days, and I don’t think it’s just a fad. It’s a reflection of people’s desire to better understand, and connect with, the world around them. Apiculture is an art and a science, encompassing natural history as well as some of the principles of livestock husbandry. Even if you do not aspire to keep hives in your backyard, you can learn a lot by talking to a beekeeper. In this inaugural column, your guide is Micheal Magnini, who operates Scotch Lake Apiaries and Midgard Meadery in Cape Breton’s Barrachois Hills.
June RD is also our annual dairy issue, which means we have some extra coverage of this sector, along with the usual (i.e., unusual) mixture of content. Looking back at stats from 1976, we see there were 72,500 dairy farms in Canada, whereas now there are fewer than 11,000 – roughly half of them in Quebec. At one time practically every rural household was a milk producer, in some fashion. Now it is very much a profession, and a relatively uncommon one. Today there are far more dentists than dairy farmers in this country. For every dairy farmer, we now have about 10 lawyers. (Seems like there should be a punch line here, but I’ve got nothing.)
Arguably, this is just part of the concentration of capital that has occurred throughout our economy over the past generation. Whatever your views on dairy consolidation, the state of the industry is a matter of public interest. Apart from the economics, some of the scientific, culinary, and historical angles on this sector are fascinating. I recently heard U.S. author Mark Kurlansky interviewed on the radio about his new book Milk! A 10,000 Year Food Fracas. Sounds like it might be a good read. Kurlansky talked about the various kinds of milk produced in different cultures, such as camel’s milk and yak’s milk, and he expressed his own preference for sheep’s milk cheeses – perhaps like some of the varieties made by La Bergerie aux 4 Vents, the New Brunswick fromagerie featured on pg. 14.
I was recently offered a sample of mare’s milk – from a certified organic herd of Percherons, no less. Not bad on the palate, but definitely no improvement over the milk of ruminants. I believe some true believers take small doses as a daily tonic, and other people use it in skin creams and soaps. What do you think? Is there room for more niche dairy products on the market? Can we draw a parallel with the burgeoning craft beer industry?
On that note, a final thought. I have been reading a recent report called “Import Replacement: Local Prosperity for Rural Atlantic Canada,” which says this region has a 40 percent rate of economic “leakage” – meaning that for every dollar we spend, 40 cents instantly drains away to somewhere else. The authors claim that by replacing some of those imports – by achieving a mere 10 percent shift to local goods and services – the Atlantic provinces could gain more than 43,000 new jobs, $2.6 billion in new wages, and $219 million in new tax revenue. I should probably read the fine print, but the concept is sound. We’ll get back to you on this. DL