Bean There: Fairness & Generosity

“I‘ve been telling you for years your prices are too low!” My daughter was cross. I love her dearly but there are times when I wish she weren’t quite so adept at scolding me. Don’t know where she learned that skill.

She wasn’t wrong. One of the downsides of being so closely connected to my customers is the reluctance to ask high prices from people I consider friends. That is not even a bad impulse. I often think we are asked to pay inflated prices for what should be basic, healthy food. I personally don’t think eating well should be the purview solely of the well-to-do. Surely the right to access good food should belong to everyone. I guess I could make up my income from selling high-end, chi-chi goods to wealthy foodies – and there may be a place for that, I do admit – but I am a more proletarian kind of girl, thanks to my Scots Presbyterian roots. One friend suggested I get on the marijuana bandwagon as a way to increase the cashflow. Though I think I would be able to produce it as well as any of the other plants I grow, I am committed to food, not pharmaceuticals.

Marie Doucet feeding the cows at her farm in Cape St. Mary, 1950. (Photo by John Collier Jr. Reference no.: Alexander H. Leighton Nova Scotia Archives accession 1988-413 / negative: 2504-d)

Marie Doucet feeding the cows at her farm in Cape St. Mary, 1950. (Photo by John Collier Jr. Reference no.: Alexander H. Leighton Nova Scotia Archives accession 1988-413 / negative: 2504-d) Click to enlarge.

I feel strongly about both friendship and community and often place a higher priority on both rather than my bottom line. When in doubt, feed the hungry and the lonely. And my community doesn’t stop at the Canso Causeway. I try to use local and regional as well as organic ingredients and only purchase the much more expensive Fair Trade sugar and chocolate for my specialty baking. Neither do I rely on free or volunteer labor on my farm, despite offers from eager supporters. Using free labor to deal with farm production instead of paying someone a decent wage in the rural economy is something I will not do if I can help it. I prefer to barter or trade work hours within the community instead.

In fact, the rural economy is based on the idea of reciprocity. I once went to a presentation by the Department of Agriculture in which they talked at length about the importance of social capital.

“What do they mean?” whispered my neighbor across the table.

“It’s just how we share equipment and help each other during haymaking,” I whispered back.

“Why don’t they say so?” he grumbled.

 

Farmers as a group are well aware of the importance of community, keeping small halls and rinks operating and volunteer fire departments staffed. There is now a tax credit for farmers who donate produce to food banks – but they were doing it before the government noticed it was a thing. A few farmers in my area have a special relationship with a women’s co-operative in Kenya and can often be seen selling the beautiful handcrafts these women produce to raise cash for their operations. There are limits, though. I keep trying to get the local Federation chapter to serve Fair trade coffee at their meetings and for the 4-H Club to stop their sale of industrial chocolate. If we want to be paid fairly as farmers, we surely need to pay other farmers fairly ourselves. The cocoa industry in particular is notorious for its use of child and slave labor. Additionally, many farming operations use a migrant labor force here at home. Abuse may be rare, one would hope, but it does exist, and many young farm workers toil in unsafe and poorly paid conditions. If I can’t manage farm production without undervaluing others’ labor I need to re-examine my production model.

As well, in my missionary zeal around good healthy food and seed-saving, I charge too little, or mostly not at all, for people tapping the huge store of knowledge I have accumulated over the last 35 years. Since I myself was freely given time and knowledge by Gaelic elders and other tradition bearers, that is not a faulty impulse either. I try to use a sliding scale. Larger institutions with money pay the full rate, but there are so many small groups and schools that do their best just to cover my gas money. Those that can, give more, the rest I try to accommodate as well as I can. There is also irony in my discovery that many people do not value what they do not pay for. I have been invited to speak without pay at events where other speakers were being paid handsomely. Perhaps the organizers assumed that since I’ve done so much for free, I would continue to do so indefinitely. It stings to have my expertise discounted but should I really start charging those little community gardens and food banks, so much in need, to feed my own ego? My own moral compass says not.

Woman farmer, Quinan, Yarmouth County, NS. (Clara Dennis Nova Scotia Archives accession 1983-468 no. 82)

Woman farmer, Quinan, Yarmouth County, NS. (Clara Dennis Nova Scotia Archives accession 1983-468 no. 82) Click to enlarge.

My conscience is as clear as I can make it. But can I keep a clear conscience and make a living at the same time? Mostly the answer is yes, but I and many other small farmers perpetually leave too little wiggle room in our budgets for unexpected expenses or disasters. By dint of working long hours and having a lot of irons in the fire, I do alright, but it occasionally comes at a cost of stress and anxiety.

So here I am, admitting I have a problem. In fairness, my situation is exacerbated by being a single, female farmer. It is undeniably harder for a woman to get taken seriously for loans or credit. Without a domestic partner to back me up with either labor or income, it becomes nearly impossible, which is a serious barrier to expanding or improving operations – or even getting a new vehicle so I can continue earning a living without worrying about that shaky front end.

The credit union values farmland but undervalues self-employment. The banks know how to value my work but want hard collateral, not land. Pigs, sheep and chickens are not considered liquid assets (tell me that again when the spring rains flood the manure pile). The provincially-run Farm Loan Board and its federal counterpart, Farm Credit Canada, are supposed to fill the gap, but neither are really set up for managing the finances of small operations and the Farm Loan Board still has a male-farmer-dominated culture.

I have tried in the past to be creative about raising money for capital expenses like the tractor by selling farmshares which could be cashed out for the purchaser’s choice of goods from the farm. A certain doctor wanted his share all in maple sticky buns until his wife vetoed that in favor of more balanced fare. By now, nearly everyone has cashed in their share with satisfaction all round, although some seemed surprised that it was a genuine offer of exchange as a business proposition, not a request for charity. But at this point, I no longer want to invest in new infrastructure; I need to be planning for easier projects like how to farm into old age. I’m not there yet, but the day will come, and the car will eventually give out.

 

This balancing act is not simply one of age and gender, though. Most farmers have a second income from either a spouse or their own labor. It is thanks to the BSE crisis and the desperation of the beef farmers that we have such good school bus drivers here in Inverness County. Lots of spouses support their partner’s dairy farming habits with a job in town. It doesn’t seem right that consumers often squawk about high prices while the farmer’s labor is subsidized in this way. It is well documented that the farmer’s share of a frozen, processed shepherd’s pie is minute compared to the profits of the grocery giant that sells it. I have a friend born and brought up in Dominica who still has trouble with the idea of food being prepared for you by strangers thousands of miles away.

Mrs Payzant, 1971. (Helen Creighton Nova Scotia Archives Album 11 no. 219)

Mrs Payzant, 1971. (Helen Creighton Nova Scotia Archives Album 11 no. 219) Click to enlarge.

Selling direct to consumers is a way around the wholesale pricing trap, but it comes at a cost of time and energy, never mind having to follow a regulatory framework geared to large-scale industry. And a significant portion of that time and energy is spent deciding what is a fair price. I have noted before that some beginning young farmers ask inflated prices to subsidize their learning curve. Good for them, if they can get such prices, but as the market expands and they compete with other growers, the prices will have to come down.

I used to grow lovely salad greens and charged a good price for a bag, but when other gardeners began flooding the market with similar bags, I moved on to other, more profitable avenues, keeping just a small line of greens for committed customers. You have to be nimble in this game and competition is healthy for that. It is what keeps it interesting, but I can see the frustration as the new kids try to hone their skills and earn a living at the same time. No wonder it’s more easily done in pairs, with one partner working a cash-paying, off-farm job. It’s what I did on my own, too, for many years, until I was reasonably certain the farm alone could support me. But time working away from the farm means scrambling to catch up, if you want to farm properly and profitably. Back to that stress and anxiety again. It is a marvelous juggling act when I get it to work. It is a recipe for disaster if I miscalculate or the season or weather turns bad. Is farming a vocation or a business? In my world, it has to be a bit of both.

How do I achieve that delicate balance of just prices and fair value for my labor while acting in the generous spirit of all the people that taught me over the years? Generosity has to be tempered by the need to earn enough money not to bite nails to the quick every time a car repair is needed or I have to take time off for sickness or family obligations. I might even need a holiday once in a while — one that isn’t work-related, like a board meeting or conference. Even just a day at the beach would do. “Summer-time, and the livin’ is easy” was not written with farmers in mind, but even a tough old boot like myself has her limits. I can’t imagine doing anything else. If I am not a farmer, who am I? I love what I do. But though I may have to work till I die, the pension plan being what it is, I don’t want to die from work.

My prices will go up, more than I am really comfortable with but less than my daughter would like. I know my customer friends well and they will continue to support me. I only wish we lived with a food system that rewarded everyone fairly for their labor, small producer or industry giant. A system that nourishes everyone with good healthy food, instead of scrabbling for the cheapest calories to feed the hungry. It is a time of year when food banks and soup kitchens are sadly at their busiest, not least because they can count on our generosity more than at other times. I donate to them myself, even while I despair at the necessity of their existence. To my mind, a fairer world would have less need for gestures of generosity. But until that world comes, we have to trust our hearts to fill the gap.

 

 

 

Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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