Myths and Fear: a farmer’s thoughts on promoting Canadian milk

Remember when Subway announced they were going to start sourcing antibiotic free meat? I was scrolling through my old blog posts the other day and came across a piece I had written then. I had been feeling so discouraged at the animosity that move brought out – between farmers!

Unfortunately, this feeling of competition and rivalry has not abated. In fact, the new trade agreement has seemed to acerbate the divide between farmers – especially between American and Canadian dairy farmers. This is why:

Canadian farmers and consumers’ claims of American cows pumped full of hormones and antibiotics are not accurate. Yes, some American farmers use artificial growth hormones on their dairy cattle to stimulate milk production. However, only a small percentage do — and these accusations that American milk is full of hormones are rather baseless. Additionally, American farms face the same penalties we do should antibiotic residues be found in their milk. We’ve interacted with so many American farmers over the years, farmers who farm because they love their cows, their land, their way of life. Family farmers just like us. We are more alike than we are different; this love for dairy farming should be what pulls us together, not what drives us apart. Yes, a share of our Canadian market has once again been given up to foreign imports by this trade agreement. This trade agreement will do

very little to ease the woes for our neighbours to the south but it WILL have a very real, very negative effect on our Canadian dairy industry. It scares us too! Still, I’ve seen just a few too many posts claiming that American milk is garbage. It’s just not fair to our neighbours to the south who work so hard for so little. I hope we can share our concerns about the impact of this trade deal without resorting to fear mongering about the milk produced by farmers just like us.

Instead, why don’t we encourage Canadian consumers to continue to buy Canadian by sharing the benefits of buying local milk? It benefits our Canadian economy, first of all. It’s produced by Canadians, for Canadians. That’s awesome! Additionally, we are so proud of our national quality, safety, traceability, and animal welfare standard – the ProAction Initiative. This program is extremely comprehensive and ensures that the milk our consumers purchase is top quality and is produced by happy, well cared for cows. That’s definitely something to celebrate!

Let’s put a face on Canadian dairy farming. Instead of sharing articles or social media posts that promote fear based marketing, maybe share a photo of your cows or your farm, and explain how you are so proud to produce food for your fellow citizens. Remember that our neighbours to the south are farmers just like us. They too face the same fears and hardships that we do, probably more so given the dismal milk prices there the past several years. Denigrating the work they do is not the answer here. Will you join us in attempting to stop the spread of fear simply by sharing your love for your farm, your cows, and your work doing what you love best? I think that if this were to happen, we’d all win – farmers (yes, both Canadian and American!) and consumers alike.

If you’d like to read more of our thoughts on farmer rivalry and fear marketing, check out this link:

https://inuddernews.com/2015/10/22/the-subway-saga-my-thoughts-on-marketing-and-farmer-rivalry/

A Canadian Dairy Farmer’s First Impressions of #USMCA

Disappointment and worry. That’s what dairy farmers across Canada are feeling this morning.

In case you missed it, a new NAFTA agreement was signed last night. Now called USMCA – The US Mexico Canada Agreement – this new trade deal has given away more access to our dairy market to our foreign trading partners: 3.59% of our market and forcing changes to the way we price certain classes of milk. This access and changes are more significant than what was given away in the last trade agreement – the CPTPP – and therein lies much of the sting.

Our prime minister and negotiators had promised our dairy farmers that they would defend supply management. But this doesn’t look or feel like a defence of our industry, this is another erosion of the stability of our industry and it’s a kick in the teeth to our nation’s dairy farmers. This feels like a death by a thousand cuts. Recent years have seen significant erosion of our market, with domestic milk giving place to foreign imports on our local store shelves. Both CETA and the CPTPP carved out significant chunks of our market. Under the original TPP, the US also had been given additional access to our markets (3.25%) but when Trump pulled the USA out, that access was lost. But rather than standing firm and perhaps offering a smaller percentage based on that fact, our government caved and offered up more to one country than it had given to a collection of foreign interests in both the CETA and CPTPP agreements.

It’s very frustrating. This access will not significantly help American dairy producers who have been overproducing such huge amounts of milk – 3 states alone produce enough excess milk every day to supply all Ontario consumers – that this access to our market will literally be just a drop in the bucket to them and won’t significantly ease their dairy woes. On the other hand, it’s a heavy blow to our Canadian farmers and our industry. Each foreign dairy product on store shelves displaces dairy produced here in Canada, by Canadian farmers for Canadian consumers. This affects Canadian jobs and the livelihood of our farmers and their families. Our farmers have paid for the ability to produce that milk and now another portion of that has just been given away, and for what? To appease Trump and help his re-election chances now that he can claim a win for dairy producing states?

I know that our industry and our farmers will be spending the coming days and weeks determining the impact to our sector. The impact at the farm level remains to be seen but we will be forced to tighten our belts still further, that much is sure.

In the meantime (and I know that this question will be asked frequently in the coming time) our loyal Canadian consumers can continue to support their Canadian farmers by purchasing dairy products labeled with the little blue cow. Your support is always most appreciated, and now will be more important than ever.

Back off, Trump!

Trade war. Sounds scary. And it is. As a Canadian dairy farmer, my farm and family is directly in the crosshairs in this fight. That cold sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs has returned yet again as we wait to hear what the future holds for us. Will we survive this latest attack on our livelihood? Will scenes like this soon only be a memory in rural Canada?

President Trump’s latest tirade against our country’s dairy supply management system and his demands to dismantle said system are frankly quite frightening. But what is most frustrating is the lack of background or real facts in his claims of unfair trade practices in dairy between the US in Canada.

Supply management means that our Canadian dairy farms produce enough milk for Canadian consumers. In order to keep this balance between demand and supply, our government has trade barriers in place in the form of tariffs on dairy imports. Foreign countries are able to import milk to Canada, but they will be charged a high tariff (up to 300%). This cost is often prohibitive to imports and so Canadian processors usually rely on domestic dairy supply. But… Canada does allow some tariff free imports – about 10%. This percentage has been increasing in recent years; CETA and the new TPP have whittled away a sizeable chunk of our dairy market. But get this: this 10% is more than double the amount that the USA allows. Say what??? Yes, you read that correctly. The US caps tariff free imports at about 2.75%. So, the US ALSO protects their dairy industry. Ironic, huh? Yet, President Trump has attacked our system. You see, American dairy farmers are in dire straits. They produce much much more milk than is needed in the States and export a rather significant percentage to other countries, Canada included. The global dairy market is saturated, there’s simply too much milk. This has driven the price paid to American farmers below the cost of production, pushing many farms out of business. It’s understandable then that Trump would look for ways to alleviate these problems. But expecting entirely free dairy trade with Canada to fix this problem is ludicrous. With a population 1/10th the size of the States’, our market is too small to make a very significant dent in their current surplus. Wisconsin alone produces more milk than all Canadian farms combined. The US needs to manage their own issues with over supply rather than expecting us to fix their problems. Our own farmers do a fine job of supplying our citizens with dairy products, thank you very much.

And if the border were opened, what would be the cost? Our current system ensures a fair price paid to farmers that covers the cost of production. American dairy farms are already producing milk at a loss, and Canadian farms would soon follow suit. Small farms unable to compete with the economies of scale present on mega dairies with tens of thousands of cows would be the first to go. Farms like ours. Family farms. Our rural fabric would be forever changed. Is that what Canadians want?

If you want the dairy products you enjoy to be produced on Canadian farms, under the strictest animal welfare, milk quality and food safety standards in the world, it’s time to speak up. Let your elected officials know that your Canadian dairy products and dairy farmers are important to you. Reach out to your MP. Send an email to the Prime Minister’s office. Do anything you can to encourage our government to stand firm, to not give in to Trump’s bullying tactics. If they don’t, this photo may one day be one of the only reminders of the farms that used to dot our countryside. Let’s work together to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The New and Un-Improved TPP: A Canadian dairy farmer’s perspective

Disheartening news for the Canadian dairy industry today…

You may recall our repetitive posts about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement negotiations 2.5 – 3 years ago. At the conclusion of those negotiations, our government gave up a rather hefty chunk of our dairy market. It was sobering news then, even with the promised renumeration package. When President Trump refused to ratify the trade agreement and pulled the USA out of the agreement altogether, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. The US accounted for 60% of the collective Gross Domestic Product of the countries involved in the trade agreement; it seemed unlikely that the deal would go any further. Still, Canada resumed negotiations with the remaining countries. These negotiations flew slightly under our radar what with the much louder rhetoric surrounding the NAFTA re-negotiations capturing most of our attention and worried speculation.

However, today I was shocked to read a press release from Dairy Farmers of Canada revealing that our government has agreed to give up the same amount of market access concessions as it had previously – when the USA was still a part of the trade deal! In other words, more foreign milk will flow into Canada tarriff free. Our Canadian supply managed system balances supply and demand, and so increased supply from foreign sources will result in our Canadian farmers being forced to decrease production and therefore farm revenue will also fall. Not a pretty picture!

Honestly, I’m upset. With the loss of the largest negotiator calling for increased access to our dairy market, our government should have worked harder to scale back the access granted in the first TPP agreement. Does our government not value the 221 000 jobs that depend on our dairy sector? Our government has reiterated their support for a strong and vibrant dairy industry. This doesn’t look like support to me. It looks more like they’re throwing our country’s hardworking farmers to the wolves.

What will this mean for our country’s dairy industry? Will the compensation package promised with the original TPP concessions still be on the table? Or will our farmers be forced to bear the brunt of yet another blow to one of the pillars integral to the stability of our industry? What will the future look like for our industry, our farm, our family? Will our aspiring little farmers ever realize their dream? If this market concession is any indication of the value our government places on our industry, I shudder to think what the NAFTA negotiations may hold for us. Sobering times, my friends.

https://www.dairyfarmers.ca/news-centre/news/policy/dairy-farmers-of-canada-reacts-to-reports-regarding-the-revised-cptpp-agreement?utm_campaign=DFC18&utm_medium=SP&utm_source=FB&utm_content=lK

Supply Management IV: will new NAFTA be our nemesis? 

Some of you have been asking for our thoughts on the latest news coming out of the NAFTA negotiations. And honestly? I’ve been too disheartened to even write about it. We’re scared. Scared about our futures, scared about our children’s futures. As relatively new additions to the dairy industry – we’ve been dairying for less than 15 years, only 6.5 years on our own – we carry a massive debt load. That’s all fine and dandy under the stability of our supply management system, and it should be paid off before our children would potentially take over the reins of the family farm. However, should that stability vanish, as the latest US demands for the abolishment of our entire system would entail, our farm would very possibly cease to exist. 

And why? Our system ensures a stable, fair price for farmers. It also has meant that consumers – and we’re consumers too! – have paid a competitive, fair price for dairy products in the grocery stores. It has allowed Canadian farmers to develop a top notch program that ensures that our dairy farms are held to the highest milk quality, food safety, and animal welfare standards in the world. Our system has helped hundreds of young and not-so-young dairymen and women get a leg up into the industry through various provincial new entrant programs. There are so many benefits to our system! Is it perfect? No! But it’s always changing and adapting to new situations. And quite frankly, it’s the best system out there. Around the world, dairy farmers are struggling to make ends meet. In New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Europe, and the USA dairy farmers are exiting the industry in droves, no longer able to keep their farms afloat after sustained low global milk prices. 

So why attack our industry? It doesn’t make sense to me. The world is awash in a glut of milk. Farmers around the world have been producing more and more milk, all just trying to make ends meet. But now there’s a huge over-supply. Canada’s market look mighty attractive; a good place to dump that excess. But that won’t solve the problem! With only 30 million consumers, 10x LESS than the US, our market would quickly be saturated with this foreign milk, and the problem would still be there. Except now, our small Canadian family farms would be forced out of business, unable to compete with the glut of milk pouring over the border at abnormally low prices. Our complete rural fabric would be torn apart. It’s not just the farmers who would suffer; it would be the feed companies, the veterinarians, the dairy supply companies. In short, it would mean large scale devastation of many rural communities. Instead, these governments eyeing up and demanding the end of our system should fix their problems at home. Manage your supply. There’s no need to over-produce; it’s just plain wasteful and it’s detrimental to the global dairy industry. When supply and demand are balanced, we all win: farmers, consumers, governments, and national economies. 

We’ll be watching the next NAFTA negotiation rounds with bated breath. We are most definitely thankful that so far our government has been vocal about their determination to protect supply management, and we hope and pray that these words will be reflected in their actions at the negotiating table. To our supporters: thank you. Thank you for your moral support. And thank you for continuing to support your local dairy farms with your purchasing habits. We wouldn’t be farming and living this dairy life, caring for our cows with dedication without you behind us! 

For now, we continue on. Our kids still follow us around the barns, helping out when they so wish, learning to do by doing. Will this knowledge and these skills ever be put to use one day? Will they ever follow their dreams to be just like mom and dad? I don’t know. Time will tell. 

High Yields on Organic Corn. Yes, it’s possible.

As organic crop and dairy farmers, one of the most common questions we are asked about organic farming is this: “How do you grow corn? I’ve heard/read that organic corn is really difficult to grow organically – it gets over run with weeds and because chemical fertilizer isn’t an option, it only yields half of what could be grown conventionally.”

Here’s our answer to that…

As we’ve shared in the past (here and here), organic farming revolves around practices that increase soil health. Whether it be cover cropping, using manure or compost for fertilizing, or rotational cropping, organic farming requirements all have one over-arching goal: growing and maintaining healthy soil. Let’s take two of our corn fields as an example.

Field number 1, here at the home farm, has been farmed organically for 5 years now. It started out as pasture, had cow and chicken manure applied multiple times per year, and last summer was rotated into corn. We planted a triticale cover crop last fall, harvested it in the spring, spread chicken manure, plowed under the residue and seeded it in corn for one last season before it will be rotated back to grass. We also have irrigation here at the farm and irrigated the corn three times this summer. This field yielded 29-30 tons/acre of corn silage, the highest we’ve ever recorded on our farm. (Incidentally, the custom harvesting crew was very favourably impressed, stating that this corn was better than the majority of what they had harvested in our area so far this year. )

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Field number 2 is part of a new long term lease that we acquired in the spring of 2016. It too is in its second year of corn and previously was a hazelnut orchard. No manure had been applied for more than two decades. Soil testing showed nearly no organic matter present. Last year, we applied chicken and dairy manure before seeding the corn. A hot dry summer with no irrigation presented a pretty dismal picture last fall: only 13 tons per acre of corn silage. A very very poor return on investment of time and money (land rent & seed).

 

But we weren’t giving up.

We know that organic farming isn’t about quick fixes, it’s about long term gains.

A conventional farmer would probably have added fertilizer with the corn seed and perhaps side-dressed with a specifically tailored chemical fertilizer later in the growing season. It would likely have resulted in a better crop yield. But it would have fed just the plant and not addressed the underlying problem of poor soil health. Our approach has been to utilize a winter cover crop, applying more manure this spring, and plowing under the cover crop residue before seeding. Just that one year of adding organic inputs has worked wonders! With more organic matter decomposing and breaking down in the soil, the corn crop had more “food” throughout the growing season. The added organic matter also helped the soil to retain moisture even though rain was pretty much non-existent again this summer. The result? With very similar & equally unfavourable weather conditions, a 65% increase in yield! This section will now be rotated into a grass/alfalfa mix for the next six years before our rotation brings corn back to this piece. Can you imagine how much better still that crop will be after years of building up that organic matter? It’s such an exciting prospect.


I guess the point is this: organic farming done well can definitely hold its own in “competition” with conventional farming when comparing yields. We may have different methods of achieving those yields, and organic farming often precludes the use of “quick fixes”, but based on this and other examples, it should be apparent that generalizations that organic farming = decreased crop yields are neither warranted nor accurate. Additionally, I believe that so many of the organic principles have amazing benefits for the land that we’ll leave behind to future generations. I’m certain of this: while organic farming may not be for everyone, it certainly is a good fit for our family and farm!
Any questions? Feel free to ask.

British Columbia is burning. Please pray!

A state of emergency has been declared for our beautiful home province of British Columbia. A prolonged period of dry and very hot weather has brought tinder-dry conditions to much of the province, prompting officials to raise the wildfire risk to extreme in many areas and to ban all outdoor burning, including campfires and even tiki torches. But hundreds of dry lightning strikes over the past two days led to the sparking of 138 (!!) new wildfires yesterday. Several of these fires are “interface fires”, ie a threat to homes, communities, infrastructure, etc. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes and farms and ranches in the fires’ paths. Highways are closed due to the fires and smoke. Homes have burned. These fires are vigorous, unpredictable, and voracious, destroying everything in their paths. 

Yesterday, we heard that our childhood friend had been forced from her ranch that was directly in one of the fire’s paths. They chased their cows into a swampy area and left their home with their children and dogs, with nothing to do but pray that their home and animals would escape the raging inferno. They posted photos and video clips of the fire approaching their ranch as they left. Imagine their profound joy and thankfulness as they were able to return home this morning to their house intact, their cattle alive. Such a blessing!

Contrast that joy with the devastation felt by our fellow dairy farmers who lost their entire farm in another wildfire yesterday afternoon. They were able to rescue nearly all of the cows, but their home, barns, crops, even their irrigation equipment, is all gone, destroyed by the greedy blaze. Devastating. Unimaginable. There really are no words to adequately describe what they’re going through.

There is another fire burning in our vicinity, up on the east side of Harrison Lake. That fire too is not contained, but as of yet is not threatening any communities or homes. It’s far enough away with enough mountains between us as a barrier that it is not a worry, but it definitely is unsettling to think that our home and farm too could be lost in an instant to a blaze like that one.

Please, friends, keep our province, our communities, our farmers and ranchers in your prayers. Pray too for the safety of the brave men and women battling these blazes. Thank you.