Author: Petkau, Evelyn Rempel
Date published: September 19, 2011
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Manitoba learned firsthand this summer of the great divide that exists between urban eaters and rural producers, as Jeremiah Doerksen completed a two-month summer internship studying the issue.
The purpose of the study was to begin to lay some groundwork for addressing misconceptions and misunderstandings between these groups, and to find ways to build understanding and support for one another.
"MCC has been involved in food and food security issues for a long time, and helped create the Manitoba Food Charter," notes Steve Plenert, the peace program coordinator who directed the study. "The question of food security is central to disaster relief and working towards justice."
Doerksen and Plenert spent the summer talking with both farmers and city dwellers. They learned that people in the city want their food to be easily accessible. They want it to be there when they want it, not necessarily when it is in season. They want it inexpensively, but they want it perfect and unblemished.
Plenert says he was struck by "the passion with which famers carry out their work. They care deeply about their animals, their land and their work. 'As a farmer, I am only as good as my soil,' was a recurring refrain."
They found that the commitment to honour and care for the land ran deep in the farmers they met. The practice of crop rotation and trying to minimize chemical use are among their practices, but often farmers run into barriers with their urban cousins.
"Farmers encounter criticism from city people when they find out they aren't practising no-till, for example," says Doerksen, noting, though, that "[urbanites] don't understand that the practice doesn't work well in some Manitoba soils, or they don't understand the limitations of a short growing season."
Even in rural towns they heard the desires of people for cheap food and good access to it, as well as complaints about the inconveniences of odours from farming operations and smoke from burning stubble.
"I found more passion and less cynicism than I expected from the farmers," says Plenert. "They see their work as being essential to the world and they take it very seriously."
Farming has become an extremely demanding and complicated business that demands a greater knowledge base and diversity of skills than ever before. The vagaries of weather and the market, rising costs of equipment and land, and volatile prices all combine to create a situation where farmers have to be prudent, astute and flexible.
"Farmers feel more isolated from their communities and churches than they once did," says Plenert. "They prefer not to raise farming issues in the context of their congregations. Even though lots of farming images are used in churches, it is not the guiding ethos." Instead, farmers feel antagonism and blame for water pollution from the run-off of phosphorous and nitrogen from their fields, or for air pollution from burning stubble.
"We are hoping to open the lines of communication between the two groups, to provide more education around these issues," says Doerksen, noting that MCC Manitoba, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Canadian Mennonite University and A Rocha, a Christian environmental organization, are planning to host "Germinating conversations: Farming, food, faith and the land" in Winkler, Man., in November. A special effort will be made to invite urban churches to this event. Plenert and Doerksen also hope to invite farmers to a conversation in the city before seeding time next spring.
"The range of issues is large, and all we can do is become more informed and walk towards the issue, rather than be complacent," Doerksen concludes.
BY EVELYN REMPEL PETKAU