Guardian Farmers – Defenders of a Way of Life
by David M. Neufeld of Boissevain, Manitoba
The story is getting out that Michael, a local farmer, left his farm and family to join the Rural Life Defence Force (RLDF). And because the story is public now I expect its OK for me to let you in on some of the details – so we don’t go around making this into something it’s not. Michael put on his cleanest overalls a week or so ago, kissed his wife and kids good-bye, left a list of things to do for the neighbour’s boy and went to join his comrades at a blockade. A community in Saskatchewan had put out the call to the RLDF to help them block the #1 Highway – the highway that goes through their town. According to Michael, whom I had coffee with just before he left, the good people of Horizon, SK, had done everything they could think of to protect their rural way of life. He says they put up the blockade to tell the people of Canada and their governments that they didn’t want to dry up and blow away like every other rural community around them. But, if the truth be known, Michael figures, they put up the blockade to show each other that they care as much as to say anything to the world.
Michael isn’t known to be a Rambo type or to be particularly reactionary or radical. He’s a farmer, is all, who knows what he has to do and when it has to be done. He and Marty are on the home place. He farmed it for about 10 years on his own before he got married. Like he says – he’s glad he was sharp the day Marty bumped into him “because life partners don’t frequent these parts.” He enjoys being a farmer. On good days, when he isn’t stressed about the state of the world, he moves around like a man in love. He walks among his cattle with a casual, attentive air. He touches his aging machinery with appreciation. He knows the value of natural and well nurtured soil and he savours every morsel of his supper – in a way only people who raise, harvest and put away their own food can experience.
Michael and his family have been lucky, compared to a lot of farm families on the prairies. They’ve had reasonable rains and crops the last few years. But it hasn’t all been luck either. When most of the farmers around them were getting out of cattle in the 70’s and 80’s, Michael’s parents decided to keep the pasture. They liked working with cattle and felt it was best to gamble with two hands rather than one. Michael held on to the way his parents had taught him. The cattle have brought a good price lately. They’re mostly out of debt, and so far, their farm is making a modest but decent living for them. Everyone in the family agrees life on the farm is pretty good; fragile, but good.
Marty had done a fair bit of traveling before she ran into Michael. Part of the marriage deal was that she would work part time to put money aside and Michael would go with her on an extended trip every few years – to indulge her love of the sun and her insatiable curiosity about the ways other folks live. For their honeymoon they went to Europe and three years later they went to Guatemala and Honduras. Michael saw more than he bargained for in both places. Being a farm boy, he couldn’t help talking to farmers he met along the way. He saw that the stress he and his neighbours feel is common and even more severe in Central America. He heard European farmers say that they and their urban supporters had to get militant before their governments agreed to step in to protect their farms. Michael began to realize on these trips that no matter how well he manages his farm, the global economy is set up to squeeze out keepers of the soil – to marginalize family farms. It’s stupid, in his mind. It’s like a society shooting itself in the heart. But he studied it a bit and he says he understands the logic behind the stupidity.
Michael hasn’t been big on extra schooling, but he loves to read – especially in winter. He’s read Ingeborg Boyens’ book ‘Another Season’s Promise’ and Wendell Berry’s ‘The Unsettling of America’. He gets a couple of prairie farm newspapers and recently subscribed to an international farmer’s union periodical. He’s been reluctant to follow some of his friends who think there’s a conspiracy around every corner. To him it looks more like self-interest run amuck. He’s willing to acknowledge that there may be a conspiracy of the power brokers against farm communities but he figures it all goes back to the way we’ve organized capitalism. Capitalism, as he sees it now, depends on unrestrained growth. There always has to be more produced by farmers and labourers to feed the unrestricted appetites of the rich. Michael has seen that most corporate boards – the high flyers of the capitalist skies – are no respecters of culture or community. Even if a corporation tries to put on a compassionate face, the proof is in the way they discipline themselves – or don’t. The proof is in the pudding, as he says.
As he sees it, a corporation’s primary aim is to ensure its business outperforms its competition. In a finite world, Michael figures, these corporations will prey on each other until there are only two or three of them left and the anti-monopoly laws kick in. Then they have no alternative but to prey upon the more vulnerable in society. A Mayan community he visited in Guatemala wanted to simply be left alone to live their pastoral-subsistence way of life. But a coffee company wanted the hills around the community and wanted the residents to turn a profit for the company by working their plantations. The laws of Guatemala don’t offer protection to small farmers. And so the community was doomed. It didn’t take Michael long to realize that capitalism run amuck doesn’t differentiate between his family and a subsistence family in Guatemala. As this realization took hold of him, he found he could deny it for awhile. Then he started to get scared – paranoid even – seeing a corporate representative under every rock. Now he’s convinced of his need to have a positive influence on the situation. He wants to do whatever he can in his quiet, modest but determined way to improve the world around their farm, so that their kids don’t have to be so vulnerable..
Michael says he’s worried about how the corporate dog-eat-dog ethic has infected rural communities. He sees how farmers covet their neighbour’s land and are willing to pay a high price for it even if that means young people can’t afford to get into farming. The only people he sees buying land is rich foreigners, Hutterites and farmers who believe they need more in order to keep up with the shrinking margins. He’s not against capitalism per se or private ownership. He just thinks businesses and individuals should reign in their greed in a self-disciplined, gentlemanly (and ladylike, he adds) way – giving space for others to flourish as well. If individuals and corporations prove themselves unable or unwilling to use self-discipline, then Michael shrugs, we have to put laws in place to protect people, families and communities. For him, the logic is simple. It’s getting people to do the work of creating a caring and thriving society that he finds daunting. He’s lost hope that either the provincial or federal governments really give two hoots about rural communities. He figures most of the work has to be done on the local level. That’s why he’s going to Horizon. Those folks are doing something and they need people like himself to stand with them – to be guardians of an essential way of life.
As he got up to rinse out his mug, Michael pointed to a graph he had cut out and put up on their bulletin board. The one steeply rising line on the graph shows how farmers in Canada produced three times as much as they did twenty years ago and the flat line below it shows farmers haven’t profited from this increased production. “That shows it all,” he said. “Where has all the profit gone? Not into the pockets of the folks putting up that barricade in Saskatchewan.” Michael says farmers have done everything they’ve been asked to do. They’ve specialized, bought bigger machinery, used genetically modified seeds, sent their spouses to work off-farm, diversified, computerized, and learned the language of big business. And still the profit they need in order to take care of their families and their way of life eludes them. It’s not that farmers are chronically bad managers as the specialists would have us believe, Michael says, but because we as citizens haven’t got the guts to pull back on the reins. In a democracy, he says, “we have the reins.”
So he speaks up when he must and stands in solidarity when he can. He’s not alone. There’s a society of men and women out there I’ve been told, all over the world – some on logging road barricades, some in displacement camps and others dismantling an unwanted fast food store – standing up to protect their way of life.
Talking with Michael opened my eyes to see the strong, beautiful and inspiring men and women of the soil all around me. Thank you.