Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I'd Rather Marry a Farmer.....

When, I wonder, did North Americans start valuing the services of a doctor far more than those of a farmer? Not only do we pay doctors way more to provide health care services, but the vast majority of us consider their occupation far more prestigious and commendable than that of the humble farmer.

I'm not going to lie, I've held my own biases in this respect as well, especially when trying to explain to people that I had to escape PEI because, as a single female, my options for a mate would have bee severely limited there - namely to fishermen and farmers. And, of course, I was certain that I didn't want to end up with some dude who woke up before the crack of dawn every morning, rode a tractor all day, wore John Deere hats and had a pot belly... The truth is that I conjured up this image based on a VERY limited exposure to the farming life on PEI. I really had no clue what farming involved and, armed with ignorance and an imagination, I found myself creating a rather negative portrait of a farmer. And then, thankfully, I chose a path that has exposed my ignorance and allowed me to gain insight into just how undervalued our farmers are, especially the ones that are doing their best to be environmental stewards of the land, while growing healthy food for us, the 98% of the population that has chosen not to farm for a living.

The irony now, as I delve into this world of local food and agriculture, is that I would rather partner with a farmer than a doctor. Or at the very least, I'd like to see us return to a place where we hold doctors and farmers in equal respect. And here's why I think we should:

Health and well-being are essential to the quality of life - on an individual level, as well as a collective level. This is why we place doctors on a pedestal - they take care of us when we are sick, they have the expertise and skill to diagnose and treat diseases, chronic conditions, etc., as well as perform surgeries. Basically, doctors are there for us when we need them to take care of anything that has gone wrong.

What we don't seem to place nearly as much value on in North America is preventative health care. Admittedly, there are under-funded campaigns to encourage people to quit smoking, wear sunscreen, drink responsibly, avoid drug use and eat 5 fruits & veggies a day. But really, the amount of money and attention given to these causes is miniscule in comparison to the amount of money spent on 'sick-care', on treating illnesses that, by and large, are the result of poor lifestyle choices.

This, of course, is where farmers come in. By the very nature of their job, farmers have the potential to provide the basis for the most important disease prevention products available to humans - healthy, nourishing foods. I have little if any doubt that the vast majority of our sicknesses could be mitigated or eliminated if we only re-learned how to eat healthily again. If we could find a way to wean ourselves off overly processed, sodium-rich, sugary, fatty, nutritionally-devoid food-like substances and the massive amount of meat we consume in the West. But we have not yet learned how to do this and until we do, the potential of the majority of our farmers to provide health care via nutritious food will be stymied by the demands of massive, corporate food processors that demand high yields of commodity crops from farmers - corn and soy mostly - so they can turn these into 'value-added' food-like products that do nothing to encourage health and often damage health.

When you think about it farmers could be (and some are) the ultimate health care providers. When it is asked of them by the demands of us, their eaters, the farmer will care for not only our health, but for that of the soil, the water and the animals that are in his or her care. And in cases where smaller family-run farms are the norm, rather than the exception, you will also find farmers that are concerned about the health and well-being of their workers, because these are skilled laborers and the farm's continued operation.

My first forays into the world of farming have been both inspiring and deflating. On the one hand, because I am studying local food systems, the people I am meeting are an especially thoughtful group that practice farming in a way that respects the long-term health of the ecosystem upon which agriculture ultimately depends. Instead of relying on N-P-K solutions and ever-increasing applications of poisons (i.e. pesticides), they try to adapt their farming practices to the ever-changing conditions brought on by nature. In doing so, they practice preventative health care every day by:

  • mitigating the loss of soil nutrition (industrial farming practices, on the other hand, are quickly and often irreversibly destroying massive areas of arable land)
  • eliminating the potential of pesticide run-off poisoning nearby bodies of water that are home to many acquatic creatures and/or serve as drinking sources for humans and animals)
  • providing livestock with a much less-stressful and healthier life that is devoid of the need for anti-biotics, growth horomones, unnatural living conditions or inhumane treatment
  • encouraging the continuation of genetic diversity in plants and animals, by growing heirloom varities and raising rarer breeds, thereby ensuring the continued resilience of the human food system
  • providing eaters (i.e. humans) with food that hasn't been drenched in pesticides, has been grown for taste and nutrition, can be enjoyed without any processing (unlike most industrial crops, which are essentially commodity crops grown specifically for further processing - such as our starch buddy, corn and our protein buddy, soy)
  • decreasing the amount of waste that is produced and must be handled at each stage of production and consumption
And while all of this is encouraging, I find it very discouraging that farming is no longer a viable or desirable vocation. There is a farm income crisis. Most farmers are struggling to make ends meet, if they haven't already gone bankrupt. And very few young people want to be farmers. Furthermore, farmers are constantly facing pressures to improve efficiency, increase production and conform to the demands of the pervasive industrial farming system, which accounts ONLY for economic health.

If we want to see more farmers engaged in food production that stimulates sustainable farming then we, as eaters, have to start focussing on preventative health care. We have to recognize that, as wonderful as doctors are, the world would be a much better off if we didn't need as many as we have. We need to acknowledge that our day-to-day choices about how we eat, how we move, how we work, how we play and how we interact with others and with nature, are ultimately defining the health of ourselves, our children, our communities, and the natural world at large. Until we start valuing healthy food that, in all aspects of its production, has taken into account the health of the ecosystem we are a part of, we will continue to shape a future that is focused on sick care and reliant on doctors to repair the damage we've done by way of making poor lifestyle choices.

And while some of us will choose to decrease our chances of becoming sick by making healthy lifestyle choices, the fact remains that the health of our communities and nature will remain at high-risk until we start placing health care prevention above sick care provision. Only then will we create conditions that allow farmers to farm in such a way as to provide for the health of people and the planet and decrease the need to rely on doctors to treat preventable diseases and chronic conditions.


Rob said...

Michael Pollan agrees with you in this piece he wrote in the NYT - Food = health

Now Shannon - my bet is that the new farmer is not the grade 8 picture that you are put off by - but a young man just like you - they are turning up now - few but they are arriving

I will get to your wedding and see your kids before I hop the twig

Shannon Courtney said...

You're right Rob, my grade 8 picture is definitely not accurate. The new farmers that I've been meeting - the ones that want to farm in an ecologically responsible way - are young and strapping...and already married. But I hold out hope...

MummyAnge said...

Shannon- love this blog! I too said "I will never marry a farmer." all be it for different reasons. But darn it- never say never! lol
So glad harvest is done for another year and I have my hubby back at home on the weekends- to help me with our own quickly growing crop of feisty girls! lol
Hope you don't mind if I post your blog link on my own- so that others can check it out! luv ya cuz :)

Shannon Courtney said...

Thanks Ange:) I love your blog too! But I'm confused - I thought you were married to a teacher, not a farmer?? I met my niece today and she was wearing an adorable outfit that you had sent to Sahra!
Thanks for posting a link :)