Aric McBay Author, activist, farmer.


Column: Basic income guarantee a good idea for food and farmers

Elaine_PowerAric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

The national movement for a Basic Income Guarantee is gaining ground. The heart of the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) is a government program that would ensure every person in Canada a certain amount of income every year to “to meet basic needs and live with dignity.” And this could have big implications for food and farming.

Dr. Elaine Power, an author and professor at Queen’s University, is excited about BIG’s momentum. “To me it feels like we’ve reached Gladwell’s proverbial tipping point,” she says. “It’s taken off like wildfire. A bit of effort, a lot of results.”

In December of 2015, Kingston City Council passed a unanimous resolution endorsing the Basic Income Guarantee and calling on other cities to do the same. Kingston was the first, and a series of Ontario municipalities have followed suit, including Belleville, Cornwall, Peterborough, and Welland.

The initiative has also seen growing support across Canada and across the political spectrum. Conservative former senator Hugh Segal is a vocal backer of BIG. Mayors from Edmonton to Calgary to Iqaluit have all thrown their weight behind it. During Prince Edward Island’s recent provincial election, the leaders of all major parties endorsed BIG, and PEI’s premier has vowed to promote it.

“Certainly for low income folks who don’t have enough money to eat, a BIG would ensure that everyone has adequate money to buy the food they need for their health,” explains Dr. Power. “It improves dignity. It allows people to be socially included. To do things that are more normal. To go to farmers’ markets, not food banks.”

For this reason, a Basic Income Guarantee is gaining wide support among food organizations such as Food Banks Canada, Community Food Centres Canada, and Food Secure Canada, as well as the Canadian Medical Association and the Ontario Public Health Association.

“In my mind, a successful BIG would mean closing all the food banks,” says Dr. Power. “And would probably save about 20 per cent of our healthcare budget.”

Poverty is a enormous drain on Canada’s health expenditures because people without enough healthy food get sick more often and stay sick longer.

“We don’t like to think that people are malnourished in this country, but they are,” says Dr. Power. “People can’t get enough fruit and vegetables, even protein. People are living on cheap carbs, things that are filling, not things that are healthy.”

BIG has special appeal for farmers and local economies. Dr. Power explains: “Low income people spend money in the local economy. They don’t put it in Swiss bank accounts, they spend it on essentials like food.

“It would provide a huge impetus for local economies.” As an example, Dr. Power points out that “research in the US on food stamps shows that every dollar spent on food stamps generates $1.80 in local activity.”

Farmers would also benefit greatly from a Basic Income Guarantee. The benefits for rural economies are clear. But a BIG could also stabilize income for farmers in the face of uncertainty, from fluctuating global grain prices to weather variation and climate change.

A BIG would also benefit farmers at either end of the age spectrum. The majority of farmers in Canada are close to retirement age, and while food production is an important public service, few farmers have pensions like those retiring from government employment.

Basic Income Guarantee could also encourage young farmers, who face substantial barriers - a major reason for the ageing farmer population. It would also be good for farm workers; right now, the challenges of seasonal employment can make it difficult to train and retain experienced workers on farms.

And a Basic Income Guarantee could also make it easier to farm sustainably and take care of the land. The stability it would offer could help farmers to make better long-term stewardship choices for the benefit of soil, water, and biodiversity.

Dr. Power hopes this could apply to all of society. “A BIG could remove fear and restore a sense of security. So that we can think more clearly about the future and the kind of planet we want.” And she is optimistic that those in the future will one day see BIG as a core part of our society.

“One of our hopes is that it will be our 21st century Medicare. A social program we can’t imagine living without.”

More information can be found at

Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He lives and works at a mixed family farm with a dairy herd and a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) vegetable operation. For more about the vegetable CSA, visit

Filed under: Newspaper Columns

Column: Has global warming become routine?

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

“Wow, it sure is beautiful out for December.” I had conversations like this again and again during the early holidays, as temperatures around the Kingston area soared to 16 degrees Celsius. Almost inevitably, these exchanges would be followed by some acknowledgment of global warming: an awkward joke, a grimace, or nervous laughter.

“What terrifyingly nice weather we’re having.” Reports from Central Park in Manhattan announced over the holidays that the previous record high for Christmas Eve had been broken—by the 2015 low temperature.

The past year, 2015, broke the record to become the warmest year on record. Of course, this has become almost a yearly routine. Ho-hum. Yet another record-breaking warm year. It piles up. The last five year period is the warmest five year period ever recorded.

We did break one record that doesn’t come around every new year, however. A very innocuous sounding record: we passed the one degree mark. That is, the world’s average temperature was for the first time more than one degree higher than the pre-industrial temperature. One degree higher than the temperature before we started burning all of that oil and gas and everything else.

This record sounds so undramatic as to be laughable. “Only one degree,” we might chortle. “Ho-hum. That’s nothing!” It might not seem like much, except for two problems.

The first is that we aren’t just dealing with global warming, we’re dealing with climate change. With a climate that is becoming not just warmer, but also more extreme and unpredictable. Like a pot of water coming to a boil, our world isn’t just getting hotter, but also more turbulent.

The warm holiday weather this year is one symptom of climate change. But so was the polar vortex, the frigid winters we saw over the last two years in part because of disrupted air currents. Many people have remarked not only about how warm it has been in December, but also how different the temperature was from last year. “It’s forty degrees warmer than this day last year!”

And, of course, that’s the number to worry about: not one degree averages, but forty degree extremes.

The other problem is runaway global warming. As the Earth gets hotter, the trends become self-sustaining. Arctic ice melts, so that instead of white snow reflecting sunlight the dark ocean absorbs it. Greenhouse gasses frozen at the bottom of the sea warm and bubble up into the atmosphere. The Amazon, a global air conditioner, withers from drought.

It wouldn’t take much more. Even the conservative political consensus out of the recent conference in Paris was that more than two degrees of warming would lead to catastrophe for all of us. (Even knowing that, they produced a climate agreement that is non-binding and essentially unenforceable.)

It took us centuries to reach that first degree. But our climate emissions—from the tar sands, in particular—have grown so explosively that we’ll lock in that second degree within decades.

Already, there are troubling signs that the ability of the oceans to buffer climate change is breaking down. We may have to deal with another half a degree of warming from that alone.

As a farmer, one of the first things I worry about is global warming’s impact on food. We live in a temperate climate in Ontario, and we can cope for a while. But most of the world is far more precarious, and millions of people are already becoming climate refugees.

It’s unsettling to ring in another new year to record-breaking temperatures. But what I find truly frightening is the notion that we might one day find the effects of climate change routine.

Record numbers of refugees? Oh well, just like last year. Record droughts, yet again? Ho-hum. Ho-hum.

Or we can break that routine. We can act. But we don’t have much time.

Aric McBay is a farmer and author.

Filed under: Newspaper Columns

Column: National Farmers Union convention means good policy for everyone

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

Last week I went to the National Farmers Union’s national convention, held this time in London, Ontario. Every year, NFU farmers from across Canada get together to discuss current events and forge new policies. Policies that are sometimes adopted by the federal or provincial governments.

The NFU is a grassroots, democratic organization, which means that it thrives on popular debate and discussion. Resolutions covered a wide range of topics: Should society subsidize perennial field crops to soak up carbon and combat global warming? Should food education be part of the core school curriculum as it is in Japan? Would the federal government enforce a moratorium against oil developments on unceded First Nations land?

It was an exciting convention, and it got me thinking a lot about the influence that farmers can have in changing social and political landscapes along with physical ones. Farmer movements have occasionally transformed Canadian society in ways we now take for granted.

Nearly a century ago, in 1919, a brand new political party called the United Farmers of Ontario swept the Ontario provincial elections. They came seemingly out of nowhere to crush the Ontario Conservative Party (which had ruled for fourteen years straight). The United Farmers of Ontario formed the government of Ontario for the next four years and brought in important social reforms like a minimum wage for women.

It is a testament to the power of farmers in that era that they could create out of whole cloth a political party that would almost immediately form the Ontario government. A contemporary movement on a national level saw the (farmer-rooted) Progressive Party of Canada win the second-most seats in the federal election, and they brought us the old age pension. They managed to organize a huge network of supporting clubs and associations without modern communication or even (in most cases) electricity.

Farmer movements at the time were powerhouse movements, a reflection of their huge numbers and their central economic role. The proportion of farmers in Canada has been falling since the First World War, from one third of the population down to under two per cent now.

Much of this is a result of the rapid post-Second World War industrialization of agriculture. Bigger implements, bigger tractors, and more use of inputs like new fertilizers and pesticides meant that farmers became fewer. Paradoxically, as our equipment became more powerful, farmers became less so.

In the 1920s, farmers and allies were making policy themselves. They created institutions like the Canadian Wheat Board to help ensure farmers got a fair price for their grain and while building key elements of our social safety net. These days it is mostly agribusiness companies that determine government policy on food and farming.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If power was only about numbers, then peasants would have ruled over kings in the middle ages. Organization is what matters, and the NFU is the perfect example of farmers—and eaters—getting organized to make a better society.

The issues hashed out at the National Farmers Union convention affect all of us, not just farmers. It will take all of us to make the changes we need to see, whether that’s stopping global warming or ensuring young people know how to prepare healthy food.

And 20 years from now, one of the things discussed at last week’s convention could seem as natural and necessary as the old age pension and minimum wage are to us today.

Aric McBay is a farmer, author, and member of the National Farmers Union.

Filed under: Newspaper Columns

Column: Loving Spoonful director hopes we are on the cusp of big change

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

This week I spoke with Mara Shaw, Executive Director of Loving Spoonful, about their newly tabled report on access to healthy food. The report focuses on food security: whether or not people have reliable access to nutritious food in sufficient quantity.

The report, authored by Janice Link and covering Kingston, Frontenac, and Lennox & Addington, is the result of something new: consultations with hundreds of community members, front line workers and community groups involved with food security.

“The truth is we’ve never done that kind of analysis in this community,” Executive Director Mara Shaw told me. “It’s a necessary step to be able to move forward.”

Some of the problems identified in the report were problems Shaw and others have long been aware of. For example, housing costs are so high that many people on fixed incomes are often forced to choose between food and adequate housing. Food bank and meal program demand continues to grow.

And yet, in Kingston, most who didn’t have enough food simply ate less, while nearly half borrowed money from banks or used payday loan services to buy food. Shaw told me that only about 25 per cent of people who needed more food used the food bank, largely because of the stigma involved.

Transportation is also a key barrier, especially for people in rural areas. As the report observed: “Several people pointed out that there is a free shuttle service to the Casino but nothing is available for people on a low or fixed income to buy groceries.”

In reading this report, it struck me that one of the biggest barriers to food security could be addressed without spending a dime: stigma. At least 20,000 people in Kingston live below the poverty line, and people below the poverty line can rarely count on access to healthy food. That’s not the result of some individual failing. That’s a major, systemic problem.

“People have to get over finding fault” with how low-income people spend their food dollars, Mara Shaw told me. “We do hear that there’s still a lot of judgment.”

The reality is that healthy food is expensive, and a calorie of healthy food costs about eighteen times as much as a cheap carbohydrate. If you have a low income, Shaw explained, “You can’t afford to buy a red pepper out of season for the same price as four boxes of Kraft Dinner.”

One of the report’s key recommendations is to build a good food centre in Kingston. (A similar community food centre has been operating in nearby Perth successfully for years.)

“Loving Spoonful is really interested in creating a centre where people can do work around food while building a movement,” Shaw explained. The site would include elements of a food bank as well as a kitchen for people to prepare food and learn cooking skills, gardens to produce food, and many other programs.

Shaw has had promising conversations with the City of Kingston about setting up a good food centre. “It’s mostly about finding a really good location. A place with a teaching kitchen that’s up to public health standards, with gardens out front, a storage space, a dining space where people can convene. And that it’s on a bus stop.”

Beyond that, big changes are required.

Mara Shaw told me: “I think the biggest thing that came out of the report is a renewed call for getting people the money they need to be able to buy their own food. Food insecurity wouldn’t exist in a community where people could afford to buy their own food.”

There is growing support for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG): a minimum amount of money that everyone in Canada would get each year. Justin Trudeau’s mandate letters for the new cabinet called for a new national food policy and poverty reduction strategy. Shaw said: “If basic income isn’t a core part of that strategy I’ll be really surprised.”

“Food Banks Canada has just come out in support of BIG,” Shaw told me. “These are really exciting times.”

Aric McBay is a farmer and author.

Filed under: Newspaper Columns

Column: Refugees then and now: We must do better

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Fieldcoffin_ship

My ancestors moved to Canada from Ireland in 1851, the sixth year of the Irish Potato Famine. The specifics of why they moved have been lost, but the year tells enough. By the time my ancestors settled in Canada, Ireland had lost a quarter of its population: one million people had fled in overcrowded boats, and another million at home had died of starvation and disease.

Given that almost five million people in Canada have some Irish ancestry, it’s remarkable how little we remember about the details of this calamity. Yes, it was triggered by a potato disease that ruined harvests. But the stage was set by British policy.

For generations, Irish people had been pushed off the best land, forced to pay enormous rents on their own farms, and reduced to dependence on a single crop, the potato, for survival. With Irish people robbed of their resilience by British colonial policy, a famine was almost inevitable. And even as people starved by the thousand, Ireland was forced to continue exporting food to Britain. Mass starvation was no accident.

The current refugee disaster in the Middle East is not an accident either. The civil war in Syria began after an extreme drought and crop failure that has been blamed, in part, on global warming. (Which means some of the responsibility is ours: with the expansion of the tar sands, and Harper’s abysmal environment policy, Canada has become one of the world’s major climate change culprits.)

But the roots of the current disaster are even deeper. During the First World War, European powers divided the resource-rich Middle East amongst themselves, drawing arbitrary new borders through existing peoples. (The first of these plans, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was prepared in secret but later leaked by the Guardian newspaper.)

These new borders were designed to create ethnic tensions and to divide peoples against each other. British and French colonialists intentionally created modern Syria and Iraq so they could prop up warlords who didn’t have majority backing. Dictators who would need foreign backing and violence to stay in power in exchange gave up oil and other resources to Europe.

Those 20th century colonial powers wanted their puppet regimes to be fragile, so that without perpetual military support the countries they were setting up would fall apart into bloody civil wars. Well, they finally got what they wanted.

Through similar arrangements of colonial pillage the European powers and their inheritors, like Canada and United States, grew wealthier as the colonies grew poorer. Those of us in the wealthier parts of the world have mostly forgotten this history, just as we’ve forgotten the history of the potato famine. But its effects, such as deep global inequality, endure.

The millions of refugees fleeing Syria for Europe and elsewhere are, in some sense, merely following wealth that was siphoned away from them over the last century.

It’s not 1920 anymore; it’s not 1851. Canada has inherited the wealth of the colonial powers, but we don’t have to inherit their mentality. We don’t have to inherit their greed, their selfishness, or their racism.

We can do better. In the aftermath of the Irish Potato Famine, tens of thousands of Irish refugees landed at Kingston, in a time when the city (amongst the largest in Ontario) had a population of less than 12,000. All in all, more than 100,000 Irish refugees settled in British North America.

And yet, this year Canada has accepted only a thousand Syrian refugees into a country of 35 million people. And only about 200 of those have been government-supported (with the rest privately sponsored). This should be a source of great shame for all of us.

We have resources that people in the 1850s couldn’t even dream of, resources that would make it easy for us to accept and accommodate far more refugees. And we should demand that whatever federal government forms this fall does exactly that.

We can do better. We must do better.

You can learn more about the refugee crisis and actions to take in Canada at

Aric McBay is a farmer and author.

Filed under: Newspaper Columns

Column: Prison farm legacy shows everything wrong with Harper’s reign

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

It’s been five years since the Conservative government closed Canada’s prison farms. Since a thousand people marched and protested in Kingston. And those intervening years have made clear that every concern expressed by those protesting the closures was valid, and then some.

Start with the Tory disregard for democracy, shown five years ago in Harper’s refusal to engage with the public outcry or even share any documents that would support the closure of the farms, whether they be budgets or recidivism records.

Since then, Harper’s low opinion for the democratic process has showed in an accumulating list of wrongdoings and criminal investigations: contempt of Parliament rulings, robocalls directing voters away from the polls, and the endless scandals involving Harper’s senate appointees.

Harper’s scorn toward fair public debate of his policies appear to be reflected in his administration’s treatment of those who do—or don’t—speak up. Brian Abrams, the Conservative candidate who stayed publicly silent during the prison farm closure debacle, was rewarded by Harper with a position as a judge only weeks after his candidacy ended. Meanwhile, the local Executive Director of the John Howard Society, which depends on federal funding, spoke out in favour of the prison farms and was replaced.

It’s a favourite pastime for politicians of all stripes to stage photo-ops of themselves bedecked in plaid and sitting atop a tractor, perhaps wearing a cowboy hat. Everyone wants to look like they love farming. But beyond the prison farms, Conservative actions in the last five years have made clear their true feelings about agriculture.

For 70 years, grain farmers in western Canada depended on the Canadian Wheat Board to get a fair price for their product. But in defiance of a vote by farmers to keep the Wheat Board intact, Harper replaced the farmer-elected board members with his own appointees before confiscating its assets and stripping the board of its marketing power.

Now the Conservatives are selling what’s left of the Wheat Board to foreign investment corporations at fire sale prices. The immediate result has been a grain shipping boondoggle in the railway system, but in the longer term Harper has stolen the collective negotiating power of farmers and given foreign corporations the power to set prices for Canadian grain. Instead of being guaranteed a fair price, farmers are increasingly at the mercy of Harper’s corporate buddies.

And finally, events since 2010 have made it even clearer what a twisted idea of “justice” the Conservative party has. While crime in general (and violent crime in particular) has been falling for more than two decades, Harper has piled on the “public safety” rhetoric in order to gut rehabilitation programs for prisoners while simultaneously crowding more people into prisons, just as critics predicted.

A parliamentary report found that Canada’s prisoner population has grown 17 per cent in 10 years. The population of indigenous prisoners grew by 46 per cent, and the population of indigenous women in prison grew by 80 per cent. The report also found that “other visible minorities including black, Hispanic, Asian and Indian increased by almost 75 per cent” and that people of colour in prison were more likely be subjected to force and solitary confinement.

Harper’s security theater is not just play-acting; the Conservative disdain for rehabilitation and their drive to punish targets real people. And those real people are disproportionately people of colour.

I won’t tell you who to vote for, and clearly some of these problems require more than the five-minute act of voting to fix. But it’s worth noting that both the NDP and the Liberals have promised that if they are elected they’ll reopen the prison farms. And Kingston and the Islands NDP candidate Daniel Beals was on the front lines of many prison farm protests. There is big contrast between candidates who are actually involved in their community’s needs and Tory candidates who stay silent on issues of profound injustice because Harper tells them to.

Five years is an eon in the 24-hour news cycle, and Harper is no doubt hoping we’ll forget all this. But when I head to the ballot box this fall, you can be assured I will remember.

Aric McBay is a farmer and author.

Filed under: Newspaper Columns

Column: Rad kids a groundbreaking new farm camp

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Fieldmcbay farm camp with sheep

At the end of August our farm is hosting a new farm camp for kids, and we couldn’t be more excited.

Rad Kids Farm Camp is the project of Marie Bencze, who spent years working on farms before starting her own farm education project, Rad Kids: “Participating in teaching the next generation about where food comes from is my great passion, and what better way than to bring children to a farm for summer camp!”

The camp is for children aged 6-10 and will take place at our farm on Howe Island. It will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Aug. 24-28.

Marie told me she chose our farm in part because of the diversity of work happening here. We have a large Community Shared Agriculture operation, which grows two acres of vegetables, as well as an organic dairy.

“There are rolling pastures, woods, cultivated gardens, baby calves, chickens, a wonderful farm dog,” said Marie. “It’s the perfect setting for a day camp whose theme is the ecology of a farm.”

Activities will include seeding, weeding & harvesting vegetables, feeding calves, nature walks, arts and crafts, and other food and farm-themed games and activities. The kids will get the best of farm life without having to ride a school bus for three hours a day, or get up to clean stalls early in the morning.

The suggested cost of the camp is $250, with a sliding scale of $175-375. The sliding scale model—which we also use for our vegetable CSA—makes the camp more accessible by allowing parents and guardians to choose what they can afford to pay for their child to experience the camp. Because the camp takes place here on Howe Island, the fee includes transportation from downtown Kingston.

In the future, Marie hopes to expand the camp and offer multiple weeks in the summer for different age groups. “There is a lot of room to grow this summer camp, and I look forward to expanding to be able to include many more age groups.”

Rad Kids will also soon be offering in-class workshops in elementary schools in Kingston, and Marie hopes to expand into offering resource kits with local farmers by the spring of next year. Marie is excited: “It’s a new project, full of budding potential with the overall goal of rooting kids in agriculture.”

There will be two adults supervising and a maximum of ten children. To learn more about the Farm Camp, find Rad Kids on Facebook, or email Marie at

Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He lives and works at a mixed family farm with a dairy herd and a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) vegetable operation. For more about the vegetable CSA, visit

Filed under: Newspaper Columns

Column: The Color of Food tells stories we need to hear

color of food book coverAric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

If you’re looking for some good summer reading about food and farming, I have something great to recommend. It’s Natasha Bowens’s new book The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming.

Bowens wrote the book after observing that while local and ecological food movement was growing rapidly, the most visible faces of that movement were almost always white. Wanting to correct that, she raised money to travel 15,000 miles around the US to interview people of colour who work the land.

The Color of Food is the product of that trip; it’s a collection of stories that reflect a profound diversity in food and farming. In the book, Bowens tells the stories of many people and farms using their own words, gathered through her interviews.

The personal stories, and excellent colour photographs throughout, draw the reader in. And with dozens of people and places featured there is always something or someone new and interesting on the next page. There is a story of former sharecroppers in North Carolina, of people in New Orleans rebuilding community food systems after Katrina, of indigenous plant teachings in the Pacific Northwest.

The book also delves into the often complicated relationships that people of colour may have with farming. As Bowens writes: “For many, agriculture can represent deep pain because of the history of slavery, but also because of current land loss, forced migration and oppressive farm labor practices.”

Prior to writing the book, Bowens quit her job in Washington, D.C. and moved to an organic farm. She wanted to be closer to the land and know where her food was coming from. But things weren’t so simple. She writes that “as I began to feel rooted in my life as someone who worked the land, I quickly realized all the cultural and historic baggage that came with that. My father’s ancestors worked in the fields as slaves; in fact, they were slaves owned by my mother’s ancestors. I’m literally the product of ownership and oppression reuniting…”

Though the book is focused on the United States, its stories still have strong resonance here in Canada. Canadians sometimes look at the US history of race relations with a superior attitude. But in the history of farming and race, there are more similarities than differences. Those similarities explain, in part, why the stereotypical image of a farmer is white.

In both Canada and the US, as Bowens writes, indigenous people—who were often skilled farmers and developed many of the crops we take for granted—were pushed off their land, often violently.

During the Second World War, people of Japanese descent were put in prison camps both in both the US and Canada. In the US, Bowens notes, Asian-Americans are now the ethnicity with the lowest farm ownership, in part because many were never able to recover their land after the end of the war.

The situation in Canada was similar. Many people of Japanese heritage were farmers at the beginning of the Second World War. Especially on the west coast, people of Japanese descent chose farming after being forced out of fishing by white commercial fishers who feared their competition.

When the Canadian government started forcing tens of thousands of people of Japanese descent into internment camps, they also confiscated their property. Often their property—including homes and farms—was sold at auction and the money raised was used to fund their imprisonment in the camps.

Continuing into the present day, large fruit and vegetable farms in both Canada and the US often rely on Latin American migrant workers, many of whom lost farmland in their home countries because of foreign policy decisions made by wealthier countries.

Natasha Bowens points out that, in a time when the loss of farmland to development should be a serious concern for everyone, people of colour are losing their land at a rate three times higher than white farmers.

I don’t want you to get the impression from all this that the book is a downer; quite the opposite. While the challenges are real, the stories Bowens tells are exciting, the people she profiles are dynamic, and the book is well worth reading.

You can learn more about it at

Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He lives and works at a mixed family farm with a dairy herd and a vegetable operation. For more about the vegetable CSA, visit

Filed under: Newspaper Columns

Column: Successful organic co-operative sees milk supply siphoned away

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Fieldmcbay andrea with jersey cow

Dairy farmer Andrea Cumpson speaks with pride about being part of the farmer-owned Organic Meadow co-operative. “Our heart and soul goes into a product we’re really proud of, that represents our farm and cows once it leaves.”

The integrity of farmers like Andrea is a big reason that Organic Meadow has grown into a successful co-operative that sells milk and other organic dairy products across Canada. But that co-op is in trouble now, because the milk they produce is being siphoned away by competing corporations to sell under big brand names.

The co-op started in 1989, when farmers got together at kitchen table meetings and shared the knowledge, skills, and capital they needed to be successful.

Eventually they were able to build their own organic processing plant. Organic Meadow deserves much of the credit for making organic dairy farming not only possible, but also successful in Ontario.

The deep irony is that because they were so successful at growing both production and demand, large dairy corporations like Neilson and President’s Choice decided that they wanted a piece of the market.

And instead of being forward-thinking like the Organic Meadow farmers had been, those companies threw their weight around and told the provincial dairy body that they should be getting milk that Organic Meadow farmers were producing.

The result? Milk is being siphoned away from Organic Meadow’s own cooperative processing and redirected to large corporate brands, who have been processing the milk and selling it under their own labels.  Organic Meadow, without access to a sufficient quantity of its own milk, can’t keep up with retail demand for its products like cheese, butter, and yogurt.

And since the co-op doesn’t get to keep enough of its own milk for processing, it has slowly been running out of money.

Readers may be confused about how this can happen. In most kinds of farming, it can’t. If we grow carrots on our farm, President’s Choice can’t just sweep in, snatch them up, and resell them under their own label. What is happening to dairy farmers is an unfortunate side effect of the mostly-very-good system of supply management.

Supply management means that dairy farmers produce roughly the same amount of milk as there is demand for. Most of the time this system works quite well. There is never a major milk shortage, nor a supply glut. This keeps retail prices reasonable and provides a predictable market and regular income for dairy farmers. A provincial body called the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) is responsible for the day-to-day details of supply management, and in general they do a fine job.

In the case of organic milk, unfortunately, the DFO seems to have bowed to corporate pressure. And in doing so they’ve undermined actual dairy farmers in favor of big companies. They’re allowing those companies, latecomers to organic milk, to skip the difficult and time-consuming process of cultivating their organic suppliers, instead getting their milk supply from Organic Meadow farmers who did put in that work over decades.

The Organic Meadow farmers I know are driven by something deeper than profit. “We didn’t go into organic farming just to make money,” said Andrea Cumpson, who farms near Inverary. “There’s so much more to it.”

Andrea also told me about the pride she feels at farming in a way that’s good for her cows and for the land. About the sense of integrity she feels that extends all the way from her farm to the milk or cheese or butter that bears the name of her co-op.

Processing milk at the Organic Meadow facility is also important to farmers like Andrea. "Unless my milk leaves my farm to be processed under our Organic Meadow label, I have no control over whether the milk will be ultra high temperature treated," she said. "As research indicates, this process can have negative and harmful impacts on the product and potentially the families that drink it."

Organic Meadow farmers have invested in a cooperative business model that fosters the sense of community and integrity that has made the co-op and its members successful over the years. They have put their lives into their farms, have built a successful co-operative from scratch. It’s easy to imagine the frustration they feel when the milk they’ve produced with such integrity is sold under the brand name of a company that is undermining them.

It’s time for the Dairy Farmers of Ontario to make sure that Organic Meadow can keep adequate quantities of the milk they produce to process themselves. It’s only fair.

Filed under: Newspaper Columns

Column: Spring means the start of Community Shared Agriculture

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Fieldcsa-work-bee-original

The month of May, for many people, marks the start of the gardening season. The end of overnight frost and the mild weather finally make the garden a welcoming place for humans and tender plants alike.

On our farm, late May also means the start of perhaps our favourite season: the CSA season.

Community Shared Agriculture—or Community Supported Agriculture—has seen a burst in popularity over the last 10 years. With roots traced to locations as varied as Japan, Germany, and the American South, CSA farms grew in part as a response to feelings that eaters were becoming more and more disconnected from their sources of food.

At its heart, the CSA approach is very simple. Eaters make a commitment to a certain farm by buying a “share” at the start of the season. Then they get part of the food produced each week throughout the growing season. At our farm, that means they get a box of vegetables each week for 22 weeks, though the CSA model has also been used for meat, cheese, bread and other foods.

In buying a share, CSA members accept some of the risk—and the bounty—of running a farm. This means that the produce members receive is seasonal, local, and fresh, and that it varies with the weather. The share boxes in the first few weeks tend to be smaller, and hold mostly early-season crops like lettuce, spinach, spring turnips, green onions, kale and produce from our greenhouse.

Come late June and early July, more crops mature, and the variety grows dramatically; the boxes also hold peas and green beans, cucumbers and zucchini, cherry tomatoes, herbs and beets. By August the boxes are literally overflowing with tomatoes, summer squash, onions, carrots, cucumbers, beans, beets and lettuce.

Finally, as autumn comes on the crops shift to reflect the season: Winter squashes, salad greens, peppers, kale, storage onions, root vegetables.

Because the shares are directly tied to our actual yields, the exact crops in the box can vary a lot from year to year. One year might see a bumper crop of tomatoes and only a fair year for lettuce. The next might be a modest year for tomatoes but an exceptional year for broccoli.

Weather makes a huge difference for farmers. Usually, eaters are isolated from that. The grocery store always appears to have limitless produce from somewhere, but gives shoppers no idea of where specifically the food was grown, by who, or what challenges were involved. But our members want to understand that. They want to be connected to where their food comes from and they want to know about the bigger factors—from summer rainstorms to global warming—that affect their food supply.

One member told us: “From a family perspective, the best part of the CSA is raising our children to understand the importance of locally grown nutritious food and how hard farmers work to provide families with this food.”

The system has a lot of benefits for farmers, too. We know at the beginning of the season that we’ll make a livable income, so we don’t have to gamble on fluctuating grain prices or we don’t have to make ecological compromises like spraying pesticide on our food.

And eaters benefit by knowing they have exceptionally fresh, nutritious, and local food easily accessible each week. They want to support the livelihoods of local people who share their interest in organic food production and they want to have some say in how they farm is run; every fall, for example, we hold a survey to help us decide what crops we should grow more or less of, and what we should do differently.

But the season is about more than distributing vegetables. CSA season, for us, means the community season. Many of our dearest friends are connected to the CSA in some way. Just seeing and visiting with people when they pick up their vegetables is a big motivator for us.

Likewise, community for eaters has been a huge part of the growing popularity of CSAs in Kingston and across North America. With veggie pick-ups, work bees and harvest celebrations, CSAs provide ample opportunities for CSA members to connect with each other and the land.

You can buy food, but you can’t put a price on community.

Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He lives and works at a mixed family farm with a dairy herd and a vegetable operation. For more about the vegetable CSA, visit

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