Aric McBay Author, farmer, organizer.

1Nov/17Off

Column: New red pepper being developed locally

Another variety, Blue Kuri Winter Squash, is having its seeds saved. Here are the squash ready to be deseeded.

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

Nearly all of the food we eat starts with seed.

Consider a red pepper crop. The harvest is dependent on soil, water, and farmer labour, but the ultimate potential of any crop is within the seed. How large or flavourful is the fruit? How many days after planting until the crop begins to ripen? Is the plant resistant to dry spells or fungal infection?

A variety that thrives in one region may fail in another, which is one of the reasons that a local project is developing new varieties suited to our area, in a joint project between farmers and plant scientists.

“Farmers actually make really good plant breeders,” said Kathy Rothermel of the Kingston Area Seed Systems Initiative (KASSI), a non-profit.

Rothermel is one of four farmers in Ontario working to develop a new variety of sweet red pepper; a short season pepper suited to our growing conditions. Their research partner in the project is Dr. Michael Mazourek, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University.

According to Rothermel, most commercially available seeds are not well-suited to ecological farmers. For large seed-breeders, the focus has been on standardization, producing vegetable crops that look uniform and that ripen at the same time for mass harvesting.

While some of these changes have increased yields, they’ve also made those yields dependent—as Rothermel points out—on heavy inputs like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (inputs manufactured and sold by the same agrochemical companies that breed many seeds, such as Monsanto).

Locally adapted varieties—crops selected to match our soils, our growing season, and our rainfall—can thrive without as many expensive inputs.

One problem with most commercial seed breeding now is that farmers are cut out of the loop. New varieties are bred, selected in experimental plots, and trialed at a research stations by scientists or seed companies. Farmers are involved only after a new variety has already been commercialized and released.

Rothermel and others are taking a new approach: it’s called participatory breeding.

“I’m really interested in reinvigorating the relationship between university breeders and farmers,” she said.

In participatory breeding, researchers and farmers work together. To start with, farmers and researchers identify existing varieties with desirable characteristics—say one carrot that is very sweet, and one carrot with great storage qualities. They would cross-breed those existing varieties, and then grow out a variety of offspring to find some that have both qualities.

That’s the stage the red pepper project is at now, explained Rothermel: “We’ve grown out peppers in our locale, and we’ll make selections based on what we want to grow in our fields.”

Their results this season will be sent back to Cornell University, and through collaboration new local varieties will emerge over time. Growing out test varieties at multiple locations will also help build some of the genetic diversity that many commercial varieties lack.

“It’s important because we’ve lost a lot of the genetic heritage, the genetic breadth,” said Rothermel. “We’ve lost a lot of varieties. We have to take what we have left and breed new varieties for today.”

In particular, the changing climate is a threat that we need new varieties to adapt to.

“We are very vulnerable,” says Rothermel.

Localized seed breeding is an agricultural necessity, but it also has a lot of culinary potential. Rothermel suggests that we could develop new varieties of different crops like squash or tomatoes for use in restaurants in Kingston, or even for particular recipes. And she encourages eaters to learn more about the diversity of varieties that already exist, and that we eat without considering.

“I want our citizens to ask farmers at the farmers market, ‘what’s that variety of green beans?’” she said. “And I want local chefs to know that there is a range of winter squash varieties for culinary use.”

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4Feb/17Off

Five ways to fight authoritarianism

(Via Liz Cooper Photography)

(Via Liz Cooper Photography)

(Transcript of a talk given to the Building Bridges Not Walls event in Kingston, February 2, 2017.)

 Thank you all for coming tonight.

I’m here to talk about resistance and authoritarianism, because we need to get comfortable using both of those words.

A defining feature of authoritarians—whether they are in the far right wing or outright fascists—is that they do not care for discussion or dialogue. They do not care about objective facts. They believe that because they are in power they can dictate reality.

Let me ask you all a question, and I want to hear your answer. If you presented Donald Trump with all the best scientific facts, does anyone here believe that he would take action on global warming?

[Crowd: NO]

And if you explained sexism to him, do you believe he would stop mistreating women?

[Crowd: NO]

And if you gave him a heartfelt speech against racism, do you believe he would stop appointing white supremacists to cabinet posts?

[Crowd: NO]

Good, then we’re already doing better than the “respectable leaders” of the 1930s, who believed you could negotiate with fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini, instead of resisting them.

Hands clasped in friendship, Adolf Hitler and England's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, are shown in this historic pose at Munich on Sept. 30, 1938. This was the day when the premier of France and England signed the Munich agreement, sealing the fate of Czechoslovakia. Next to Chamberlain is Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambasador to Germany. Paul Schmidt, an Interpreter, stands next to Hitler. (AP Photo)

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain smiles as he shakes hands with Hitler, after signing a 1938 "peace" deal allowing the Nazis to invade Czechoslovakia. (via)

There is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to fascism and white supremacy. There is no such thing as a “moderate” position. You either work against fascism, or through inaction you encourage it to spread, and to commit atrocities.

So I ask all of you, are you ready to become anti-authoritarians?

[Crowd: YES!]

Good! Then we have a rich history of resistance to guide us.

After the election, many people were shocked and disoriented. People asked, what do we do?

Anti-authoritarian movements, both historical and current, can help answer those questions. We can look at Nazi-occupied Europe, at Apartheid South Africa, at Turkey, and many other places. Their struggles tell us how to fight authoritarianism and win.

So I’m going to tell you five things that we should all be doing as anti-authoritarians.

 

Number 1: Organize cultures of resistance

The first thing to do is organize cultures of resistance. Anti-fascism is not a solo event, it’s a team sport. As anti-authoritarians, all of us here work together if we want to win.

Part of our job is to  immunize people against authoritarians, to keep them from being recruited by fascists. The Nazis were able to win support from many parts of society, but some groups in Germany, like leftist social movements, were immune to Nazi recruitment.

Leftists, socialists, and anarchists organized against Nazism, held community events, theatre nights, public dinners, and so on. They were able provide people with a community and a way of understanding the world that emphasized fairness and equality, so that people didn’t fall prey to scapegoating and fascist propaganda. So that when the political establishment faltered, regular people had an alternative to the far right.

We should be doing that, too, because the bigger our movement is, the more effective it is, and the safer people feel to resist.

 

Number 2: Build solidarity

The second thing we must do is to build solidarity to avoid “divide and conquer”. To build bridges.

Fascists and authoritarians always use divide and conquer. They split the people into manageable segments that can be dealt with one by one. You know Martin Niemoller’s poem about the Nazis: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out...” And so on, and so on, until there was no one left.

But there was a sign at one of Women’s marches: “First they came for the Muslims, and we said not this time.

Women's march with signs.

Women's March, (via Khary Penebaker)

Effective movements, like Nelson Mandela’s ANC in South Africa, have brought together many different groups from across society, from feminists to labour unions, anti-racist organizers to socialists, religious resisters to people taking direct action.

Solidarity is essential. And there should be no by-standers, no spectators. We all have to join the fight against authoritarianism, the fight against white supremacy.

That’s why I’m glad to see many new faces in the crowd tonight. Welcome. I’m happy that you’re here. And I hope you’ll continue to become more involved.

And to the seasoned organizers, I hope that you will also welcome these people so that we can build stronger movements.

Working together also means genuinely listening to each other, not just papering over differences. We should work together, but we must continue to acknowledge that there are deep injustices in our society.

To build real solidarity, privileged people (myself included) have to listen to people who have more direct experiences of oppression.

Which leads to our third task:

 

Number 3: Listen to the people who have been fighting all along.

Listen to the people who have been fighting all along.

Anti-fascist militiawomen in Spain, c. 1937.

Anti-fascist militiawomen in Spain, c. 1937.

There were anti-Fascist organizers throughout Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, but they were considered by the respectable and established powers to be “too radical.” Too combative. Too noisy.

In the late 1930s, Fascists backed a military coup in Spain; it was a “dry run” for the invasion of the rest of Europe. Volunteer anti-authoritarians from around the world—especially anarchists, socialists, and communists—traveled to Spain at their own expense to take up arms to stop the violent spread of Fascism.

What did the government of Canada do at the time? Did they send support to these resisters? No. Did they welcome refugees? No. While regular people around world organized anti-Nazi boycotts as early as 1933, the Allied governments didn’t block trade with Germany until Nazi troops were already marching across Europe.

The Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, wrote admiringly about Mussolini in his diary, and bought up all the land around his house so Jews couldn’t move into the neighbourhood.

Consider, also, what happened in Denmark after it was invaded by the Nazis. You may have heard the story that after the Nazis ordered all Jews in Denmark to wear the yellow star, the King of Denmark himself rode out wearing a yellow star on his sleeve. And so the Jews were saved.

It’s a great story, but it’s completely wrong. What actually happened was that thousands of political activists and regular people in Denmark organized underground resistance networks to smuggle Jews out of the country, often to Sweden in tiny fishing boats. Some people took enormous risks, others funded the resistance. Some networks posed as innocuous community groups, like sewing clubs. It is thanks to those people, and not to a King, that over 99% of Danish Jews survived the Holocaust.

Danish fishermen help smuggle Jews out of Nazi-Occupied Denmark, 1943.

Danish fishermen help smuggle Jews out of Nazi-Occupied Denmark, 1943. (via Jewish Virtual Library)

The fight against authoritarianism is not led by Prime Ministers or Kings. It does not come from the people with the most privilege.

No, the fight against authoritarianism has often bee

n led by the people with the least power, with the least privilege. The people who those in power think are too noisy. The people who are not worried about being “respectable” to the authorities. Those are the people who resist authoritarianism, who understand what has been happening all long, and who have had the courage to act. Governments may follow along, but people must lead.

So listen to the grassroots organizers in this room, who have been fighting to bring in refugees, fighting against racist police violence, and against pipelines on indigenous land. And recognize that for indigenous people, for many people of colour, the Canadian state has often been an authoritarian state. Dedicated activists have been fighting against that for a very long time.

 

Number 4: Support people on the front lines

Which brings me to our fourth task: we must support people on the front lines.

Not all people in a resistance movement have to be on the front lines. In fact, only a small percentage of people are. It’s the job of everyone else to support the people on the front lines, whether they are refugees trying to get to safety, or combatants struggling against the authoritarians.

Anti-Apartheid freedom march in Glasgow, Scotland, 1988.

Anti-Apartheid freedom march in Glasgow, Scotland, 1988. (via Forward to freedom)

The Struggle against Apartheid in South Africa succeeded because it was supported by groups around the world. The organizers in the civil rights movement who were arrested for sitting at the front of the bus or eating at the “wrong” lunch counter could take that risk because they were supported by their community. People at Standing Rock have been able to endure for the same reason.

We must support people here and abroad who are fighting against racism, against misogyny, against pipelines, and many other things. We must support the kinds of community groups that are joining us here tonight, whether we join them as organizers, or attend their events, or give them donations.

So far, that gives us four tasks for anti-authoritarians: Organize cultures of resistance, build solidarity, listen to resisters, and support people on the front lines.

I’ll come back to the fifth task in a minute, but first another question: What does all of this mean for us, in Canada, specifically?

Part of the answer is that we must look beyond Trump. Trump is horrible, yes, but if we speak only about prominent individuals, we risk overlooking the larger cultural and political movements that thrust them into power.

A film still of Hannah Arendt.

The anti-Fascist scholar Hannah Arendt came to understand that the scariest thing about fascism is that most of its rank-and-file participants are not monsters, they’re psychologically normal. They aren’t missing a part of their brain, they’re just regular human beings. Hannah Arendt called it "the banality of evil."

So part of our job here in Canada is to keep what is happening now—the attacks on immigrants, on women, on Muslims—from being normalized. We must keep evil from becoming banal.

At the same time, we must recognize the places where evil has already become normalized, where it has become banal.

And unquestionably, one of these normalized evils is Canada’s treatment of indigenous people. Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples has inspired authoritarian states. Apartheid in South Africa was modeled after the reservation system in Canada. And Hitler often spoke of wanting to do in Europe what the “Nordic races” had done in North America. To push aside and erase the “non-Aryan” people and take their land. He saw genocide in North America as a model for the Nazi Holocaust.

Even before Trump, we in Canada have a tendency to look at America and think “oh, we’re so much better, we’re so much more progressive.” But there are areas where Trump’s policy and Trudeau’s policy overlap in alarming ways, including on oil pipelines.

Both Trump and Trudeau are moving for significant expansion of oil pipelines and the tar sands, which means further repression of indigenous people. We may have very different feelings about Trump and Trudeau, but oil executives love both of them. It’s a bit of a good-cop-bad-cop routine. And frankly, Trump and Trudeau are bringing us to the same place: runaway climate change that will create hundreds of millions of additional refugees, and eventually render much of the planet uninhabitable.

We must put our bodies in the way of further pipeline expansion. Indigenous people have led the way on this for decades. But all settlers in Canada must must now share the same fight as indigenous people, because we share the same fate. On climate change and pipelines, we will live or die together. 

Standing Rock demonstrators (via Injustice Boycott)

Standing Rock (via Injustice Boycott)

 

 

Number 5: Take Action

Which brings us to our fifth and final task as anti-authoritarians: to take action. To stand up and fight against the evil things that we have come face to face with.

We have to do that collectively, and in a way that makes use of our own skills and our particular situations.  Authoritarians don’t care what we think, which is why our only leverage comes from actively interfering with their schemes, by targeting their weak points, and by costing them money.

Protests this weekend against the refugee ban came very close to shutting down some airports, which was a promising start. Economic disruption is an area where the people have far more leverage than in Congress or in Parliament. That’s why economic disruption, divestment, and boycotts were used by people fighting Apartheid in South Africa, and many other places.

We need to approach the corporations that work with authoritarians in the same way. Oil companies and authoritarians have teamed up for decades around the world. I think in Canada a lot of our anti-authoritarian efforts must focus on indigenous solidarity and pipelines, and to follow the model of indigenous people at Standing Rock and Unist’ot’en.

As for the fascists: There’s only one thing that can stop them now. Us. Us being brave, being organized, and working together. Standing up and fighting back.

Anti-authoritarians can win, but it takes work and commitment. And will take more than marching and carrying a sign. One of the reasons Trump has done so many terrible things in the first week is because he thinks that people will get tired of marching, tired of protesting, and that he can then go on and do whatever he wants. So let’s work together and prove him wrong.

Let’s show that we refuse to be intimidated. We refuse to be terrorized into silence and submission. That we will stand up, and fight injustice.

To conclude, I want to make sure that all the new people here know an old chant. This is call and response. I’ll ask you question, and the answer is, “stand up, fight back”.

Refugees under attack, what do we do?

[STAND UP FIGHT BACK]

Indigenous people under attack, what do we do?

[STAND UP FIGHT BACK]

Women under attack, we do we do?

[STAND UP FIGHT BACK]

Planet Earth under attack, what do we do?

[STAND UP FIGHT BACK]

Thank you.

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1Dec/16Off

Column: 2016 showed that climate change is here—and that we can stop it

Image of Unist'ot'en via Will Falk.

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

Once again, the year comes to end with temperature records; 2016 was the warmest year in history, by disturbingly large margin.

I’ve written here before about the extreme weather we experienced on the farm, from record-breaking snowfalls to record-breaking droughts in the same year.

Though rain and snow have returned to eastern Ontario, lakes and rivers are still low in our area, and the global emergency has worsened. Climate studies from around the world have made it clear that we are on track for worst-case-scenario warming, very possibly a rise of 5-6 degrees Celsius within this century.

To put that in perspective: when the planet was only 4 degrees cooler, most of Canada was covered in an ice sheet a kilometer thick. We’re looking at a much greater change in the opposite direction, within the lifetime of children now being born.

Global warming is more extreme in northern areas and continental interiors, meaning that much of Canada could experience warming of twice the global average: 10 degrees or more.

It’s hard to imagine farmers in Canada being able to adapt to the extreme weather that would bring, let alone farmers in in poorer, hotter, and drier parts of the world.

The bottom line: If you want your children and your children’s children to be able to eat, we need to stop climate change now.

Meanwhile, the next President of the United States is someone who claims global warming is a Chinese hoax, and who is already stocking the White House with climate change deniers and oil company executives.

In recent weeks Prime Minister Trudeau has unveiled a climate change plan, but also approved two new export pipelines out of the tar sands. And he’s made supportive noises about another pipeline, Keystone XL, which Trump has likewise expressed interest in resurrecting; the two seem likely to collaborate.

Make no mistake: further expansion of the tar sands would be an irreversible disaster for future generations. Conventional oil and gas are bad enough for the climate, and the tar sands produce far more greenhouse emissions for the energy they yield. NASA climate scientist James Hansen speaks about tar sands expansion in apocalyptic terms, bluntly warning it would mean “game over for the climate.”

As far as tar sands pipelines are concerned, Trudeau has done little to distinguish himself from Trump. I fear that future generations—if faced with runaway climate change—may see no real difference between Trudeau and Trump on global warming.

It should be exceptionally clear at this point that governments alone cannot and will not prevent catastrophic climate change.

What can stop it? People who take action.

We have seen, in the last month, the huge progress made by people fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The US Army Corps of Engineers rejected an easement needed to complete the pipeline.

And the single pipeline rejected by Trudeau last month—Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline—is has been the target of years of resistance. There is a six-year-old encampment built on the proposed pipeline route in unceded Unist’ot’en territory.

When people take action, it works.

These people are fighting for all of us. They are fighting against climate chaos, and for a livable future.

It’s our responsibility—as people who eat and otherwise need the Earth to stay alive—to support people fighting against these pipeline expansion projects. Fortunately, more and more people see that.

I hope that you personally will support them, not just by clicking “like” on social media, but by donating to a group like the Indigenous Environmental Network.

I support these groups, because the future of our farm depends on it. And so does the future of our planet.

Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He’s also a member of the National Farmers Union, which recently passed a resolution in support of land and water defenders like those at Standing Rock and Unist'ot’en.

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1Oct/16Off

Column: Long Road Eco Farm offers something unique and delicious

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

Xiaobing Shen and Jonathan Davies took an unusual path to become ecological farmers north of Kingston.

Xiaobing spent his early years in a village in rural China. His mother was a peasant. His partner Jonathan grew up in southern Alberta. The two of them met in Calgary, where Xiaobing had gone to do his Master’s degree and together they spent time in Munich, Germany, before moving to Toronto.

But they weren’t happy with Toronto or the daily grind of city life; part of it was the food.

“Where I grew up, the pork was so delicious,” explains Xiaobing. He assumed that pig breeds in Canada were just different until he tried some organic pork and realized it had the same flavour as back home. “It’s how the pig was raised,” he realized.

In Toronto, they started gardening, and watched documentaries about the industrial food system. But their garden in Toronto was so far away they had to commute to it, which made moving to a farm seem appealing.

“Other young people were doing it, too,” says Jonathan. “And they seemed like sensible people, doing it for good reasons. It seemed like more people should be trying this.”

Both were attracted to the ideas of freedom, independence, and being your own boss, but Xiaobing wasn’t convinced immediately.

“I knew farming was hard,” he says.

When Xiaobing told his family in China that he was going to become a farmer, they thought he was joking.

“They never thought I wanted to go back to farming.”

Jonathan’s family pictured a sprawling Alberta-style crop farm with giant combines. Instead, the farm they purchased on Highway 38 just north of Kingston, is comparatively cozy, with a large garden, a greenhouse, and roaming poultry. They converted an existing swimming pool into a cistern, and use it to water their garden.

In their first spring on the farm they started going to a farmers’ market, but their garden wasn’t in full production yet. So Xiaobing decided to prepare some Chinese peasant food and bring that to the market. Their “farm sum” became quite popular.

Xiaobing makes four flavours of steamed bun, a dumpling stuffed with pork, vegetables, tofu, or a sweet bean filling.

“There’s something special about steamed buns,” says Xiaobing. I can attest to that: the steamed buns are delicious either freshly steamed or reheated. (I like to reheat them by gently frying them with a bit of butter.)

They also offer fermented vegetables and a chili sesame oil, as well as a delicious fermented tofu or “soy cheese.”

Their tofu is probably the best I’ve ever tasted, in part because it really does resemble cheese. The consistency is a bit like Brie, and the strongly fermented flavour reminds me of a blue cheese. It also has a spicy chili coating. I can’t think of anything similar in European traditions, and just describing it makes me want to go get more.

For a small operation, Long Road Eco Farm produces a remarkable diversity of products. They sell seasonal vegetables, including strawberries in early summer, and they have a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program.

Though they have settled in since moving to the area in 2013, farming in here is still very different from China.

“It’s much easier here,” explains Xiaobing. “You have a lot of land and a lot of resources.” But farming in Canada is also more expensive. “Back home in the village, you can’t make much income, but in the meantime there’s not much cost.”

“It’s still a really tough business,” says Jonathan. “Overall it’s been really positive. It’s a good way to live.”

You can find Xiaobing and Jonathan along with their farm sum every Sunday, year round, at the Memorial Centre Farmers Market. Look for more information at http://www.longroadecofarm.ca/ as well as on their Facebook page.

Aric McBay is a farmer and author.

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1Sep/16Off

Column: Rad Kids Farm Camp has another successful year

Soil science with kids. (Copyright Andree Thorpe Photography.)

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

This summer our farm hosted our second annual kids’ camp, run by Marie Bencze of Rad Kids.

For three weeks this summer we had twelve kids running around the farm learning how to take care of chickens and feed cows, how to make yogurt and compost, and where to find different plants and wildlife.

The kids, mostly aged 5-11, had a blast. Camp coordinator Marie Bencze organized a full slate of farm and nature activities each day, teaching the kids both farm skills and respect for the land and each other.

It was fascinating to see how kids try to understand and internalize the rules of new situations. They were especially interested in how to interact with different animals, such as the cows. Every day the kids would see the dairy cows being moved around by our border collie, Meg.

Meg was an endless source of excitement for the kids, who showered her with attention—sometimes to the detriment of Meg’s herding duties.

The kids wanted to learn all of Meg’s different herding commands. And they wanted to act them out. One group of kids made up their own herding game, in which one child would play the dog, and the others would play a herd of cows. Then they herd each other from activity to activity.

They also came to understand and respect different parts of farm work, including the work done by our dog Meg. After we asked them—I think a couple of times—not to distract Meg by calling her while she was herding, the kids devised and acted out an elaborate skit.

In the skit, a “herding dog” (played by a kid, of course) was distracted from its work by a group of yelling children. As a result, in this morality play, one of the “cows” (a kid) was eaten by a “coyote” (another kid).

The chickens, however, were probably the favourite animals to visit. Chickens are perfectly sized livestock for children; small enough to pick up, and big enough to be interesting.

Feeding chickens was the most poultry popular activity, especially once the kids realized the chickens would eat over-ripe cucumbers out of their hands. Collecting eggs was a close second.

The success of the camp was due to the energy and diverse skill sets of those involved. Our photographer-in-residence, Andree Thorpe, documented events and lent each of the kids a tiny digital camera to use themselves. Each of the farmers here dedicated some of their time to different activities—from dairy farming to soil science—and many volunteers and guest presenters joined us as well.

Rad Kids showed me how children can have a very fun and educational time on a farm, and we’ll look forward to hosting them again next year.

You can learn more about the camp at radkidsblog.wordpress.com.

Aric McBay is a farmer and author based on Howe Island.

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12Aug/16Off

Column: A turning point for prison farm restoration?

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

This week could be a turning point for the prison farm campaign. On Aug. 8, we saw the sixth anniversary of the massive blockades at Collins Bay, and a substantial crowed celebrated those who have kept a weekly vigil since 2010. And Tuesday, Aug. 16 is the government’s public consultation on the prison farm restoration.

The official 6 p.m. consultation at City Hall will be preceded by a public rally at 4:30 p.m. in Confederation Basin. Speakers from the campaign will be joined with musicians, including Sarah Harmer and Chris Brown, along with former prison farm worker Pat Kincaid.

Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, will also be in Kingston that day for the events.

The future of the prison farms could now hinge on the size of the turnout on Tuesday night, and the strength of the community’s stand.

As we have seen, the prison farm movement has been persistent and enduring.

A core group of prison farm supporters have held a vigil in front of Collins Bay Penitentiary every Monday night since August, 2010. These dedicated people have been there in every kind of weather, regardless of heat, cold, wind, rain, for well over three hundred Mondays.

The number of vigil-keepers has varied over the years, but always a core group has kept the flame going. That core group was recognized by Dianne Dowling on behalf of Save Our Prison Farms at the sixth anniversary vigil.

“It’s inspiring and valuable to the campaign that they’ve kept the issue in front of the public through their persistence,” said Dowling. Save Our Prison Farms awarded each of the core vigil-keepers a gift: a set of cards based on a painting by local artist Ann Barlow. Barlow’s painting depicts a calf named Hope, the first calf in the Pen Farm Herd Co-op.

That herd, as you may know, was formed out of former prison farm cows bought at auction by prison farm supporters. Sustained by community shareholders (mostly families and small groups), the Pen Farm Herd Co-op has grown in the last six years.

According to Meela Melnik-Proud, the Co-op’s secretary, the number of shareholders in the group has grown—reaching 100 members in its first week in August, 2010, it now has over 200.

And the herd now numbers 19 cows, seven heifers, and 10 calves, hosted by eight different farms in the area.

Co-op members are itching to see those animals finally restored to the prison farm where they belong. And after six years of continuing to advocate for the restoration, they hope to see swift progress after the official public consultation concludes.

Furthermore, events of the past six years have only underscored the importance of protecting the prison farm lands. Increasing food prices and extreme weather associated with climate change make it clear that we need to take good care of every bit of farmland we have.

And if the community response on Tuesday night is as strong as it’s been in the past, the prison farm movement might finally be approaching the finish line.

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1Aug/16Off

Column: Alarming weather challenges Kingston area farmers

Rebuilding a greenhouse destroyed by record snowfall.

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

This is been a record-breaking year for farmers, and not in a good way.

Globally, the past year has been the hottest year ever recorded. Indeed, each month on Earth has been hotter than the last; June was the fourteenth consecutive record-breaking month. The data from July isn’t available yet, but we have every reason to expect it will continue the trend.

In Ontario we’ve seen record-breaking drought. Several parts of Ontario, including Kingston and areas east of it, saw their lowest precipitation ever recorded for April through June. And things did not improve in July.

Drought map via Agriculture Canada.

You can see it in our fields. You can see it in our dry pastures, in which grass goes yellow and stops growing. You can see it in the dust the cows kick up as they walk to the very back of the farm to reach pasture which hasn’t been grazed yet.

You can see worry in the faces of farmers. Plants are stressed, farmers are stressed. This summer I’ve found myself thinking about the Dust Bowl on many a hot afternoon.

Our vegetable gardens—irrigated to the maximum capacity of our water system—look green compared to the pastures. Our vegetable yields are good, considering. That’s in large part because my partner Emily is such a careful planner, and because our staff are so hard working.

Still, this weather is only a glimpse of the climate change to come.

The hot, dry weather is shocking a contrast to February 16 of this year, which social media dubbed “snowmageddon”. On that day we saw record-breaking snowfall in parts of Eastern Ontario. Ottawa received nearly half a metre, smashing the single-day record set in 1947.

We had it, too; on our farm, the sudden wet snowfall crushed our only greenhouse, snapping strong metal ribs into pieces. The engineers who designed our greenhouse did not anticipate the rapid onset of climate change, did not anticipate the many ways farming is being forced to change.

My family drove 12 hours to come and help us rebuild. We replaced the greenhouse frame with something twice as strong. We were fortunate to have family support, to be able to afford to replace that infrastructure.

Around the world, most people are not so lucky. It’s the inequality of climate change; we in the wealthiest parts of the world, who release the most greenhouse gases, are also best able to adapt. The small farmers and peasants who produce most of the world’s food, on the other hand, have the fewest material resources to cope with global warming.

And the problem of global warming is not limited to rural areas. Sea level at New York City has already increased by a full foot versus a century ago. Sea level there is expected to increase another foot in the next fifteen years, along with higher storm surges and more intense hurricanes.

Too often, climate change is framed as something gradual that our grandchildren will have to worry about. This attitude is not just a simple misconception, but also the result of ongoing PR campaigns.

It was recently revealed that the oil and gas industry has known about climate change for nearly 50 years. But—much like the tobacco industry did in the 1970s—they’ve funded groups to deny or cast doubt on the reality of climate change.

These well-funded groups have laid siege to climate scientists, inducing many climate scientists to release only conservative models, predicting smaller amounts of climate change to avoid charges of “alarmism.”

But we should be alarmed; we are well on course for the future that climate reports a decade ago called “the worst case scenario.”

The problem—as we have seen this year—is not just the increase in degrees, but the increase in extremes. A year that can crush our greenhouse with record snowfall, and then give us record drought six months later. It’s easy to see why some people prefer the term “climate chaos” over the more mundane “climate change”.

In any case, it’s just the beginning. But it’s the time to act. Changes now can still make a difference.

It’s certainly good to support sustainable farms and local infrastructure for climate change adaptation. But we can’t adapt to climate change at its worst.

We need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.

The question is: How fast can we do it? That’s the only climate record we should be trying to break.

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1Jul/16Off

Column: Rural youth retention requires a new perspective

Small ecological farms create more rural jobs. (Copyright Andree Thorpe Photography.)

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

This week I was part of a roundtable discussion with Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture about how to attract and retain young people in rural communities. Much of the discussion revolved around jobs and services (like internet access or community services such as schools).

But the discussion also revealed some bigger structural problems in the way that government policy treats rural communities.

Kingston City Councillor Richard Allen (District 1, Countryside) pointed out that municipalities get funded for growth. If they increase their population, if they build more infrastructure, they get more money from higher levels of government.

Areas that don’t increase their population don’t get much money, making it harder to provide community services, making it harder to retain people. It’s vicious cycle.

If we actually want rural communities to thrive and be attractive to young people, we have to change how we think about farming and rural communities.

Since the Second World War, much of Canada’s agricultural policy has been built on the idea that bigger is always better. If one farmer can plough a hundred acres, that’s okay, but it’s better to plough a thousand acres, or ten thousand. Canada’s agricultural policy has encouraged that, meaning bigger farms, bigger tractors, bigger everything.

The result, especially in the prairies, has been rural depopulation as farms get bigger, and farmers get farther apart. The same pressures are at work in much of Ontario.

As farmers get fewer and farther apart, rural populations shrink, schools and hospitals close, hardware stores shut down, government services get cut. Villages and hamlets wither.

The prevailing attitude of economists in the last 50 years is that this is a good thing - that if one farmer can plough 10,000 acres, they are doing the work of 100 old-style farmers. They’re more efficient, goes this way of thinking, and efficiency is good.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, gigantic monoculture farms are not very efficient in their use of energy, water, and soil. Huge fields growing single crops require a lot of inputs like pesticides, fertilizers, and diesel fuel for the heavy equipment. The ecological expenses are enormous.

Our farm, in contrast, strives to be sustainable. We have a lot of staff, which means a lot of farmers and farm workers concentrated especially on a few acres of garden. In the gardens we actually have more than one farmer per acre.

In the old way of thinking, this is inefficient. In the old way of thinking, you should be counting in acres per farmer, not farmers per acre.

A fresh way of thinking is to recognize that small ecological farms are good at creating jobs. And at bringing in revenue—our gardens, which feed hundreds of families, generate far more money per acre than a monoculture cash crop.

That revenue also has a more beneficial impact on our community, because local dollars circulate here.

A key problem with mass-scale conventional agriculture is that farms make more gross income overall, but farmer net income has stagnated. Some enormous farms may bring in millions of dollars each year, but virtually all of that money goes right back out again to buy equipment, seeds, pesticides, and so on, from companies like Monsanto.

During the roundtable, Minister of Agriculture Jeff Leal explained with pride that the agri-food sector in Ontario contributes $35 billion to the province’s GDP.

But so much of that $35 billion in agri-food GDP goes right back out to the corporate headquarters of Monsanto, or Cargill, or John Deere, and to wealthy investors in the US or overseas.

Money spent on local farmers, in contrast, circulates in the community. Every dollar spent on local food generates several more dollars for the local economy. And those dollars can provide meaningful jobs.

That’s the kind of approach we need if we actually want to revitalize rural communities, attract young people and fight climate change. And that’s the kind of approach Ontario should prioritize.

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1Jun/16Off

Column: Prison farm progress a glimmer of hope

The empty siloes, barns, and fields around Collins Bay and Frontenac Institutions may soon be active again.

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

It’s been nearly six years since the massive blockades of Collins Bay penitentiary. Since hundreds of people put their bodies in the way of the removal of dairy cattle and the closures of the prison farm. Since two dozen people—and one donkey—were arrested trying to stop what they saw as not only a bad policy decision, but a threat to democratic process.

To people outside of Kingston, hearing about the prison farm struggle for the first time in a burst of national news coverage, the breaking of the blockade probably looked like a defeat.

Instead, those events forged a movement with real staying power. In the days after the blockade, prison farm supporters pooled their money to buy cows from that prize-winning dairy herd, forming the Pen Farm Herd Co-op, and they’ve maintained those genetic lines to reconstitute the herd.

A prison farm vigil has taken place every Monday night across from Collins Bay. Die-hard supporters have been there—whether freezing or sweltering, snow or rain or sunshine—for over 300 weekly vigils.

Now, finally, there is real progress on the restoration of the prison farms. In keeping with a pre-election promise, the federal Liberals have ordered a feasibility study on restoring the two prison farms in Kingston. (Restoration of the other four across Canada doesn’t seem to be on the table.)

As part of that process, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is conducting an electronic survey about the prison farms, online at: www.csc-scc.gc.ca/consult/index-en.shtml

The anonymous survey on “institutional agribusiness,” as they call the prison farms, can be filled out until Aug. 2.

I would encourage you to fill out the survey. It’s a bit on the long side—choosing an answer often generates a new box asking you to expand or clarify—but you can skip questions and still submit the survey. If you are concise, it may only take you five minutes to fill out.

If you want to be more detailed, that’s great, but there are a few key priorities that the community expressed clearly six years ago, and that we need to reiterate now.

First of all, it’s essential that the prison farm land be kept intact. The CSC survey asks: “To what extent do you agree that the land previously used for CSC’s institutional agribusiness must continue to be used for these purposes?”

We need to keep that farmland to feed our community. Covering it with houses or factories would be unacceptable. Much of the best farmland in Canada has already been paved over—it’s underneath Toronto and other cities—and continues to be lost at a dizzying rate. We can’t afford to lose any more if we want to sustain ourselves in a future of global warming and unpredictable energy and water supplies.

And second, we have to emphasize the value of farming, in particular, for rehabilitation. The CSC survey focuses quite a bit on whether prisoners will get jobs as farmers, which has never been the primary concern of prison farm advocates.

Farming can help people to cultivate a wide variety of skills—from mechanical ability to personal qualities like diligence and persistence. But farming is different from most trades, in that caring for other creatures encourages empathy.

We know this in part because prisoners themselves told us that working with the dairy cows, in particular, developed their empathy. That it helped to keep them from becoming hardened by prison.

And while some people want to make prison into a universally terrible and debasing experience, the simple reality is that the vast majority of prisoners are eventually released into the community. Eventually we will pass them walking down the street.

We should make it clear to CSC—on this survey and in other ways—that this matters to us, and that “public safety” should mean something other than just building bigger prisons.

The restoration of the prison farms is still in the earliest stages. It’s happening slowly. And I don’t know how committed CSC is to maintaining the entirety of the farmland.

But here’s what I do know: The strength of the prison farm movement came from the fact that it didn’t just go with the flow. That people were willing to take a stand, and to obstruct business as usual, in order to protect their community and that farmland.

We did it then. And if we have to, we’ll do it again.

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1May/16Off

Column: Genetically modified alfalfa: not worth the risk

Aric McBay - Out Standing in Our Field

A genetically modified version of alfalfa is being sold and planted in Ontario fields this spring, and its effects could be wide-spread, pernicious, and impossible to reverse.

Alfalfa, for those of you who don’t farm, is a popular “perennial forage crop” that you’ve seen countless times even if you don’t recognize it. It looks a bit like clover (it’s related to peas) but it has narrower leaves and clusters of purple flowers. The fact that it’s a perennial—it lives for many years—is important, but we’ll come back to that. That it’s a forage means it’s eaten by livestock, especially cows, either on pasture or in preserved forms like hay or feed pellets. Alfalfa is a nutritious animal feed, adds nitrogen to the soil while it grows and improves soil health and texture by adding organic matter.

It’s also an important food source for bees, but we’ll come back to that, too.

A version of alfalfa was genetically modified more than 10 years ago to be resistant to Monsanto’s pesticide Roundup, also known as glyphosate. But genetically modified (GM) alfalfa was at first held back from both Canada and the US markets because of deep concerns about the long-term effects of releasing it.

Like other Roundup Ready crops, this GM alfalfa is meant to allow farmers to spray broad-spectrum herbicides to kill weeds without harming the alfalfa crop. The intent, Monsanto claims, is to allow farmers to spray less pesticide.

But the effect may ultimately be the opposite. While Roundup Ready crops are relatively new, in many places they’ve already become weeds. If you grow Roundup Ready soybeans in a field one year, and corn the next, leftover soybean seeds can act as herbicide resistant weeds.

Further, genetically modified traits aren’t limited to the crops they are put into. The domesticated crops we depend on have wild ancestors and wild relatives with whom they exchange genes. As herbicide-resistant genes move into feral plants, farmers will have to spray more herbicide—not less—to kill these new weeds.

Not that Monsanto would mind if farmers had to buy more of their product.

This is also where the bees come in. Bees are amazingly effective pollinators. Despite their size, they can move pollen many kilometers. Under normal circumstances that is a miracle of nature, but in this case it could be a catastrophe. Because bees pollinate alfalfa, there is no way to isolate a genetically modified alfalfa crop. There is nowhere you can put GM alfalfa—aside, perhaps, from some remote offshore island—where bees cannot carry the genes to an unmodified alfalfa flower.

For this reason, the President of the National Farmers Union, Jan Slomp, warned in the strongest terms against the release of GM alfalfa: “This would be a disaster for farmers because, once it has been planted, there would be no way to stop the GM trait from spreading to organic and conventional farms and crops. There are many domestic and export markets that completely reject alfalfa seeds, hay or pellets with any GM content.”

Many organic dairy farms like ours depend on alfalfa. It’s a key species in our pasture and hayfields, along with other perennials like clover and various grasses. It supports honeybees and wild bees. It feeds our animals, and it feeds the soil by adding nitrogen.

And because it’s a perennial, it’s reliable. Its deep root systems make it resistant to drought and the challenging weather that climate change is already bringing.

But again, the GM trait has turned those very qualities against us. Unlike annual crops—which are mostly finished after a single year if not replanted—the genes in perennials like alfalfa will persist forever. Once released, there is no way to contain it.

How this will ultimately affect organic farmers and our certification is unclear, but it won’t be good. Conventional farmers and the land itself may ultimately suffer from a crop that will mean more herbicide-resistant weeds and more pesticides sprayed.

Fortunately, there seems to be a critical mass growing against GM alfalfa in Canada. A letter sent on April 20 to federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Lawrence MacAulay asking him “to take immediate action to stop any further release” of GM alfalfa was signed 133 different farms and farm groups, including the National Farmers Union and Quebec’s Union des Producteurs Agricoles. Thousands and individuals also sent their own letters. A Twitter storm last week saw thousands of tweets on the subject in one hour, and a change.org petition to the Ag Minister has just shy of 50,000 signatories as of writing.

If you do want to stop the release of GM alfalfa, it’s not too late, and many organizations are working hard to pressure the government to keep GM alfalfa out of Ontario and Canada. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network has information on what you can do at their website, www.cban.ca.

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 rootradicalrows.com.

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