The Crisis in Canadian Farming

The growing gap between what they produce and what they earn is driving many farmers off the land

Illustration by Scott McKowen
Illustration by Scott McKowen

For my daughter’s fifth birthday, her friend Jake Ferguson arrived with a picture he had drawn himself. They’ve known each other since they were in daycare together at the age of two; they interact easily, like siblings, and she accepted the drawing with casual thanks and little fanfare. My wife and I were much more taken with it.

The picture was an assemblage of large rectangular shapes on outsize wheels, a big hunk of machinery coloured in a vaguely familiar scheme of bright green and yellow. We already knew Jake was an obsessive fan of big trucks and industrial equipment—his mother, Zoe, once told us he awaited the launch of a new season of Mighty Machines the way our daughter, Sloane, anticipates the latest Pixar release, and Zoe sometimes entertained her son by reading to him from farm equipment catalogues. Still, there was something uncommonly touching about his gift of a picture of the machine he loved the most: a John Deere combine harvester.

“I tried to tell him Sloane might want something else,” his mother told us as we grinned at the drawing. “Maybe she’d like it better if he drew flowers or her favourite animal or something like that.”

Jake’s brusque reply: “Who doesn’t love a combine? ”

Zoe Ferguson grew up on a farm in southeastern Alberta, and her father and brother still work the land there. Jake had spent weekends and lazy summer days on the farm since he was an infant, riding alongside his grandfather in the big new combine every chance he got. He is intimately familiar with tractors and sprayers and irrigation pivots; the first time I ever heard the term “air seeding,” it was from Jake.

As I examined his combine drawing, rich with detail I never would have known to include, it struck me that, at five years old, Jake knew more about the actual work of modern farming than I did. I’m an obsessive food shopper, a stalker of farmers’ markets, and a relentless seeker of obscure ingredients. I make a mean Thai curry, and I can tell you exactly where in Calgary to find the sweetest Hutterite carrots and the freshest homemade tortillas. But I couldn’t tell you with any precision what a combine even does. I know an awful lot about food but almost nothing about where it comes from, who grows it, and how. I think this makes me a pretty typical urban Canadian.

Food is a perpetual hot topic—it is, after all, one of the few consumer products that become part of our bodies. But even as food security, safety, and health have risen on the public agenda, the conversation has focused entirely too much on the contradictory lines of what we want—more local, fewer chemicals, more options, greater convenience—and far too little on how to get it. We don’t talk about whose job it is to provide it, how they should be compensated, and, in particular, how to close what turns out to be a yawning gap between our needs as consumers, at one end of the supply chain, and theirs as farmers at the other. What follows, then, is a modest attempt to discover how food is actually produced in Canada, and how we might like it to be produced by the time Jake will be ready to drive a combine of his own.

Jaques Farm Ltd. operates from a 550-hectare spread of irrigated land alongside the Red Deer River in southeastern Alberta. The riverbank forms the farm’s southern limit; an irrigation ditch curves north across a thin patch of forested flood plain and a fallow field littered with old farm equipment, emptying into a wide pond. Jake Ferguson’s grandparents, Arthur and Heather Jaques (rhymes with “snakes”) occupy a handsome new ranch house that hugs the irrigation pond’s south bank.

A wide yard encircled by a windbreak of irrigated trees and populated by pickup trucks and tractors and four-wheel ATVs stretches out to one side of the house, hemmed in on the far side by two gleaming new Quonset huts, each more than fifty metres long. The primary farmland, planted with an annually rotated mix of grains, oilseeds (mostly canola), and pulses (Great Northern beans for the past few years), forms a wide semicircle around this central node. The fields are bisected by long, humped steel spans that look to the untrained eye like scaffolding laid on its side—these are irrigation pivots, great long sprinkler systems on wheels that rotate around the planted fields. The farm is bounded on the north by steep, bald hills that appear denuded from a distance but are in fact thick with sage and cactus, attesting to the need for the pivots. At the far end of one field, due north of the irrigation pond, sits another house, slightly older and more modest, where thirty-six-year-old Byron Jaques, Jake’s uncle and the fourth generation of Jaques men to farm the Alberta prairie, lives with his wife and two young daughters.

The nearest city is the dusty regional centre of Brooks, roughly 120 kilometres to the southwest. Many of the other dots on the map around here—Buffalo, for example, the place name on the Jaques family’s mail—constitute little more than a crossroads with a gas station or, in the case of Buffalo, a shuttered gas station. The land is dry and gently rolling, riven with deep gullies and half-hidden coulees. Down in the river valleys, deer, antelope, and rabbits are abundant, and signs warn of rattlesnakes on the road. It is starkly beautiful country and faintly primordial; Dinosaur Provincial Park, one of the richest fossil troves on the planet, lies just eighty kilometres upriver.

The farmland along the local range roads is strewn with humps of black steel pipe, which are encircled in heavy fencing painted a warning shade of orange; they resemble caged serpents in a vast arena. There are also gas wells and compressor stations and signs bearing Husky and Cenovus logos, all of it testifying to the rich hydrocarbon bounty beneath the soil. Jaques Farm ships all of its crops off-site for processing before any of them are sold, but the farm consumes its own fossil fuel, making it entirely self-sufficient for its natural gas needs.

I arrived just before dusk on a clear spring evening in the middle of planting, and Heather Jaques drove me out right away to observe the last of the day’s work. I found a John Deere 8120 tractor backed up against a trailer fitted with a big white steel bin. Attached to the rear was a seeding machine, an eight-pronged furrowing apparatus with a yellow plastic tub, or hopper, mounted atop each prong. These were filled to varying degrees with white pellets speckled in jellybean hues of blue or pink—treated Great Northern bean seeds. Sacks in the back of a nearby pickup truck read Danger Treated with Maxim Apron XL Streptomycin, a blend of bactericide, fungicide, and insecticide.

Every so often, two work-gloved hands appeared at the lip of the big steel bin overhead, holding aloft a red plastic pail. Byron Jaques was inside the bin, mixing the last of the seeds with a nitrogen-fixing inoculant called NitraStik-D (“This inoculant guarantees a minimum of 100 million viable cells of Rhizobium leguminosarum bv phaseoli per gram”) and hoisting them out. Arthur Jaques, in sturdy workboots and rust-coloured Carhartt overalls, took each new bucket in turn and dumped it into one of the eight hoppers on the seeding machine, taking care to measure the levels equally. Once Arthur had loaded the tubs, Byron climbed out of the bin and jumped into the tractor. I joined him in the cab as he made his last seeding pass of the spring over his bean field.

It was full dark now, and the field beyond the tractor’s headlights was a rumour. No matter: the action was all on a small GPS screen mounted to the right of the steering wheel. It showed a gridded field of grey, much of it filled with tidy squares of blue that represented the land already seeded. A small digital pictograph of a tractor at the bottom of the screen pointed directly at the last narrow grey band of unseeded field, tracking our progress.

Byron has an engineer-like disposition toward his work, focused and slightly anxious yet somehow offhand. When I asked how it all worked, he tapped the GPS, flipping over to a screen that traced the data stream guiding us. Multiple satellites spun within range in the stratosphere high above us, and they traded information with the tractor’s GPS through a receiver in the main farmyard. A radio antenna on the tractor’s roof received minute corrections to the vehicle’s trajectory, based on triangulations calculated between the various satellites. Both of Byron’s hands left the steering wheel as he fiddled with the GPS, which was doing the steering; it controlled a hydraulic valve down at axle level, precise to less than an inch, making sure the streak of blue on this pass up the field didn’t cover any of the same pixels the previous one had, nor leave the slightest of gaps.

Dumbstruck to find myself in an auto-piloted, satellite-guided tractor on the Alberta prairie, I asked a vague question about what all this did for yields.

“It’s a savings on inputs, because of overlap; and a savings on time, I think, more than yields,” he replied. “It’s a huge gain in efficiency.”

We were planting seeds at the rate of 100,000 per acre. We were wasting as few as possible, maximizing each one’s chances of becoming a mature, commercially viable plant through the application of multiple chemical treatments, and automatic steering, and surgically precise GPS guidance. Byron had an app on his iPhone that delivered up-to-the-minute weather data from a station less than two kilometres away, and by using a probe he knew the soil temperature was on the happy side of 15°C preferred by Great Northern bean seeds. The planting machine rode a three-point hitch with a digitally controlled hydraulic system to keep the planting line smooth, level, and straight. I knew even less than I thought about farming in Canada today.

Byron hit the brakes, and we climbed down to inspect the tractor’s handiwork. The field was a tight corduroy of slightly raised beds, and he dug into one with his finger. A couple of centimetres down, he unearthed a pink-speckled seed. A half-dozen ruler-straight centimetres in front of it, he dug up another. “Everything with a row crop works better when it’s in straight rows and equally spaced apart,” he said.

My first lesson in modern Canadian agriculture: On farms today, everything has to work better than ever. Faster and more efficient, bigger and smarter, more precise and timely. The system is optimized to deliver the maximum yield per hectare, at the lowest possible cost per unit of production, guided by a largely undeclared continental food regime sometimes called “the cheap food policy.” In the history of agriculture, no one has ever paid less for their calories than contemporary North Americans do—in labour or in dollars—and a substantial portion of the techno-industrial genius and applied skill that enables us to eat so cheaply is found in places like Jaques Farm.

For all its prowess, Canada’s cheap food policy has produced an agribusiness sector that broadcasts the mixed signals of a system under severe stress. Nationwide cash receipts have climbed from $37 billion in 2006 to more than $44 billion last year, with a record take of $46 billion during a price spike in 2008. But over the same period, net farm income—the figure that matters most to the 300,000 Canadians who work the farms—has fluctuated wildly, climbing from $283.5 million in 2006 to above $6.8 billion in 2008 (a twenty-four-fold increase) before declining 62 percent, to just over $2.5 billion, in 2009 and 2010. Between these figures lies a gap pried steadily wider by the need for more land, bigger and smarter equipment, patented seed, and ever-precious supplies of fossil fuel inputs—from the gas in the combines to the petrochemical herbicides and nitrogen fertilizers that enable increasingly larger yields. Roger Epp, former dean of the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus, in the heart of eastern Alberta farm country, put it to me this way: “That growing middle piece of the graph between net farm income and gross farm income is the money that flows through farmers’ hands but doesn’t stick around long.”

These have been boom times for canola growers and harvesters of pulses (such as the Jaqueses’ Great Northern beans), but Canada’s global market share in its traditional agricultural mainstay, wheat, has declined from 23.5 percent to 14.5 percent over the past twenty-five years. Canada has fallen from third to seventh in overall food exports worldwide; grain imports have spiked by 100 percent since 2000; and profit margins have steadily shrunk, even as mounting market pressures to expand and invest in new technology have inspired an unprecedented stockpiling of debt, like so much winter hay, across the Canadian countryside. (The average Canadian farmer’s debt-to-income ratio is thought to be two and a half to five times the average American’s.)

A recent report by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute called for a new direction in farming, with hard talk of “falling profitability, lost opportunity, and declining relevance.” Epp, writing in Alberta Views in 2007, described Canadian farmers as “an endangered species.”

On too many Canadian farms, the endangered species has taken to a sort of forced self-immolation. Farmers by the tens of thousands have quit the profession. The profitability crisis has hit livestock producers particularly hard, and hog farmers hardest of all. Since 2005, the cost of producing pork on the Canadian prairie has remained around $1.40 per kilogram. As huge American slaughterhouses and international meat-packing conglomerates have grown even bigger, they’ve squeezed that tiny margin past profitability. As of late 2010, the wholesale price of pork had fallen to $1.25 per kilogram, and many hog farmers in Alberta and beyond have given up. There were about 11,000 hog farms across Canada in April 2007; by April 2011, there were around 7,000, a contraction of more than 35 percent.

“It’s been significant in the past decade and a half, the number of farmers who are being washed out of the system,” Epp told me. “For me, that raises food security alarm bells, because every farmer washed out of the system represents farm knowledge and farm skill washed out of the system.”

For those who remain on the land, the key to survival is the same as it has been for more than a generation. “Get big or get out” was how Epp summarized it. “The answer to the farm income question—‘How do we make this sustainable in every way? ’—is always ‘Produce more. Find a way to produce more.’”

The big picture historical data for Alberta tells an emphatic story. Never in the history of the province has more land been under crops—more than 9.5 million hectares over the past decade—and the last time there were so few farms, the province was not yet a province. In 1911, the year before the first Calgary Stampede, 60,559 farms covered nearly 1.4 million hectares of crops, and each farm was about 116 hectares; in 2006, there were 49,431 farms in operation, and they averaged 427 hectares, just a little smaller than Jaques Farm’s 550.

Much about Jaques Farm makes it an exemplar of the broader trend in Canadian farming, a model of how to play the game, as it’s currently configured, in peak form. It is a far larger property than Arthur Jaques’s father would have attempted to tend, for starters, and it has stayed profitable by moving into some of the most profitable niches in prairie agriculture—in particular, canola grown for sale not as edible oil but as seed for future harvests, sold under exclusive contract to agribusiness multinationals like HyTech Production and Viterra.

Jaques Farm is a hugely capital-intensive operation. The day after they finished bean planting, I surveyed the equipment parked around the main yard: Three John Deere tractors—a 280 and a 4450, as well as the 8120 I had ridden in the night before. A RoGator 1064 sprayer. A Brandt GrainBelt 1545. Two John Deere combines—a nearly new one for most of the crops, and a refurbished thirty-year-old one for the beans (which are uncommonly hard on combines). A Westward swather. A John Deere CT322 forklift. Three pickup trucks of assorted vintages, a pair of ATVs, a little Kubota four-by-four mini-truck. A full-size transport truck parked next to the Quonsets, for hauling commodities to market. A backhoe left out by the irrigation channel it had dug. It went on and on.

“It’s a huge capital cost to grow crops,” Byron told me. “And there’s a major amount of infrastructure, and it takes enough acres to earn enough income to make a living.” He paused to swat a couple of mosquitoes, which were relentless on this prairie evening at the end of an uncommonly wet spring. We were seated around a table on his father’s patio, overlooking the irrigation pond—father, son, and I. “You basically keep investing back into the farm is what ends up happening.”

If it wasn’t the latest GPS technology, it was a new combine; the year before, they were forced to put $150,000 into the motor and pumps that regulate the irrigation system from a cluster of sheds on the far side of the pond. Byron estimated their annual gross revenues at just shy of $1 million, and after expenses that left just enough to keep the two families in reasonable comfort. They had work enough, though, for at least three.

Yet they have continued to thrive, in part because of the anomalies, not the regularities—starting with Arthur passing on his farm to his son. The average age of a Canadian farmer is fifty-seven and climbing, and the thin profit margins make it difficult to cut up the equity and fade into retirement. Plus there are far fewer risks and much more money to be made in the city—or, around here, in the oil patch—than in farming.

But for whatever reason, Byron has known since his teens that he wanted to farm, and for all the headaches he loves the work—the diversity of it, the profound absence of monotony. One day, he was a tractor operator, the next a mechanic or an accountant. They sometimes sold their wheat while it was still in the ground—a relatively new approach brokered by the Canadian Wheat Board—and so some days Byron was a sort of day trader, too. And throughout, he was a highly skilled agronomist, tracking the weather and watching for invasive volunteer flax from last season among the new wheat shoots, selecting just the right mix of herbicides from a catalogue as thick as a phone book. “That’s one thing about farming,” he said. “It takes a tremendously wide scope of knowledge.”

Other anomalies: the Jaqueses have been more zealous than most about dodging debt—it represents less than 10 percent of their revenue, about half the national average—and they’ve shied away from buying up every adjacent quarter section (a quarter of a square mile, or about sixty-five hectares) they could get a mortgage on. They practise meticulous crop rotation, which helps reduce their dependence on nitrogen fertilizer and other petrochemical inputs. And the irrigation system leaves them much less vulnerable than the vast majority of farmers to variations in weather and climate.

For all of that, the Jaqueses have remained acutely aware of the tight margins, the escalating input costs, the sense of running at a dead sprint just to stay where they are. “That’s the trouble with agriculture: where it’s going to end,” said Arthur. “I kind of worry about where the hell people are going to come from to keep agriculture going.”

The weekend after my visit to Jaques Farm, I took my family to the Asparagus Festival at Edgar Farms outside of Innisfail, a town about an hour’s drive up Highway 2 from Calgary. The farm is a minor legend among area farmers’ markets and locavore restaurants, for its crisp, sweet asparagus spears, and the Edgars, another multi-generational Alberta farming family, have come to acknowledge their crop’s fame by throwing a spring party in the shadow of their silos each year.

Farmers’ market stalls are the closest I come with any regularity to the origins of my food. I’m heartened by the foreshortened supply chain they represent, imagining them as the sole consumer arms of the farms themselves. I buy my bundles of Edgar’s superb produce in season, often straight from the hands that harvested it, and I flatter myself in the belief that, when it comes to asparagus at least, I’ve provided a complete answer to the question of how else to make and buy and eat food. The story down on the farm, of course, is much more complex.

As we turned off the range road into the Edgars’ farmyard, we were greeted heartily by Asparaguy—a young man, that is, in a mascot-like costume that extended several feet above his head, transforming him into a jovial, anthropomorphic asparagus spear. In the farmyard beyond, a tidy marketplace was set up, with vendors peddling homemade asparagus soup, grilled asparagus with three kinds of dip, and pottery and handicrafts, as well as a large market stall overflowing with tidy bundles of fresh Edgar Farms asparagus and other local produce. There was also a petting zoo, a face painting stall, and a straw bale maze. Every thirty minutes or so, a tractor pulling a long, low flatbed lined with straw bale benches returned from the fields to pick up another load of gawkers for a farm tour.

A neighbouring farmer drove the tractor while Elna Edgar delivered a tour guide’s spiel via a wireless headset. The Edgar family had been farming the land around us since 1907, but as Doug and Elna’s kids headed off to pursue university degrees and urban lives, the couple had come to think they might be the last to do so. Elna told us that when their daughter Kerri came back to the farm with a new husband, Randy, keen to work the land for another generation, “you could’ve knocked me over with a feather.” They had already been trying to diversify their business—they first planted asparagus on a single acre in 1986—but with a much longer time horizon now in sight, they redoubled their efforts.

As we passed one of the farm’s warehouse-sized utility sheds, Elna directed our attention to the combine inside. “There are two problems with traditional farming,” she said. “The first is that a combine costs about as much as a house. The second is that someone else tells you what your product is worth.”

Asparaguy notwithstanding, Edgar Farms has long been and remains primarily a commercial grain and cattle farm. The asparagus fields cover about eleven hectares, and another small patch has been given over to market vegetables. But on the rest, just shy of 500 hectares, they grow wheat and canola and raise beef—globally traded market commodities, their prices set according to an elaborate calculus that might, at any given harvest time, include real demand and futures market speculation, grain shortages in Africa, wildfires in Russia, or dwindling water reserves in India. Grain grown in Innisfail is tethered inextricably to an agricultural economy that is never less than continental in size, part of a worldwide food system under such stress that by comparison the collapse of Canadian hog farming looks more like a prelude than an outlier.

In December 2010, the United Nations Food Price Index hit an all-time high; the very next month, it broke that record, and broke it yet again in February 2011. The reason is as simple as an introductory economics seminar: demand is intensifying at the same moment as supply has reached a plateau and begun to suffer frequent and intense contractions. The upward spike in price has been precipitated by a list of factors that reads like a shorthand description of globalization itself, including population growth, newly affluent consumer bases in populous developing nations like China and India, and a global boom in biofuels that has enticed farmers into the energy business.

At the same time, supply has dwindled under the excesses of the same system. Diminishing returns on the fossil-fuelled, capital-intensive processes that expanded supply to global scale in the first place have begun to occur even as those processes push the system into the range of certain absolute ecological limits. Globally, wheat and rice production is growing more slowly than population for the first time since the 1950s, when agriculture’s green revolution introduced high-yield grain varieties, industrial equipment, and petrochemical inputs to the world’s poor. (By one recent estimate, nearly 50 percent of the world’s population now relies wholly on petrochemically derived nitrogen fertilizer for its daily bread.) And what viable farmland remains is now threatened the world over by encroaching urbanization, widespread speculation in commodity market derivatives, and a rapidly expanding wave of straight-up land grabs. In the developing world, more than 20 million hectares of farmland—an area three times the size of Ireland—has been gobbled up by foreign investors in the past five years.

The biosphere, meanwhile, may be unable to sustain much more growth in mouths to feed and arable land to feed them. One reason global demand for grain has soared is that increasing water scarcity is reducing food supply. This past February, the Chinese government provided more than $1 billion in emergency aid to its agricultural heartland, where two-thirds of the wheat harvest was lost to drought. In Punjab, India’s breadbasket, the water table is plummeting by more than half a metre per year, nitrogen fertilizer use has increased dramatically, and the Ministry of Environment and Forests has baldly declared its current agricultural model “unsustainable and non-profitable.” The wave of unrest that has redrawn the political map of the Middle East over the past year traces its origins in significant measure to soaring food prices and water scarcity. (Just months before Egyptians took to the streets to overthrow the government of Hosni Mubarak, the Associated Press reported that half the country was relying on government-subsidized bread.)

“Around the world,” the Economist declared in February, “the food system is in crisis.” Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, put it even more emphatically: “The world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets.” France, which holds the G20 presidency this year, has made food security a top priority for meetings among the world’s most powerful economies.

In Canada, incongruously, little sense of urgency exists regarding food policy. Agricultural research funding has been slashed on almost every front, and the federal government’s most important research arm, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, removed food from its list of target funding for 2011. When the agriculture ministers from all thirteen provinces and territories and the federal government met in February, they focused almost exclusively on better marketing and more free trade. Recent signs indicate a dawning awareness about the size of the emerging challenge: the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute has adopted a strategic plan calling for farm policies that are “systems-based, not value chain–based,” and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture has embarked on the formulation of a “National Food Strategy.” But for the most part, Canadians remain complacent about their food and ignorant of the struggles farmers face just to stay on their land.

In the absence of concerted action, intrepid farmers have been left to innovate for themselves. Farmers’ markets have proliferated across the country, and most Canadian cities now have a small clique of stellar small farms that cater to hard-core locavores. (Southern Alberta, for example, has everything from Highwood Crossing, which bottles cold-pressed organic canola oil you could mistake for Italy’s finest extra-virgin olive oil, to Blue Mountain Bio-Dynamic Farms, a beyond-organic ecological gem run by a tireless farmer-activist named Kris Vester.) And commercial-scale organic farming continues to make inroads. Still, these operations serve as mere sidebars to the central story of Canadian farming; fewer than 2 percent of the country’s farms are certified organic.

Elna Edgar described the tricky math of asparagus farming as we chugged the rest of the way out to her asparagus patch. For six fleeting weeks at best, asparagus forms the centre of her farm, carefully hand picked in custom-built contraptions that resemble motorized, low-riding palanquins, and bundled up for sale at market stalls by the farm gate and in places like Calgary, Edmonton, Innisfail, and Red Deer. The produce easily makes its own friends: we were only permitted to hop off the flatbed and hike through the Edgars’ fields if we agreed to taste a spear in the raw, and we were universally delighted to discover its succulent baby pea sweetness.

When we returned to the flatbed, Elna explained why asparagus remained a niche at Edgar Farms. She handed around laminated PowerPoint printouts as she talked; the most telling one addressed the agri-nomics of large-scale asparagus farming in Peru. Growing conditions in the Andes are ideal year-round, yielding almost twice as much asparagus as Alberta’s producers do, and is available no matter the season. The subtext was unstated but obvious: as long as it remained economical to ship asparagus in vast quantities from Peru to supermarkets across Canada, and as long as cost and year-round availability continued to trump the fact that for six weeks each year Edgar Farms asparagus pops out of the ground so sweet you can eat it raw, and even despite the inimitable charms of Asparaguy, the vast majority of asparagus eaters in a big-city food economy like Calgary’s wouldn’t be sourcing their spears locally. The Edgars, enthusiastic and dedicated as they are about carving out space for exemplary local produce, would remain the exception. I could buy out Edgar Farms’ Calgary market stall every week and not begin to challenge the logic of the dominant system.

There is a tendency, in many discussions of ecology and economics, to frame the conversation in false dichotomies. Either an industrial farm or an organic one; either artisanal asparagus fresh from the ground, or grain by the tonne doused in herbicide. Organic is nice and all—I heard this basic sentiment in nearly those exact words a half-dozen times—but you can’t feed the world with it.

Ralph Martin, the inaugural Loblaw Chair in Sustainable Food Production at the University of Guelph and a former director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, has heard it many times more. “I become a little wary when I hear—and I’ve heard this ever since I was a kid in 4-H, and I’ve been in agriculture forever—but, you know, ‘We need to feed the world,’” he told me. “When we hear that kind of language, too often that becomes a rationale to just do more of what we’ve been doing, to continue with the current model, what I call the twentieth-century model.” Twentieth-century agriculture, he explained, was all about progress: technology, efficiency, yield. In the twenty-first, to his mind, agriculture must transition to resilience—an agriculture that continues to provide affordable food for the world’s billions, but one that can adapt and change nimbly as climate, fuel supplies, and the financial system continue their respective roller-coaster rides through this turbulent age.

The nature of such an agriculture, Martin conceded, remains an open question. It will perhaps be better attuned to regional markets and local conditions, if not quite as circumscribed as the Edgars’ asparagus. He argues that it should devote more terrain to organic approaches, which, even in the absence of significant government or corporate sector support, have proven they can produce food in Canada at yields as high as 90 percent of conventional models, five years after transition. On the other hand, the conventional system’s momentum might be such that we move instead toward what Roger Epp described to me as vast “resource plantations,” mega-farms on a scale that would shock a Soviet central planner, geared toward churning out low-cost calories by whatever means necessary—advanced petrochemicals and genetically engineered seeds, in particular. The Chinese government’s enormous purchases of arable land in East Africa offer a case in point.

“While food continues to be so cheap, and while the old model continues to work so well, there will be incentive to stick with the old model,” Martin said. “Somehow, we need to design the new model while surviving on the benefits of the old. And we need enough people to be aware that a big shift is coming so we can get ready for it.” We need, in other words, to find a middle ground, to switch the system’s moral imperative from feeding the world to sustaining the world.

The day after the asparagus festival, I drove an hour farther north, into the driveway of a test lab for this new approach, a mid-size dairy farm outside the quiet town of Rimbey, overseen by a genial agrarian philosopher who just might possess the mix of conventional experience and innovative zeal needed to tend this hybrid terrain.

Meet Jan Slomp, fifty-seven, dairy farmer of the radical centre. His farm is a lush, rolling, pastoral expanse astride a burbling creek, and he greeted me there in his driveway on one of those radiant spring mornings when the dew shimmers in the first flush of sunlight as if electrified. Slomp is fair haired, with a sturdy, athletic frame that only a lifetime of physical labour can provide. He has an easy smile and a calm certitude that can verge on stern, a mildly contradictory mix I think of as quintessentially northern European, which he is. He emigrated from the Netherlands in 1989, and he has spent the past twenty years reinventing a failing Canadian dairy farm as a model of efficient industrial production and impeccable ecological stewardship.

“I’d rather drink my milk than certified organic milk,” he said, showing me the gleaming storage tank at one end of his barn. He considered applying for certification a few years back, he added, but it hadn’t seemed worth all the paperwork—especially since he thought there was much more to be done than simply removing the unhealthiest inputs.

Anyway, Slomp didn’t need anyone else to tell him the difference between good milk and bad; it was something he’d known all his life. Born in the final years of postwar austerity in the Netherlands, by the age of eleven he was milking cows twice a day. He watched as his father’s pre-industrial operation travelled the path of twentieth-century progress in fast-forward. The first fossil fuel of any kind arrived in 1958, in the form of a milking machine, and the whole technological apparatus of modern agribusiness soon followed. Annual yields shot up from 18,000 litres in 1959 to 250,000 or more by the end of the 1970s, but Slomp’s father struggled to stay ahead.

“I have seen my father suffer for twenty years,” Slomp said, “trying to pick the best investment.” When he bought his own farm, he was determined to find another way.

He started with a lifelong farmer’s caution, for the first few years playing mostly by Alberta’s conventional dairy farming rules. He coated pastures with nitrogen fertilizer, used herbicides, systematically injected his cows with antibiotics, bought a computerized milking system. The digital milking machine—an electronic recognition system wherein a computer chip attached to each cow automatically identifies it to the milking apparatus, tracking yield and vital signs, and even telling the producer when each cow is ready for breeding—soon needed an upgrade, though. The price tag was steep, and Slomp realized he was already paying more attention to the digital screens than to the vast array of data a skilled farmer can read from the living, breathing cows themselves. No longer monitored by computer chips, Slomp’s animals became the central actors in his dramatic shift to the middle.

He phased out nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides. After a couple of lean years, native legumes returned to his pastures, adding nitrogen the old-fashioned way. He cross-bred his conventional high-yield Holsteins with heartier European breeds. His yields started to drop, but so did his costs. In 1995, at the peak of his conventional operations, his cows annually produced 9,500 tonnes of milk each; today they average 8,500 to 9,000. In the 1990s, however, he lived on 15 percent of his gross revenues, whereas today 50 percent of the income his milk generates stays on the farm and supports not just one family but two. In 1999 and again in 2001, he bought up adjacent quarter sections with cash. When his barn collapsed, along with several others in the region, under an exceptional pile of snow this past January, he was the only farmer not to lose a single cow, which he attributed to his herd’s robust health. His cows weren’t even spooked much by the roof falling in on them, and they were back at the milking machines the same day.

Slomp wanted me to meet his herd, so we hiked out past his newly roofed barn to the fields, walking between pastures along a pair of paved tire tracks. These, he noted, were added so his cows had an easy walk to the barn and so he could ride his bicycle out to the pasture. “When we bought this place,” he told me, “the ground was so hard there was no water infiltration at all, and the creek washed out in heavy rain. That soil has completely opened up.” The creek, once inundated with nitrogen and petrochemicals, has rebounded as well: this spring, for the first time since he bought the place, he saw trout swimming in the currents.

We found the cows working their way through a small square of grass penned in by electrified wire. He had sixty head in all, roughly half the regional average. Once they had chewed the area low, he would move the wires to the next patch and the next, in a slow arc that mimicked the grazing patterns of Alberta’s native bison. By the time the cows came back around, the same diverse crop of grasses and legumes and clover would have regenerated, feeding heartily on the cows’ dung. In drier weather, he allowed the circles to grow wider, to avoid exhausting the pasture.

With offhand proficiency, he rattled off statistics about his cows’ daily dry matter consumption and the impact of various prairie grasses on the micronutrient density of his milk. He cited a Purdue University study of the impact on soil sterility and noted the seasonal variations in conjugated linoleic acid (a particularly nutritious element) in cows’ milk, based on their diet. His relaxed tone slipped into a more earnest register as he talked about the central role of ruminants in the prairie ecosystem. “My cows are the solar-powered combine,” he told me. They transform the inaccessible nutrients in prairie grass into dense, nutritious liquid for easy human consumption, and their waste enriches the soil and enhances the biodiversity of the pasture, just as bison had done by the millions in the centuries before Europeans arrived.

“I have downsized from computer operations to one that totally operates in our brains,” he said. “I’m reading soil and animal health to get to an optimum production instead of a maximum production. This form of land use creates an optimum carbon sink. If we apply the science, the know-how, like I have here, then the world population is not a problem.”

He spoke of the “huge gap” between what he called “the alternative food movement” and the conventional system in which he still operated. His milk, at least as healthy for people, cows, and prairie as any organic product, and an addictively tasty drink in the raw, simply flowed in with the rest for pasteurization; he didn’t want to be a name brand. He sits on the board of Alberta Milk, where he has gently raised the issue of studying the nutritional benefits of raw milk; he’s well aware of the robust health it can provide a farmer, his wife, their three children, and the handful of foster kids they’ve raised as their own, all of them fed daily by his cows, but he has no intention of abandoning his life’s work to an anti-pasteurization crusade.

After our visit with his cows, Slomp took me to see one of the newest developments on his farm: a small community garden in an underused corner of one of his pastures, set up by the organizer of the Rimbey farmers’ market. We had to cross the creek to get there, and the spring melt was running so strongly it had overflowed the modest bridge. He pulled up a couple of big rocks from the riverbank and tossed them into the middle of the rushing water—stepping stones to take us from a conventional dairy farm to another kind of agriculture entirely.

The morning before I left Jaques Farm in Buffalo, I went out with Byron in the RoGator as he sprayed his wheat crop with herbicide. He showed me the fat catalogue, Crop Protection 2011, from which he picked the morning’s brew: Syngenta’s Pulsar Group 4 herbicide, a mix of dicamba and fluroxypyr, which he was mixing with another chemical called MCPA Ester 600. The Pulsar was deadly poison for the volunteer flax in his field; applied at 371 millilitres per acre, it would set the unwanted plants to shrivelling up within twenty-four hours and eliminate them entirely within a week. The MCPA did a similar job on some pigweed and thistle he spotted among his delicate wheat sprouts.

The only trick was that the weather had to stay dry for those first four hours, or the pricey chemicals—about $2,400 for the spraying run I observed—would wash away before they could be absorbed by the weeds. Byron checked Environment Canada’s satellite picture of the region on his iPhone, watching some distant patches of green and blue shower activity slide farther away to the south and west on the screen. We were good to go.

In the catalogue, the descriptions of Pulsar’s constituent chemicals note that they exhibit “acute mammalian toxicity” in the “low” or “very low” ranges—pretty safe, basically. Still, as I watched the stuff emerge behind the RoGator in a cloud of delicate mist, I couldn’t help but wonder what was seeping between the cracks of the unsealed cab, and what remained of it by the time Byron’s wheat was turned into supermarket bread. When we returned to the fuelling platform in the farmyard, I asked Byron about the five white plastic tanks the size of household freezers off to one side. A herbicide from Dow AgriSciences, he told me, their version of Roundup—it had been on sale the other week, so he had bought in bulk. Because I think of Dow mainly as the company that made billions manufacturing Agent Orange and napalm, I found the idea of stocking up on its wares a bit unnerving.

I’m not sure whether I’m even entitled to this knee-jerk queasiness, but I have no right, in any case, to tell Byron Jaques anything I think I know about this or any other aspect of the impressive business he runs in tough agri-nomic times. After all, I still only know what a combine harvester does because I googled it weeks after returning from his farm. (A combine, for the record, turns ripe grain into market-ready produce, combining the jobs of reaping, threshing, and winnowing into a single mechanical process.) Before anything else, I owe Byron—we all owe Canadian farmers—a great debt of gratitude for doing a vital, literally life-giving job few of us are willing to do for ourselves. My heart soars at the thought of seasonal asparagus from Edgar Farms, and Jan Slomp’s raw milk, but I give much less thought to the canola oil I cook with year-round, or the cheddar from conventional dairy farms I slice thickly and place on the inexpensive crackers made from wheat grown at industrial scale using Pulsar and MCPA and Roundup, so there’s always plenty on the shelves when I pop down to the grocery store. Check your fridge, your cupboards; I’m certain you will find no fresh local asparagus, and I’m equally sure you’ve got at least one item—a bottle of canola oil, a bag of flour, a can of beans you picked up because they were two for a dollar at the supermarket—that could very well contain the produce of Jaques Farm Ltd. of Buffalo, Alberta.

Organic techniques, downscaled supply chains, even Slomp’s mid-size, middle-ground approach to industrial farming, let alone the basic direction of Canada’s food policy—these are future-tense conversations. There are weeds in Byron Jaques’s fields, and if he doesn’t kill them they could devastate his harvest, and chemicals with very low acute mammalian toxicity provide an immediate, decisive answer to the question of what to do.

An hour after we returned from the spraying, it started to rain. In open defiance of Environment Canada, indifferent to the precision guidance of the RoGator’s GPS, the rain was washing away most of the herbicide Byron had sprayed. As always, in farming and in everything else, nature would have the last word.

This appeared in the October 2011 issue.

Chris Turner
Chris Turner is the author of The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands. He is based in Calgary.
Scott McKowen
Scott McKowen co-founded the graphic design studio Punch & Judy. His first book, A Fine Line, appeared in 2009.