Farmers need a sustainable future, too

(February 12, 2020)

FEBRUARY is “I Love to Read” month, which is good for the farmers who are finally able to take a breather before the spring thaw arrives — probably in early March, this year.

To offer them (and you) some food for thought, I want to look at sustainability issues for agricultural producers, in the midst of a climate crisis fueled by a warming atmosphere and rising levels of greenhouse gases.

To begin, you can’t expect the provincial government to help. By action (and inaction), Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly indicated the agricultural sector is exempt from initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most recently, it was news that grain-drying operations will not be subject to his Manitoba version of a carbon tax. This was coupled with a promise (without specifics) to increase the amount of ethanol in gasoline and biofuel in diesel.

If I were an agricultural producer concerned about the direction in which the planet was headed, with its implications for my farm as well as my family, these kinds of political armwaves would be trivial to the point of being insulting.

Unless farmers live in an alternate universe, they share the planet with the rest of us, and therefore share the same responsibility for changing how we live together. In fact, any farmer who has inherited the family farm or who intends to pass it along to the next generation is likely more invested in sustainability than the city person who has never seen a live chicken.

Right now, it seems the Manitoba government is ignoring sustainability issues in the agricultural sector, in the apparent belief that Progressive Conservative votes in rural areas can bought like (dry) beans, for a bit of purple gas and a boot shine.

The PC party may have a firm base in rural areas it will never have in the city of Winnipeg, but if that’s true, then those rural areas should use their clout to at least get the current government to do something constructive for everyone.

For example, when Greyhound went out of service in western Canada, Manitoba (alone, I think, compared to all the other provinces where it operated) did nothing. So all those rural voters now have to drive, if they can, everywhere – and given how much secondary and tertiary health care is delivered only in Winnipeg or Brandon – they need to do it when they are sick, too.

To be fair, the provincial government does not seem to care much about public transportation in Winnipeg, either, despite the fact the largest source of Manitoba’s greenhouse gases, by sector, is transportation — in other words, those vehicles that burn the ethanol and biodiesel additives Pallister was intending to increase.

Cuts to subsidies for transit in Winnipeg mean New Flyer is now making electric buses for other places, when they could be making them to be used here, running on Manitoba’s hydroelectric power and providing more jobs to Manitobans.

Anyway, back to the farm. Expect no help from the provincial government, and likely little more from the feds, who prefer to play big-picture games. Look to your rural municipality for the kind of co-operative assistance you need to figure out what climate change is going to mean for your own area — not the lines drawn on the map, but according to the watershed in which you operate. Floods affect everyone — and so does drought. Plan together for both.

Sustainability literally begins at home. A sustainable future for your farm depends on you doing what is greenest for your own situation. There are various carbon-counting tools available on the internet – figure out what parts of your operation produce the most greenhouse gases, and see what can be done to reduce your outputs. It could be as simple as not burning stubble, for example. Every gallon of purple gas, even cheaper, produces GHGs. Find ways of burning less – better for the planet, and for the bottom line.

New equipment? Share it with a neighbour – or figure out how to borrow or loan it instead of purchasing.

On the other side of the ledger, figure out how much carbon is sequestered or put down in the soil by different kinds of crops or farming operations. Perhaps plant trees, to balance off carbon-intensive farming. Create your own carbon budget, aiming for a negative number at the end of the year.

If the provincial government wanted to help, it could both provide incentives for doing this, and assess penalties for ignoring GHG emissions (anyone listening?).

One other suggestion: sell local. Relying on markets elsewhere for your main income is unsustainable in the long run, and makes you vulnerable to geopolitics, pandemics and other things entirely beyond your control.

Successful farmers today have to be smart. It makes sense to use that aptitude for green, because sustainable farming is a large part of a sustainable future for everyone.

Read More

Where have all the readers gone?

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016...all of them in search of that rare and elusive Reader!

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016…all of them in search of that rare and elusive creature, The Reader!

Count the books in your house – the books in plain sight, not the ones buried in boxes. Then count the number of books you bought.

Finally, count the number of books you actually read last year – books, not magazines, websites or anything else.

If you are like most people, these numbers will graph a steady slide toward personal illiteracy.

I’m old enough to keep buying interesting books, despite a pile that continues to grow. Someday I will find the time to read them.

As an author, I write books I want other people to read, so I also feel compelled to support colleagues and the publishing industry.

As a university and college teacher, however, I am deeply troubled by the inability of my students to read quickly. Given all the money and effort the school system spends on literacy, books should not be foreign objects. Nor should reading be a difficult activity.

My students are assigned about ¼ of the reading I had as an undergraduate. Their protests about how much there is and how long it takes to read it grow every year. Match this to fewer and shorter essays than I used to write – and epically bad essay examinations – and their downward graph toward illiteracy mirrors the downward slide in the number of books sold these days.

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books anymore. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.

Simply put, we are no longer a nation of readers – at least not of more than 1000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Academics of course have coined a term for this – apparently we now live in a post-literate society. We communicate in other ways than words. Images (worth a thousand words, remember?) flash across our screens and lure our eyes away from the solidity of a book. We now have the intellectual attention span of squirrels – and it shows.

Yet the irony is palpable. All around the world, education (especially for girls and women) is seen as the key to sustainable development and a better future. Parents sacrifice themselves and their future to pay the school fees for children who often are forced to live at a distance to attend.

Literacy – reading books and writing – are at the centre of this passion for education. Yet here at home our literacy indicators continue to slide. Manitoba sits close to the bottom of the national average and fingers are thus happily pointed at our teachers and our education system.

I suggest the fingers are pointed in the wrong direction. Children learn what they live with more than what they are taught. The same parents who spent hours reading aloud to toddlers are never seen book in hand by their teenagers. If there are bookshelves, they hold other things or dusty artifacts, not a library of books waiting to be read.

When there is dinner table conversation, it is fuelled by Facebook or current events, not by the book someone is reading. We know how to read (and to write), but like physical muscles grown flabby with lack of use, our literary muscles are out of shape.

At school (college or university) and at work, this has a direct effect on performance. Given the limited time for an assignment, any student who can finish the reading quickly has more time left to actually do the work that is graded. A plodding reader is also often a slow writer, so the penalty is multiplied.

Vocabulary is similarly affected. Even the words that are learned by hearing them are misspelled in hilarious ways. (In one recent Facebook example, “gender parity” was spelled “gender parody” instead!) Spell check doesn’t help if brain check is disabled by lack of practice.

At work, employees can’t process what is written as quickly as they should – and write garble that is misunderstood by the people who have to read it. All this wastes time and creates inefficiencies, frustrations and mistakes.

So read, read as though your life depended on it. Read in front of the children. Read on the bus. Read on your work break. Read in the evening instead of surfing the waves of Internet foam.

It will hurt at first, just like any good workout should. But it will make all the difference in the end!

Peter Denton’s sixth book, Live Close to Home, will be ignored in bookstores everywhere in Fall 2016. This column first appeared in the Globe and Mail.