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Rural Revolution: How can Alberta farmers survive and save what they hold dear?

by Jane Ross

Gary Wagner watches the computer screen attentively as he drives his tractor across the fields. On screen, the numbers tell him just how much fertilizer is being applied automatically onto each acre of his land. Formerly, he had spread a uniform amount across his fields. But now, armed with new technology that utilizes global positioning satellites and microchip sensors attached to his tractor, Wagner knows how much fertilizer is needed for each acre to produce maximum results. Later, the same technology will also inform him exactly how much crop is being harvested from every corner of every field and, from the data, Wagner can judge which crop and which variety of crop is best suited for each of his fields.

It's called precision farming, a term that prairie farmers are hearing about more and more as they search for ways not only to compete but to survive in today's free market economy. Together, NAFTA, continued rail line abandonment, closure and demolition of grain elevators in favour of new centralized terminals, and, above all, the 1995 cancellation of the Crow rate—a subsidy to the railways that reduced the producers' cost of grain shipments—have created a revolution in the prairie agribusiness. A new international market-driven phenomenon, globalization has become the mantra of governments and big business alike. Driven by the need to compete on a truly world stage, prairie farmers are in the middle of a maelstrom of sweeping changes. They can produce big winners like Gary Wagner, but can also leave in their wake a trail of shattered dreams, polluted environments, and communities left to deal with a host of social problems.

It's not that prairie farmers are unaccustomed to change. Since the Second World War, increased farm mechanization, improved roads, use of fertilizers and chemicals, and new crop strains have helped farmers increase their acreage under cultivation. In 1921, the size of the average farm was 198 acres; by 1996 the number had risen to 608 acres, and this year the average farm size had doubled since then to nearly to 1200 acres! Yet the number of farms units in Canada has fallen from a peak of 733,000 in 1941 to 276,000 today. More surprisingly, two of Canada's largest agricultural-producing provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, can only boast of 40,000 farms each. This number will continue to drop as economies of scale demand that the Gary Wagners double and redouble the size of their farm units in the next decades.

What is new are tighter ties between the producer and international agribusinesses borne from vertically integrated systems of production, finance, trading, and consumption. Take, for example, the new mega barn producers. With the loss of the Crow rate, farmers have been moving away from growing grain towards intensive livestock production. The "barley to bacon" system sees farmers producing feed grains on contract for the mega barns which produce to the demands of the packing companies, all controlled from above by one or two corporations. Companies such as Cargill and Monsanto have created a network of associations that run the gamut from fertilizer manufacture and distribution to grain, cattle, hogs, turkey, and chickens, as well as slaughterhouses. Vertical integration does not necessarily stop at the packing plant. Joint ventures between the corporations and distribution systems and supermarkets have created a highly centralized system. A big advantage of such a system is that it protects a corporation from market downturns in any one sector; when hog prices collapsed in 1998 the vertically integrated companies recorded record profits since prices were up in other sectors.
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Reprinted with the permission of Jane Ross and Legacy (Spring 2002): 18-21.
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