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Why it's so hard for Canadian farmers to quit growing canola — even amid blockades from China

My parents remember growing pinto beans. They grew them more than two decades ago on the first field I see every morning. It is a 255-acre expanse of land cut in two by my half-mile-long driveway.
They didn’t germinate well that year. It was a poor crop that left an indelible impression on this farm’s memory. It’s a point in time that represents stress and disappointment in so tangible and powerful a way that it overshadows the science behind what was going on agronomically that year. Weather conditions may have been inadequate. Disease pressures may have been unusually high.
This farm hasn’t grown edible beans since.
Science may be touted as king in agriculture, but it’s still merely a central character in a business that is largely defined by stories, anecdotes, experiences and gut feelings.
The ag sector has come to understand the power of stories. Trade delegations are not a waste of money. Agriculture is best served by a human. Reports don’t capture it without remainder. The industry needs people to tell its story, to shake hands, bow, smile, wink, grimace and otherwise display and articulate its nuances.
The appointment of Dominic Barton to the long-vacant seat of Canadian ambassador to China is a critical first step in healing an agricultural sector that, according to a recent Royal Bank of Canada report, could contribute more than $50 billion to Canada’s GDP by 2030.
Barton comes with business experience in China and is lauded for his leading role with the Advisory Council on Economic Growth report, which singled out agriculture as playing a critical role in Canada’s economic success.
When Canada learned of China’s canola embargo the nation collectively gasped for its farmers. What would they do? How would they go on? What would they grow?
The sympathy was pleasant. It’s a struggle for the rural, food-producing parts of this country to get favourable attention, so the agricultural community wasn’t about to turn it down.
When the market for canola was dealt its most recent blow, the decision to quit growing the crop should have been sterile and obvious. But it wasn’t. It isn’t. It is impossible for multi-generational farming operations to treat the challenge issued by China in isolation of the rich, nuanced agrarian history of which canola is a part.
Canola is a story arc in Canadian agriculture that farmers weren’t and aren’t ready to kill. It was created by Canadians and has a sizable cadre of farmers devoted to growing it. Canola is engrained in many farms, almost like a pet or a loved one. Agronomically, there are always other crops a farm could grow, but doing so could be risky and, more so, it could possibly change the identity of an operation.
Edible beans, wheat, corn, sunflowers and many other crops grown in Canada carry a similar weight. They aren’t easy to quit. A farmer’s relationship to them is complex.
There’s a willingness to dismiss facts for a good story. Or, rather, there’s an inclination to situate and treat facts in the context of a farm’s identity. It may not make sense to grow one of the many commodities that have taken a price hit in the current U.S.-China trade war, but that won’t necessarily stop farmers from doing so. Science and markets are considerations; not judge and jury.
Our wheat is off the field and we’re waiting for the soybeans to ripen. In the interim, I’m considering the 2020 growing season. I’m planning to grow pinto beans, refreshing and hoping to put a more positive spin on a story that has gone stale on this farm.
Since I returned to the family farm in 2012, there has been an increasing interest among people who live in cities in hearing about what’s happening on the Canadian farms growing the food they eat. There’s an appetite to hear the stories that define our farms and give character to the choices we make.
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