What We (and the #ABEd Curriculum) Can Learn from Our Children

The government of Alberta recently announced a plan to review and update the K-12 educational curriculum in our province.  Queue the naysayers, keyboard warriors and the NIMBY crowd… But to all those people, all I can say is this: our kids have already left the curriculum behind, so if we don’t change it, we only further endanger the opportunity for them to progress meaningfully into this world upon graduation.

Our kids have left the curriculum behind? What could that possibly mean? Are we breeding a culture of super-geniuses in Alberta or something? Let me share…

6 months ago at supper my then 9 year old son enthusiastically told me about an initiative his 4th grade class had started. Later, at his younger sister’s Christmas concert, their principal found me and excitedly told me about the class “project”.  The project was to help the homeless people of Red Deer have a happier Christmas. Entirely of their own volition, this class of 9 year old children had come up with the idea that they would like to help the approximately 150 homeless people in Red Deer, Alberta. The students approached their teacher with the idea, and being at an excellent public school that encourages creativity and collaboration, the teacher ran the idea up the flagpole to the principal.  The students spent their recess telling the principal about their idea. At one point when the ruckus in the hallway – from other students enjoying their recess – became too much, a student got up to close the door to allow this very serious conversation to continue. At no point did one of these children even mention the word recess; they were too engrossed in how to bring their idea into reality to worry about the self indulgence of playtime. Students split into groups: one to write a letter to go home to parents (which we will received that week); one to write and perform an announcement over the school PA system; one to research homelessness and what the true “needs” were; and one to write a letter to staff.  How these students came up with this idea isn’t necessarily important here. Why is.

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Compassion

This group of children who should be focused on having fun and learning exhibited a quality that often appears to be sorely lacking in today’s world – compassion.  Coupled with empathy, they have resolved to assist with the plight of a group of people they have never met.  My son vibrated with excitement. In order of importance, the homeless shelter indicated that the needs of their clientele were: clean socks, gloves & mittens (it gets pretty cold in Alberta), scarves (again, cold) and backpacks.  So, the school embarked on a clothing drive to help the homeless this past Christmas season. And a surprising result of their research? A similar size city in Alberta has already “eliminated” homelessness in their community. This spurred the students to write a letter to the City of Red Deer advising them of some of the tactics that Medicine Hat employed to functionally reduce homelessness.

My son is a country boy, born and raised (technically he was born in a hospital in the city, but I digress). I can say with absolute certainty that he has never knowingly met a homeless person. So why would he and his peers be so excited about helping people they’ve never met? Because children show empathy, caring and compassion. Because the world has not yet taken it away from them.

As I drove home a few nights after that conversation, I got to thinking about how impressive this was. Which led me to realize that there are so many other things we, as adults, can learn from our children. I don’t mean that you have to have children of your own, because our children are the children of the world. They are our future and we have a very palpable opportunity to learn some valuable life lessons from them.

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Curiosity

Children are natural inquisitive. They touch hot things to see what it will feel like. They stick their tongues to frozen steel poles or bicycle racks to see what will happen (the results are predictable). They ask questions. Many, many (exhausting how many) questions. As adults, we tend to tire of answering those questions but we owe it to our children to answer the best we can. “I don’t know, that’s a really good question. We should ask someone who does know.” is always a perfectly acceptable answer. So why do so many of us refuse to admit that we don’t actually know all of the answers?  When we let hubris get in the way of the natural inquisition and education of our children, it’s all of us that suffer.  I once read that we are a blank slate when born; the world is our oyster.  We then learn through the narrowing of experience, and through rules, and through selective teaching in regimented school curricula, that all the possibilities we thought we had in front of us, aren’t really so possible.  We become jaded and we become conservative (careful) in our nature.  As a country (perhaps as a culture) that wishes to promote innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, is this any way to teach our children?  We need to give them the freedom of exploration, while teaching them the tools of critical thinking and reasoning so that they can work their way through their adventures.  If we simply sit them down and tell them that if they do *x*, then *y* will happen, all we’ve done is given them an if-then equation to remember.  There’s no learning value or life lesson in that because we have stripped them of their curiosity.

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Motivation

Supposedly we live in an age of coddled millennials who don’t want to work, don’t need to work and don’t have any sense of work ethic instilled in them.  Anecdotally, this sounds great, but if you actually examine the workforce statistics and *gasp* talk to a millennial, there’s a very different story.  I don’t need to go into the details because there are a multitude of career-based speakers and writers who can elaborate far better.  But what I can say is this: millennials (kids, as I call them), WANT to work.  The point is, they just don’t always want to do it under the guise of the restrictive 9-5, 40hr/week, sit in an office, punch the time clock type of system that the rest of us were indoctrinated into as followers of the industrial revolution.  What do they want then, if they don’t want to work in that system?  They want to work. They want to have time to enjoy their personal life. They want to communicate and collaborate.  They want to be involved.  They want to PARTICIPATE.  Wait, isn’t participate a nasty word?  I mean, we’re raising a generation of kids where everyone gets a medal or a cookie or a pat on the back for just showing up and participating.  How can we breed and train the cold-blooded steely killers of the corporate world that we need to lead us into the future?  Well, here’s the thing, and any one of you that actually has school-aged children and is invested heavily in them already knows this: kids keep score.  Despite participation medals, despite awards for everyone in the class, kids know who is performing and who isn’t.  They are now becoming more and more intrinsically motivated to succeed; they don’t need external motivation like we did in order to achieve success.  Sure, they might not want to put in 80-hour, burn the candle at both ends kind of work weeks.  But this isn’t because they’re lazy… It’s because they work smarter than we do!  They put technology and collaboration and creativity at the forefront, so that they can get done what they have to do faster, and get onto what they want to do sooner.  If you asked me, I’d tell you I’m jealous of that generation.  I’m envious of our kids, because they’ve figured out already how to work smarter, not harder, in spite of all of our leanings and teachings to the contrary.

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Acceptance

Acceptance is a particularly touchy topic these days, particularly in the wake of hate crimes, terrorism, presidential candidates boasting about religious segregation and alienation and the seemingly never ending bevy of trolls on social media and online commentaries.  One thing anyone who has, or ever has had, or ever will have children comes to learn really really quickly, is that children are accepting.  They forgive others for their mistakes and they recognize that those they trespass against will grant them forgiveness as well.  Hardened hearts are a learned behaviour; they’re an adult thing.  Our children accept somebody regardless of race, creed, religion, colour, gender, gender identity, sexual preference, family status or genetic makeup.  How much better is a world in which we accept people for who they are and what they have to offer, instead of deriding them for why they think or act differently from ourselves?  Sure kids fight and sure they pick allegiances. There is little more heartbreaking than learning that your child has been excluded from a group they so desperately want to be part of.  Maybe though, it’s time that we look in the mirror and determine if our children are just modeling our behaviour.  Maybe it’s time we realize that if we showed a little more acceptance and a little more willingness to be kind, to be human, our children would follow suit and do the same.  We talk about ending hate. We talk about ending bullying.  We talk about ending discrimination.  We talk about ending violence.  We talk… Maybe it’s time we act.  Our children are watching us.  As they formulate their values and their opinions, they will base them on ours.  So maybe one day, we should turn the tables and let our children teach us something about acceptance.

So What?

Maybe by now you’re asking what this has to do with an upgrade to the curriculum in Alberta.  Maybe you haven’t even read this far, but if you haven’t, you aren’t technically reading this sentence so I’ll keep going.  What does any of this have to do with changing what we teach our kids, or how, or why?

It has everything to do with what, how, when, where and why we teach our kids.  Our children have experienced some of the most rapid technological change of any generation.  They will continue to experience rapid technological change.  Heck, we have kids in school that are older than Facebook… My point is, our children are learning at a pace so rapid that they are completely outpacing the methodologies used to develop the curriculum they are learning.  It’s time for us to update so that our curriculum can catch up to our kids.  Sure, math is math, language arts are language arts, theology is theology and history is….well, as they say, history.  But social science, sex education (*crowd gasps*), science, technology and a litany of other subjects are changing in their subject matter.  Moreover, and most importantly, the WAY in which our children is learning is changing.  It’s no longer satisfactory to just plunk a kid down in front of a textbook and tell them to absorb, or to drill repetition into their brain.  Education is the act of learning, not the act of memorizing.  Our kids are already coming to the table equipped with the skills, so it’s about time that we make sure we’re ready to work with those skills, however foreign to us they may be.

And one last thing… Social license?  We can teach that. We should teach that.  But you know what?  Based on what I’ve learned from my children, from their friends and from the administrators at their school, they already know it and embody it far better than we could ever imagine.  It’s about time we stopped leaving our children behind, and let them run ahead.

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That’s Outrageous!

How dare they?! Who could possibly have conceived such a poorly thought out, backwards and insulting notion?  Why would they ever have done that?!

I could easily be talking about the recent snafu whereby Earls Restaurants Ltd. amended their supply of beef to be from producers who meet the Certified Humane label. Of course if you followed the ensuing social media outrage, you’ll know that means Earls eschewed Canadian beef farmers in favor of American producers that subscribe to this voluntary certification program.  However, I could just as easily be talking about A&W Canada’s decision to market their hormone & antibiotic free – but also not Canadian – beef as better tasting.  Or maybe I’m talking about the Alberta Government’s passage of Bill 6, a controversial piece of agriculture workplace standards and safety legislation. Or the carbon tax. Or American politics. Or the latest winner of whatever reality show has people captivated these days.

In reality, what I’m really talking about is our collective outrage. Or rather, perhaps it’s our awareness of outrage that seems collective. You can’t turn on your TV, radio, phone or computer without seeing, hearing or reading about someone who it outraged these days. It seems like we live in a generation of outrage.  So are we really more outraged than our predecessors or is it just our ability to connect globally through social media and the internet that allows us to perceive an issue as so much larger than it really is?

My problem with outrage is this: it makes for great headlines (and bylines) and it draws the clicks and the views and the comments but it also undermines the true message that organizations and individuals who are experts in the subject matter spend lots of time and money researching, cultivating and presenting.  In my view, outrage serves to polarize.  Those who agree strongly with your view already do and they were already your supporters anyway.  One only needs to look at the election demographic in Alberta to know that the Wildrose Party is preaching to the converted when they take up arms in favor of farmers or that the NDP has strong support from urbanites on things like public transit.  On the opposite side of the fence sit your detractors, or your opponents.  Stating your outrage, particularly in semi-violent or vitriolic manners, only serves to give them fodder for attacking your stance and “proving” how wrong you are or how out of touch with every day people you seem to be.  This type of opposition-based parrying will endure forever, so while it’s problematic, it’s not the root cause of my concerns.

No, my concerns lie in the normalized distribution of demographics.  If you remember high school statistics class, you probably know the bell curve. You know, the one where the vast majority fall within a certain percentage of the middle-ground, with fewer and fewer outliers (extremists) on each end.

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Example Normal Distribution (the “Bell Curve”)

The outliers I’ve already spoken about, but it’s that vast majority of the population that falls within the “meat” of the curve.  Generally they may be unaware, or apathetic, or even willfully ignorant. But overall, they haven’t formed supremely strong, polarized opinions on a topic.  And because they represent the largest segment of the population, they are the swing votes.  They are who marketers target. They are who you try to convince to join your side in the debate.  They are the ones that really are who we try to attract when we market a product or service.  So how do we think they feel about outrage? About watching both sides of the spectrum spew off, with rants and raves either for or against a divisive topic?  Sure, maybe some are swayed to one side or the other because they had natural inclinations that way, but in reality they remain largely apathetic or unaware.  The lack of knowledge on a specific topic leads to that apathy. Or sometimes they know and they just, quite frankly, could care less.  There are more important things going on in their life than the tempest in a teapot the extents of the curve have created.  So, the vast majority go on doing just that – living their life.  They ignore the outrage, they might even be turned off by it, or maybe they haven’t even heard or read it.  But any way you slice it, the outrage falls upon deaf ears, if it reaches them at all.

Which makes me wonder how effective outrage is anyway.  I mentioned the organizations and experts that work to carefully research and craft messages based on that research. Does general outrage – particularly that which is ill-informed or out of touch – actually serve a benefit to these organizations?  I postulate that it doesn’t. You see, if I’m a farmer, I’m likely to be supportive of the research and messaging my farm association is responsible for; after all, I trust them as my research arm and my marketing body.  They advocate on my behalf.  So they don’t need to convince me to join their ranks, or vice versa.  Who they need to convince are the unconvinced, the unaware and the uneducated – the masses in the center of the bell curve.  They need to do this in ways that actually reach the intended audience, connect with the intended audience and provide something of value to the intended audience.  Those key messages?  They get lost in the static like your favourite song as soon as you reach the extents of the radio station’s broadcast range.  And the more static there is, the harder and harder it gets to decipher what is really coming through in the transmission.  The louder the competing voices are, the harder it is to hear the voice you are trying to listen to and the harder it is to have your voice heard amid the clatter.

There’s another pair of phenomena that accompany outrage or at least attempt to counteract it but are just as harmful to credibility. Time and time again I see these come to light, often with the best of intentions but a patent lack of understanding of just how detrimental they can appear:

  1. Boasting.  It’s wonderful to be proud of our product, service, industry or performance but when we start to throw around boastful claims that cannot be statistically or scientifically validated (things like “We know we produce the world’s best beef.” – what does that MEAN anyway????) then we undermine the credibility of the very thing we are trying to protect.  Leave the facts and the boasting to the organizations and experts that we pay to develop those messages.  Meme generation is a wonderfully easy thing, but if your meme facts aren’t correct, you’re doing more harm than good.
  2. Hypocrisy. We rail against Earls for choosing a “labelled” product over one that isn’t labelled but then we appeal for consumers to purchase a labelled product.  Albeit, the label is different, perhaps slightly more innocuous and certainly it’s in our favour because it is the product we are supporting, but still it IS a label.  Or we boycott A&W because we all know that “better beef” can’t be substantiated the way they are marketing it, but then we turn around and boast that “Alberta produces the best beef in the world” and expect consumers to just flock to our doors.  Throwing stones at glass houses when we live in one ourselves is a very, very dangerous practice that further alienates those middle-ground consumers and risks turning them away from us for fear that we simply aren’t being truthful.

Ultimately I suppose it’s futile to appeal for rationality and calm in a world where it seems that irrational emotional tirades grab the headlines and dominate the airwaves.  However, I would like to hope that we’re not actually a generation of people who are any more outraged than previous generations. I would like to believe that the quicker access to more global information just leads us to feel that way.  I would like to think that the vast majority of us are adequately able to filter through the BS to get to the key messaging.  Alas, I don’t know if all of those can be achieved.  Certainly they cannot be when we have adversarial rhetoric dominating the discussion.  It gets us absolutely no further ahead to threaten, belittle, deride or chastise each other based on our difference of opinions.  The beauty of humanity is that we were not all cast from the exact same mold. Individuality is key and our ability to achieve collective harmony is far more amazing than our ability to create collective discord.

I’ll leave with this thought…. Right now in Alberta, we are “outraged” over a private business making a decision to source their supplies of high-end beef from another country.  In other countries in the world, people are (literally) dying for a few grains, or for access to clean water, or because they have to hunt for their meat and their hunt is perilous and meals are few and far between.

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Maybe if we take anything out of this, it’s that we are so spoiled to even be discussing these issues when there are so many others envious of what we already have.

 

Will Safety Laws Kill the Family Farm?

I recently read an excellent post (read it here) about Bill 6, an omnibus bill introduced by the Alberta Government known as the “Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act”.  The post was heartfelt, poignant and emphatic; it encapsulated the thoughts and fears of many in the rural community.  It particularly resonates with those who identify themselves as “family farms” and who worry that the new bill is an intrusion on civil liberties, privacy and how to conduct oneself on one’s own property. I am part of this group of family farmers – I am a 5th generation farmer. I farm with my kids and with my parents.  I work an off-farm job to support my farm until I can build a large enough operation to sustain itself without off-farm income. I share some of the same concerns as the author of this post, and I worry about how this will affect the fabric of our agricultural community.  If you haven’t read the post yet, I urge you to do so, before reading on. Alberta has 43,000 farms and ranches, and with the introduction of this bill, many are afraid of what the future will hold. We are afraid that our lifestyle will change.

However, this is where I feel we’ve been misdirecting our efforts – we are focused on fear.  Certainly fear is a powerful motivator; I want to be afraid when I encounter a grizzly in the wilderness but in this circumstance it has the dubious distinction of distracting us from the issue at hand.  Yes, the bill will mean changes for farms and ranches in Alberta.  Change is scary, particularly when you’re not the driver of the change or you feel like it is being forced upon you.  But change is also good.  We are the ONLY jurisdiction in Canada that does not have occupational health and safety legislation for farm workers.  In 1964 this might have been acceptable, but not in 2015. Change is required.

It’s not as though farmers and ranchers aren’t used to change. From the weather to market conditions to regulatory requirements to commodity prices, from drought to flood, from feast to famine, farmers are intrinsically linked to change by the very nature of our occupation. The invention of the tractor brought tremendous change to the agricultural industry.  At the time, not all of that change was perceived as positive. Looking back now, what would you say?

“The tractor brought benefits to the farm. It was efficient. The tractor was modern compared to the horse. The farmer-owner did not have to pay as many hired men. There was more leisure time. But the tractor changed the social structure of rural life. The key position that farming held in American life vanished.” (The Tractor Changes Rural Life, Anna Carlson)

The beautiful thing is, in the face of change farmers are also resilient. We adapt to change and we not only survive, we THRIVE.  We have the opportunity to emerge from this legislation and be stronger than ever.

The fear that this act will kill family farms is rooted in a pessimistic approach. This fear assumes that the government will take literal interpretation and fervently enforce every aspect of regulations and work practices that have not yet been drafted. There are many things we do in our every day lives that are already technically prohibited by law, yet go unchecked. Paying my neighbour’s teenager to mow my lawn. Lemonade stands and bake sales that don’t have health inspector permits. These are little gems of our society that are allowed to exist, largely unchecked, so why do we believe that the government will suddenly swoop in with both guns blazing and throw the baby out with the bath water?   Fear breeds fear. One of my neighbours said to me “I just saw a post that the bill makes unionization of farm workers mandatory”. My response was: “A) Have you read the bill? B) Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook and C) Don’t let fear of the unknown control you.” Sure the bill is beneficial to unions. The bill creates worker equality and minimum labour standards for anyone EMPLOYED on a farm. The bill sets out minimum occupational health and safety expectations (further detail through safe work practices and regulations) for anyone WORKING on a farm.

When my son is old enough to get his first job – whether it be at a fast food restaurant or the dairy farm down the road – I expect him to have the right to refuse unsafe work in his workplace.  I expect him to return home safely each night.  I expect him to be provided training, resources and equipment that will allow him to safely perform his job.  I expect that if he is hurt at work, during the performance of his duties, his employer will have a system in place to ensure that he can be adequately compensated for his lost time and that the incident will be investigated so that hopefully it won’t happen to someone else. So why, if I expect this from the service or manufacturing industry, would I not expect this from the agricultural industry? At the end of the day, people are our most precious resource and I could even argue that they’re the only resource that matters.

I’ve read the assertions that this bill will kill the family farm; that there are 43,000 farms in Alberta; that 98% of Alberta farms are family farms.  The implication here is that family farms don’t have employees or that family farms aren’t corporations.  Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily the case.  Often a family farm has paid or unpaid employees who come from outside the family.  This makes that family farm, by definition, an employer.  Is the number of family farms with 0 employees a determinate number? That I don’t know, but I do know it is less than the 42,120 represented because of how “family farm” is accounted for. Family farm cannot be defined by size, by revenue, or even by number of employees.

Did you know:

  • 9,602 farms generate 49% of Canada’s $51 BILLION in gross farm receipts ($5.3 Million per farm average) yet almost all of those are considered family farms because they are family-owned corporations? (Source: 2011 Federal Agriculture Census)

Suddenly the definition of “family farm” just got a lot murkier.

I spent the first half of my life on a family farm (distinctly not a corporation, and with zero employees) in a province that had farm safety legislation similar to what Alberta is proposing and family farms there still exist. Family farms actually thrive, in accordance with my earlier points.  We are strong, resilient, adaptable and entrepreneurial. I intend to spend the rest of my life farming in Alberta – with my family – and this legislation does not deter me.  If anything, it empowers me. It equips me with knowledge and expectation and accountability. It allows me to know that when I provide health and safety training to employees, or when I pay a WCB premium for my hired hands, I am operating on an economic and social playing field that is level with other farmers who are in the same situation as me.  I take comfort in knowing that large corporations with dozens or hundreds of employees no longer have the opportunity to skirt safety and labour rules under the farm exemption. 

I’m not saying this bill is perfect or that it will satisfy everyone but there are many elements of the bill that make sense. It neglects key focus areas with its broadness. It is being rushed through. It’s not perfect. But it is something where currently we have nothing. It is a point from which to start. Yes, this will be painful.  Yes, there will be changes to how we operate and how we think.  But yes, we will also endure.

I can be changed by what happens to me. I refuse to be reduced by it. – Maya Angelou

We can choose not to let fear guide our decisions.  We can choose to embrace change and to adapt our practices to conform to the knowledge and data and tools and technology we have available at our disposal.  This isn’t new to farming; most of us do it already.  If we choose, we can ensure that this bill makes us stronger, more productive and more united than ever.

This bill won’t kill the family farm; not unless we let it.

 

 

Subway Announces That a Bullet Is Their Treatment Of Choice For Sick Animals…

Feed Yard Foodie

Tuesday, Subway restaurants made the announcement that beginning in March 2016 it will serve chicken raised without antibiotics. Further, the company will source turkey, pork and beef in the same manner within a 10 year period. A spokesman for Subway stated that company’s goal is “eliminating antibiotics from all of its meat supplies within 10 years”.

There are two different things going on in the above statement that are being blended into a mass of dramatic confusion. I want to take a moment to clarify so that everyone can be educated food purchasers.

  1. Eliminating antibiotics from meat has already been accomplished. THERE ARE NO ANTIBIOTICS IN THE MEAT THAT YOU EAT! It is illegal in the United States to market food animals that carry antibiotic residues. This is a non-negotiable fact of food production. The meat that you purchase from Subway today is free of antibiotics. That is the law…

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A Loss Beyond Words

On the night of Tuesday October 13, 2015 our quiet little agricultural community (and the western Canadian agricultural community as a whole) was rocked by the tragic death of 2 sisters and the hospitalization of a third as the result of a farming accident. The third sister also succumbed to her injuries fewer than 10 hours later. The girls were taken from this earth far too young. I’m about to type words that shouldn’t need to be typed, but no parent should ever have to bury their child. Ever.

So why am I compelled to write this piece? For one, as a method of grieving. You see, these girls were my neighbours. The daughters of one of my close friends. The girls grew up on my farm too, along with the farms of countless other neighbours and relatives that dot the landscape and make up the close-knit (if not familial) fabric of our community.  This tragedy is beyond words for those impacted by it. We will never heal fully and we will never be the same.  It’s only by God’s grace that we can find the hope in the outcome of last evening’s events.

Which leads me to my second reason for penning (does anyone even pen anything anymore?!) this piece: tragedies like this could happen to any of us and all too often on farms throughout North America, they do.  Within hours of the accident occurring and mere minutes of it being reported by news outlets on social media, I grew weary of the keyboard warriors deriding the parents for lack of supervision or an implied lack of education of the dangers of farming. Give your head a shake. These kids grew up on the farm. They likely know more about farming and the inherent perils and risks than most adults do.  Given that the vast majority of the population now lives in urban areas, I don’t doubt this claim for an instant.  The point of an accident however, is that it can’t necessarily be foreseen, or even prevented.  Short of not getting out of bed in the morning, there aren’t very many ways to eliminate risk of injury or death on the farm.  However, there are always ways to mitigate risk just as there are always human moments that occur.  A friend of mine texted me saying how terrible the tragedy was. I responded by how closely hit we were and a conversation ensued.  Her comment? “It could have been any of us. We all did stuff like that as kids.”

I want you to reflect on that for a moment.

“It could have been any of us. We all did stuff like that as kids.”

It’s a scene that plays out on farms across the continent. Have you ever tried telling a child they can’t go for a ride with dad on the __________ (tractor / combine / swather / grain cart / grain truck / etc) or that they can’t run through the corn field until they get lost or that they can’t enter that pen full of cows?  People all over the world are telling their kids to get outside and play more, so where do you think farm kids have to go when they go outside to play?  It is incumbent upon us as farm parents to teach our children the dangers of the activities they participate in.  It’s our role to allow them to grow and make decisions for their own based upon what we teach them.  But ultimately, accidents happen.  How many adults know that texting and driving is dangerous?  How many still do it?  Exactly… Even as adults we can’t resist a behaviour even though we know it poses a risk to our own personal safety or that of others.  Do we really expect children to act any differently despite what we teach them or what they know?  Children are children, after all.

Tragedy is tragedy and accidents are accidents.  No family should have to bear the burden of losing their child, regardless of how it occurs.  But many do. And many persevere. Farm families are no different. We persevere through hardship, through loss, through pain and through grief.  We support one another in good times and in bad, and when the absolutely unthinkable occurs, as it did on this cool October evening.

So if you have children and you’re reading this, give them a hug. Hold them tight. Teach them what you know but grant them the freedom to explore the world with the knowledge that you are empowering them. Don’t strip them of their natural curiosity or their inclination to explore and push boundaries. Don’t coddle or helicopter parent them or raise them in a bubble.  Some of the greatest talents in the world came from a childhood of exploration and encouragement, so don’t deprive your children of that opportunity.   At the same time, remain vigilant. Teach them consequences. Teach them about hazards. Train and equip them with the resources (mental and physical) to be prepared. Be their mentor, confidante and biggest supporter.

Accidents will happen. Despite our best intentions and all of the safeguards we could possibly implement, tragedy will strike, oftentimes when we least expect it.  Don’t let this fear override all of the great things about raising your children.  The time we have with them is precious.  Remember that.  Cherish that.  Be grateful for every moment.  Because despite all of our best intentions, all of our knowledge transfer, all of our urges to save our children from the world, we have to let them go out into it and to experience it.  It’s as much our role as parents as it is theirs as children.

Loss is never easy to deal with and you can’t strike deals with loss either.  Our community will grieve, for a very, very long time. The girls will forever be remembered as bright, inquisitive, energetic young souls with a love for exploring and a passion for the outdoors. Their family will never be the same; a void will never be filled.  October 13, 2015 is a day that will forever change our landscape; it is the day we all tragically and inexplicably lost neighbours, daughters, sisters, nieces, granddaughters, cousins and friends. Prayers are welcome.  Positive thoughts are encouraged.  Mourning is expected.

We will endure.  We are a large farming family. Made up of farming families joining together to comprise one grander unit.  Whether related by blood, or geography, or simply the passion for working the land, we are family.  And even when we cannot find the words to caption our loss or express our grief, we will remain buoyed by the knowledge that we are a part of that family and a part of something much larger than us all.

UPDATE AT 16:33 October 14, 2015: A GoFundMe page has been set up to help the family with expenses and loss of income that may be incurred during their recovery process.  Please donate at: https://www.gofundme.com/ch6dyncg

Are We Taking Advantage?

Lately there has been a lot of controversy in the farming world (both in real life and on social media) about the current status of drought conditions in Canada. Posts and stories about donated hay from other provinces to Alberta have led to divisive discussions about the economics of farming and the inherent nature of being in a commodity-driven business environment. So it leads me to ask the question, “are farmers taking advantage of one another?”

Let me preface this post by saying that I’ve always been a staunch believer that farming IS a business.  Heck, I interrupted writing a post about why I made a business decision about farming 10 years ago, to turn my attention to this post because the thoughts just started to flow.  I am a farmer; I also hold an off-farm job in senior management, and spent several years managing a consulting business that I started from scratch and grew to a multi-million dollar annual revenue earner.  Because of my belief that farming is a business, I treat it as such.  Unfortunately, in my experience, not all farmers do.  I’m not saying most farmers aren’t excellent in this respect or don’t consider business implications.  However, it appears that there are farmers who view farming as a lifestyle (the “in my blood” argument) or even go so far as to pride themselves on running their operation as the antithesis to a business because, after all, who wants to be seen as running a corporation on a farm these days?!

Which brings me to what is now the latest controversy swirling around farming, at least in my locale: drought 2015, the impact it has had on commodity prices, and how some farmers are impacted by those prices.  Seriously, is it not enough that we have to deal with animal rights activists, the anti-GMO movement, a sagging global economy and trying to differentiate our product? Well, welcome to farming. Just when you thought you were in the clear, there’s always something (or someone) to pile on. Queue Mother Nature, usually.

Agvocates on one side of the argument will politely state that farmers should be pulling together and supporting one another. Agvocates on the other side say that agriculture is a commodity-driven business that operates under the most basic of economic principles – supply and demand – and that when there is a high demand and a short supply, profits should increase accordingly.  So where does my belief lie? Well, to be honest, I’m firmly in the middle.  This doesn’t mean that I’m sitting on the fence; this means that I believe there is a compromise between blatant capitalism and agricultural socialism.  I have this belief based both on my farming and my “other world” business experience.

Farming is a commodity based business.  I’ve written about that in the past (So, you want to be a Farmer…? ). So yes, when global demand is high, or supply is low, commodity prices reflect accordingly.  It can absolutely suck at times, but when the market is high, you prosper.  And those farmers who run their farm like a business react accordingly: they reinvest the profit into their business; they pay down debts; they distribute some of the surplus to their shareholders (ie the farmer and his family); they use the profit to increase the size of their business; or they build a contingency fund to cover operations when profits are low (remember, commodities go up and down!).  So with that in mind, I agree wholeheartedly with the camp that argues that increased prices should be in effect when supply is low or demand is high. After all, it is economics 101.

Where I differ in this view, however, is about how high we should be setting prices. I know that price gouging is a dirty term, and nobody would want to be seen as doing that, but if we consider it in the context of business I hope it provides some clarity.  Right now, people in Alberta are buying hay bales at auction markets for prices in the range of $240-300 per round bale (roughly $0.16-$0.20 per pound).  When you purchase at an auction, the buyers set the price. So many are making the correlation that the market price for hay must be in that range. After all, people are willing to pay it, are they not?  To put things in perspective, last year we sold hay for $0.04 per pound which means that hay this year, at the high end of the market, is selling for 4-5 times what it sold for last year.  Based upon the assumption that there is 4-5 times less actual supply of hay this year than there was last year, doesn’t this principle just make sense?  Here’s the thing. High prices are driven by consumer desperation. They are not sustainable. I know people who will spend $5000 on surgery for a $50 dog or cat (or goldfish). Clearly, their decisions are not being driven with a business mindset or with economic principles in mind. This is often the case at auctions or for people who have sentimental attachments to their livestock, or, (God forbid) when people are farming who aren’t looking at farming as a business!

So what about the argument that buyers should be able to absorb $250 hay because beef cattle prices are near historic highs and calves are worth $1500 each?

  1. Not everyone who needs hay has cattle. People have goats, sheep, bison, llamas, elk, horses… These markets are not at historical highs. Heck, some are at historical lows!
  2. Would people be using this argument if cattle prices weren’t high? No, because it would be invalid. Hence, it’s an argument of convenience, used to support a thesis.
  3. There is only so much hay/forage available. It’s simple. If the demand is the same as last year but the supply is cut to 20% of last year, the supply simply cannot support the demand. No matter how high we artificially set the prices.  These aren’t the latest iPhones we’re talking about here. It’s not like there are 1 million of them and 5 million people who want them and 4 million people will end up disappointed but still surviving.  Alberta has over 40% of Canada’s beef herd, with over 5 million head in 2014.  If there is only enough feed to supply a portion of that herd, that means the remainder of that herd must go (sold, slaughtered, etc.)
Distribution of Alberta's cattle herd (2011)
Distribution of Alberta’s cattle herd (2011)
Alberta's Standard Precipitation Index (July 31, 2015)
Alberta’s Standard Precipitation Index (July 31, 2015)

So what does all this mean? Why can’t farmers who get beaten down in years of low commodity prices and low profits (or even losses) capitalize on a year of artificially high prices?  It comes down to one word: sustainability.

These artificially high prices are at the expense not to the consumer, but to other producers.  Sure, this year the people selling hay might be happy. But when herd sell-offs become imminent and the herd size is reduced, that decreases the demand for other products (feed wheat, barley, corn, etc.) and how do you think that will play in future years? As an industry, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.  We need to remain sustainable and that means that we need the demand side of the equation to support the supply side, and vice versa.  Drastic changes in either side of the system upset the balance, which throws the entire system off the rails.  Sustainability also has to consider operations over a long period of time. While this year there are drought conditions (and several municipalities declaring states of agricultural disaster) that doesn’t mean that everything will get good with the world again in 2016 or beyond. Prolonged drought, floods or other severe weather could provide a multi-year deficit impact to the agricultural community.  So my argument is that drastically increasing prices in 2015 is short-sighted.

Finally (thank you for reading this far) there is a simple business principle that holds true in any business: the secret to sustainable business, which includes tempered long term growth, is to have a solid, repeat base of customers. Now I don’t know about you, but if my regular feed supplier whom I had been dealing with for the past 5 or so years suddenly jacked my prices by 4-5 times in response to the market, I’d be looking for a new supplier really really quickly. And then, when prices were back down, would I reward his lack of loyalty with my loyalty by going back? Perhaps I may, but you can bet I’d have 4 other options on speed dial.  Strong, sustainable businesses are based on customer loyalty (think Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Apple) – the loyalty can be to a product, to a brand or even to the business operator.  So if I want to operate a sustainable agricultural business, am I better off to chase top dollar on the market or to honour my existing customer base?

If you’re an agricultural producer, that last question is one you need to answer and ultimately, it’s an answer you need to be comfortable with, however you choose to operate.  I’m not condemning anyone for choices they make in their business because it is their business, not mine.  I will run my business the way I see fit and you should run yours the way you see fit.  But at the end of the day, we are an industry. We are here to support each other and to supply the world with food.  After all, there’s 7 billion people counting on that.

Full disclaimer: in the spirit of preparedness (see my post on emergency preparedness titled “Are You Prepared?”) I retained approximately 60% of my required annual feed from last year because I had a surplus.  I was fortunate to be able to do this for my horse breeding operation; for our cattle operation we were able to retain approximately 10-20% of the annual requirement. We have long-term supply deals with several neighbours based on the forage standing in the field – we assume all of the risk for getting the hay from grass to bales – and they have honoured those long-term deals with modest increases in the rental rate (not 4-5 times last year’s rate, for sure).  If we had hay to sell, we would be setting our price at $80-100 per bale (roughly $0.07 per pound). Ultimately, we believe that we can continue to sustain and grow our business, even faced with difficult challenges this year.

Are You Prepared?

If you’re a pet owner, livestock farmer, or facility manager where there are animals, are you prepared for an emergency scenario?  While preparing for a fire, flood, tornado or animal trauma may not be as popular and sexy as preparing for the zombie apocalypse these days, it is vitally important.  After all, those who fail to plan are planning to fail.

Just recently I attended a course on Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER). The background of the attendees was diverse: industry representatives, NGO’s, veterinarians, vet techs, producers, fire fighters and technical rescue members.  I was there both as a member of a technical rescue task force, and as a producer with an inherent and lifelong understanding of large animals.

Have you ever had a large animal (or any animal for that matter) in a situation that they cannot get themselves out of? Maybe they fell through the ice; got stuck in the mud; were stranded by rising flood waters; were trapped by a growing wildfire; found themselves in a barn on fire; fell off a cliff; fell into a well/ditch/hole in the ground (happens more than you’d think); got stuck down a steep ravine; got tangled up in something; had a loading/unloading/hauling incident; or found themselves in a trailer that was sideways or upside down (Note: trailers are meant to remain upright, as are the animals inside the trailer).


 CALL THE EXPERTS

The first thing I can implore you is this: if you have an animal that cannot self-rescue (ie Get out on their own), call the experts. This means your local fire department and veterinarian. While fire fighters may not know large animals, they have the tools, resources and manpower to deal with emergency situations. Combined with the owner and a knowledgeable vet, animals can be rescued safely. In addition, this group has access to a litany of other experts, many of whom may be trained in large animal technical rescue. DO NOT put yourself, or your animal, at risk of further injury or death by doing it yourself!!! Stubborn pride and shame kill a lot of people – please don’t become one of them.

The 1st Livestock Response Unit in Canada... http://rdcounty.ca/251/Technical-Rescue-Task-Force
The 1st Livestock Response Unit in Canada… http://rdcounty.ca/251/Technical-Rescue-Task-Force

So I mentioned the experts. This is my chance for a shameless plug. Our Technical Rescue Task Force team responds to a variety of emergencies: water, ice & swift water rescues; confined space rescues; high & low angle rope rescues; missing persons (ground search & rescue); structural collapse; and large animal emergency response. Our team trains at least once every single week, to ensure our skills are always current. When combined with fire service, police and paramedics we can respond to almost any emergency or disaster, whether natural or manmade.

Which brings me back to being prepared. I can’t tell you in a blog how to rescue animals in any situation. Every situation is different and every rescue plan is different based on the circumstances. That is why we train for this type of emergency – we know that there are 25 other letters in the alphabet, in case Rescue Plan A doesn’t work. But pre-planning is the ounce of prevention that saves the pound of cure. By pre-planning, hopefully you can avoid an emergency situation; heaven-forbid that something does actually occur, your pre-planning will ensure you are prepared when it does.

So, large animal owner, boarding barn manager, dairy farm worker… What can YOU do to pre-plan for an emergency?

AROUND THE FARM

  1. Make sure you have fire extinguishers in easily accessible (and marked) locations in each building. Keep your extinguishers up to date and check them regularly.
  2. Consider installing thermal (ie heat based) fire alarms/detectors in any facility where you regularly have people or where your animals are housed. One of the leading causes of barn fire is electrical faults and they happen in an instant; once a barn fire starts it doesn’t take long to go from not-at-all to fully engulfed. Cheap household detectors will not work for this purpose for various reasons, though they are better than nothing. Household detectors will go off with the presence of dust in the air, and you have to be within range to hear them. Commercial detectors are more expensive, sure… But if you have $100,000+ worth of animals in your barn, isn’t it worth spending a few thousand to ensure their safety?!
  3. Fence off extremely muddy areas and areas containing open water. Animals will wander into these areas to drink, which may seem like an efficient method of watering. Especially fence open water off in winter, when the risk of animals falling through the ice is significant. Aside from the health benefits of having stock not defecating in their water source, this is a quick and easy way to mitigate risk.
  4. Have an emergency response plan prepared. Take some time to think about what could happen on your property. Fire? Tornado? Flood? Do you have topography that could cause problems? Consider these and come up with a plan for each.
  5. Know who to contact in case of an emergency. Have a list of responder phone numbers ready and easily accessible. During an emergency is the LAST time you want to be thumbing through the phonebook (yes, they still exist) or Googling a phone number for someone to help you out.
Be fire smart & fire safe with your house & barn
Be fire smart & fire safe with your house & barn

TRAILERING

  1. Perform your annual maintenance. Brakes should be checked annually for wear. Bearing should be checked and re-packed at least annually. If you don’t know what re-packing means, book an appointment for your trailer at your local trailer service centre.
  2. Check your trailer before hauling anywhere. Check tire pressure, look for uneven tire wear, make sure your brakes and lights work before you leave the yard, ensure your hitch is locked correctly and that your safety chains are hooked up (Correctly too!). And finally… DO NOT forget to hook up your breakaway brake cable, separately from your safety chains (if your brake cable is hooked to your chains, it won’t always engage if your trailer becomes separated from your tow vehicle). As an FYI – being passed on the highway by your own trailer is not a fun feeling.
  3. Carry a roadside safety kit (reflective safety vest, roadside flares or marking triangles & a first aid kit) and extra supplies. Remember Murphy’s Law – you don’t want to be caught on the side of the highway at night without reflective protection for you and your rig. Consider having not 1, but 2 spare tires (if you run something over, what are the odds only one tire will go flat on a tandem trailer?!).
  4. Consider some nice “creature comforts” such as wireless tire pressure monitors (TPMS) so you can see your trailer tire air pressure in real-time, a wireless camera so you can see inside the livestock compartment and monitor your precious cargo, and 12V powered fans for hauling in hot weather. You’d be amazed at how little airflow comes into your trailer through the vents and windows, and when you’re broken down on the side of the road, the airflow is decreased to almost zero unless you have a stiff breeze.
  5. As a general rule of thumb, have one halter per animal you are hauling (assuming they are halter broke of course) in case you need to exit the trailer, switch to another trailer or even in the instance that you have an accident that overturns your rig.  Also consider having a livestock first aid kit (think human first aid kid, just larger gauze pads and wraps!) in case your animals cut themselves in transit.
Whether your trailer looks like this....
Whether your trailer looks like this….
or this... Be prepared.
or this… Be prepared.

There are so many ways you can prepare yourself, and so many resources available to help you prepare for a livestock emergency. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and when you have a livestock emergency certainly the last thing you want to be worrying about is why you didn’t prepare. Hopefully for you and your animals, you’ll never have to use the skills or the resources you’ve put in place. But you can take solace in knowing that if something were to happen, you would be prepared and that preparation may actually save the life of your animal…or you.