Archive for the ‘food’ Category

21st century farming


I’ve mentioned before that I grew up on a farm.

It was a fairly standard western-Canadian farm, as far as I could tell. We grew stuff; we shipped it out to customers by rail or truck; we grew more stuff. (And by “we”, I mean my dad, his dad, and his dad before him – a real family farm. I helped out, but was never farmer material.)

And, from fairly early, it was clear that my little* brother was the most likely successor. Mom and Dad never put any expectations on us to become farmers – it’s not the kind of business that anybody should be pressured into. But John was such a natural.

Four or five years ago, after studying various farming techniques at college, he returned to the farm to practice his trade. I remember hearing from Mom and Dad that John had some interesting ideas. I remember hearing that things were a little different on the farm.

But it wasn’t until last year, when Deena, Kaia, and I were in Canada for several months over the summer, that I realized how much John had done.

He started growing flowers. And rather than bringing his product to the customers, like 99% of farmers do, he set up a U-pick business to bring customers to the product.

He created mazes to attract people out to the site. He started holding festivals – Lily Festivals and Pumpkin Festivals – to promote the farm.

Last summer, over the weekend of the Lily Festival, there were more people visited the farm than the entire population of Bowden, the nearest town. Several times over.

People hear John on the radio and see him in the paper – he’s always promoting the farm.

He’s joined local and regional farm tourism groups to further promote his operation and that of other local producers.

He’s cranked up the farm’s web presence with a major website, Google ads, and now a blog.

He’s even getting his family in on the operation. I helped out at the Lily Festival last year. And here I am, giving him a big plug on my blog. I do this in full appreciation of the fact that he gets more people visiting him in person than I get visiting this blog in a whole year. I’m not going to swamp him with extra visitors.

But that’s okay. I’m basically just doing this to brag about my brother. Farming these days isn’t what it used to be, and isn’t that grand!

Just in case it begins to sound like John is the only innovator on the farm, I’d like to point out that it was Dad who, not long ago, shifted the focus of the potato-growing operation from a more conventional bulk business to a mail-order, internet-driven operation catering to gardeners across Canada who want to grow specialty varieties of potatoes. John is an amazing entrepreneur, and he comes from a generations-long tradition of business-savvy and adaptable folks.


* Little as in younger. It has been several years since I, at 6’3″ (191cm), was taller than either of my younger brothers.

Confessions of a Recovering Meat Eater


Humanitie, the quarterly publication of the Humanist Society of Scotland, is out now. In it is my second column, included below. Visit the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist for the twin column. (Confession: I cadged my title from his. It was too good not to.)

I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat because I don’t want to cause the deaths of sentient beings. I cannot justify killing them (or paying someone else to kill them) just for my pleasure or convenience. It is a decision based on deeply-held values, and one I try to stick to despite frequent temptations. It is also, I think, a natural consequence of humanist philosophy – indeed, an essay by humanist philosopher A.C. Grayling was the catalyst for my shift to vegetarianism this past February.*

Having grown up omnivorous, it has been difficult to become vegetarian. Despite the strong rational and compassionate argument for vegetarianism, the habits and tastes of thirty years cannot easily be set aside. I miss the taste of meat: steaks, fish suppers, roast beef sandwiches. It is against this non-rational urging that my ethical decision always fights. I am happy to say that my daughter will not have that struggle: deciding between a vegetarian or an omnivorous diet, she will not be distracted by the irrational influence of habit and custom.

I’ve had a wide range of reactions since becoming vegetarian: indifference, curiosity, even encouragement and support. Mostly indifference, though. It’s no more an issue to most people than declaring a taste for Thai food. But for some people, my vegetarianism is not so easy to accept.

For example, my parents have told me that, by calling my choice an “ethical” one, I imply that their choice is an unethical one. Not only that, my dad raises beef cattle – so my choice also implicitly condemns his work.

I want to be clear: I do not condemn people who choose to include meat in their diet. Eating meat does not mean they are less ethical. Am I being hypocritical, holding myself to one standard and others to a different one?

No. Humanist ethics need not polarize the world of choice into right and wrong, good and bad. Human understanding is imperfect and provisional; this inherent humility of humanism means that I do not set up every personal choice as absolute and universal.

We are a somewhat smarter type of ape, using our ape senses and our ape reasoning to construct meaning and purpose in a confusing and ambiguous world. This ambiguity requires us to be flexible and accommodating of the various ways that people infuse the world with value.

I encourage everyone to think about our kinship with other animals. Consider carefully whether the value of their lives is so small as to be outweighed by the comfort of our habits, or by the slightly greater convenience of constructing an adequate diet with meat.

Think about it, and try to be true to your convictions. Whatever they are. That’s all I ask.

* “Speciesism”, from The Meaning of Things

A new era in his life


“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!” – Thoreau, quoted by A.C. Grayling in The Meaning of Things.

I recently read an essay called “Speciesism“, in which philosopher and Humanist Anthony Grayling draws parallels between the general current attitude to other species and historical attitudes to “lesser” segments of humanity – lesser races, the lesser sex, those with lesser spiritual beliefs.

We locate a difference that we find threatening, or that we despise; we thereby make the other fully Other, so that we can close the door of the moral community against him, leaving him outside where our actions cannot be judged by the same standards as apply within. 

I found myself connecting his arguments to my eating of meat. Every time I eat meat – a steak, a burger, a chicken wing, even a hot dog – I am participating in the death of another being.

After reading the essay, I was left with a hollow feeling of inevitability in my gut. My Humanist values draw no neat lines to box out that which is superficially different. My right to be free from torture derives from the fact that pain is an evil. Humans are not the only animals that experience pain. My right to liberty derives from the fact that I have consciousness, a will. I cannot pretend that my baby daughter has consciousness but an animal with whom I might communicate (for now) more readily – a trained pig for instance – has not.

Against this, what arguments could I muster in favour of consuming my evolutionary neighbours’ flesh?

Er…it tastes good. I…um…I’m used to it.


Hoping that Deena would have some clever argument to bolster my defense, I read the essay to her. She got this hollow look of inevitability in her eyes. She mentioned a conversation we once had. We both agreed that if we had to do any killing or butchering in order to get our meat, we would choose to go without. It was hypocritical, but at the time it seemed a minor matter, not worth changing our lives over. Now, in light of Grayling’s stark portrayal of the issue…

Double ack!!

So here we are, several days and some heavy, philosophical conversations later. We are adjusting our diet to accommodate the rational consequences of our consciously-held values. We know we have the support and encouragement of our vegetarian friends.

We’ve gone three days now without meat. Not exactly a major achievement – we’ve often gone longer between meaty meals. But this isn’t just three days between meals with meat. This is three days with no meat waiting at the other end.

Will this new era in our lives last? I don’t know.

We are soon returning for an extended visit to our home province of Alberta, where this may be the most common bumper sticker:

(“I love Alberta beef”)

Will we relapse in the company of our Albertan family and friends, very few of whom are vegetarians? I don’t know.

Will our values manage, in the end, to trump our petty desires for tasty dishes we grew up with? I hope so, but honestly, I don’t know.

Grayling closes with a characteristically powerful nugget of thought which should help our resolve:

A person’s integrity is never more fully tested than when he has power over a voiceless creature. 


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