Cambridge, Ontario -- here in a conference room at the Holiday Inn, Ontario's Christian farmers in their going-to-town clothes are fomenting the most creative leap of faith to come from the farmers movement in over a generation.Delegates to the annual Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario convention have adopted a vision statement asking consumers to add a small surcharge on their grocery bills, a kind of stewardship levy to thank food producers for taking extra care to use methods that preserve the countryside environment.
The idea of a top-up to pay farmers for ecological services is already hot in Europe. There, it's understood that tending the land produces other benefits besides food. The Europeans call this vision a "multi-functional countryside." Think of France, which survives on tourism as well as food cultivation. Tourism, in turn, depends on graceful landscapes, exquisite food and clean water.
Everyone knows about paying for food at the grocery store checkout counter. But as consumers, we don't realize how much we actually pay for what we eat. Only a fraction of the supermarket cost of food -- usually under 30 per cent, often less than the cost of packaging -- goes to farmers.
But then we pay through our taxes for frequent farmer bailouts and safety-net programs that go disproportionately to large farmers since they're based on production volumes.
Then consumers pay again when they bail out the environment that's been damaged by farm practices necessitated by the low cost of food at the checkout counter. The follow-up costs of Walkerton's fouled water are only the best-known example of what are called "regulatory subsidies."
The idea behind paying farmers to tend the land ecologically means replacing these unknown and counter-productive government incentives to cheap food and environmental damage.
Until someone writes a sociology classic on the Protestant ethic and the spirit of environmentalism, the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario might seem like an unlikely place for such an innovative idea to find a home.
Most CFFO members come from Dutch families who brought their Calvinist-inspired Christian Reform beliefs with them when they moved to Canada and the American Midwest during the early 1950s, when Holland was still recovering from the destruction of the second world war.
Socially and religiously conservative to this day, the Dutch Christian Reformers who make up most of the 4,500-strong CFFO membership hold equally to the idea of farming as a calling that glorifies God's creation. The convention document outlining their new countryside agenda is titled Closer To The Heart.
"We want to live our values in our families and farms and communities," outgoing president Jenny Denhartog, a chicken farmer from Arthur, tells delegates. "We are challenged to follow the word of the Lord in the market," chicken and turkey producer John Kikkert says in his first speech as president.
This is not U.S.-style religious fundamentalism, which separates inner belief from public policy favouring the good of all more than it separates church from state. This is the same Canadian social gospel that accounts for church basements being the meeting spots for so many community projects.
"But as challenging as changing the heart is, it's even harder to change the food system," says convention keynoter Fred Kirschenmann, the leading North American exponent of a new agriculture, head of the Iowa-based Leopold Institute and owner of a North Dakota ranch that's the largest environmental farm in the world.
The problem is that public subsidies reward farmers who run big businesses and churn out bulk commodities on the cheap, he tells the CFFO audience. But the results people want from farming are "public goods" -- healthy food, clean water, clear air, protected wildlife and beautiful scenery -- that are priceless but currently carry no economic worth .
CFFO policy analyst Elbert van Donquersgoed, arguably the best-known and most insightful farm commentator in Ontario, isn't sure what the next steps are. The levy could be one or two cents on the grocery dollar and could be either a voluntary or compulsory tax, he muses. He wonders whether a "countryside affinity card" might work: food shoppers would toss something in the pot for the underpaid farmer and get points on a card that would gain them admission to farm fairs, farm tours and the like.
The vision of being paid for eco-services came to him in 1998, he says, when he was trying to figure out how livestock farmers could best respond to public and government demands to manage their manure safely. A study tour of Holland that year showed him that there was no technical fix to the manure problem, and that the best strategy was to cap the size of livestock farms at about 400 animals on a large acreage.
Then he realized that the real issue was broader: "How to move to a countryside that's a quality place to live." Factory farms don't belong in a robust countryside that welcomes young startup farmers, weekenders, retirees and farm hobbyists, he figures, so the trick is to find a way to support family farms that offer the community multiple benefits, such as clean water and friendly faces leading farm tours.
It might seem as far off as a second coming, but no one else has a grain of an idea that comes close to it. HYMN SUNG BY CHRISTIAN FARMERS
Teach us again to be gardeners in peace/ All nature around us is ours but on lease / Your name we would hallow in all that we do / Fulfilling our calling, creating with You.