An Open Letter (err, diatribe) on Bill 6,
Many of our customers, friends, family, and fellows in local food have been hearing an awful lot about Bill 6 in Alberta. For those who haven’t, here is the rundown. Bill 6 was introduced by the Alberta government to bring the province of Alberta in line with national and other provincial legislation on Occupational Health and Safety, Workers Compensation Boards, and labour laws in agriculture. The legislation has a lot of people up in arms, and it has become a running public relations issue for the government.
Fellow compatriots in the local food and regenerative agriculture world, please, I beg you, stop protesting over this bill. Stop complaining about it. Stop saying it is going to doom the family farm. Stop saying it was rushed and done with too little consultation.
Laws in Alberta go through a series of readings and amendments before they are passed. Three readings, each with debate and amendment periods, followed by a final examination before royal assent. The current government has said, repeatedly, that they will extend the time between second and third readings to give more consultation. This is not rushed legislation, this is overdue legislation that is being heavily consulted on by the government in a manner that the previous government had never done. For the last 20 years legislation affecting farmers has been fast tracked in the name of oil and gas or economic progress, and farmers have been utterly removed from the process (or utterly ignored). Bill 6 is moving at an appropriate pace given the legislation. The government is listening to stakeholders. This is a non-issue.
Currently agriculture in Alberta is sheltered from minimum wage laws, labour safety laws, workers rights laws (including unionization), and has special privileges around temporary foreign workers, CPP, EI, and OAS contributions. It is the only industry in Alberta that has these exceptions, and people are getting killed on the job or injured regularly because of it. This legislation will be a step in the right direction to protect the men and women who are growing, packing, and shipping the food that keeps us alive.
A lot of people are waving the flag around the family farm, concerned that these labour law changes will increase the cost of production and put the family farm out of business. I see two issues with this.
First, the definition of a family farm needs to include scale. Most people picture the family farm as a husband and wife team with a few kids working away to make ends meet. That is true for some, but the family farm also includes business operators running 10,000+ acres of grains or 5,000+ head of cattle with dozens of employees. These are big businesses with multi-million dollar cash flow statements. Some are family collectives, like the Hutterites. Some are older couples working a market garden. These labour law loopholes help the big operators a huge amount. Lillydale Chicken loves them. A 10,000+ acre grain operation loves them. Big feedlots and slaughter facilities love them. For the small family these laws are almost meaningless. I already have to pay $15-20/hour for help, let alone minimum or day wages. I already have to carry insurance for staff (including myself) in case of injury. We are already labour cost pinched. This legislation will do nothing to change that fact at our scale.
Second, the family farm doesn’t fail because of costs. The family farm fails because of an inability to increase revenue and access markets. Most farms are chained to a commodities system that tells them what they get paid, when they get paid, and how much it will cost to ship it (lowering what they get paid). They are price takers, not price makers. The number one force in driving down the revenue of the family farm is the consumer’s unwillingness to pay more for food. In Canada we spend a paltry 9% of our household income on food and want it lower. Enough so it was an election issue. Of that the typical farmer gets $0.07 – $0.10 on every dollar spent.
Think about that. The median income in Canada is $35,000/year. 9% of that is $3150 a year spent on food. Of that the family farm gets $220 – $315. That’s it. For a YEAR. That is the economic contribution to the family farm. Every time a consumer protests the high price of food they are asking the farmer to take less money for their labours. It is driving them out of business at a rate that is astounding. Alberta is now down to 49,000 farms and shedding 7-10% of that number each year. Average age? 65. What sort of young person would go into an industry as fundamentally broken as agriculture? This is commodities based global economics in action.
There is also a very vocal set of people protesting the government getting involved in family farm matters. They never talk about the big corporate farms that are the bulk of labour abuses who also really dislike this legislation. They focus on the “nanny state” trying to take control of farmer’s lives by removing their rights and way of life. This is probably the most galling sort of statement I’ve heard.
Here is the reality of the rights family farms have lost due to legislation over the last 50 years: we don’t own the water in our dugouts and ponds (or have full access rights to it); we don’t own the mineral rights under our soil; we can be evicted from our family farms at any time; we have no control over industry development on our land; we have no right to process and sell food from our property without herculean permitting; we are limited in dozens of food products on how much we can grow, raise, and sell via quota boards. The family farm is quite literally wrapped in legal chains that are driving us out of business. Nobody has protested these changes over the last 50 years, and nobody is protesting them now.
So if you are suddenly irate over legislation that will make farming safer because it will damage the family farm lifestyle I have two questions for you. Where have you been and will you step up by spending more money on local family farms?
Customers, we love you. Friends and followers, you are the reason we are working in this calling and industry called farming. We are in this to heal the land, building beauty and health for everyone we interact with. If you want to help us do send your thoughts on to the government about Bill 6, that is an excellent thing to do. But do so informed with the actual situation in agriculture. Then come see us at the farmer’s market and buy our veg.