Nettie Wiebe (LVC): choosing agroecology at the time of the Round Up

Agroecological farming is very complex and does not produce quick solutions. However, the production is much more ecologically sustainable, without waste, and financially better than the conventional one. Nettie Wiebe, Canadian organic farmer and professor, member of La Via Campesina, told us her "farming history" and why she chose agroecology.

11 October 2017 - Nettie Wiebe is a Canadian organic farmer and professor of ethics at St. Andrew’s College, University of Saskatchewan. She was Women’s President of the National Farmers Union and then served four years as the President of the NFU – the first and only woman to have led a national farmers’ organization in Canada – as well as a member of La Via Campesina’s International Coordinating Commission (ICC). She is actively involved in local and national politics in Canada, and her research focuses on agrarian feminism and the intersection of environmental, agricultural and women’s issues in rural communities.

We met her at the "Forum on Women’s Empowerment in the Context of Food Security and Nutrition", held in Rome on September 25th at the FAO. Here below an interview with her by Valentina De Gregorio and Flora Sonkin for Terra Nuova.

As a small scale farmer, what do you produce and where?

I am a farmer and I come from Western Canada. Our context is a small organic farm, but if I have to tell you the size, it does not really seem small. We have a very short season, se we have one crop if we are lucky. Wegrow grains (wheat), peas and lentils and we also have 45 cows. We feed them in winter to put them on pasture in summer time and then we market them as beef. We do more complicated cattle operation than the CAFO ones. We own the pastures. There are common lands, what we call community pasture, but in many parts of the world the governments want to privatize them. But this is not affecting our cattle operations, because we have our own pasture.

How do you produce? Which agroecological practices do you use, for example, to face climate issues like drought or flood?

We were conventional farmers till twenty years ago and then we shifted to the organic production. We had to think long and hard about that, because industrialised agriculture is very common in Western Canada. We had to give up our dependency on chemicals and fertilizers and shift to a different system of production. For us that meant to integrate cattle operations into our farming operations. This way we could start using manure to be spread on land as fertilizer. We also have more weedy fields compared to our neighbours who spread RoundUp everywhere, or genetically modified crops. But this change paid off: our production is much more ecologically sustainable. Furthermore, because we have a lot of weed in the fields, we also invested in some seed cleaning equipment, to clean our own crop, something the other families normally consider garbage. This operation allows us to feed our cattle too. For us, that’s a valuable product, because we use that as a part of our integrated way of production. There is no waste. We had to rethink our farming operations fundamentally, because we want a more integrated system of production which does not depend on chemical inputs. This is a big challenge for us. The only thing we haven’t managed yet is farming in a way that avoid the use of diesel fuels to operate tractors. We know that’s not sustainable in the long term, we are trying to cut back on the usebut we don’t know how to farm all of those hectares in that climate without using machinery and fuels. Eventually maybe by the next generation there will be a way of doing agriculture without using fuels.

Are you using agroecological practices for a long time? Do other farmers in your city/Country see agroecology as a solution?

There are of course many other organic farms in Western Canada, but in our neighbourhood, nobody has changed. I can just mention few reasons for that. One of the main reasons is that agriculture is very patriarchal. Your status in the community and your evaluation as a good farmer often depends on how much you produce and how clean your fields are. That’s very hard, because we live in a community where everybody knows everybody and everybody knows who is managing this or that field. What I am saying is that some of the reasons are economic, because the transition is risky but, on the other hand, we found, in the last twenty years we have being doing organic agriculture, we have done financially better, instead of pursuing conventional agriculture. It’s a big financial risk to consider in doing that, but is a quite big social risk.

Which are the main obstacles do you find on your way (law, rules, competition, …)?

The biggest one is the complexity of farming in a way that does not produce quick solutions. I can’t tell you the amount of time we spent carefully looking at which field, which weed, which crop would give the best results in the coming year. Agroecological farming is much more complex than conventional one, much more likely to give result in a very short term. That’s part of the challenge to be so different from your neighbours and explain them what you are doing. You have to be strong enough and confident enough, without being discouraged by the judgement of the others. Before came organic, we already established ourselves as good farmers and we have a very good neighbourhood so there was risk, but not a realbig risk. Maybe for new farmers, going into a community and doing something that’s not the norm there, can be harder. For this reason, you really have to be confident and committed to do that.

How do you feel as a farmer and as a woman? What is, in your understanding, the role of women in agroecology? What should be changed/achieved?

The reason for changing was motivated also by the fact that, for a very long time already,I really wanted to do that. It represented for sure a social risk, thus it took us (my partner and I) almost a decade to make that decision. I thought my partner was too cautious. But then, when we had conversations with other organic farmers in Canada, it became clear to me that the push for a change came from the women’s partners, because they are more dedicated to that. Hence, I believed that my partner was resisting because he did not want to take the risk. It’s a general social dynamic around agriculture and agroecology. But I realized thatthe change can come from women, since they have been much closer to the risk that chemical agriculture can pose to them and their children. So, it seems to me that women have been more conscious on that kind of health effects and the kind of food they want to produce. I thought a lot into those general norms and I wanted our farm to be a part of the solution and not continue tobe part ofwhat I think is a serious ecological problem. Besides,it was very interesting to me to see that a lot of young farmers, within the farmers’ union, were women, very committed in doing a agroecological production.

Are there any farmers’ associations/organizations/unions responsible for mapping territorial markets?

The farmers’ union does not have only organic farmers. We belong to organic farmers’ organization but the farmers’ union has conventional and organic farmers. However, the farmers’ union has, from the outside, a member form La Via Campesina, who has been very critical of the globalisation of the market. Food markets are more and more inundated by food coming from elsewhere too. That critique around market and who controls market and usurping the local markets has been part of the farmers’ union critique from the beginning. So, there is no argument about that. And the organic ecological production is located in that critique, which says that those market, particularly the seasonal ones, should be protected. But that’s a matter of fact that the number of farmers’ markets is growing within Canada and this is a trend everywhere.