Interview with Kalissa Regier
of the National Farmers Union, Canada
-- Control Over the Farm --
Kalissa Regier is Youth Vice-President of the National Farmers Union (NFU) of Canada. This interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on October 21, 2008 during the 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina. La Via Campesina is “an international movement of peasants, small and medium-sized producers, landless men and women, indigenous people, rural youth, and agricultural workers.” The conference was held in Matola, Mozambique.
In Motion Magazine: Do you come from a farming family yourself?
Kalissa Regier: Yes, I grew up on a grain farm in Saskatchewan and I’m a farmer now.
In Motion Magazine: Where in Saskatchewan?
Kalissa Regier: Just north of Saskatoon. It’s about 45 miles north of Saskatoon, so, central Saskatchewan.
In Motion Magazine:And what kind of grain do you grow?
Kalissa Regier: It’s organic mixed grains and oil seeds. Wheat and barley, oats, those kinds of grains. And then I grow hemp seed and flax and some legumes as well, pulse crops -- lentils and peas.
In Motion Magazine: And is that how you became involved in the NFU?
Kalissa Regier: Yes.
In Motion Magazine: What caused you to do that?
Kalissa Regier: My parents had been members before me, so, when I started farming I joined the NFU as well. It came about from when we were faced with the possibility of having some industrial pig farms open up right around our farm. My Mom really looked into it. She did some research and decided that it wasn’t a good idea and she was looking for some support from someone other than the government who was going to help her convince people that this wasn’t a good idea to have these huge pig barns around their farms. She invited the NFU up for a meeting in our community. And they came and spoke and since then we have been members.
In Motion Magazine: How long ago was that?
Kalissa Regier: Not very long. Six years ago.
In Motion Magazine: And how did that go?
Kalissa Regier: We stopped them from building any industrial pig barns. Their plans came to a halt pretty quickly after.
In Motion Magazine: What company was that?
Kalissa Regier: Big Sky Farms, which is a “private/public” pork producers corporation.
In Motion Magazine: Do you want to talk a little bit about the process of your farm? How you go to market? And has that affected you also in your desire to be part of the NFU?
Kalissa Regier: Well, the farm was a conventional farm all my life, and shortly after I moved back to the farm to start farming we decided to start the transition to organic. Now we are a certified organic grain farm. A lot of the marketing is done the same as a conventional grain farm. We find brokers and a lot of our grain gets exported.
In Motion Magazine: Would you call it a local economy or are you integrated into the general system?
Kalissa Regier: It’s not a local economy right now. But grain farms in Saskatchewan were never meant to be local. The amount of grain that is produced in Saskatchewan is far too much for the million people that live there to eat. All of western Canada was developed to be export oriented. It’s almost impossible to get out of doing that. A lot of people who are concerned are searching out ways to at least market some of what they grow locally so that instead of having, for instance, grains coming from wherever at least we are eating locally. But there’s no way we can eat as much as what we produce.
In Motion Magazine: And do you think you get fair prices?
Kalissa Regier: Right now I do. It’s just been two years since we were able to sell certified organic grain. It’s been a steep learning curve, as far as what prices to expect and how to negotiate. But we are definitely seeing fair prices.
In Motion Magazine: Do you do all the work? I’m thinking about the size of the farm.
Kalissa Regier: It’s just my Dad and I that do the actual physical work. We have 1,500 acres. But it’s seasonal. We have very short seasons in Saskatchewan. The snow is gone end of April and that’s when we will get into the fields. By the time Thanksgiving comes around we’re pretty much done. During the winter is mostly marketing, book work, and moving grain. The field work is all done by October.
In Motion Magazine: Can you tell me a little bit about the NFU?
Kalissa Regier: The NFU is the only direct member farm organization in Canada. It doesn’t take its members from other groups. There’s other farm groups in Canada that take their membership from other commodity groups. The NFU actually has members that are consciously and legitimately members of the NFU. It’s basic goal is to promote the rights of the family farmer and to promote the family farm as a basic food producing unit in Canada.
In Motion Magazine: Are there many members in Saskatchewan?
Kalissa Regier: Our membership has not grown significantly. In fact, I think it has decreased in the last several years. But we have seen a fairly right-wing political influence all over western Canada. The membership hasn’t grown lately. I feel bad saying that.
In Motion Magazine: How are family farms doing?
Kalissa Regier: Not great. No. The financial situation of most family farms is pretty stressful, especially conventional grain farms. That’s my experience -- with grain farming in the prairies.
We have seen the increase in prices in the last couple of years but it hasn’t proven to make that much of a difference in the overall economy of the farm. Input costs have increased exponentially at the same time, like fuel prices and fertilizer chemical costs for conventional farmers. So, they are not really any further ahead with the increase in grain prices.
In Motion Magazine: And that is the primary stress?
Kalissa Regier: That would be the primary stress. Yes.
In Motion Magazine: Are you seeing family farms go out of business?
Kalissa Regier: Yes. In fact, we just had a national census come out last year, with the numbers of 2006, and the one statistic that I was really alarmed at was that the number of young farmers, under the age of 35, in Canada, has decreased by over sixty percent in the last five years. We have less than 30,000 people in Canada right now under 35 who are farming.
In Motion Magazine: Are there young farmers around you?
Kalissa Regier: There are, actually. In my area, there are. There’s a lot of young people who are interested in it and who are capable and very skilled. It’s hard to look at the statistics and not be completely worried about the future, but when you actually look at the people, I feel really hopeful. I think that the next census that comes out is going to be different. I think that we have just seen some of the worst years and I do feel like it’s turning around now for the future of farming, for farmers.
In Motion Magazine: Do you organize specifically as young farmers in Saskatchewan, or in the NFU?
Kalissa Regier: Yes, the NFU has a separate youth division. We have a president and a vice-president who are on the national board. And the president of the youth is a part of the executive board of directors of the National Farmers Union. So we do organize.
It’s a difficult task to organize the young farmers because there are so few of us, first of all. And also they are the busy (ones), the ones that can’t make it to events, and that kind of thing, participate. It’s hard to get them to participate . We have had a real challenge in the last couple of years organizing, starting a network. I started two years ago and I basically felt like we were starting from scratch. How do you start a network of young farmers when you are by yourself in the middle of Saskatchewan? And Canada is huge.
It’s slowly coming together. We had an event this summer where we brought young members from across the country out to my farm just for a weekend of interaction, and a background in the NFU. We had an executive meeting there, as well, so they had a chance to meet with the executive and discuss a lot of the things that we are working for. Hopefully it’s a start. But it’s a small pool to draw from.
In Motion Magazine: So, to exist as a young farmer. One method is to take over the original farm and another would be to go out and start another one?
Kalissa Regier: It really depends. If your family farm is in a decent financial position, it doesn’t have too much debt, then it’s feasible for a young person to take over. I think it’s a huge responsibility and it’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. If you are going to start at age 25 or 30 and take over $300,000 debt, that’s pretty daunting. And that’s a scenario where you would take over the family farm. Taking over the family farm doesn’t mean you are just given a piece of land and all this machinery for free. There’s usually debt accumulated over the years and you have to take that over as well.
Concerning outright buying a farm, you’d have to have a pretty good relationship with your banker, and the FCC (Farm Credit Canada), to be able to afford the loan. In Saskatchewan you’d probably need half a million dollars to start a grain farm that has a capacity to generate some profit.
In Motion Magazine: So most of the other farms, I take it, are corporate farms?
Kalissa Regier: There’s a growing number of corporate farms, for sure.
In Motion Magazine: Is it like a giant battlefield where these really large guys are running around trampling on the small farms?
Kalissa Regier: In some ways it feels like that. When you have neighbors that farm 30,000 acres and they are willing to rent your land for more than asking price because they are just looking for everything that they can take ... it’s a really easy way out for a lot of farmers who don’t want to have to go through the process of putting their land up for sale and trying to find someone to take over their operation. They can just sell it to the guy next door who is buying everything up.
In Motion Magazine: Has that had an impact on the community life?
Kalissa Regier: Yes. Absolutely.
In Motion Magazine: Like what?
Kalissa Regier: The school has threatened to close every year because there’s not enough ... . Our community is 250 people. It’s very small, though that’s another area where we have seen another turnaround. There’s a re-growth of rural areas close enough to the city that they can be, not bedroom communities, but alternative communities to city life.
In Motion Magazine: Really. Where’s that coming from?
Kalissa Regier: Saskatoon. From property values increasing to the point where people are considering alternatives.
In Motion Magazine: They see it as an investment or they just like the idea of living away from a city?
Kalissa Regier: They like the idea of raising a family away from the city.
In Motion Magazine: And they become a part of the community?
Kalissa Regier: Yes.
In Motion Magazine: So that’s a positive thing.
Kalissa Regier: Yes it is. It’s very positive. And that’s been just within the last two years.
In Motion Magazine: And the primary reason, again?
Kalissa Regier: Well, our economy has been steadily growing, mainly due to the oil industry in Alberta and Saskatchewan. There’s a lot of manufacturing going on, and a lot of jobs, and a lot of money, and housing prices have sky-rocketed.
In Motion Magazine: What’s the relationship of La Via Campesina to the NFU?
Kalissa Regier: The National Farmers’ Union was actually a founding member of La Via Campesina back in the early ’90s. As far as I understand, our president Nette Wiebe, at the time, was involved in the original organization of La Via Campesina. We’ve been involved since the beginning.
We try to participate as much as possible but as one of two organizations in Canada that are members of La Via Campesina, it’s sometimes difficult to find the people to participate in the events. We have Union Paysanne in Quebec which is sort of the Quebec version of National Farmers’ Union, and then the NFU across the rest of Canada. We are the only two members of La Via Campesina in Canada, at the moment. So, to find participants for La Via Campesina events solely from those two organizations is a bit of a challenge.
In Motion Magazine: When you are here how do you see the connection between what you are doing on your farm and what is going on here? What are you doing here?
Kalissa Regier: The organization of farmers here, this is a global network of farmers, and the National Farmers Union is a national network of farmers. We are all working for the same goal -- to increase the control that the farmer has over the resources that they need to produce the food that they are producing. That’s how I see it.
It’s sometimes difficult to relate to a lot of what goes with La Via Campesina because it is so global and there’s a lot of struggles in other parts of the world that we don’t relate to. But at the same time you can always see that the end result is the same. We are looking at that element of control that we’ve lost. Control over the farm. Control over the land. Control over the finances.
In Motion Magazine: In what way have you lost that control?
Kalissa Regier: Generally, it’s been lost to the domination of corporations. A lot of farmers don’t have a choice. In Canada, if you are a conventional farmer, you are given a template of how to operate your farm, how to grow your crops, what products to use. You are told what prices you have to pay. The corporate domination of agriculture has been incredibly successful in undermining the knowledge that farmers have. The traditional knowledge that they have had over the years and what skills they have to farm. They are basically told that, “This is what you have to do and if you don’t do it this way you are going to fail.” And, “If you fail you are going to go bankrupt and you are going to have leave the farm.” It’s an incredible amount of control they have over farmers. It’s scary. It’s a psychological control. I see it in a lot of my neighbors. They believe, they really believe, that they have to grow this GMO canola because if they don’t they are going to go broke. It’s very clear to them.
In Motion Magazine: Who tells them that?
Kalissa Regier: Their chemical reps tell them that. Their machinery reps tell them that. When they go out to buy a new sprayer, they say, “Well, you are going to have spray all your crops three times this year, so you need a good sprayer. And it’s going to cost you $150,000. But if you don’t get this sprayer, you are not going to be able to spray your crops decently and you are going to have a crop failure.” It’s that kind of control. It’s really evident.
In Motion Magazine: They must think you are crazy.
Kalissa Regier: We are lucky to have a really tight-knit community. We have a lot of relatives that farm around us. My parents had being farming there for 35 years and my family has been farming there for over 100 years. We are not just some new crazy people who moved in next door doing this weird thing. We had been following the rules just like everyone else for years and years and years and our deviation was the first in our area. But, I don’t see it as the last. I think it is going to instigate a change. It’s hard to be the first, because we are sort of looked upon as crazy sometimes, but ...
In Motion Magazine: So, what made you try this different way?
Kalissa Regier: Organic? Two things. Chemicals are terrible. Anyone who has ever caught a whiff of 2,4-D (2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) knows that. Or the granular fertilizer that I remember shoveling out of the truck box and stinging my nose. I’ve always hated working with chemicals.
And the market. There’s a premium for organic. Nobody is going to deny that. You get paid a premium for your product. You are producing something that is healthier and you are not spending nearly as much doing it. It’s not nearly as stressful, either.
In Motion Magazine: What does food sovereignty mean to you?
Kalissa Regier: Food sovereignty is such a huge term, in so many ways. It is important for everyone to find their own definition of it. For me, it has a lot to do with control. It has lot to do with understanding where my product is coming from. What my land is doing. What it is producing. And where it is going. So, even though I can say true food sovereignty emphasizes local production and as a grain farmer I am dependent on exports, for me food sovereignty means when I export my grain I pay attention to where it is going. If I have the choice, I’ll chose it to stay closer to home.
What else? There’s so many things. Relationship with the land is a big thing. Feeling like you are doing the right thing for the environment around you and the community around you. Not just for your own benefit but for the benefit for the people, your neighbors, and your family, and the people downstream.
It’s really a lot of common sense when you look at it. It’s awareness, more than anything, because we lose that awareness when we are faced with so many stresses. It’s easy to forget why we are doing what we are doing. Food sovereignty is about the relationship we have with what we are doing. Just re-connecting.
In Motion Magazine: You said you have a choice of where your grain goes. You don’t just turn it over to the local giant trader?
Kalissa Regier: No. We have people that we work with who are specifically involved in selling organic grain. They talk to us about where their markets are and what kind of prices they can get. It’s always our final call where they sell it to.
In Motion Magazine: So, you are not in the system at all?
Kalissa Regier: No, not really. Not the big system. It’s a growing system and there are definitely corporate interests in organics. There’s no question about that. But it’s a lot easier to have control. It’s a lot easier to pay attention.
In Motion Magazine: Do you see any elements of fair trade involved in that kind of activity?
Kalissa Regier: It depends on what your definition of fair trade is. Fair trade as in our cost of production is covered? Well, yes. We wouldn’t sell for under cost of production. Fair trade as in I feel like I’m getting a good enough price? Yes. I can negotiate.
In Motion Magazine: What has it been like working with other youth from around the world here?
Kalissa Regier: It has been interesting. It has been really good. I think everyone feels like they are a bit singled out. It’s hard to be in a group of such diverse people without the backup, the support of other people who are like you. For me here, and it’s always been like this with La Via Campesina, I feel like I’m sort of looked upon as the rich Northern farmer when we have so many people involved that are from the Southern hemisphere and developing nations that farm so differently from me. Even European farming is vastly different from what I’m doing. Yes, there’s an element of separation there. But it’s really good to see. And I think it’s good for them to see that things aren’t always one way.
In Motion Magazine: How about the discussions. Where are they going? Any specific thoughts there?
Kalissa Regier: It always seems the constant struggle here is organization and communication because that’s what we are focused on with La Via Campesina. It’s forming networks and bonds between people who are working for the same thing. As far as that goes, the youth is just starting out. This is the second youth assembly, and with youth there is such a high turnover. There’s going to be a turnover of the youth in four years so it’s a difficult position to organize young people. Those are our biggest struggles, communication and organization.
In Motion Magazine: Do you think youth are well represented here?
Kalissa Regier: I think they are well represented here. This is my first conference, so I’m not sure what to compare it to, but it seems like there’s a strong youth presence here. And I think that it’s going to continue to grow. This social movement and this organization is something that young people all over the world are really involved in, right now -- in more ways than just La Via Campesina. And I think that it’s going to continue to get bigger.
In Motion Magazine: Back on the farm. The fact that you are a woman farmer, have there been any specificities about that?
Kalissa Regier: Yes, there still are. And I live in an area that is especially male dominated, in terms of agriculture. It’s fairly large-scale agriculture that’s going on there. It’s dependent on machinery and typically that’s where the men are.
But, yes, I still face it. I don’t feel like I’m treated the same as I would be if I were a man. Although, having said that, I don’t want to be treated like I’m a man. I want to be treated like I’m a woman. I’m not trying to be a man farmer. I struggle with working with machinery. It’s not my forte. I like growing crops and growing food. I like working in the fields. So, there’s different strengths and weaknesses between men and women. And different ways of doing things.
As far as the perception of others, it’s really hard for them to wrap their heads around it when they’ve been in a community where there’s only one way to do things. I think a lot of small towns in Canada are like that. It’s very traditional. Traditionally, it’s a man’s job.
In Motion Magazine: Does it translate to money at the bank? Does it cause problems? Do you not get credit?
Kalissa Regier: Well, at the beginning, I couldn’t get an operating loan to start, my first year. I don’t know if that had to do with the fact that I was 25 years old or that had to do with the fact that I was a 25-year-old woman. I ended up having to get it through my parents. But it’s been five years now and I go to the bank pretty confidently by myself. They know that I’m working things out.
To detach myself from the system
In Motion Magazine: One of the things that people talk about here is not living in a world based on capital with everything going through the markets, and in different areas people are trying different solidarity economies or ways of doing things. Do you see anything like that where you are? How does that translate to you?
Kalissa Regier: Well, I’m pretty dependent on that system, right now. We all are. I see the desire to move in those directions where we are not as dependent on that system, that capitalism system that has been created. And, although I don’t think we will ever be free of that, the movement away from it symbolizes the movement towards more control.
In Motion Magazine: So you see going organic as part of that process?
Kalissa Regier: Yes. It’s easy to talk idealistically about having this system, this alternative model, but to actually put it in practice takes years and years and years. I don’t know if it is even possible, for me anyways. So, small things that I do consciously to detach myself from the system I think are my only options.
In Motion Magazine: When you had the meeting with the other youth on your farm, did other ideas come up of what they are actually doing in their day-to-day lives that may make it a little less stressful? Or what you were doing was the model of some sort of a break-away?
Kalissa Regier: I think that what I’m doing is one form of a model to break away and I think that everyone there has the same mentality of searching for alternatives. Whether or not it is feasible for them to do that economically is another story. You can only sacrifice so much to make that change.
In Motion Magazine: Although what you are doing seems smarter on an economic basis because you have more control and you are getting better prices than your neighbors.
Kalissa Regier: And it’s not a secret. I don’t quite understand why nobody else is doing it. I can’t imagine, not now that it’s been a few years of doing it this way, I can’t imagine ever going back. It’s just not even an option. It’s night and day.
Published in In Motion Magazine January 12, 2009
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