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Chesterville Record, March 2, 2005 and AgriNews Interactive, March 2005, Vol. 29, No. 3

Orchard has fruitful visit to Cornwall

By Nelson Zandbergen

CORNWALL — David Orchard, political maverick and would-be leader of the defunct Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, plowed fertile ground in Cornwall on Sat., Feb. 26.

"We can feed the world without pesticides and herbicides, we can harmonize with nature and extol the benefits of what organic agriculture has done," Orchard said in a warmly received keynote address to 175 people at the annual Eco Farm Day conference.

Judging from his almost reverential reception at the Ramada Inn, one has to wonder, why did the organic farmer from Saskatchewan with a serious case of protectionist heebie-jeebies ever go looking for votes in Brian Mulroney’s old Tory party — twice?

But for this audience, Orchard was no enigma, pressing all the right buttons by slamming the use of agricultural chemicals, the rise of genetically modified crops, and trade liberalization in general.

He delivered it with a credibility that only a 30-year pioneer of organic production could offer.

His ancestral farmstead has been chemical-free since 1975, he said, the year he took over from his retiring parents. Today, the operation stands at 2,500 acres, one third of which has been rehabilitated to natural habitat. Last year, he noted with pride, the Orchard farm celebrated its 100th anniversary through four generations.

His thinking on conventional production underwent a "reorientation" after reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in University, he said. "I read about the sprays and pesticides and herbicides in a serious way, how they were originally designed as chemical war agents to kill people."

Crop yields on his farm "match or exceed" what they were before the switch to organic production, he said, thanks to the skillful use of crop rotation.

"There’s no necessity to use these chemicals to feed the world," he said, adding that an "epidemic" of cancer has been the result. One in every two men will get the disease in their lifetimes, and one in three women. "What is causing it? We’re told more research is necessary," he scoffed, as indignant chuckles rippled through the crowd.

His audience sat riveted as he noted his own father’s death from prostate cancer, and then recounted a conversation with a neighbour whose seven-year-old son had also died of cancer. "He thought that the chemicals had killed his boy."

Organic agriculture offers not only a way of cleaning up the environment, but a "better rate of return" for Canada’s hard-up agricultural sector, he said. "We don’t need subsidies," he said of the organic sector. His own farm has delivered "a return we wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise," he remarked.

Meanwhile, conventional agricultural has only led to larger farms and lower incomes, he argued. He has spoken to prairie farmers with spreads of 15,000 acres, "and the husband has a job in the mines, and she’s selling pies in the market to make ends meet. This is not working."

Free trade policies have also conspired to drive down farmers’ earnings, he said, with incomes chopped 90 percent in his home province in the past decade.

He also opined that the reopening of the American border to live cattle from Canada, scheduled for March 7, likely won’t happen.

Orchard took aim at genetically-modified crop varieties as a specific threat to organic producers in particular, by contaminating their fields through natural spread.

The release of "Round-Up ready" canola varieties had already "killed" Canada’s export market for organic canola, and he fretted the possible introduction of similarly designed strains of wheat and alfalfa.

A "rapid and massive expansion" in the number of organic growers is needed to meet these challenges, he said, "before the opportunity is foreclosed by these large companies as they’ve done with canola." He recommended the audience write their federal politicians to express concerns about the advance of GMO foods and crops. "In Canada, we’re all eating GMO’s, and it’s all one grand experiment, as Dr. Suzuki pointed out."

And while the government shuts down publicly funded agricultural research stations across Canada, those former public servants, he said, are finding new homes in the private sector and "working on more GMOs." At the same time, "leading edge" research in organic crop production has fallen to small-time operators and individuals — he lauded an 80-year-old farmer in Saskatchewan for his groundbreaking work in crop rotation — but they can’t get government funding.

He reserved a good portion of his righteous outrage for the North American Free Trade Agreement and starkly highlighted the BSE crisis as an example, commenting, "There’s still American beef coming into Ontario and Quebec."

Speaking in broader terms, "the dream of seamless access" to American markets from Canada, he argued, was nonsensical. "There’s only one market with guaranteed access, and that’s our own internal, domestic market."

He groused that NAFTA prevents Canada from creating its own National Energy Policy, yet Mexico has done so, while the security-conscious U.S. is also "looking at it."

"We’re the coldest country of the three and we’re committed to shipping our energy across the border at a zero percent royalty," he added.

Later, during a question and answer session, Orchard said every law passed by Canadian governments must be vetted for compliance with NAFTA, which he called "the new constitution." He pointed out that Canada backed away from a legislated ban on the gasoline additive MMT after the American manufacturer sued the government, under the terms of NAFTA.

The conference was again led by Canadian Organic Growers Ottawa chapter chair Tom Manley of Berwick, who also happens to serve as agricultural advocate for the Green Party of Canada. But Orchard wasn’t about to come out as a Greenie just yet, declaring himself a "political orphan" when asked about his current affiliations.

And an Orchard speech wouldn’t be complete without a nod to his former PC leadership rival, Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay, who had famously promised to never merge the PCs with the Canadian Alliance in return for Orchard’s support. Orchard was, of course, jilted on that deal, and when a member of the audience claimed to have recently spotted MacKay and his new girlfriend, MP Belinda Stronach, at the Chateau Laurier Hotel, Orchard couldn’t resist a humorous dig, drawing a parallel between mergers of both a political and personal nature.

MacKay, he eagerly recounted with a broad smile, had "declared his love" for a former girlfriend in his victory speech at the last PC leadership convention, "then he signed his agreement with me." Neither arrangement worked out, he noted, to complete the punchline.

He said his favourite political cartoon, which appeared in a national newspaper, depicts himself warning Stronach about MacKay’s trustworthiness.

Conference

Tom Manley noted the sense of optimism and youth surrounding the organic agriculture movement, as evidenced by the knapsack-toting crowd at the conference, many of whom raised their hands when he asked for a show of hands of those under 30.

The demographic and mood stood in marked contrast with conventional farming organizations, Manley suggested. "The positive attitude, the inquisitiveness, is different," he said.

Participants strolled through a trade show and earnestly took notes at educational session topics ranging from organic fruit production to drum composting to the ongoing fight for farmers to grow and save their own seed.


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