A modest proposal for CAP reform

I’ve been in Canada for the last month, getting in my last family visit before settling in to the serious business of either going back to school or collecting unemployment checks. My family is large – Great-Grandpa had 25 children, and Grandpa had 9 – so it takes a while if you go to see my family. Ours is a large, disorganised, occasionally frightening clan who, depending on pure whim, identifies itself as either German-Canadian, Dutch-Canadian, Russian-Canadian or Ukrainian-Canadian. Our tribal language is an obscure dialect of Low Saxon (Platt for the actual Germans out there) spoken primarily in Paraguay, Mexico, Central America and Saskatchewan, and whose most famous speaker is, arguably, Homer Simpson. It’s a long story, don’t ask. It not being much of a literary language, we all just say our ancestors spoke German – the liturgical language of my clan’s particular sect.

In contrast to Europe and the US, Canadians are a lot less disturbed about asking people about their ethnic identities or expressing some loyalty to them. I guess the main reason is that Canada has never really pretended to be a nation built atop an identity, but rather a place where an identity of sorts has slowly built up from the existence of a nation. There is no Canadian myth of the melting pot, and as our soon-to-be new Governor General has demonstrated, no serious demand for nativism in public office. Michaëlle Jean, who is slated to be the powerless and unelected Canadian head-of-state when the Queen is out of the country – e.g., practically always – when she is sworn in on the 27th, is no doubt the most attractive candidate we’ve ever had for the office. And, like her predecessor, she is a former CBC/SRC reporter and talking head.

Ms Jean and I share an endemically Canadian charateristic: We both can and do identify ourselves shamelessly as several different kinds of hyphenated Canadians. She is French Canadian, but that’s hardly strange. She is also Franco-Canadian – Ms Jean has dual citizenship with France, making her the first EU citizen to be Governor General of Canada and the first French citizen to be acting head of state of Canada since 1763. But more unprecedentedly, she is Haitian-Canadian and – as logically follows – African-Canadian.

Yes, Ms Jean is black, and furthermore in an interracial marriage. Well, that’s Canada for you. America puts black folk in squalid emergency shelters, we put ours in Rideau Hall.

Okay, that’s not really fair. The Governor General’s office is a unique position that is too high profile to make a matter of pure cronyism, and yet totally powerless and completely at the Prime Minister’s discretion. In short, it’s the perfect position for token appointments – like a black francophone woman. And, the job is conveniently open just before a very difficult election, when the Prime Minister needs to distract people from his real political problems. Ms Jean is controversial – not because she’s black, but because she, like practically every francophone Quebecois intellectual, has flirted with separatist politics. Condoleeza Rice unquestionably has more power over America than Michaëlle Jean will have over Canada.

At least she’s a good case for funding the CBC, which is currently in a major labour dispute over cost-cutting through outsourcing. As Patrick McKenna (Harold Green for those of you who’ve seen the Red Green Show) puts it, who else is going to train our future Governors General?

Personally, I’d like to cut off ties to the whole Windsor family and appoint Red Green as King of Canada. Separatists getting you down? First Nations getting uppity? Ralph Klein bitching about oil revenues and gay marriage again? Use the handyman’s secret weapon. We’ll just get a few billion rolls of duct tape and keep those local jurisdictions in line. 3M Duct Tape, by appointment to his majesty, Red I. The only stuff strong enough to hold our nation together. If your country doesn’t find you handsome enough to put on the five dollar bill, at least they should find you handy.

Okay, enough of the Canadian inside jokes. The Red Green Show is one of the things I miss living in Europe, but don’t always admit to – like Twinkies and Taco Bell.

But, I digress.

My aunt Elma – Hi, Aunt Elma! – has been renting out part of her house to a family of German immigrants looking to farm in the part of southern Manitoba where at least some of my sort-of German speaking ethnic group live. She’s found it quite challenging to understand them – they are Swabish and speak a colloquial German from the diametric opposite side of the country from the kind my aunt understands best. But, by living in one of the most German-speaking part of the Prairies, they seem to be able to get by on pretty thin English.

Immigrating to Canada to farm is something I, quite frankly, thought no one in their right mind would ever want to do if they could avoid it, but my aunt tells me that her area is presently receiving large numbers of German immigrants trying to buy farms or set up related rural businesses. Some 3,100 Germans immigrated to Manitoba in 2003 alone, a large portion to rural areas. The idea that large numbers of anybody would come to Canada and want to have a farm in the middle of nowhere is weird enough. That people would come from a developed nation like Germany to do it is even weirder.

But, it seems there are people in Germany who both want to farm and find they can’t in Europe, and the Canadian government, in conjunction with the Prairie provinces, has set up something called the Immigrant Nominee Program to help them out.

This isn’t completely counter-intuitive. Canada is one of the most urbanised nations in the world – even in low population growth provinces like Saskatchewan, the cities are growing by drawing people in from the country. Distances in Canada are a whole lot larger than they are in Europe and larger than all but the emptiest parts of the US. Living in the middle of nowhere is not a really appealing lifestyle, and those with any non-agricultural aspirations end up moving into at least a small city. The result is a serious shortage of skilled labourers and, yes, a shortage of farmers in some parts of the country.

But what was more interesting was the claim – never entirely clear in content – that the German government is financially assisting these people to move to Canada. Apparently, a significant number of German immigrants under this program are ethnic Germans from eastern Europe and the former USSR – people who came to Germany under its ethnic law of return after 1989 and are now leaving for Canada. The suggestion is that Germany is paying these people to leave.

I can’t find a whole lot of press on this new wave of immigrants. One firm handling immigration from Germany, Star-7 International Inc. of Winkler, Manitoba, I found with this blurb:

Star-7 International Inc. signed a letter of intent with Human eSource GmbH of Berlin to actively promote employment and lifestyle opportunities in Manitoba and work together to assist skilled workers to relocate to the province.

“Employment and lifestyle opportunities in Manitoba”?!?!? People leave the rural prairies because of the distinct lack of “employment and lifestyle opportunities”. And Winkler… I’m hard pressed to think of a lifestyle opportunity that one might actually want to pursue in Winkler.

Now, I’ll admit, I might be biased against farming. Every one of my relatives who could escape farming did so at the earliest possibilty. The whole thing sounds way too much like actual hard work. But, if you accept the notion that there are people who want to farm, it’s not that impossible. The idea of actively seeking out Germans who want to buy farms makes sense in such a context. Buying good farmland in Germany can’t be very easy or cheap, and the spectre of CAP reform is surely discouraging even those who might be able to farm from trying. And, maybe Germany has some of the kind of people who might find Winkler appealing.

Still, it does make something of a contrast to claims that Germany needs population growth.

But, this leads me to propose an alternative approach to CAP reform. (Attn: Angela Merkel) Buy European farmers enormous plots in Canada. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta alone have roughly 30 million hectares of farmland, slightly more than Germany and France combined. It seems to me to be a real free market solution – it’s got to be cheaper than winding down the CAP in an orderly way. And, if France and Belgium can get in on the deal, Canada can use the whole business to raise the francophone population in the west, thereby justifying and enabling more exensive bilingualism. Furthermore, I’ll bet Germany’s rural population averages older than its urban population, so emigrating also lowers that impending pension bill that the business press keeps crowing about. Encouraging European immigration to the countryside seems appropriate to a nation with a European citizen as its head of state.

Gas costs 82 eurocents a litre in Saskatchewan – and this is after Katrina. It’s €1.45 in Brussels today. Think about it.

8 thoughts on “A modest proposal for CAP reform

  1. No, actually we appoint our fellow citizens, black or otherwise to the office of Secretary of State and head of the Joint Chiefs. Even Colin Powell noted that if his parents had chosen to go to Canada or Great Britain he probably would have retired as a senior NCO.

  2. Actually, they’re going east instead http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/08/25/news/farmers.php as Graham Bowley’s International Herald Tribune article “British farmers grow roots in Estonia” indicates. Sample text:

    “We thought there was a hard time ahead for farming and we had to do something different,” said Clifton Lampard, a farmer from Leicestershire who bought a bankrupt dairy farm near Turi, an hour south of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, in 2002.

    A year later, he bought two more Estonian farms with a group of Norwegian and English investors and, with his wife, helps to run them alongside the farm they still rent in England.

    “I came out here and thought, this all adds up,” he says.

    The reason it added up can be seen today in the green countryside around Turi and Tartu. Dilapidated Soviet barns and lines of pine forests, home to storks and wild boar, punctuate vast stretches of land, most of it untouched since the collapse of the old planned economy.

    The newcomers discovered that if they cleared the soil and worked it, the local government would give it to them more or less for free. The land is so plentiful and cheap that many of the foreigners cannot always even say exactly how much real estate they own. For them, it was a pleasing contrast to Britain’s crowded and expensive isle.

    “I was selling land in Scotland for over £2,000 an acre and buying it in Estonia for £25 an acre,” said Neil Godsman, from Aberdeenshire, who owns a dairy and grain farm in central Estonia.

  3. There’s still a kind of mystique about Canada in Germany. The airport in Whitehorse, Yukon lengthened its runways especially to accomodate the weekly jumbo flight in from Frankfurt, amazingly enough. (I found out that it was almost cheaper to fly into Whitehorse from Frankfurt than from San Francisco.) My relatives up there report that many Germans own summer cabins; they also note, stereotypically enough, that the Germans’ cabins are much better put together than the average Yukoner’s.

    When I lived in Germany, I was astonished to see all of the little gardening huts–I’ve totally forgotten the German for them. One of my friends was writing a master’s on the history of them, so I really should remember the right word. They seemed to indicate to me, an outsider who never really accultured, mind you, a nostaglic attachment to living on the land. (And then, of course, one of my friends gave me a Karl May book as a going-away gift.)

    As for the German govt supporting such return to the (Canadian) land, I have no good ideas.

  4. I biked across Estonia. It’s every bit as empty as the Hairy Trib says – and that was in western and central Estonia. I imagine that the poorer, eastern bits are even emptier.

  5. Well then what the heck are they doing migrating to Canada? I can’t imagine the margins are a whole lot larger, and I can easily imagine the real gains to be a lot smaller in my country.

  6. Well then what the heck are they doing migrating to Canada, eh?

    I don’t think the Estonians are migrating to Canada. Estonians as such are probably headed for Tallinn or Tartu (see, “farm, can’t keep them down on”), and such Russian-speakers as remain are headed for points east.

    As for Germans who actually get into farming, maybe it’s the scale of things in North America that’s appealing. Also, if they’re Spätaussiedler, then they’re probably coming from places like Ukraine, central Russia and Kazakhstan that are physically and meteorologically much more like prairie Canada than present-day Germany.

  7. I agree with Scott about farming as a vocation, but I can testify that many farmers really do love to farm, despite the hard work. Around here (Minnesota) fluctuations of commodity prices, interest rates, and gasoline prices drive most of them out of business, but it’s unwillingly. (This is a rationalization, of course, from an economic point of view — too many small, undercapitalized enterprises.)

    A passable farmer can normally make quite a bit more money doing something else (e.g. trucking, carpentry), and those who stay in the biz as independent farmers often do so at a loss, taking outside jobs to support their farms.

    According to my truckdriver ex-farmer friend, the only people who can stay in business farming here are “Amish”, who do so by working long lowpaid hours including child labor, never borrowing from banks, minimizing cash purchases (e.g. gasoline and pesticides), and astonishing frugality (not buying shoes for the kids until there’s they go to work or school).

    The politics and economics of agriculture is quite a mess. The conventional wisdom is that it should be globalized and rationalized like everything else. I don’t like that, but formulating an alternative program is difficult.

  8. Regarding Scott’s comment that all 0f his relatives left farming at the earliest opportunity- not quite correct. I have one brother who left farming very reluctantly and never would have if he could have purchased enough land. I know many people whose #1 lifestyle choice is farming and always will be. Many of them are younger people who leave farming for the same reason my brother did. Compared to many of the European immigrants these Canadians are at a disadvantage because real estate prices are so astronomically higher in at least some parts of Europe. My first European B&B guests were from Ireland. They had a cottage on a tiny plot which they purchased about 14 years earlier. They had renovated and added over the years but they could now sell for the price of a whole dairy farm in Manitoba. And quite understandably for me many people would rather live in the middle of nowhere than crowded on every side.