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Book Review: Trauma Farm by Brian Brett; The War in the Country by Thomas F. Pawlick; and What’s to Eat?

By Brad Frenette | EmaxHealth

Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life
By Brian Brett
Greystone Books
373 pp.; $35

The War in the Country: How the Fight to Save Rural Life Will Shape Our Future
By Thomas F. Pawlick
Greystone Books
344 pp.; $24.95

What’s to Eat? Entrées in Canadian Food History
Edited by Nathalie Cooke
University Press
310 pp.; $29.95

Review by Christine Sismondo

Farmers feed cities, right? If we’re all agreed on that, the math shouldn’t be too hard from there. Last time I looked, most of us checked the “like to eat regularly” column, but city chicken coops and tomato patches will get us only so far. Until they get those neato urban agritowers up and running, we’ll need our food shipped in.

Unless you live on a farm. In which case, you need something else shipped in, namely cash.

That’s the general tenor of two recent books, Thomas F. Pawlick’s The War in the Country: How the Fight to Save Rural Life will Shape our Future and Brian Brett’s Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, both of which describe the bleak reality of Canadian farming.

Since we know that it’s a fairly dour topic, the levity with which Brett introduces the subject in Trauma Farm is welcome. He opens with a joke about a government inspector who knocks on a farmer’s door looking for mistreated workers. The farmer replies that he pays his workers well — except for the “local idiot” who gets 50 cents an hour and a bottle of whisky every payday. Turns out, that’s the farmer himself.

Brett has trouble breaking even, and subsidizes his farm with (wait for it) his writing. It gets worse. Although this book is non-fiction, he usually writes poetry.

Obviously, Brett is engaged in a labour of love. He began his romantic journey nearly 20 years ago when he bought a farm on Salt Spring Island, B.C., in a mid-life, back-to-the-land move. Unlike many who attempt to re-create Thoreau’s dream, though, Brett had some experience with rural life, which probably accounts for his long-term success where so many others have failed.

But his joke also speaks to one of the root problems that produces the systemic poverty among small farmers: government regulation and interference. These emerge repeatedly in Brett’s eloquent peregrinations about raw milk, tax forms and regulations. In 25 words or less: The deck’s stacked against the small farmer because government subsidies and policies favour big business.  

This is also Thomas F. Pawlick’s focus. A journalist who lives on an Eastern Ontario farm and recently wrote the best-selling The End of Food, he blames government policies (in concert with major corporations, globalization and free trade) for the “death” of rural life.

It may not be in the coffin yet, but Pawlick argues it’s halfway there. He says governments and corporations are increasingly designating rural land for resorts, golf courses, mining and dumping garbage, all of which yield more profit than small farms. 

Where will our food come from? Factory farms, of course, which Pawlick believes are contributing to the  near destruction of rural life. Intensive Farming Operations (IFOs) next to small farms destroy nearby land with noxious gasses and sludge, contaminating the ground water for acres. Lawsuits and complaints to regulatory boards generally fail, as authorities seem to favour Goliath over David. Those on the losing side argue that the decisions in favour of IFOs are essentially political.

Pawlick offers suggestions for fixing the landscape. They involve amending the tax structure (both property and income); limiting certain mining rights; quotas and marketing boards;, encouraging organics; and wrestling agricultural policy away from corporate lobbyists. Of course, the key to doing any of these things is educating urban voters, thereby establishing the political will for change.

All Pawlick wants us to do is vote and agitate for political action. And we all thought the end of this book was going to be about preserving traditional foodways and buying local, organic food at all costs. Which just happens to form the basis for many of the articles in another recent food release, What’s to Eat: Entrees in Canadian Food History.

This is an anthology of essays edited by Nathalie Cooke, associate dean of arts at McGill University. It’s about what we eat in Canada, and while some of the book is devoted to defining Canadian food culture — a notoriously slippery undertaking — many of the essays just get right down to it.

One article explores traditional Aboriginal food, another delves into Chinese food in Canada, yet another is about the history of Canadian Thanksgiving (much more recent and flexible than the American version) and, of course, there’s an essay devoted to the distinct society’s pride and joy — tourtière.

The article with the most contemporary angle, however, was also one that most piqued my interest: Nathalie Cooke’s Home Cooking: The Stories Canadian Cookbooks Have to Tell. Cooke explores the myth of the importance of the family meal to the physical and mental well-being of our children, our families and our society at large.

It’s nice to hear somebody finally state the obvious — that the responsibility for hunting, gathering, preparing and cleaning up falls almost entirely to women. Cooke looks at old cookbooks and magazines and discovers that it has always been one of the most stressful parts of a woman’s day, which, of course, means that it contributes to everybody’s well-being except hers.

Cooke assures us that it’s always been a challenge to find the time to select healthy food, on a budget, that children won’t complain about.
Now, though, we can’t help feeling it must be worse for us — what with the fate of the small farmer and the rural world resting on our food choices, too.

Fingers crossed for political reform— and fast. Because we can’t take much more of the pressure of voting with our dollars.


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