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Making Peace with the Land: A conference on food, faith, and farming

   

May 21, 2002
Winnipeg, Man.- When Southern Manitoba farmer Harold Penner proposed (at the 2000 assembly in Lethbridge, Alberta) a resolution to make food issues a focus for the Mennonite Church Canada 2002 Saskatoon assembly, he didn't anticipate that two days and a separately named event would be devoted to the topic.

Like wise for coordinator and MC Canada staff person Marilyn Houser Hamm. "I knew that we had a big job ahead of us," said Marilyn Houser Hamm, "but just how big was not at all clear."

Calling for input from a reference group representing the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Food Disaster Service, Mennonite Environmental Task Force, the MCC Manitoba Agriculture Committee, and Mennonite farmers, Hamm began planning Making Peace with the Land: A city mouse and a country mouse talk about the pantry (July 2-3, in advance of the Mennonite Church Canada annual assembly in Saskatoon).

"Because of the situation in farming across the Canadian prairies, we knew that the conference needed to substantively address the issues. The agricultural community told us there is too much at risk here to avoid needed dialogue and discussion around food production. So we went to work," said Hamm.

Planners gave key attention to providing a venue for rural and urban participants to talk together, citing that food producers lack opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation with consumers. Planners hope the dialogue of Making Peace with the Land will inform reflection and inspire action in the delegate body of the larger assembly following.

Discussions with the reference group provided a sense of direction and some surprising results:

  • Farmers said they did not want to be reduced to a sympathy story-a conference in which they inform urban participants of their hardships. Representing only 1% of the Canadian population and a smaller and smaller link in the food chain, producers are looking for a broader base of ownership and direction-setting in the Canadian food system. If you eat here, they said, you are part of the discussion. If you buy food here, you are part of the discussion.
  • Producers frequently feel they carry the weight of the Canadian food system alone. Producers desire a broad-based ownership of the food system, and a desire to talk together about the food we eat, how it is grown, by whom, and with what values.
  • The global picture of world hunger has changed, changing the mindset of producers whose concerns have been to grow more to feed the world.
  • Global population shifts and a decline in rural population on the Canadian Prairies is resulting in the loss of communities and a way of life that has been dear to many generations. What will happen as communities, a rural way of life, and stewards of the land become extinct? What values does the faith community hold that can help build up healthy rural economies, communities, and sustain the land itself?
  • Producers do not want to attend another conference where they listen to experts tell them what they know already. "We need to talk; we need to talk together," said Harold Penner, southern Manitoba farmer and member of the MCC Agriculture Committee.

Hamm says Making Peace with the Land is intentionally designed for dialogue. "Our experts will be there, but more to journey alongside, and to be a part of the community's discussion. And interest from the rural community is definitely there. I hope our urban friends will demonstrate an equal interest," said Hamm.

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Sidebar: Making Peace with the Land: Agenda at a glance:

July 2, AM: Participants will gather at Wanuskewin National Heritage Park early on the morning where they will walk the land that has been traversed by the aboriginal community for six thousand years; aboriginal elders will be on hand to offer their perspectives.

July 2, PM: Participants will then gather at nearby Osler Mennonite Church for an opening address by Dr. Chris Lind, followed by a response from long-time ag journalist Laura Rance. The remainder of the day will be spent in Community Dialogue - a three-hour process of looking at Canada's food system from a grass-roots perspective. The Community Dialogue process will be introduced by Marg Rempel, chairperson of Canadian Foodgrains Bank board of directors and Manitoba farmer.

July 3, AM: Day two potentially doubles the size of Making Peace with the Land as participants in the Ministers and Deacons Conference join in. Dr. Nettie Wiebe focuses worship under the title, "An Alto in the Community's Song." Keynote speaker, Dr. Cam Harder, theologian and farm crisis specialist, follows by bringing into focus how our faith - "aligning ourselves with God's purposes" - creates a framework from which we see the world. Our church leaders will then join in the search for common ground, health, and wholeness as the dialogue continues.

July 3, PM: A brief report on the recent World Food Summit in Switzerland will be presented, followed by specific interest group dialogue. The entire group will reconvene for final discernment and recommendations that will be brought to the larger delegate assembly in discussion time slot on Saturday morning.

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Sidebar: What does "Making Peace With the Land" hope to achieve?

1. A larger ownership of the questions around Canada's food system.
2. A meaningful dialogue between producers and consumers.
3. An opportunity to create agenda and action for Mennonite Church Canada as a faith community to engage in what happens in our own back yard, and around the world, in the important areas of food, sustainability, and health.
4. To grow as a community of faith by forming new and unexpected relationships.
5. To encourage exchange and mutually benefit from closer ties between rural and urban congregations.

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Sidebar: Guidelines for participation: Participants are expected to:

  • Exercise goodwill
  • Enter in dialogue, not debate
  • Value contributions from all age groups, genders, occupations and experiences
  • Engage prayerfully
  • Discern the issues in the context of what God is doing
  • Seek God's direction for us

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Sidebar: Presenters:

Chris Lind

Dr. Chris Lind, President of St. Andrews College, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, is a sought-after speaker and author in the area of social dynamics and the Canadian prairies. He earned his Ph.D. in Theology from the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto, specializing in Ethics and Economics. He also holds an M.Div. from Trinity College and a B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science from York University.
Dr. Lind has written or co-edited five books including Something's Wrong Somewhere: Globalization, Community and the Moral Economy of the Farm Crisis (Fernwood: Halifax, 1995). He currently has two books in production: Rumours of a Moral Economy and Ethical Challenges in Ministry. He is also the past President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Practical Ethics.

Laura Rance

Ms Rance is the associate editor and one of seven founding partners of the Farmers Independent Weekly, a new publication serving Manitoba farmers. She is also an agricultural columnist with the Winnipeg Free Press. Laura grew up on a farm near Sperling, Manitoba, and graduated from Red River Community College in 1981 with a diploma in Creative Communications. Over the past 21 years, Laura has specialized in covering farming and rural issues while writing for the Brandon Sun, Calgary Herald, Winnipeg Free Press, Western Producer and the Manitoba Co-operator. She has also worked as a freelancer for CBC Radio. Laura has received several awards for her work from fellow journalists as well as the agricultural community. This past year, she became the first Canadian to serve as president of the North American Agricultural Journalists Association. Laura is also active in her community of Sanford, where she lives with her nine-year-old daughter.

Nettie Wiebe

Dr. Wiebe farms with her husband at Laura, Saskatchewan, growing grains, oilseeds and pulse crops as well as raising cattle. In addition to caring for their four children, she served as Women's President of the National Farmers Union (NFU) from 1989-1994. She was elected President of the NFU in January 1995, the first woman to lead a national farm organization in Canada, a position she held for four years. She is currently the Professor of Church and Society, lecturing on ethics and social and economic justice at St. Andrew's College, University of Saskatchewan.
A writer, panelist and speaker on agriculture, environment, public policy and trade issues, Dr. Wiebe has been an advocate for farm families and rural communities in many forums in Canada and abroad. She is a coordinating member of the Via Campesina, a global movement of peasants and small-scale farmers. She was presented with the Distinguished Canadian Award by the Council of Canadians in November, 1999.

Cam Harder

Dr. Harder is a theologian, farm crisis specialist, lecturer, and professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary (Saskatoon). Dr. Harder has traveled the Canadian prairies as one who listens and understands the complexity of the Canadian food-production system. He is a sought-after speaker on questions of farm bankruptcy, seeking creative solutions to the challenges of Canada's food growing system, and the role of the faith community in a market-driven economy.