People first

I traveled to India with my dad in November. It was like Jack Whitehall’s “Travels with My Father” except with less sarcasm and humiliation. However, while my dad is not curmudgeonly like Jack’s dad, his palate is perhaps somewhat elder-Whitehallian: My dad would have been happy to spend two weeks in India just eating frozen sweetened milk. “I’ve never seen someone eat so much ice cream,” said Jamie, one of our tour mates.

We spent the first week on a G Adventures tour of the “Golden Triangle” – New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Week two we were on our own in Gujarat, including two days at the ag college in tiny (even by Indian standards) Lokbharti, where dad worked for two years in the 1960s. Based on my observations from the bus window and bicycle seat in central India, and from the fields around the college in Gujarat, farms in India are still small and labour intensive. Hand tools shape the farm experience. I saw dairy producers take milk to market in two cans strapped to their motorcycle. Students at the college prepped wheat plots with rakes and hoes. At the college, which was founded on Gandhian philosophy, this Mahatma Gandhi saying is still a central theme: “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

Of course, with an agriculture system based on small farms and no shortage (it seems) of low-cost labour, the fields are full of people, of families working side by side. I’m not suggesting that farms in Canada go back in time, but what our modern system may be missing is constant meaningful human contact.

Gerry Friesen, who speaks about his own mental health challenges, shared his experiences at the Canadian Farm Writers Federation annual conference in B.C. in September. I reconnected with him afterward and asked if Canadian farmers spend too much time alone for their own good?

“I just heard a podcast where the speaker made the comment that we are the loneliest society in history,” Friesen says. “We spend more time conversing through technology, but we connect less with “real” people. The speaker commented that more people than ever are experiencing mental health issues and he attributes that to loneliness.”

Friesen mentions oxytocin. “This built-in stress buster, referred to as the cuddle hormone, gets released when we have human connection,” he says. “So something as simple as a random act of kindness or getting together with friends or family will reduce the stress we feel. Social engagements are key. How often? Not sure. From my own experience, it takes a pile of effort to be socially engaged but I also know it’s worth it.”

In the farmer panel in this issue, Brooke Parker says conversations are the number one source for ideas on their farm. “Ideas often come from meetings on the farm, with us sitting around the table and talking. Sometimes good ideas can even come from the coffeeshop.”

I really like this comment because the coffeeshop has become synonymous with bad ideas and B.S., but this overlooks the important social good that coffeeshops provide. These small town institutions are where farmers get together, often daily, before heading back to what has become, for many, a fairly solitary existence. Long live the coffeeshop.

Friesen adds that even random short give-and-takes can be good for you and can save the day for the person you engage with. “Have a conversation with the person filling your gas tank or the person bagging your groceries or anyone else you meet. They don’t have to be deep conversations, just conversations,” he says. “I try to do that because I know it helps me.”

Spending two weeks with my dad, I was reminded of his amazing ability to connect with people. Everyone on our tour loved him. He’s a good talker and can have engaging (not judge-y) conversations with anyone, including random people on the streets of Delhi. Dad puts people first. Or maybe it’s ice cream first, but people are a close second. We all need people like that.

Canola Digest - January 2020