John Varty prepares for western Canadian push

John Varty's home on the range is an 80-square-foot replica farmhouse carted around Canada by a tractor.

The university professor is travelling across the country, the slow way, interviewing farmers.

The Hamilton resident's goal is to produce a documentary about the state of farming in Canada.

In Sault Ste. Marie since Wednesday Varty estimates he's talked to about 150 farmers and shot approximately 100 hours of footage.

"It's adding up," said Varty of the conversations he has logged since beginning his trip July 1 in Prince Edward Island.

"Our numbers will skyrocket in the west, I'm thinking."

He's keen to organize town halls to hear what farmers think about the federal government's plan to nix the nearly 70-year-old Canadian Wheat Board.

Pressure on land, due to urban and suburban sprawl and foreign investment, is a common concern of farmers who've talked with Varty.

Farmers in Huron and Haldimand counties have reported land costs $11,000 an acre, a figure Varty describes as "astronomical" in historical terms.

The stiff price tag makes it difficult for small and medium-sized farmers to increase the size of their operations. If land's not being plowed under for businesses and homes, it's getting snapped up by overseas investors and sitting idle with a big question mark about its future use standing out.

"Even not knowing is a big problem too," said Varty.

"Obviously when a suburban development goes in, that's bad. But just as bad is not knowing what it's going to be. (Farmers say) 'We don't know how to make our next move.' That's happening a lot."

He has taught agriculture history and economics at Yale, McGill and McMaster universities for 11 years. Varty has taken an indefinite leave from his position at McMaster. He has plowed about $50,000 of his own money into his bumpy cross-country research trip. It's expected to end in British Columbia in early December.

While he expects his approach to learning more about his field of expertise is "considered quite fluffy" by other academics, Varty see values in crossing the country in a tractor donated by Massey Ferguson.

"You can mine documents in the national archives until the cows come home, but you don't get what we've gotten from farmers," he said.

"A guy can give you a quote, but when he gives it to you with a certain look on his face it just changes the way you interact with the story."

Varty is counting on media coverage of his journey to spark a television network's interest in his planned documentary.

Research, follow-up interviews and editing will likely run 18 months after he comes off the road.

He is pondering other spinoff projects following its production.

Varty is collecting recipes from "country folk" during his travels.

"Why not a cookbook?" he said.

For younger learners, Varty is considering a learning kit that could include grain samples and a description of how food is produced.

"You never have a hard time getting kids interested in learning about farms, plants, animals," he said.

If Varty returns to the university classroom, he expects information learned from his cross-country trek could make up significant content of a food commodity production course.

A book could follow, directed to either an academic or general reading audience.

The former project would help ease his return to a post-secondary environment, the latter would likely draw a larger number of readers.

"Compared to the nine-person audience you tend to get with an academic book, there's no question that something that would go into a Coles or an Indigo would be in my better interest," said Varty.

He plans to interview area farmers early this week. His stay in the city is longer than expected. Varty is in talks with Massey Ferguson to put the farmhouse and company's tractor on a flatbed to Dryden.

The move is prompted by time constraints, a lack of farmers between the two communities and safety concerns of driving a slow-moving tractor along a "hilly, windy and narrow" of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Joining Varty on the road are his fiancee, Molley Daley, and cameraman Michael Liew.