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‘There’s something about having to cultivate something, and then make your livelihood’

(Photo credit: Big Cedar Films)

Canadian urbanites might imagine farming as a simpler life. Many of us harbour Green Acres fantasies of giving up on the rat race, moving to the country, and raising some pigs and sheep.

Unfortunately, that’s not actually what farm life is like in 2018. A small farm is a small business, and farmers live with all the headaches that come with being your own boss, including being the victim of theft and fraud. In the new CBC digital original series Farm Crime, director Geoff Morrison looks at how farm crime can affect a farmer’s life and livelihood.

“Farm crime is any kind of crime that takes place in a farming or agriculture community, involving food or crops or animals,” he said. “We tried to create a line between what is a farm crime and what is a crime crime. Any sort of human-on-human crime would fall under the category of crime crime. Any sort of crime where stealing livestock or produce was the impetus of the crime, that’s a farm crime.”

Sgt. Christian Reister of the RCMP Livestock Section helps a cattle rustler's victims find justice in episode one of Farm Crime. (Big Cedar Films)

Morrison said he first became interested in the idea of farm crime after reading about the multi-million dollar Quebec maple syrup heist that happened in 2011-12. He started keeping an eye out for other agriculture-related crimes, and he started to notice a common thread: too often, the stories were treated as jokes or novelties.

“Maybe I was the only person, but I didn’t think [the syrup heist] was all that funny,” Morrison said. “That was the one that piqued my interest, and then more and more, I kept seeing these news headlines: a story about bees being stolen in British Columbia or Quebec, the blueberry heist in Hamilton. And there was something about the tone of the coverage that just kept seeming a little too light given the severity of the crime.”

He decided to give the crimes what he calls “a proper documentary treatment.” He wanted to examine them in a way that respected how serious they were for the victims, while still being conversational and accessible.

One thing that became apparent to him was that while farmers share many qualities with other small business owners — concerns about profitability, keeping costs low and making payroll — there’s also a deeper connection to what they do.

“There’s something about having to cultivate, or grow something, and then make your livelihood off of that,” he said. “That’s something we witnessed across the board. There’s something a little bit more personal to it, whether it’s a crop or livestock, and then someone does something to it, or to that animal, there’s another layer to it.”

Morrison admitted that it’s hard for consumers to know if they’re inadvertently participating in farm crime when they go to the grocery store. There’s just no way to know if you’re buying honey from stolen bees, for example, or if your produce fell off the back of a truck.

Farm Crime director Geoff Morrison. (Big Cedar Films)

“One of the things we were told by the police in a particular case was that [stolen produce] would go to smaller stores,” Morrison said. “But they’re speculating and hypothesizing. That’s part of the job, to come up with ideas and explore those leads. But who’s to say that a trailer of stolen blueberries couldn’t make it to a big chain store? It’s very complex, the food supply chain. I don’t know if it can ever be completely secure.”

In spite of the hazards they face, all of the farmers featured in Farm Crime have kept on farming, and very few of them have made any major changes to the way they do business. Morrisson said that for the farmers he's met, they’re driven by something deeper than a need to make a living.

“It’s a job that, as challenging as it is, is rewarding in unique ways, as well,” he said. “People that raise free-range livestock love animals and love doing something they believe in, and believe to be responsible and ethical. For people like [bee keeping family] the Labontés, those brothers grew up in that business for their whole lives. That’s a successful family business that goes back to the 1930s.”


Farm Crime is available to watch online now »