COABC Conference & AGM 2008
February 29 - March 2, 2008
Join us for the 2008 COABC
SHADES OF GREEN CONFERENCE and AGM
Mary Winspear Centre at Sanscha,
2243 Beacon Ave., Sidney, B.C.
Fresh Voices Contest
Members of the COABC,
Any society concerned with the sustainability of its agricultural production must look to its young people, and ask them if they are going to farm. This is the most crucial question, since all other discussions about best practice and healthy agricultural communities are pointless if we will not have young farmers to take up our idle plows. If the answer is no, we must find out why, and then set out to remedy the problem before we do anything else.
Currently, I believe the answer is no. Yet, there always has been, and always will be, a small percentage of the population who feel most comfortable in the dirt. The problem is that it is no longer financially possible in most cases. Lots of young people want to farm, but they just can’t afford it.
If I am right, then the COABC could seek to fulfill its mandate by helping to make farming more profitable, and thus, a more realistic possibility for young people. No easy task, but I do think there are a few concrete actions the COABC could pursue towards making agriculture more profitable. The following are a few of my ideas.1. Creating a new market for local food: a high-rise adopt-a-farmer program
I’ve often marveled at the sheer number of people that live in the condominiums in Vancouver’s Yaletown, and the likelihood that most of them restrict their shopping to the upscale grocery stores in that neighbourhood. It has me wondering whether some sort of adopt-a-farmer program could be developed to capture that market, whereby once a week or month a farmer sets up a booth outside or in the lobby of a high-rise at the end of the business day. If we take Yaletown as an example, a farmer placed at one building would have access to literally hundreds of the young urban professionals who, from my observation, are least likely to make the effort to get to a farmer’s market on Saturday. I can think of a number of obstacles to making this idea work, but none that are insurmountable.Dealing with the labour challenge
I have met farmers who experience net losses on their farm only because they cannot attract the labour they need with the wages the farm can pay. Yet I, and many others, would easily trade high wages for a modest, but stable rural lifestyle that included a permanent place to live on the farm we work. Thus, I have always figured that if I started a farm with three or four other partners, all of whom would have a residence on the farm, I could circumvent the labour problem. However, I have learned that there are a number of zoning rules for farms that prevent the building of numerous residences, and other such cooperative necessities. Thus I think the COABC should review the zoning rules and help to pressure our governments to change those that inhibit a cooperative-type farm.3. Cooperative Transport & Retail
In Nova Scotia, I met a farmer who had purchased a refrigerated truck to bring not only his own, but other farmers’ produce to the lucrative seven-days-a-week market in Halifax that many farmers were otherwise foregoing due to time restraints. Perhaps the COABC could help local organic farmers facilitate such an agreement here.
I am also waiting for a group of farmers to both capitalize on the rapid increase in interest in buying local and also create a permanent place for their wares by creating a local-food only retail store bringing together veggies, fruit, meat, dairy, and preserves produced locally. Customers might be attracted, and government dollars secured, if a commercial kitchen were attached to such a store so that members of the community could take workshops on cooking and preserving. I strongly believe these skills will soon be in high demand as more people desire a return to our food traditions.4. Gathering resources for young farmers
Having spent time searching the internet for resources that might help me start a farm, I have yet to find a well-coordinated site that attempts to bring together information that can otherwise be found in snippets all over the place. Since the COABC represents all of the certifying bodies in BC, I think its website may be a good candidate to serve as a hub for information for young farmers. Currently, such a feature is lacking on the site; a search for “young farmers” in the site’s content turns up nothing.
That sums up my ideas. I hope they can be of at least some help, but more importantly, I hope the COABC takes seriously the dire prospects facing young people who want to farm, but who currently have little reason be optimistic.
INCREASING PRODUCTION/MINIMIZING IMPACT – THE END GOAL
BC organic growers face many challenges in getting a product out to hungry consumers – high land prices, lack of affordable labour and high transportation fees are just part of it. The new grower finds that buying into commercial distribution systems and keeping pace with health regulations and zoning bylaws can complicate and frustrate the purest attempts to feed our communities. And perhaps this is what gets forgotten in the big global mix – that our first responsibility may be to feed those closest to us, and we must do it as efficiently as possible.
In our physically isolated, hilly and gravely area on the Sunshine Coast, we are forced to work hard at maximizing production from small spaces. This means using each small microclimate on our peculiar lots very carefully – berries and greens do not need the hot, open areas that peppers and squash do, drought ridden areas are saved for grapes and herbs, and lusher patches remain for demanding annuals. Bringing amendments over on the ferry is costly, and this forces us to look carefully at garden waste, green manure, seaweeds and near by animal waste more carefully.
We are blessed with comparatively warm winters and are learning more about winter foods to maintain year round income, crops that store, and low cost greenhouses to add even more length to growing seasons.
Labour is a constant problem and this year some of us will be connecting with youth in the schools who have shown interest in learning the skills for food growing. There is also an excellent program through Mental Health in our area, connecting people in transition who have patience and strong backs with some of the more bone breaking short terms jobs that farmers face. A couple of us have been fiddling with partnership models where people would come from the community, harvest a crop that was too time consuming for the farmer to approach, and then either return with value added product for the farmer to sell (jams and pies), or some of the profit from sold items.
We feel more work can be done in analysing what is shipped in from off coast so we can replace more of it from our own properties, and so that we can capture more value-added market for ourselves.
One of our chief issues is keeping food as close to home as possible. Our growers’ group receives requests from other communities for farmer lists but we really need our farmers to fulfil food obligations right here. This reduces travel expenses and fossil fuel issues, and tightens the bond between growers and buyers.
Connecting with the buying public is not too much of a problem here – we are blessed with an eager, educated public. We do have to work harder to create opportunities for mid week buying, as both our farmers markets occur on Saturdays, and we also need to have local drop off spots in private yards along our highway where farmers can leave boxes that can be picked up by buyers when they pass by. This will reduce fossil fuels and time spent, but also reduces resistance in buyers who do not want to go out of their way. This will require cooperation and the good will of those living along our highway corridor.
We also have to address waste. Berries, greens and legumes that do not get purchased at the markets often end up as compost – high quality compost of course, but still food that is now unavailable for human use or direct profit. Our community needs to either create a system where this food gets to a food bank or group home, or where a creative soul could make a living buying this food at discount, and then making the decision of best processing method for later use.
We are working hard here to encourage small lot farming on previously cleared land with by hosting forums that both educate and network the participants. Recent forums touched on soil improvement, efficiency on the farm, season extending plants and water issues – future forums will include non timber forest products, value added information and discussions on labour issues.
Careful observation of our land use, waste, transportation and marketing strategies, combined with our efforts in working as a group, are hopefully bringing us closer to a secure, strengthened, environmentally healthy food system in our community.
We all know that for food production to be sustainable, it must be local and organic. All of us here are passionate about organic growing, and I have a feeling many of us are just as committed to feeding our local markets. Unfortunately, we’re still a drop in the bucket of the mainstream food system. Farmers markets and farm stands thrive, but in order for us to make a real difference in how feeding ourselves affects the planet, we need many more farmers feeding more organic food to more local consumers. Consumer education is a crucial first step, but while demand is growing, we have to be able to meet that demand in ways that sustain our customers, ourselves, and our planet. Our homegrown food production and distribution systems have to be efficient and effective, and will be challenging to implement, because they will have to resist the massive momentum of the current mainstream food distribution system.
So, how do we re-imagine our food system to be more local? How can we be more than a symbolic gesture in response to the problems of the conventional, large scale agrifood industry? By remembering that the organic farming movement is just that: a movement. The word movement implies momentum, change, and growth. But the growth implied by the word movement is not the competitive, individualistic model of business growth, but rather a growth of community.
For our movement to be successful, we need to work together in many ways, from work parties to political lobbying. One of the most powerful ways we can work together is by marketing cooperatively. One of the biggest challenges of small-scale farming is the marketing. Even for farmers fortunate enough to live near great markets, the time and energy spent selling directly to consumers, restaurants, and retailers drains crucial hours away from the field in the peak season. Small farms need premium prices to survive, but retail marketing takes too much time. The need for efficient marketing pushes farmers toward wholesalers, which in turn may push them toward growing fewer crops on a larger scale, reducing biodiversity, encouraging more mechanization, and potentially compromising ecological ideals. Instead of going down this road, we can create new ways of marketing that allow each farm to stay small and diverse, and yet become financially sustainable.
Saanich Organics is just such a co-operatively run marketing business. It is owned by three small-scale farmers, Robin Tunnicliffe, Rachel Fisher, and me. The three of us each sell all of our produce to Saanich Organics which, in turn, markets it to restaurants and grocery stores, our box program, and a farmers’ market. In addition, Saanich Organics buys produce from other small scale organic growers in our region. We maintain control of our marketing, but together we sell enough produce that we can hire a delivery person, an accountant, a sales administrator, and a helper to organize the orders. This frees up time for us to be where we want to be… in our fields. At the same time, by marketing together, we can offer our customers more variety and consistency than they could get from any one farmer. We take orders before we harvest, allowing us to pick to order and deliver food that is fresher and more nutritious than it would be if it were coming from a warehouse.
Over the past six years the business has been very successful. By success, I don’t mean that Saanich Organics itself has made a lot of money; rather, it is a vehicle that has helped each of our farms become more financially sustainable. Just as importantly, the business has fostered many important relationships. We support and also challenge each other. We have all become better, more efficient growers as well as better stewards of our land by sharing our knowledge and encouraging each other.
Our business is successful by our own standards, but we do not dream of the kind of success recognized by mainstream, capitalist business culture. We do not want to take over more and more land, nor do we want to expand into other markets. Rather, we would like to help our local, organic movement to grow by encouraging new small-scale farmers and marketing co-ops.
The Saanich Organics model is not the only one out there, and the co-operative model itself harkens to a social sustainability missing from many business structures. Be creative and open, and you may come up with a new model that works perfectly in your area.
I don’t want to make it sound too easy. There are challenges to working together. For example, in our region all the farmers say we won’t dump, but after the backache of picking beans and zucchini, it’s pretty tough to compost them rather than drop the price. When selling together, disagreements may arise when one grower might think the quality standards of another are not high enough, and a third might just be a bit hard to get along with. Farmers are often independent, idealistic, and principled… admirable qualities all, but not the most conducive to the compromising necessary for cooperation. We need to remember that there is more that unites us than divides us. We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt and trust each others’ good intentions.
We should not worry about competition. As long as we are importing food in BC, and as long as people are eating conventional food, we need more farmers. Our competition is Wal-Mart, Kraft, and Con-Agra, our colleagues are other small-scale organic growers. With a spirit of openness and trust, with a commitment to share knowledge and help each other, with the courage to reinvent business models based on cooperation rather than competition, we can grow the organic movement without repeating the mistakes of the conventional food system.
For many years now, organic farmers have been changing social structures, community visions, labour regulations, ecological standards, and much more. Like a micro society, sustainable organic farms are full of new ideas and inspiration to improve the world. Yet, many challenges lay ahead and it is through a broader definition of profitability, cooperation instead of competition, education and land stewardship, that we will move toward a more sustainable and productive system.
Truly sustainable agriculture should, by definition, be based on principles of respect and mutual aid. We are sometimes tempted to look at productivity and profitability as something quantified in dollars only, but we need to look broader than that. The methods used by organic farmers to increase production and profitability shouldn’t be based on the usual expansion game – bigger does not mean better. Instead, it should be based on the participation and the support of the community. By using methods such as paying decent living wages, profit-sharing, creating coops, land sharing, and building partnerships, organic farmers can create new standards of quality of life as well as increasing the quality of their product. Healthy farmers and workers grow better food.
Marketing can sometimes be a sensitive issue for farmers and not because it is a challenge to sell the product – everyone knows that local organic food won’t stay in the field for long. The difficulty with marketing is to do so in such a way as to not affect your neighbours’ markets and to always remain fair. In the Saanich Peninsula, I have seen how through communication and agreements small farms have managed to not harm each others’ business, but in fact their partnerships have supported market expansion. Cooperation not competition needs to be the slogan of organic farmers. Through cooperation, farmers can lower their stress levels and instead focus their energy on the state of their soil and the health of their plants and animals. While there are some good examples of this model, there is, of course, much room for improvement. These ways of marketing need to be protected against the bigger commercial mentality. Through direct marketing, cooperation, and other forms of mutual aid, we can continue to develop stronger systems all while benefiting the land and the community.
A truly sustainable organic farm should also be based on the sharing of knowledge and through training. While in Cuba recently, I had the opportunity to examine Cuban models of sustainable organic farming, which were developed because of limited energy resources. Cuba has managed to pass through a time of crisis by investing in a system of education for farmers and through the partnering of researchers with farmers. Innovation will continue to be very important here in BC as we face new regulations and as we begin to struggle with our own energy crisis. I have been lucky in my time as a farmer in BC because I have had access to training and because farmers with more experience have always been willing to step up and offer advice. Food security groups are also playing a big role in the organic farming movement as they work to educate the public about the importance of local food. It is through these types of knowledge networks that we will grow stronger systems of profitability and production.
Most importantly, organic farmers must continue to be stewards of the land and water. Many organic farmers have transitioned from conventional farming and we know how hard it can be to bring the soil back to productivity and how fragile it is. As recent debates around the agricultural land reserve and the farm tax status have illustrated, farmers need to speak up about how important it is to preserve good land and how a farm is more than just dirt. Farms include forests, rivers, marsh, hills, and wild life. We have to promote, to educate and to share our vision with our communities and to stand up for the preservation of agricultural land.
As a young farmer, I know that I am a dreamer and an idealist, but I also know that organic agriculture exists because of dreamers and idealists. The path to sustainable agriculture is not necessarily an easy one. But with a few good (biodiesel) tractors, a good irrigation system, and lots of hands working together to weed the beds, we can get there.
High price of land, low profitability, meager return on investment, declining sources of labor, cheap foreign imports, the list goes on, as to what ails Agriculture. We hear this tune often, in most countries, in most rural communities, in the mouths of politicians and from academics, studying the problems of Agriculture. In particular, we hear it from farmers. We who are involved with the COABC must look at the big picture, to truly create a strong and sustainable organic community serving the evolving needs of the sector and the public.
I contend that these are problems of political economy and to make all farming, and not just organics, successful for all those involved with it, we need to distance it from the realm of economics and politics and place Agri-Culture in its accordant place, to that of Culture, in the sphere of creative, artistic, and healing impulses. What does that mean to move farming away from the realm of the political and the economic and put it in the realm of culture? This is not a new argument; it is not my idea. I am merely a messenger with over fifteen years of farming practice, five years of apprenticeship training, and six years of academic training studying small-scale agriculture. By the way, I still can barely change the oil in my tractor, but I can grow good cabbages.
First, political economy is simply how communities make decisions on the production and distribution of goods and services. In mixed market economies or capitalist economies, the theory is that the free hand of the market will invisibly decide how cucumbers are produced and sold on the market; i.e., prices will rise and fall according to demand, and production will fill the niche of hungry consumers. Anyone who took Econ 101 knows it gets more complicated. The opposite of this is a command economy or socialist-communist system whereby an authority determines production; i.e., for the next five years we need 5000 cucumbers, plus 100 for my family.
In North America, we have a mish mash of both systems, though with a preponderance toward the god of the marketplace, and neither has really served this being, Agri-Culture. Granted, this is debatable; most in North America have not suffered from major catastrophes, such as economic depression or starvation. Our bellies remain full, for the most part. In stark contrast to this picture of the bucolic farm fronting the factory farm, we have the biotech industry coming down the pike in a big way, and we have a predominance of fast food and chronic disease. We also have a situation that consistently propels people away from the country and into the city. In fact, we have had a mass migration, in Canada alone, of over seventy percent of the population, from the rural to the urban, just in the last fifty years. No one politician said, “Son and daughter, leave here for the big city, now!” Was it an invisible force of the economy? Was it…“I am hungry, working on this ole farm, and I need to go to the city for work and entertainment.” Or, “My Daddy bought a new tractor, and no longer needs me.”
In essence, when agriculture exists in the realm of political economy, we get the perversions of biotechnology, feedlots, and mass poultry houses, with invisible political and economic forces as they have existed for the last few hundred years.
What does Agriculture look like when political and economic concerns are not dominating factors, when the Cultural/Social begin to assert a stronger role in the life of Agriculture? One example and a very good one is CSA. You have heard it before, Community Supported Agriculture. CSA comes in all shapes and sizes, but the essence is based from the concept of mutual aid. A community needs the local farmer for food security and the farmer needs and feeds that community in return for financial and moral support. (And god knows, farmers need a lot of moral support these days.) When a community of a few hundred or thousand organizes itself around Agri-Culture, a proper reverence develops for the land and the farmer, a desire grows that defies the attitude of “I just want the lowest price for these carrots, because, I want to buy a big TV tomorrow.” A wise old farmer, actually one of the major visionaries of CSA, Trauger Groh, once said that in the future, people will adopt farms, just as they adopt children today. They will care for them not as economic enterprises to mono-crop, but as unique bio-systems that provide in as much as the ecological community (including people) serves them.
Another example is Land trusts, which effectively removes land from the speculative market (economy) and makes it available and affordable for long-term use by farmers. The Land Conservancy is playing a major role in this area.
When Agriculture gains its rightful place, and I paraphrase Trauger again, people will seek out the farms for education, recreation, or therapy. These are cultural/social impulses and must predominate, but not exclude the political-economic ones, if we are to sustain the being of Agriculture.