It Takes a Village to Raise a Vegetable
HALIFAX—“Farmers need a shitload of support,” says Amy Lounder, an organic farmer who runs Avon River CSA (community-shared, or community-supported, agriculture) in Centre Burlington, NS. “And not just financial support but support in a lot of different ways, like support in information, of learning how to problem-solve.”
The support network of farmers has been continually diminished over the last several decades by the harsh realities of an industrial food system: a depopulated countryside devoid of tightly-knit agricultural communities; a greatly reduced number of public agricultural research stations; and a capitalistic mechanism that encourages competition over collaboration.
The annual Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN) organic farming conference and trade show, which took place in Dartmouth on November 11–13, aimed to support organic farmers and farming by providing a forum for knowledge-sharing. The conference offered over 40 workshops on topics ranging from pastured pork, permaculture and post-harvest vegetable handling to urban beekeeping, pasture renovation, direct marketing and soil health. The conference brought together a broad range of farmers representing diverse agricultural communities.
“We have more young folks here this year than ever before,” says Lucia Stephen, ACORN conference coordinator. “It’s nice to see a more well-rounded demographic since a new generation of farmers is needed in the Maritimes.”
Statistics Canada data tell us that the average farmer in Nova Scotia in 2006 was 53.2 years old, which is also a rough national average.
The event showcased some of the innovative methods by which a new generation of Atlantic Canadian farmers and organic food producers are bypassing the industrial food system and supplying high-quality products to their communities.
Lounder apprenticed in CSAs in Ontario and New York before returning to her native Nova Scotia, where she has been running her CSA for two years. She has taken an unconventional path to growing that tailors her winter CSA on the Noel Shore to suit her diversified lifestyle. “Distribution starts in the middle of October and runs until the middle of February, so, unlike the classic market garden, I’ve broken up my work,” explains Lounder. “I grow in the spring and summer, harvest in the fall and do distribution in the winter.”
Lounder, who spoke at the conference, is a musician and a civil servant in addition to being a farmer, so finding a balance has been imperative. “Being able to split up my workload has been really beneficial to me. I started my seedlings in March in my backyard in the city...I was able to go to work, come home, check on my guys, water them, and kind of maintain both lives.”
The CSA model, explains Lounder, brings the consumer and grower together, and yields benefits to both parties. “In this type of vegetable system, the consumer invests at the beginning of the season their full dollar amount, regardless of what’s going to happen actually in the season. The grower therefore has so much more support and security; and there’s a social support, people know and they care about the farm and about the farmer.”
“I really think there’s a renewed energy and I think some of the more senior people within the food movement are realizing that maybe we’re getting to a point where we can really start creating some change,” says Av Singh, Organics and Rural Infrastructure specialist at Agrapoint. Singh has attended several ACORN conferences in the past and usually knows most of the people attending; this year he recognized roughly half of the attendees. “The turnout, the energy, it’s helping break that mindset where oftentimes our more experienced farmers are saying ‘Hey, we tried that, it doesn’t work.’”
It’s been working for Jessica Ross, who runs both a bread and preserves CSA in Halifax.
She rents a space from a bakery and bakes in the commercial operation’s downtime—thereby avoiding the need to own her own kitchen and equipment—and delivers her product via bicycle to between forty and sixty homes. She also has a table at the Historic Farmers’ Market.
“I generate about 30 hours per week of bread work for most of the year between the delivery and Farmers’ Market. I’ve avoided having to invest a lot in equipment and infrastructure through sharing and renting; and the bicycle delivery means I don’t have to rely on a storefront or commercial space,” Ross explains.
Ross has also been running a preserves CSA, or CSP, for the past two years with Katherine Marsters, co-founder of the Halifax Honey Bee Society. “We decided to use the CSA model and ask people to pay us $300 and receive in exchange a winter’s worth of preserves come November.”
They collect half the money in July, which constitutes their canning budget for the season; in November each shareholder receives 60 jars of goods, including stewed tomatoes, jams, pickles, fruits in honey syrup, and salsa. They supplied 20 families this year, canning over 1000 jars of preserves made from local fruits and vegetables.
“It’s been a great way to have a food business without having a conventional path, which is, as I mentioned, to have a storefront and a lot of commitments financially.”
Sandie Troop believes the CSA model can significantly lessen food waste. She and her husband Danny run Bruce Family Farm, a beef CSA, in Annapolis County. Through direct marketing and allowing their customers to tweak their monthly boxes, the shareholders receive an amount of product suited to their eating habits.
Food waste is a telltale illustration of our culture’s detachment from our food and farmers. A 2010 study by the George Morris Centre, a not-for-profit agricultural research group based in Guelph, Ontario, estimated that Canadians could be wasting up to $27 billion worth of food per year.
“When we get a new member we try to talk to them and get an eater’s profile—how big is their family and what do they normally eat. Some months we have a couple members that’ll just want six pounds of hamburger [the standard is ten per month] for that month, and I feel we’re better off selling you a bag of what you’re going to eat than a bag of what I want to sell you,” relates Sandie.
The Troops have also introduced a trading system into their CSA that allows members to trade box items to suit their particular tastes or food needs at a given juncture. “If you want four T-Bone steaks but don’t want your four pound roast, you can trade one for the other; four T-Bone steaks don’t weigh four pounds but the value is about the same. We try really hard to work with the members of our CSA to find out the kinds of meat they want to eat and to help them find ways of getting what they like to have.”
The conference, aptly themed Farms and Communities Growing Together, addressed this need for communication between farmers and the communities they serve.
“We’ve seen for the past few decades now that the industrial food system doesn’t work,” posits Singh, who is devoted to revivifying rural communities through championing community-oriented small-scale farming.
“If we continue to use the old models, we’ll continue to see rural exodus. I think we have to start looking at more creative ways of creating different models of retention. So, whether that’s more ownership over farms by community members, or communities taking a more active role, where community members are saying ‘here’s what we value and here’s how we’re going to support you.’ That allows for young farmers to say ‘it’s worth it for me to stay here.’”
“And Nova Scotia is in a good position for small-scale community agriculture because we don’t have a lot of big farms,” he adds.
But we need more farmers.
According to Statistics Canada, farmers constitute less than two percent of the country’s population.
“A food-secure vision, both locally and globally, may require food producers to represent ten or more percent of the population. In some countries, governments are quickly realizing that a cheap urban labour force from a depopulated rural landscape is not as ‘cheap’ as once thought and are now looking at incentives for having rural citizens return to once again produce food,” explains Singh.
Steven Wendland is from Harmony, Nova Scotia. He likes pie.