This election season, Food Secure Canada has created the Eat Think Vote campaign, which is drawing the attention of politicians from all parties and citizens from all parts of the country to the critical issues facing food systems. They state that the Government elected in 2015 should work with others to ensure that:
- All kids in Canada’s schools have access to healthy food every day
- The right to food becomes a reality for the 4 million Canadians who are now food insecure
- The next generation of farmers gets the public support they need to thrive
- Good food is affordable and accessible in Canada’s remote and northern communities
As part of this campaign, I was asked to write a part of our story of becoming new farmers and to reflect on the policy that our country needs in order to support the next generation of farmers.
Here is the post I wrote:
My name is Shannon and I am a farmer. My partner Bryan is also a farmer and together we own and operate Broadfork Farm, a small-scale, organic market garden that provides us with 100% of our income.
Neither of us grew up on a farm. We each started our farming journey by apprenticing on farms we admired. It took a number of years learning from experienced farmers before we felt ready to think about starting a farm. We met while working on neighbouring farms once each of us had independently decided we wanted to start our own farm. We had almost a decade of experience between us.
Neither of us had accumulated much savings but through a farm field management job I had and the incubator CSA Bryan ran the season before we started out on our own, we each saved $10,000. That $20,000 was what we used to start Broadfork Farm on leased land and pay our living expenses until our produce was ready to sell.
We spent the winter prior to starting Broadfork Farm working on a business plan, in conjunction with a farm business planning course we attended.
We wrote a lengthy and detailed lease agreement with the landowners we leased land from. Our 1st growing season offered challenges and rewards. We had dreams of putting more money and time into soil-building and planting perennial crops. Both of these activities were part of the vision we had for an agro-ecological, regenerative, healthy farm system and both require commitment and long-term vision. We knew we wanted a stable land situation and dreamed of buying our own farm. It felt like a far-off dream but we ended up hearing about a small farm for sale in another county. We visited a few times and ended up deciding that it was a perfect farm for us to fulfill our dreams.
But accessing capital to purchase this small farm was a complete unknown to us. Neither of us had ever tried to get a mortgage. Both the bank and the credit union we had accounts with said they did not give farm loans. We asked for advice from other farmers and ended up sending an application to Farm Credit Canada.
An appointment was set up and we drove 2 hours to the nearest FCC office. We had worked on updating our business plan and financial statements and sent all the necessary paperwork by email a week prior to the meeting.
When we arrived at the FCC office we met with a loan officer. He had not yet looked at any of the documents we had sent so we waited patiently while he found them in his email inbox. He glanced through and told us that he would be in touch in a few days but it did not look promising. Our meeting was over 10 minutes after it began. During the 2-hour drive back home, we discussed what our other options might be.
A few days later, as promised, we received a call saying that FCC would not give us a loan but would reconsider if one of us got a full-time, off-farm job.
We were not impressed. Our business plan required both us to be working on the farm full-time to meet our goals. And we had been under the impression that Farm Credit Canada offered loans to farmers, not only to people with off-farm income.
Luckily for us, Nova Scotia still has a Farm Loan Board (which every province used to have). Through communications that happened by phone and email (no 2-hour drives), they approved us for a loan for both a mortgage and some needed infrastructure, based on our business plan and experience.
That loan has enabled us to meet our production goals, bring stability to our marketing channels, and work towards the ecological and societal benefits that form the basis of our farming vision.
And from my perspective, we were a good bet. We have always paid our mortgage payments on time and have always paid back more than the minimum owed. We also feel comfortable thinking about taking on more debt in order to build our farm business because of the positive experience we had with the NS Farm Loan Board.
I think one of the issues in Canada is that farmers like us, who come from non-farming backgrounds and want to create small-scale, ecologically-resilient and livelihood-generating farms, are not always recognized as viable farmers. The get-big-or-get-out, monocultural and heavy-input philosophies of so many of our country s farms and farm policies have made it increasingly difficult for farmers like us to be seen, heard and valued. And yet, results from a recent New Farmer Survey, put out by the National New Farmer Coalition and the University of Manitoba showed that over 70% of new farmers come from non-farming backgrounds and many of them are choosing biodiverse, small-scale, socially-beneficial, and ecological farming philosophies. The survey also showed that access to capital is one of the major barriers for these new farmers and one that impacts whether they start or continue to farm at all.
With the interest worldwide in local-lending, Slow Money initiatives, and ethical investing, it seems that people would be lining up to invest in ecological and socially-minded, family-scale farms. Here in Nova Scotia, there is an inspiring example in Farmworks, where investors put money into a pool that goes towards local food and farm businesses.
It also seems that traditional farm-lending agencies, like Farm Credit Canada, would recognize the aging farmer crisis nationally (with the average farmer celebrating their 55th birthday this year) and be on the look-out for new farmers from all backgrounds and sectors of the industry to start paying them interest.
I think one of the most important changes that needs to happen and in which any average person can contribute is by helping to change the conversation on who and what a farmer is. I remember having a conversation with a woman who asked if Bryan and I had animals on our farm. We have kept laying hens but we are primarily a vegetable farm. She then said that we were hobby farmers. I have to admit, when we think of keeping livestock on our farm, we typically think of the animals as a hobby, not the vegetables, just as farmers who primarily raise livestock but grow a home vegetable garden might think of the vegetables as a hobby. Stamp collecting is a common hobby but there are definitely people who make a living from the buying and selling of stamps and for them it is not a hobby.
The increase of customer interest in local food, organic food, and buying directly from a farmer has really helped smaller-scale, ecologically-minded farms gain acknowledgment and respect from the greater farming community as well as policy makers, but we still have a long way to go. Keep voting with your dollars and being the change you want to see in this world and in your community, and policy-makers will have to take notice. And if you have some money you would like to invest while making a big difference in the life of a new farmer, consider finding (or starting) a local-investment initiative (I recommend looking to Farmworks for inspiration).
Changes in Canada’s food system, health-care system, and farm systems need people working from both the top-down and the bottom-up. Every citizen can make a positive change for the present and the future.