Plant a seed and watch it grow: Incubating farmers

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There's a lot wrong with the industrialized model of agriculture. Most days, not much of what is happening to family farmers is good news, unfortunately. But, sometimes, away from the "bigger is better" mentality, there are glimmers of a better future.

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting at a branch of the Ottawa Public Library. The meeting was organized by a small non-profit called Just Food, whose mission is to "work towards vibrant, just and sustainable food and farming systems in the Ottawa region." The content and conversation made me smile. I ended the evening feeling rejuvenated, my sense of hope in how best to build community renewed. The small gathering was made up of pretty much every demographic -- two young woman, a middle-aged father and his teenage son, a person working with new Canadians, and a few soon-to-be seniors wondering about a second career.

On that Tuesday evening, I learned a lot about "incubator farms" and Just Food's work to encourage burgeoning farmers to follow their passion.

Alternatives to the corporate model

After so many years of watching and writing about people leaving the land, sometimes in sorrow and frustration, other times in bankruptcy...  And after so many years of watching rural young people run away from the farm, knowing that the deck is stacked against family farmers... organizations like Just Food are providing practical alternatives to the corporate model of farming.

For decades, the trend has been a continuous loss of family farmers in Canada. The most recent numbers from Statistics Canada show that between 1991 and 2011, Canada lost more than 25 per cent of its farms, down from 280,043 to 205,730. In 1956, there were more than 600,000 farms in Canada, and even more farmers, since one operation often counted more than one operator. In less than 60 years, Canada has lost more than 50 per cent of its family farms. These days most Canadian farmers are 55 and over, and younger people interested in farming rarely have access to the land, the credit, or the knowledge required.

But, across North America, and in pockets of resistance around the world, there seems to be something afoot -- a shift in interest and innovation when it comes to farming. Still, stemming the tide of tragedy created by the industrial model of agriculture and the resulting land concentration will not be easy and will take time. It will also take serious policy change -- but more on that later. Meanwhile, change can sometimes occur in astounding ways, and sometimes even at the 11th hour. We have all known times when events, people and ideas have come together to move apparently unmovable barriers.

Just Food and the practice of incubator farms heralds some of the possibilities. While there are only a few such models in Canada, in the United States there are more than 105 incubator farms operating in 38 states.

Incubating farmers

The idea is fairly new. An "incubator farm" is a program that encourages people from all demographics to try small-scale production and to work in a co-operative fashion and share land and inputs or "amendments" -- tools, seed, knowledge, etc. -- before completely immersing themselves in food production. The incubator farms work best for intensive crops such as vegetables or where there is a city nearby where products can be sold in a farmers' market.

The idea is to try farming on a small scale before making any drastic lifestyle changes. Incubator farms essentially provide beginning farmers with opportunities to test their knowledge and skill, and commitment, before starting their own farms.

Just Foods is seeking 10 test-croppers to join their incubator farm in 2017 by committing to farm a quarter acre of land. The test-croppers will be selected according to the detailed application each puts together outlining their business plan including what will be grown, distribution of production, etc.

These would-be farmers or "test-croppers," have to invest some money and need to present a business plan before being accepted into the Just Food Start-to-Farm program. If they are accepted, beside access to a quarter of an acre, each will have the opportunity to learn, take workshops, and share knowledge with others interested in growing food. During the growing season, a commitment of about 20 hours a week is required, so applicants can continue their day jobs while taking on this new challenge.

Essentially, incubator farms are a community school for those who think they might like to farm. And even if, after trying to farm for a year or two on a quarter of an acre, the test-cropper should decide that farming is not what they had hoped it would be... then that too is considered a success since at least the farm intern did not risk all to try farming.

Seeding new approaches

Just Food has a number of programs that help connect eaters and producers, and that also support local food marketing efforts. Meanwhile, I think that Just Food's venture toward the "incubator farm" is perhaps one of the most innovative. Recently the group received a 25-year lease of public lands, a total of 150 acres, from the National Capital Commission. That long-term lease has added the stability required to consolidate the incubator farm, now in its second year. While potential test-croppers need only make a commitment for one year, the incubator farm's long-term lease provides the opportunity of farming the quarter of an acre for two or three years, if all goes well.

The Toronto Region Conservation Authority has also begun a similar program in recent years, and is providing public lands for those wanting to try their hand at urban farming. One of these near-urban farms is McVean Farm, a project of FarmStart, a Guelph, Ontario non-profit.

There are also other innovative models of agriculture taking shape across the country that I will be writing about in the coming months.

From a small seed, bigger things can grow.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: s pants/flickr

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