Ideas that work to promote sustainable small farms

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Photo: Ian Muttoo/flickr

As I write this column, I am waiting for new census information to learn more about the current farming scene in Canada. The federal government is also cobbling together a budget that they have promised will include strong action on agriculture and food. I'm waiting for that as well.

I am hopeful (maybe I shouldn't be), but I also sense urgency.

As of the last census in 2011, there were fewer than 205,730 farms in Canada. In 1956 there were close to 600,000. Less than 1 per cent of the Canadian population operates farms. In the last 60 years, Canada has lost more than 66 per cent of its farmers. Each decade since 1941 has shown dramatic declines in the number of Canadian farms and farmers, as an industrialized model of agriculture has encouraged capitalization, land concentration, monoculture and specialization.

Prime agricultural land is disappearing as cities expand, and the debt load that farms carry is astonishing. The most recent stats show that well over half of Canadian farmers are over the age of 55 and less than 10 per cent are under 40.

Within the next decade it is estimated that 75 per cent of Canadian farmland will change hands.

Our farming future

The question is, who will farm? In a crunch, how would we even begin to feed ourselves, let alone anyone else?

Climate change may well be the coming crunch and it's already impacting food production in many parts of the world. As I think of the coming budget, I sense a need to reinforce some of the work and repeat some of the solutions that have been presented to the federal government. Will they get it?

Firstly, there are young people who do want to farm. In fact there have always been young people who want to farm. What we've been missing are solid federal policies that encourage new farmers and help retiring farmers transition their farms to a new generation.

So how do we go about doing that?

All farmers will tell you that new farmers need access to land, financing, training and knowledge, and markets. There are a lot of layers to farming, but there are plenty of farmers who know what is required. And they have been trying to get the message across for a long, long time.

It's not rocket science and there are visionary programs leading the way that deserve support. Like family farms, some of these programs are beginning to disappear because they do not have sustainable funding.

Programs need funding

One of these is FarmStart, a flagship non-profit that for more than 10 years has helped many, many new farmers. I was saddened when I went to its website last week, and began reading text written in the past tense. Turns out, I happened on the homepage the same day the text was re-written.

Here is an excerpt:

"FarmStart developed and offered flexible programs and services that provided new farmers with the resources, tools, and support necessary to get their businesses off the ground and to thrive. However, after 10 years, FarmStart is no longer able to offer our programs and services due to the lack of core or sustained funding."

Wow. That's clear. If you visit the FarmStart website, you will immediately note that this was a well thought out, respected, award-winning program, and it still could not get operational funding. It also pushed hard for the implementation of solid federal agricultural policies.

FarmStart also created an innovative program called Farmlink, an online platform that helps to link retiring family farmers with young farmers trying to get started. Farmlink will continue to operate for now, helping to match farmers and facilitate access to land for the next generation.

Christine Young, the founder and Executive Director of FarmStart explained in a recent conversation:

"We are closing and this is very much due to the lack of any kind of core or sustained funding -- in particular, any level of priority for farm renewal at the federal level. There are some provincial initiatives, particularly in the eastern provinces, but without a federal pillar or some level of investment, there will continue to be little or no capacity in the sector."

"There just isn't any clear recognition [by the federal government] of the need for farm renewal programs."

In the course of more than a decade, FarmStart touched more than 6,000 people, providing training programs, online platforms to connect farmers, and startup or "incubator" farm projects. It helped more than 60 new farmers get started, registered more than 3,500 people on Farmlink, and built a solid audience of people interested in pursuing agriculture.

While there was money to run the programs, there was never enough money to pay staff, cover rent, buy computers, or basically keep the lights on. Those costs are considered operating costs covered by core funding. And funders just don't do core funding these days. Go figure! When I spoke with Young last week, her passion for farm issues had not wavered. She immediately sent me a policy paper entitled "National Farm Renewal Initiative" that had been presented to the federal government and includes practical and necessary recommendations.

Non-profit models of support

As Young noted, there are some provincial programs helping small farmers get started, particularly in the eastern provinces. Nova Scotia, for example, has FarmNEXT, a new farmer loan program. And Québec has FIRA -- Fonds d'investissement pour la relève agricole as well as Banques de Terres, a government-funded agency providing new and retiring farmers with options for land transfer.

Across the country there are other small non-profits that serve as models of how to support new farmers and help retiring farmers transition their land. And there are also various organizations across the country that support knowledge-sharing and know-how, and also provide some access to land.

There are other land-linking organizations as well, such as a land-matching organization in British Columbia called Land Linking And Farmers.

In Ontario, Everdale has a farm-based program to encourage new entrants. The Black Creek Community Farm run by Everdale, north of Brampton, has a training school and production program that supports learning, producing and marketing.

As well, organizations such as Just Food in Ottawa, and other non-profits that encourage incubator farm projects such as Le Plateforme Agricole in L'Ange Gardien, Quebec, are a few examples of supports for small farmers.

And, peppered across the country, are small marketing cooperatives where producers have banded together to try and ensure they can connect with consumers and small businesses seeking quality, local food. One of these cooperatives is CAPE in Quebec, but there are others, including on the Prairies, where farms are larger and distances to cities much further.

A solid federal pillar

While these are important efforts that need support, much more needs to be done. The federal government needs to get with the program and recognize the importance of small and family farmers in this country. Low-interest loans, support for community land trusts, support for cooperatives and farmer-owned marketing structures, training and knowledge-sharing, decent prices for production: these are all required.

Without the solid federal pillar that FarmStart's Christie Young emphasizes -- to provide support and strong policies to sustain organizations and create federal agencies that invest in farm-renewal programs -- it all fills a bit like plugging a dike with your thumb.

There is no pension plan for retiring farmers, other than the sale of their land. Farm loans are almost impossible to get for new farmers wanting to start out in Canada. There are few financial organizations -- even credit unions which originally started to provide loans to farmers on the Prairies -- that want to risk loaning to new farmers. There is no solid program to support cooperatives, or the formation of land trusts to encourage stewardship and community farming.

Right now, there is no innovation or thinking outside of the box -- nothing beyond the usual land concentration, rural depopulation and the speculative "bigger is better" mentality.

The census data is on the horizon, and so is the federal budget. They will point to feast or famine.

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: Ian Muttoo/flickr

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