Food security: Why hunger is a farm issue

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Almost 10 per cent of Canadian households are food insecure, and a much higher percentage do not have adequate food to maintain good health.

A nation that cannot feed itself is a nation that is inherently food insecure. Welcome to Canada, 21st Century.

Canada is a nation that imports almost as much food as it exports. In many cases the same products go out and come in. It is a nation that has systematically encouraged food supply from long distances. It has discouraged mixed crop regionally based farmers in favour of large-scale consolidation of agricultural production, mostly for export. More than food security (everyone gets to eat) we need food sovereignty (where we retain control of our food supply). In 1969, the federal government announced that there were too many farmers. Policy, subsidies and programs since then have worked to rectify that “problem”.

This article explores one link in the chain that has reduced Canada’s ability to feed itself: loss of farmland for established farmers and challenges in access for new farmers.

Since 1921, Ontario has lost 9 million acres of farmland. In the last two decades, the province lost 25,000 farms through consolidation or transfer to other uses. Farms over 2000 acres are the fastest growing farm type, mostly farms for large dairy or cash crop export operations.

Although farming is probably one of the hardest careers open to people now, Ontario’s innovative Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farm Training (CRAFT), McVean Farm at FarmStart and other sustainable agriculture training programs can boast enthusiastic enrollment and alumni ready to hit the land. CRAFT is a training program with more than 60 participating farms. Participants visit and train at other farms in addition to working intensively with one farmer over the season. Gavin Dandy and the crew at Everdale offers additional advanced training -- in farm management, developing your farm business plan and sustainable farming skills.

75 per cent of established farmers are expected to retire in the next 10 years.

At McVean farm, FarmStart’s innovative incubator farm in Brampton, new farmers move through a series of stages to test their interest and grow their expertise. From a quarter of an acre as a Test Farmer, they can graduate to several acres, and after four or five years move on to their own space. Informally, many established farmers like Ineke Booy and Martin de Groot at Mapleton’s Organic mentor new farmers on their own land. In 2007, they provided Caitlin Hall with an acre patch on their dairy farm. Now she is established on her own farm in Harriston, where Berkshire pigs and egg laying chickens mingle with a wide range of crops to supply her rapidly growing CSA sales.

CRAFT and McVean alumni are spreading out across Ontario, a new generation of farmers. But the story is not all rosy: the new farmers have training, networks, energy and established markets, but many struggle to get access to land. Aspiring farmers often have to rely on parents for down payments. Even when they are on the outer edge of viable distances to reach key markets like Toronto, the land is still too expensive for a young farmer. 

Many settle for short-term (one-year) leases without tenure security -- they may work for the five or more years it takes to rebuild soil immunity and health for a strong vegetable farm, and then be told the landowner is selling to a developer at top market rates. Smallholder agricultural producers for the local food markets compete for access to land with large-scale farms, developers, aggregate resource extraction projects and land speculators. According to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), speculation by foreign investors is rife, as land for food is poisoned, dried up or lost elsewhere. Land is also considered a great investment now by many portfolio managers. Special exemptions apply to corporations engaged in aggregate extraction (mining, quarries) which has allowed the Melancthon Mega Quarry project to go forward on prime agricultural land. 

Why do farmers sell to the aggregate and housing projects? Don’t they care? Farmers are selling because they have to; as one farmer explained to me, the banks and agricultural advisors (government) have persuaded farmers over the years to put their assets on the line -- land, businesses, quota for dairy and poultry sales allow them to accumulate the capital (debt) they need to farm. New farming methods require expensive inputs -- fertilizer, pesticides, hybrid seeds repurchased every year rather than saved and replanted. 

Farmers over the past four decades have incurred towering debtloads in order to keep farming. Farms are supported largely by off-farm work now, which greatly exceeds the net farm incomes. Net income for farmers has not risen since the 1970s, although production has continued to rise steadily. Clever farmers, who have continued to produce more and more agricultural products without costing consumers a dime more. A freshman economics student could tell you that is unsustainable.

So farmers now reach the end of their work years with impossible choices. They have massive debt, and their only asset is land and quota. Often their sons and daughters, if they have not been discouraged by watching their parents work long hours for little return, can’t afford the loans that would be necessary for them to buy out the farm. So the only market that allows the farmer to retire (as 75 per cent of Canadian farmers will want to do in the next 10 years) is the housing development market or even larger farmers who can borrow against their own large holdings or quota. Or the land speculators. And so the cycle continues.

This problem is not new, and is built into the very fabric of land use and policy since the British showed up and started rewarding Loyalist soldiers with tracts of land in Ontario. Unlike the U.S., Upper Canada had little interest in protecting individual settler property rights. They also of course paid little more than lip service to existing indigenous use traditions, or the established French tracts of land received from the indigenous people earlier. In fact, Ontario’s early land history is one of consolidation in the hands of absentee landowners (the Toronto elite, often the same people who surveyed and had the power to distribute land) and land speculators (sometimes the same people). In some places even after surveying and titling, land stayed in bush for years; settlement and agriculture was not really the goal. In economies only partly based on money, the land was seen as wealth, to be distributed based on the power hierarchies of the conquerors.

This sad state of affairs, historically and now a crisis in rural communities and regional food systems, represents a cultural problem as much as anything -- a certain way of seeing and using land. Innovations in land use in Ontario, however, are beginning to assert challenges to the wisdom of several centuries. Peri-urban, near-urban and urban agriculture have begun to bring foodlands into our backyards, breaking down the cultural divide between urban and rural. FarmStart, the Ontario Farmland Trust, the Alternative Land Use Services and others explore novel ownership arrangements that protect land for agriculture: agricultural easements, land trusts and other models. 

The notion that land can be divided into neat little squares comes from surveyor offices and a colonialist obsession with the governing power of mapping. Actual land use is at odds with the land as “parcel”; a strange misnomer that suggests the whole thing could be tied up and shipped somewhere by Canada Post. In some new models, land is valued for multiple uses -- public lands where environmental education co-habitates with farming; agricultural choices that consider ecological preservation as a goal, land titles that are shaped to maintain foodlands for future generations. 

Before we lose another hectare of farmland, or one more older farmer gives up in despair to sell to the highest bidder, we need to change the way we see agricultural land and our attitude to food supply. We need to think about the efficiencies of small-holdings, which have consistently higher yields across multiple crops than monocrop operations. We need incentives that capitalize on the possibilities of co-operation, multi-layered land use and cross-boundary exchanges. We need to do this now, as fuel prices sky-rocket, hunger runs rampant in this wealthy nation, and the need for local food systems becomes ever more urgent. We need simply enough to become a nation that can grow food and feed itself.


Sally Miller (MES, MA/ PHD) is currently a Metcalf Innovation Fellow working on land access for farming issues with a report forthcoming in 2012; she is also the author of Edible Action: Food Activism and Alternative Economics.


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