Register Sunday | October 1 | 2023
Growing Season Ali Hassanein

Growing Season

As family farms disappear from the Canadian landscape, eco-conscious first-generation farmers would like to take their place. But, as Nikki Wiart reports, this is easier said than done.

Nova Scotia’s Broadfork Farm is located in a corner of Canada where hobby-caught fish are sold door-to-door and locals are quick with a wave. The farm is within a stone’s throw of the local firing range, walking distance of the village of River Hebert and a ten-minute drive from Joggins, the world-famous fossil trove. Broadfork’s charming, rickety farmhouse, pale yellow with eye-blinding green trim, is where Shannon Jones, thirty-five, and Bryan Dyck, thirty-two, have made their home. They’ve done minor renovations—updating the kitchen, painting the bathroom, which was a dated Barbie pink—but there are still chunks of floral wallpaper clinging to a spot above the fireplace in the dining room. They have no internet access at home; the couple relies on the local library in order to update their Facebook and Instagram accounts and reply to customer emails.  

Jones and Dyck started out as city kids. Jones spent her formative years in Winnipeg and the Ottawa suburb of Kanata. When she was fifteen, her parents gave her The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, a book Jones has never forgotten. It described how young adults could to take learning into their own hands by forgoing institutionalized education, and included a chapter called “Pigs and honey: farm-related work.” Five years later, Jones started working on her first farm. Dyck also grew up in the suburbs and discovered he had a green thumb as a teenager. In his first year at McMaster University, a human geography course redoubled his interest in environmental stewardship and the earth.

Before the pair built a farming business together, Jones spent six years working on farms all over North and South America, and Dyck apprenticed on a vegetable farm in southwestern Ontario, moving up the ranks and quickly becoming a co-manager. When they decided to start their own operation, the couple first leased land on a farm Jones had managed in Nova Scotia. In 2011, they were finally able to buy the farm they live on now. They named it Broadfork after a pronged, U-shaped tool that low-tech farmers use to break up soil. 

Now, Jones and Dyck sell cut flowers and vegetables—everything from conventional veggies like radishes to more specialized crops like Lamb’s Tongue lettuce—every Saturday during the growing season at the Dieppe farmers’ market in New Brunswick, an hour’s drive from the farm. They also sell to local farm-to-table restaurants in Moncton, Halifax and neighbouring small towns like Advocate Harbour. They’re determined to farm in a way that’s sustainable and environmentally responsible. “We decided to become farmers because we wanted to make the world a better place,” Jones says. “We wanted to change the world. Save the world. Be the change.”

It sounds like something you’d find on a motivational poster, but Jones and Dyck are proud to be part of a new generation of farmers who are young, idealistic and—crucially—who don’t come from a family-farm background.

Canada’s population of working farms has been in steep decline since 1991. According to Statistics Canada, we lose, on average, a whopping ten farms a day. On top of that, farmers are getting older: In 2011, the average age of a farm operator in Canada was fifty-four, and for the first time, over half were fifty-five and older. Only a quarter of those soon-to-retire farmers had succession plans. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of young farmers—those forty and younger—decreased by 75 percent. Moreover, fewer and fewer farms are being taken over by family members.

While these numbers make it seem like the world of agriculture is in decline, there’s a small subset of the population, people like Jones and Dyck, who have unexpectedly headed back to the land. These new farmers are typically urban-raised, university-educated, environmentally conscious twenty- or thirty-somethings. According to preliminary data from a national survey done in 2015 by the National New Farmer Coalition (NNFC), eight hundred out of 1,300 respondents fell into the broadest definition of “new farmer”—people who had entered farming in the last five years. Sixty-eight percent of these new farmers had not grown up on a farm. Bucking broader trends, their average age was thirty-eight, and 58 percent of them were female—more than double the proportion of women in the overall census of Canadian farm operators.

Virginie Lavallée-Picard, a new farmer on Vancouver Island, assisted the coordination of NNFC’s landmark survey. The NNFC is now working on releasing a report of the key findings. The phenomenon is so new that its foundational document—the first national survey to gauge the size, shape and potential of the New Agrarian movement in Canada—literally hasn’t been written yet.

Between 2012 and 2014, Lavallée-Picard was one of six new farmers to report on the state of this demographic to Food Secure Canada (FSC), a nonprofit that lobbies for food security and food sovereignty at a national level. FSC tasked these new farmers with surveying other new farmers in six different areas in Canada—the North, Atlantic Canada, Ontario, Quebec, the Prairies and BC—and then asked them to report back at a November 2014 meeting in Halifax. Lavallée-Picard and her fellow pioneers identified three broad challenges for new farmers, especially first-generation ones: barriers to land, barriers to finance and barriers to training.

“It really points to the need to develop some programs,” Lavallée-Picard says. “I think there’s an assumption in policy circles that the next generation will come from family farms. And there will be a lot of them that do, but a lot won’t have that background, that footing.”

In November 2016, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Lawrence MacAulay was part of a Facebook Live panel aimed at answering questions on how to engage youth in agriculture—though most of the questions and answers applied to family farmers, not first-generation farmers. In response to a question on how to get more youth interested in agriculture, MacAulay stressed the importance of programs like 4-H and also focused heavily on the importance of technology to farming, in particular for export crops. “If you’re trying to produce food for China, you have to produce it the way the Chinese want it, not the way you want it,” he said. In a follow-up email, a spokesperson for MacAulay asserted that helping youth obtain the skills and support they need to move into the agriculture sector would be a “primary focus” of the minister over the remainder of his term, and that with the trend of larger farms and older workers, “the timing could not be more important.” While that sounds good, MacAulay’s emphasis betrays a chasm between the New Agrarian movement and the government’s focus—most first-generation farmers can’t begin to afford expensive farming technology, and, moreover, very few are seeking to grow export crops in the first place. 

In 2014, the National Farmers Union Youth founded the NNFC in order to lobby the federal government on behalf of new farmers and push for policy that would allow this fledgling movement to take off. The NNFC was modelled after the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), an American organization founded in 2009 to address similar barriers. In 2014, the NYFC successfully influenced government policy to ensure funding for development programs supporting new farmers and ranchers. That same year, NYFC co-founder Lindsey Shute was celebrated as a “Future of American Agriculture Champion of Change” by the White House. So far, the NNFC hasn’t boasted equivalent gains—but the organization is still in its infancy. “What we’re trying to achieve with this new project is to present what new farmers want, what they need, and where they’re at,” Lavallée-Picard says. “But also encouraging people to get involved politically.”

While today’s agrarian movement recalls the back-to-the-land impulses of the past—young urbanites abandoning their upbringing for a more rustic, simple life—there are key differences. Most of today’s back-to-the-landers pair a strong sense of environmental responsibility with a desire to develop a profitable business. Jones and Dyck, for example, read blogs and books on marketing and business management. Their profit margins are peanuts compared to the multi-million dollar farms that dominate the industry, but they know that having a viable business is the only way they’ll be able to stay on the land.

Further, the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s was rooted in a world where urban and rural were viewed as separate spheres of life. While seventies back-to-the-landers wished to retreat to the rural sphere to evade the problems of the urban one, eschewing mainstream society, today’s new agrarians want to bridge the urban/rural divide in a sustainable, community-facing way. “It’s more connected. People don’t have to work in isolation. It’s a little less egocentric, if you know what I mean,” says Heather Pritchard, a farming mentor, weighing in on the differences. Pritchard, herself a first-generation farmer, has been farming part-time for over thirty years, and she’s observed this attitude in the new farmers she mentors. “It’s not only about ‘me and what I’m moving away from.’ It’s about, ‘Here we are.’ This generation is responsible for feeding people, and we’re doing it in a different way that’s more sensitive to the ecology and more responsible to the environment.”

On top of farming, Pritchard works for FarmFolk CityFolk, a nonprofit organization in Vancouver that supports local growers and urban agriculture initiatives. She does her mentoring work through Young Agrarians, a BC-based network she helped found in 2012. Young Agrarians matches new and young farmers—typically those aspiring to become ecological or organic growers—with other, more experienced young farmers.

“My job is literally just connecting people,” says Sara Dent, co-founder of the project. “A farmer will email me and say that they’re interested in something or they need something and then if I have a resource for them I can think of, I’ll introduce them to that resource.” Dent says three out of four farmers she works with don’t come from a farming background. “The niche that Young Agrarians specifically focuses on is this emergent wave of farmers that are going into agro-ecology. [It’s] going to be a fairly significant demographic trend over the next fifty to one hundred years: that people who are getting into agriculture are primarily motivated by their desire to do something good with their bodies that is not contributing to climate change.”

While this new crop of agrarians is ready and willing to get out and farm, as the preliminary results of NNFC’s survey suggested, accessing the actual land to do the farming on is a major challenge. Over the next ten years, as the majority of Canada’s farmers reach retirement age, millions of acres of land will be shifting hands. But Lavallée-Picard worries that the land may not go to new farmers—or any farmers at all. 

Between 1993 and 2013, according to Statistics Canada, outstanding farm debt in Canada increased by 340 percent, from $23.4 billion to $79.6 billion. As farmers sink further into debt, and their children leave the farm, they’ll be looking to sell their land at a price they can retire at. That’s something new farmers just can’t afford. In 2011, the total farmland owned by Canadian farmers stood at 103.5 million acres—a decrease of nearly seven million from 2006. At the same time, rented farmland increased from 34.1 million acres to 36.8 million—a trend Statistics Canada attributes to investment funds and developers buying up land and renting it back to farmers.

Wian Prinsloo, thirty, and Lydia Carpenter, thirty-two, new farmers who run Luna Field Farm in Manitoba, are two of many new farmers in this situation. The pair has struggled with reliable access to land since beginning their operation—described by Prinsloo as “a regenerative-agriculture, soil-building, carbon-sequestration, grass-fed meats, pastured poultry, direct-to-consumer farm”—nearly seven years ago. Carpenter was born and raised in Winnipeg; Prinsloo, in Pretoria, South Africa. He moved to Winnipeg in 2002, at the age of fifteen. 

“We’re an old-fashioned farm that feeds people,” Prinsloo says. Luna Field Farm, which comprises 220 acres of leased farmland, is tucked away in a little valley three hours west of Winnipeg. The pair graze three hundred egg-laying chickens, nine hundred meat chickens, around one hundred sheep they breed for lamb meat, thirty cow-calf pairs and one hundred pigs, and sell their meat and eggs directly to two hundred families. 

At first, Carpenter says, the challenge wasn’t land but community connections. “You don’t have the social capital to know the people who have land available,” Carpenter says. “You don’t have rapport. You don’t have a track record.”

Prinsloo and Carpenter had each saved $20,000 from working in Winnipeg, which was barely enough capital to start a farming operation. No one would lend them a substantial sum of money and no one would sell them land. Their first loan was $6,000, and they only took it out to prove themselves reliable clients in anticipation of a bigger loan.

Another challenging aspect of the process was that the bank wouldn’t consider the value of their farm’s direct-market sales. Carpenter says any other business that used the projections of direct-market sales would have had those considered, but added that the lenders they spoke with didn’t care. “It’s not that they don’t care,” Prinsloo says, interrupting Carpenter. He says lenders are used to commodity farmers—those growing crops like canola and soy and doing so on a large scale—and not farmers selling their product the way he and Carpenter do.

After four years of “the blood, the sweat, the tears,” and being involved in the community, Prinsloo says they’ve finally overcome the social-capital struggle. Now, their neighbours are a huge source of support. A nearby farmer bought them an ATV, for example—he was sick of watching them trudge back and forth to do their chores, and he told the couple to pay him back when they could. Another older farming couple jokes that they’ve adopted Carpenter and Prinsloo. “We’ve heard people refer to us as ‘The Kids,’” Prinsloo says.

Carpenter and Prinsloo are now in talks to purchase land from a nearby farmer who is offering it at a price they can afford. Their neighbours watched them start from nothing and succeed, and they now trust that the new farmers weren’t just going through a doomed-to-fail phase. “I can see the logic behind it now,” Prinsloo says. “Sometimes it’s better off watching people flounder for a few years before you actually help ’em out.”

Despite all of the difficulties these first-generation farmers have had to overcome—social capital, financial capital and land access—there are benefits. Carpenter says they’ve been lucky to avoid the problem multiple-generation farms often face, where the kids are forced to refinance something they didn’t want in the first place. “We’re not weighed down by dad’s dogma,” Carpenter says. “We can pick our parents.”

Ralph Martin, a professor at the University of Guelph and former Loblaw Chair of Sustainable Food Production, notes that it can also be difficult for multi-generational family farmers to begin farming sustainably. “There’s quite a bit of inertia in a modern conventional farm,” he says. “Once the farm has had an investment in the type of practices they’re doing, the equipment and buildings and so on, it’s very difficult to walk away from that investment and see it repurposed.”

Take going organic: though organic farms have doubled in number since 2001, according to Statistics Canada, they still account for less than 2 percent of Canadian farm operations. Martin, who was the founding director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC) from 2001 to 2011, says that conventional farms must undergo a three-year transition period if they want to be certified organic. During that time, they’re selling their products at the same price as anyone else’s non-organic produce, but investing much more money into their farm. “They’re going to get lower yields, and they’re going through a learning curve, and it’s embarrassing, and it’s hard to deal with if you don’t have social and emotional support,” Martin says. Conversely, it’s much easier for the farm of a first-generation farmer to grow organic from day one, get certification and immediately begin turning a profit. 

PEI farmers Amy Smith, forty-two, and Verena Varga, forty-three, are so proud of their organic certification that it’s in the name of their vegetable farm: Heart Beet Organics. Heart Beet is a small operation, just one and a half acres on Prince Edward Island, where the soil is the colour of Anne of Green Gables’ hair. Smith and Varga live in potato country, just twenty minutes from Charlottetown, where they sell vegetables and fermented foods at the local farmers’ market. When I visit, Varga apologizes and lifts up a towel in the living room to reveal a bubbling, juicy sauerkraut. This is why, she says, the house smells like “farts and socks.” There’s a “Who’s Your Farmer?” sticker on the fridge and a whiteboard calendar in the dining area, full of colourful handwriting. “Kissing—first priority!!!!” reads one of the notes, alongside “Clean our saved seeds,” “Move tarps” and “Design bottle labels.”

“We really try to nourish mind, body and soul,” Varga says. “You are what you eat is totally the truth.” 

“We are about nourishing and educating our customers as well as ourselves,” Smith adds. “Doing what we can, one person at a time, to help heal the earth and the people on it.”

Neither Varga nor Smith are Canadians by birth. Born on Oahu, Hawaii, Smith apprenticed for three years on different farms in Massachusetts before moving to an ashram in Quebec where she managed its one-acre market garden for two years—and met Varga, who grew up in Frankfurt, Germany and moved to Ontario in 1987. Varga didn’t have any farming experience when they got started. After five years of training, Smith decided she was ready to start her own farm. “And Verena was crazy enough to do it with me,” she says, the two of them giggling. Their original goal was to go back to Massachusetts to farm, but after struggling to find viable farmland south of the border, they began to consider Canada. “Once we turned our attention to PEI,” Smith says, “doors basically just started opening.”

Smith and Varga found two greenhouses for sale on Kijiji, and through emailing with the poster, found out the whole farm was for sale. “They said it’s an acre and a half. Not enough for any real farmer,” Smith says. “Farmers around here are looking for hundreds, thousands of acres.” But an acre and a half was more than enough for Varga and Smith to work with. 

The plot cost significantly more than they’d planned to spend, but after eating strawberry shortcake on the porch with the two retiring farmers, they knew it was perfect. “When we pulled away,” Varga says, “we were like, ‘This is it, we want this place.’” They bought the property in September 2010.

While Smith doesn’t want to criticize the farming methods used in PEI, in practice, her farm demonstrates alternatives. “Farmers have been sold a bill of goods, and they’ve been convinced that’s the only way they can farm,” she says. “You don’t have to farm with chemicals.” They’re also showing people you can make a living off one and a half acres. “People ask us, ‘Oh, where else do you work?’” Varga says. “This is the only thing.”

Going organic does pay off eventually. According to the OACC, for every $100 earned per acre, an organic farmer keeps $58, nearly double that of a conventional farmer. But for a lot of farmers, even first-generation ones, it’s still not worth it. Going organic takes a lot of time and money—two precious commodities new farmers typically don’t have in abundance. Many new farms, Luna Field included, follow sustainable practices even as they eschew certification. What they offer instead of that stamp of approval is the opportunity for customers to visit the farm to see exactly how their vegetables were grown and their meat was raised.

In 2007, “locavore” was named Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary—a sign that locally grown produce was becoming a serious force in global agriculture. Three years later, a United Nations report on the Right to Food concluded that agro-ecological, small-scale farming “delivers advantages that are complementary to better-known conventional approaches such as breeding high-yielding varieties.” People are becoming increasingly interested in where their food comes from, and whether it was grown in a sustainable way. Between 2006 and 2012, the value of Canada’s organic industry tripled, and the country is seeing more farmers’ markets and community gardens, local restaurants sourcing local food, hundred-mile diets, and a rise in community-supported agriculture (CSAs).

Kent Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Richmond, BC, says Canada needs a new type of agriculture—as well as a new breed of agriculturalists with new knowledge and skills to counter the forces of industrialized farming, which has taxed the environment and depleted soil nutrients. “It has to be absolutely an agriculture that is focused on nurturing the environment. And it absolutely must be an agriculture that’s regenerative,” he says. 

Jones and Dyck of Broadfork Farm fit the bill. Despite having five acres of good growing land on their sixteen-acre property, they use about an acre and a half each season to grow their vegetables. The rest is left for cover crops—grasses that help protect and improve the soil. Martin, the University of Guelph organics professor, thinks farmers practising this type of agriculture should be rewarded by the government. “If a farmer was to build up their soil organic matter, then that farmer might pay less tax. Or their crop insurance premiums might be lower. If farmers drive their soil organic matter down, I think they should pay more tax, or their crop insurance premiums should be higher,” he says.

This kind of incentive could not only break down some of the financial entrance barriers to farming that exist for newcomers to the field, but encourage all farmers to do the “right thing,” Martin says—farming in a way that’s more in step with nature, and more resilient to climate change.

Changing the way we farm as the climate changes is essential for the future of food in Canada. The low price of imported food won’t last. By the end of the twenty-first century, it’s estimated the average global temperature will be more than a degree and half higher than it was just 170 years ago; with every one degree of temperature increase, the amount of grain produced declines by about 5 percent. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this could lead to an increase in the price of food between 3 and 84 percent by 2050. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada notes that Canada imports billions of dollars worth of food from Mexico and California, two areas that are expected to be hit hardest by fluctuations in temperature and rainfall. While Canada won’t be hit as hard by climate change as our main food importers, Martin insists that everyone—farmers, consumers, Canadians, Americans—needs to start looking at agriculture through the lens of intense and rapidly intensifying climate change.

Leading up to the 2015 federal election, Food Secure Canada created the “Eat Think Vote” campaign, which encouraged voters to think about Canada’s food system when they headed to the polls. FSC issued a questionnaire to the federal parties to gauge their interests; the Liberals, NDPs, Bloc Québécois, and Greens were all in favour of a national food strategy and agreed more needed to be done to support new farmers. The Conservative Party didn’t respond. 

In October 2015, after the Liberals were elected, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau laid out what Minister MacAulay should accomplish over the next term in the official ministerial mandate letter. Food was on the agenda, and MacAulay’s marching orders included addressing climate change and water and soil conservation, as well as developing policy that “promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country.” 

In response to queries about support programs for new farmers, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada sent a series of links, some of which seem woefully inadequate. Included, for example, was a link to the Ontario-based incubator FarmStart—a charity funded by a variety of agriculture-related foundations and a few project-based government grants—that had to abandon its programs and services in February 2017 after failing to secure core funding from federal and provincial governments. 

While none of the tasks set out by the prime minister address the aging farming population or map out ways to incentivize a career in farming for both family and non-family farmers, the new farmers I spoke with were hopeful their voices would be heard. For her part, Heather Pritchard is optimistic about what these new agrarians could mean for Canada—from an ecological perspective and in terms of repopulating farms—if they’re given a truly viable opportunity to try.

Back at Luna Field Farm, I joined Prinsloo and Carpenter as they brought their sheep to the main yard to paint brand them. Prinsloo followed closely behind a flock of a hundred-or-so ewes as they led the way down a gravel road towards the farmhouse. Jenna, a small but fierce border collie, nipped at their heels, while Carpenter and I took up the rear.

Earlier, during the interview, Carpenter and Prinsloo had seemed upset, even agitated by the state of affairs for first-generation farmers. They were annoyed that they had to raise chickens to raise lambs, raise lambs to raise pigs, and raise pigs to raise cattle. “We have to farm like this because we can’t finance it,” Carpenter had said. 

But there, along the gravel road, Carpenter seemed content with the way things were working out. “[Wian] said he can’t give me money,” she said, as we trailed the cloud of dust kicked up by the sheep, “but he can give me time.” Time to travel, and time to build relationships. Time to farm in a way that gives back to them as much as it gives to the soil, the grass that grows on the soil, the animals that eat the grass, and the people who eat the meat.