I grew up on a farm in Springfield (near Kensington). It was truly mixed. I went off to university hoping to find an easier life than my parents had. The work wasn’t the hardest part it was the financial uncertainty that was so wearing on them. Then in my late 20’s I felt the pull to return to farming. I seems you can leave the farm but is harder to get farming to leave you. Now I have come full circle and operate a mixed farm with my partner Dave Blum. We have a sprouting room where we grow alfalfa, and other sprouts, greenhouses, field crops, and livestock as well as doing some value added products.
I love growing things and nurturing life, but I have to admit the uncertainly I experienced as a child on the farm has not gone away. We have a lot going for us, we direct market so we get the whole value for our products, our crops are certified organic and we get a premium for that, we have found a few niches that give us some certainty in the market place. But the reality remains that farming is an uncertain livelihood. Whether you are a small scale direct marketer or are large scale and sell into the commodity market.
There is no model for farming that works for everyone, there are so many factors to consider, what part of farming you enjoy?, what kind of land base you have?, what market opportunities there are?. Here at Elderflower Organic Farm there have been a lot of experiments and although the list of things we are doing now seems long we have also let go a many potential crops and opportunites because well we can’t do everything. Our primary objective is to have as complete a production circle as possible, by getting all the value we can from our crops and land while using pigs to increase soil fertility and to act as living composters for all the cull vegetables and such that we can’t sell.
We have been gradually making the transition to livestock for a number of years, and for a number of reasons. The soil on this farm is very sandy without much clay. It has been a challenge to build fertility. Pasturing pigs in rotation with crops seemed like an excellent solution to this problem, after many years of hauling in off farm manure and spending countless hours making compost. We are just beginning to see what pigs can do to the land and it is very exciting. We have opted for as natural system as possible with the pigs having access to the outdoors year around.
So far we aren’t getting rich from the pigs, but they are helping us have a more complete farm system. Anybody who raises pigs will tell you that feeding them is expensive. The organic feed we give them is very costly but it is also high quality and helps provide a living for other organic farmers down the line.
By doing some on-farm food processing we have been able to add value to farm produce and create more winter income. I developed a recipe for making gluten and soy free veggie burgers that are made with our own vegetables and sprouted lentils. We sell them for home use and to restaurants, that has been our most successful value added product so far.
The farm has been certified organic for 15 years now, and the sky has not fallen. The insect and weed pressure hasn’t gotten worse although it varies from year to year depending on the season and the fertility of the field used that year.
There is a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be organic. The biggest one centres around the use of pesticides. Some chemical based farmers like to say that we use pesticides that are even worse than the chemicals they use. While on the other side consumers often demand assurance that we do not use any pesticides at all. Neither of these extremes are true.
So I think it would be useful to discuss what a pesticide is. According to the Canadian General Standards Board that writes the organic standards a pesticide is defined as:
Anything used to attract, prevent, destroy, repel or mitigate any pests or alter the growth, development or characteristics of any plant. This includes any organism, substance or mixture of substances, and devices such as lures or traps.
In other words when I go out and hang red sticky traps in the orchard they are considered a pesticide. Also I use a few different bacteria that are toxic to insects, these are bacteria that are naturally occurring but have been cultured and packaged to be used for insect control – again these are pesticides. The organic standards are very clear about some obvious substances that are prohibited from use in organic systems such as Synthetic pesticides, genetically engineered products, synthetic growth regulators, etc. But being organic should not be defined by what we do not use nor by what we do not do – but rather by what we do:
To quote from the standard itself:
Organic production is a holistic system designed to optimize the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agro-ecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock and people. The principal goal of organic production is to develop enterprises that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment.
The general principles of organic production include the following:
- 1. Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health.
- 2. Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.
- 3. Maintain biological diversity within the system.
- 4. recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise.
- 5. provide attentive care that promotes the health and meets the behavioural needs of livestock.
- 6. Prepare organic products, emphasizing careful processing, and handling methods in order to maintain the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products at all stages of production.
- 7. Rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems.
Those principles are good guidelines for farming regardless of whether your practices are organic or chemical based. The point really is do we see nature as an ally or an adversary. Someone once wrote a article about this farm and described my farm practices using war analogies where my pest control measures were my weapons and the greenhouses were tanks. I found the article disturbing but it helped me understand how he and others see farming. He completely missed the point of why this farm is set up the way it is. If there is no diversity in the fields then it can not provide a place for beneficial insects to flourish. I don’t want to eradicate weeds and crop damaging insects, my goal is a balance where there are enough insects and weeds to create habitat for predatory insects and soil life. The more we simplify systems the less resilience they have.
I am not here today so say that everyone should switch to organic farming tomorrow. There is a lot expected of farmers. They must produce a crop every year and what they sell must be pretty much perfect. Most farmers sell into the open market place where there is no costumer loyalty and prices are fixed by others – not based on the cost of production. There is a huge amount of pressure to do everything in the most efficient way possible. And in this race to the lowest price – scale of production makes a huge difference. So for a long time now there has been more and more farmer’s dropping out and a few farms getting larger each year.
In Canada we pay some of the lowest prices for our food in the world, and that is especially clear if you look at the percentage of our income we spend on food. According to the research I have done there are only 4 other countries where the amount of household income spent on food is lower. On the other hand farmers in Canada get a lower percentage of farm revenue from government subsidies than most western countries.
It is not necessarily that consumers are unwilling to pay for food. Organic sales have been steadily going up in Canada now for more than a decade but the number of farmers transitioning to organic production has not kept pace. Why is that?
There are a number of reasons for sure. Farming organically is a complex system whereby the focus is on building healthy soil to feed your crop compared to the prescription model most chemical based farms employ, whereby you feed the plants directly. Making soil fertile again can take much longer than the three year transition period required to clear chemical residue out of the soil. But even the three year transition period is difficult because the land tends to not be very productive while soil building is occurring as organic fertilizers won’t work well in soil that is lacking diverse microbial life and organic matter. Anything produced on the land has no extra value in the market place for three years. So farmers have to take a considerable loss for several years, while incurring the costs involved in rehabilitating the soil.
Then there is the political/ideological barrier between farmers who use or don’t use chemicals. This is the same divide you can find in all parts of society. There is a lot of hostile language thrown back and forth so that organic farmers are accused of harbouring disease and insect vectors and chemical based farmers are accused of allowing pesticide drift and runoff.
It is time to erase the battle lines and recognize that we are all part of the same community. Our children all go to the same schools, we all drink the same water and breath the same air. farming is a noble occupation one that should command respect. So much as asked of farmers and the stakes are so high that one bad season can be enough to push a farm into bankruptcy.
I believe it is time for a paradigm shift in the way we look at this issue. It is time to collectively take stock of what it is farmers do, and think about how to ensure they are given the resources they need to do that. Farmers grow crops, and raise livestock, on average what is produced here travels almost 4000 KM before it reaches its end user. That person has no way of knowing how the food was grown or if the environment was stressed in the process. Living in an agricultural province, there is a limited local market, so the way I market is only an option for a small number of farms. And as I mentioned already when crops are sold into the commodity market the price is set based on supply and demand not the cost of production.
I have been contemplating another option, one I think is exciting. What if we identified the ecological services we want farmers to preform in order to enhance the environment and set about paying for those services independent of crop yields. In other words that would make two separate income streams for farms one from farm sales and the other from environmental services payments. There could be a sliding scale with those performing the most ecological services getting the most per acre for their efforts. This model is in use in many parts of the world and is tied to clear environmental targets, like protection of watersheds, sequestering carbon in soil by increasing organic matter and bio-diversity conservation (by protecting sensitive eco-systems, or planting multi-species hedges for example). Farmers would be able to take the most toxic chemicals and the most vulnerable farm land out of the equation and be rewarded for doing so.
Where would we get the money to do such a thing? We all hear about how tight the finances are in the province and in the country. I do think that if there was a will there would be a way. Right now the provincial budget for agriculture and Forestry is about $36.8 Million this year. Perhaps if the priorities were shifted some of that money could be moved. Much of the money in that budget goes to grants to help farmers make changes that will benefit the environment already, however it is a very piecemeal approach. Already almost all agricultural payments are tied to farmers completing environmental farm plans, but there is no obligation to make changes identified in the environmental farm plan recommendations. Beyond that there seems to be an endless stream of conferences and workshops to give farmers some new magic bullet that will make their farm economically stable. At some point we have to recognize that although education is important collectively we know enough, we have enough technology and more efficiencies, and equipment is never going to be enough to get us out of this situation.
Beyond the government coffers we the people of PEI can help directly too. What if we put a 1% surcharge on grocery store food that wasn’t grown organically. That would mean that for every $100 you spend on groceries that aren’t organic you would pay $1. In the course of a year we would have a lot of money (with my very rudimentry calculations I think that it would be in access of 10 Million). Enough to give a $100/acre payment for 100 thousand acres. My brother Raymond was always a great inspiration for me and one thing he said that has stuck with me this: The question isn’t if we can make the Island organic, the question is do we want to?
Do we want to enough to stop the endless blame game and start to work together, because that is the only way that I can see us getting where we want to go.