The Success of The New Farm Not Reflective of the Realities Small Farmers Face

Is small farming really a viable profession in the current era? is a dramatic shift needed in order to build a healthy earth and a healthy nation?

I first came across the Canadian farmer and author Brent Preston in 2016 when I was doing research on an article I wrote about my farming experience. He wrote a piece for the Huffpost titled, “Despite What You've Heard, Small Farmers are Doing Just Fine,” which disputes a wildly popular Salon essay, “What nobody told me about small farming: I can't make a living,” by Jaclyn Moyer.

I read the Salon essay when it first came out late 2015. We were only into our second year of farming and I was deeply touched by its blunt honesty in describing her farming struggle, which later became the reason I wrote a piece of my own (the article later published on Huffpost.)

In 2017 I read about a farm that made a substantial donation to The Stop Community, a well-known food bank and community kitchen in Toronto, where I started to attend its farmers market. Then a farmer friend recommended a new book to me titled “The New Farm” over a month ago. This was the farm I kept hearing about - the dots were connected.

The New Farm book is a fun and informative read. Its honest and sometimes self-deprecating descriptions of their early years' farming resonate with me. Many things sound familiar and many passages made me laugh. For instance, like Preston, we bought two intact male piglets (with balls in the figurative sense as well) in our first year and ate the meat with the “boar taint” scent for most of the following year. We also endured the escape of the same two piglets on the first day we got them. When we spotted them dashing across the back yard from our kitchen window the next day, we felt great relief. And like Preston, we also used our tiny kitchen salad spinner to dry lettuce for the market (I admit, we are still using it). We also used the coiled high-tensile fence wire. What a mess it can make! Indeed, “I tried not to think about it,” is an approach we all take sometimes with farming mishaps.

New small farmers will benefit from reading his book. He discusses various farming skills and knowledge sets acquired from these mishaps, in subjects such as vegetable production, animal care, decision making and market building. He emphasizes that the ability of selling food is as important as growing it.

The book gives the author's views on a few contentious issues facing the small farming community, such as organic certification, the use of unpaid interns, and the hiring of migrant workers.

Organic Certification

Preston believes in the merits of organic certification. I do too even though we are not certified ourselves. Organic certification is an easy identification of food quality for customers (even though some organic tomatoes offered at supermarkets are still tasteless). When farmers display their certificate, they don't need to explain how the vegetables are grown. Preston also doesn't believe farmers would hold the organic standard in high regard if their operations didn't go through the rigor of inspection and certification.

It is important, though, to note that organic farming standards are an industry product. This means they are developed to be convenient to big players and burdensome to small farmers. They set minimum requirements in every aspect of organic farming and still allow some pesticides in certain circumstances. On the other hand, many non-certified small farmers may not follow all practices defined in the organic standards; they may use no pesticides at all. It's wrong to say their work does less to enrich the soil and produce healthy, nutritious food.

Unpaid Internships

The use of unpaid interns is a frequent topic on social media. Many farmers and interns are against it; many don't want to speak about it, even though they are in favor. Preston is frank. In his words, “they may have been unpaid, but they were far from free.” At The New Farm, interns were paid a weekly stipend, were provided free, decent housing. From time to time they were driven to field trips and social days with other farmers and farm interns. Most importantly, he and his wife Gillian invested as much time as they could working together with them. As the season went on, the “clueless” interns grew into an effective and competent farm crew.

There are many good hosting farms that provide to their interns the best learning opportunity they can, and no doubt there are bad ones. Using unpaid interns is not a black or white issue, as long as there is a thorough discussion between the host farm and the intern, and an agreement on what each party can offer. There are also farms where interns must pay for their work and stay in exchange for the superb learning opportunity they receive.

Migrant Workers

The New Farm switched from using interns to hiring Mexican crews in their sixth season after crunching the numbers at their annual planning meeting at the end of their season 5. They had reached the limit for what they could achieve using interns, but were only making enough to get by. Switching to migrant labor was a great decision. In season 6, they were no longer just getting by, and by season 7, they were able to pay off everything: the farm, their second property, and all farming equipment.

In his book, Preston doesn't avoid the moral issue of hiring migrant workers; instead he directly raises the question: “Did bringing workers from thousands of kilometers away fit into a sustainable model of agriculture? Was a guest-worker system inherently exploitative, no matter how well we treated our crew?” And in his own defense, he states: “In the end, it was los muchachos themselves who settled the argument. They are skilled and competent workers and beautiful human beings who badly wanted to return.”

The New Farm have treated their Mexican crews well, surely better than most Canadian employers with migrant workers. On top of their regular paychecks, they are given a big bonus when they leave at the end of the season. Their lives back home have been dramatically improved; they are able to afford cars and even set up their own businesses.

We can't ignore how this fits into the larger discussion of the pros and cons of globalization. When big corporations move their production from the western world to third-world countries, they are welcomed as they offer jobs, and in the meantime, supply endless and affordable clothes, household goods and electronics to the consumers at home. The benefits are obvious but the consequences are complex and long lasting. When the cost of production rises, the corporations move on.

This past summer, we hired a local small private company to add more insulation to the attic of our house. Two cheerful young guys showed up with a 20-foot truck. After finishing the work in less than two hours, sweaty all over and completely covered with dust, they said they had three more houses to do that day. According to them, the owner treated his staff well. They were the kinds of competent local workers farmers would like to have, but cannot afford.

An Isolated Success?

It's clear that their Mexican crew played an important role in the New Farm's financial success. But that is not the key factor as many farms hire migrant workers. Preston attributes the “good food movement” (essentially a cross-section of forces – such as foodies, activists, chefs, and farmers - engaged in creating a more sustainable food system than our industrial one) to their success. But considering that many other farms have ridden the same wave and never reached the same level of achievement, in majority cases not even close, the good food movement is not the key either. It is who and what Brent and Gillian are that have made the New Farm successful.

Before farming, both Brent and Gillian had successful careers in Toronto. And before that, both had worldwide NGO experience. Brent worked as a human rights investigator, aid worker, election observer and journalist on four continents.

Their pre-farming experiences are impressive, giving Brent and Gillian an edge in selling their food as they are sociable, natural-born connectors. They have always gone the extra mile to meet and get acquainted with “an army of beautiful, talented, generous people,” who are conventional farmer neighbors, small town fixtures, wealthy rural weekenders, liberal urbanites and celebrity chefs. They have built strong personal connections in the community where they live, the community where they sell their vegetables to foodies and chefs for top dollar, and the small farmer community where they share their farming ideas. These interactions and resulting relationships have proved to be an invaluable asset to their personal growth and that of their business.

Brent and Gillian formed an incredible team. They complement each other. Both work hard and work smart. They are highly business-minded and results-driven entrepreneurs. They make decisions based on hard data and take quick action. The brilliant creation of “Grow for The Stop” retail brand is one example that shows their efforts and actions generally don't serve a single purpose, but bring multiple benefits. As Brent wrote, “Everyone got something out of the deal, and the numbers worked for everyone.” They make new decisions when a season is over, and tweak their operations in the following season. Each decision is thoughtful and elevates their farming operation to a new level in sustainability and profitability.

The New Farm is an example of a small farm success story, in which farming enriches the soil, cleans the atmosphere and strengthens community, and most of all, the farmers make a good living. But is it an isolated case? Brent doesn't think so. He mentions that his fellow farmers are doing extremely well, “running sophisticated and profitable operations based on farmers' markets and CSAs, … selling wholesale to restaurants, grocery stores, home delivery services, … making money with pick-your-own, agro-tourism, on-farm food processing.” He wants more small farms, and more farmers as the good food movement is on and growing.

Farming, like any other occupation, would attract more people if it made money. Given that more family farms close each year as more farm kids either move away or stay but take on non-farming jobs and given that many farms, either big or small, either conventional or organic, rely on migrant workers, unpaid interns, volunteers, and off-farm income, farmers, in reality, are just struggling to get by.

Our farm is close to Kingston, Ontario, a beautiful historical city, where Queen's University is the biggest employer. Kingston has a population of over 120,000, with two main farmers market. The surrounding rural communities have a higher-than-average density of small organic farms. Local food is important to many in the area. Memorial Center Farmers Market, which we attend, only started six years ago, but has been growing each year thanks to the diligent and creative work of market managers. However, the business of the other main market, located in the heart of downtown by the city hall, which was bustling for generations, has been declining in recent years.

Two well-known and respectable organic farms in southern Ontario closed their operations in 2017. I knew both farms through connections. I got acquainted with the friendly girl who worked as a farm manager on one farm when we both attended The Stop farmers market. My partner went on a farm tour offered by the other farm. Both had been around for many years and were considered successful. There is probably a combination of factors for their closures. In the end, they may well have just been worn out and ready to pass along the torch.

What's Ahead for Small Farming?

Simple small farming is not idyllic. Unless you are doing homesteading, it is a business, for which you need to be an entrepreneur and have capital to start; in which you must excel in many roles; in which you would fail if you didn't innovate constantly, and; in which, sadly, you face steep competition because the market is small and there are fellow small farmers just like you.

Small farming still attracts people even though it rarely makes money. The idea of living a simple life on the land is appealing to some young people who feel they don't belong in the rat race of the globalized market economy.

Just as machines forever changed farming about a century ago, in our current time, the cheap food policies of governments across the western world drive agriculture to be as big as possible, as automatic as possible, as mono as possible, as chemical dependent as possible.

Simple small farming is not idyllic. Unless you are doing homesteading, it is a business, for which you need to be an entrepreneur and have capital to start; in which you must excel in many roles; in which you would fail if you didn't innovate constantly, and; in which, sadly, you face steep competition because the market is small and there are fellow small farmers just like you.

In the coming years, the farming and food landscape will change even more, on the retail side with Amazon's integration of Wholefoods, and delivery programs offered by various grocery chains like Canadian giant Loblaws. Also, on the production side, the emergence of hydroponic and aquaponic farming will further hurt small organic farms. Hydroponic farming uses water as a growing medium, instead of soil. It is perfect for large-scale industrialized vegetable farming with minimum labor. It requires big investment and uses controlled indoor spaces. That can be set up anywhere, for year-round production with fewer pests and pesticides. The result is clean, beautiful-looking vegetables.

The NOSB (the National Organic Standards Board), an advisory committee to the USDA, recently voted to allow some crops grown hydroponically to have organic labels despite the objections of many small organic farmers, including Eliot Coleman, a renowned American farmer, author, and organic farming advocate, who believe in the wonders of healthy soil full of bugs, worms and microorganisms.

I wonder if a human being raised in a perfectly controlled environment free of disease, fed with scientifically-proven formulated all-nutritious meals, would be able to develop a proper immune system the way we do growing up in the natural world. Will these beautiful looking vegetables that are produced in a protected environment be the same as those growing in healthy soil?

I believe, when we eat healthy vegetables produced old-fashioned way, we consume more than carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals. There is something else, maybe even a fighting spirit in each leaf, which can only be nurtured by small organic farming.

When conventional farms become a part of the big-ag-industry, they have to rely on the mercy of corporations, they have no voice. Small farms, independent on the other hand, can only spark in a niche.

The Good Food Movement that Preston celebrates is far from taking on the major challenges of agriculture. We are at a point where that movement needs to move beyond its niche, where food policy needs to look closely at the value of small farms as environmental stewards and producers of good food, vital to a healthy earth and healthy nation.

With contributions from Jonathan Davies

Correction: the previous version incorrectly stated that the USDA approved hydroponics in the organics standards. The USDA didn’t approve it, rather its advisory board NOSB voted to allow it.

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