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Organic Stories: Wildflight Farm – Secwepemeceulecw, Mara BC

in 2022/Crop Production/Current Issue/Farmers' Markets/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Winter 2022

A Community Movement Takes Flight

By Brianne Fester

Wild Flight Farm was never really part of the plan. In fact, Hermann Bruns grew up just down the road from the Wild Flight farmstead, and actually worked very diligently for 10 years to ensure he was on track to do quite the opposite of farming. But fate had other plans!

After their respective studies of geography and biology, Louise and Hermann met in Tumbler Ridge while working for a mining company. Both passionate about being active outdoors, exploring nature, and living as environmentally-conscious as possible, they began to recognize a disappointing lack of options for local and organic produce.

For Louise, switching gears and becoming a farmer was a clear choice. Deciding to grow the food that they themselves were unable to find was a way they could “walk the talk.”

Becoming organic growers was not only a way to advocate for living with less environmental impact, but it would provide a tangible way for others to make that choice as well.

Seeding Garlic. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

The farm lies on a beautiful 20-acre slice of fertile land in unceded Secwepemc territory, along the Shuswap River. Wild Flight Farm was named in reverence for the river and the numerous migrating bird species that make a home there. It is from that deep place of appreciation and respect for their environment that Hermann and Louise have been dedicated stewards of the land they farm.

What began as Louise’s quaint notion of a small-scale farm, run by the two of them, transformed when Hermann really sank his teeth into the idea of making a concerted effort to feed their community. Where Louise imagined “small is beautiful,” Hermann saw “expand to meet demand,” and the fusion of these two ideologies is the essence of Wild Flight Farm.

Through thoughtful growth of their business, customers from Kelowna to Revelstoke have been nourished, inspired, and gathered by the dedication to—and consistency of—the produce that Wild Flight Farm has brought to their lives and wider communities.

Louise and Hermann in the greenhouse. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

One thing that has really set the farm apart from other local growers is that they grow, store, and sell produce year-round. “Deciding to expand our infrastructure—building a bigger packing shed and additional cooler rooms—was really driven by customer demand,” reflects Hermann. The “big build” at the farm took place about 10 years into the growth of their business and was an integral step in the evolution of the farm, as it secured a supply of organic produce throughout the winter months for customers.

Direct to consumer sales, especially farmers markets, have been central to the business model of Wild Flight. In the early years they tried various markets throughout the region but eventually focused on serving two communities: Salmon Arm and Revelstoke. Their delivery methods have evolved over time and they have experimented with a Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program, in addition to attending both summer and winter markets. Over the years, “we’ve actually been all over Revelstoke,” recalls Hermann. “We’ve parked at people’s houses, industrial sites, the community centre, and centennial park.”

Continuous communication has been a real strength of Wild Flight over the years. Currently, over 2,300 people receive a weekly e-news publication, drawing recipients into the on-farm experience through bright photos and the anticipated ‘featured vegetable,’ the in-season veggie of the moment. The newsletter originated as a humble, word-processed piece of paper, authored and printed by Louise during the farm’s second year. It was a way to stay connected to their customers and offer recipe suggestions for some of the more obscure vegetables found in their CSA box.

Through its evolution, the newsletter has served many purposes: a means to convey moment to moment farm struggles and excitement and a platform for political engagement, community announcements, general farmers market news, but also a way to create a network responsive to the unexpected changes that occur between field and market. Its efficacy has been tested on several occasions, and regardless of delivery delays, weather issues, or COVID-related challenges, the newsletter has demonstrated a consistent and rapid ability to reach farm customers when plans change.

Keeping harvest day interesting. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

This attentive and thoughtful way of aligning with customers is also echoed in how Hermann and Louise connect with their employees. I worked at the farm over four non-consecutive years in a variety of roles. There were two constant threads woven into all my experiences of working with them: the authentic and genuine care for their employees, and their keen desire to share with, and support, interested young farmers.

The simple act of sitting with their employees at lunch each day spoke volumes to me; we were all working together to achieve the same goals and our efforts as employees were respected and valued. Their appreciation was also undoubtedly clear on Fridays when Louise would create an extraordinary dessert for us to share. Definitely a weekly highlight!

Both Hermann and Louise were always available to chat about any and all things farming—or life—and on several occasions the crew arranged to have post-workday Q&A sessions, where we could pepper them with our extensive farming queries. To this day, they make me feel like there is never a question too silly or a moment too busy to reach out.

Whether nurturing aspiring farmers or building relationships with existing farmers, Wild Flight has been integral in maintaining a strong farmer network in the region. At the very onset of their farm business, Hermann and Louise were warmly welcomed into the realm of organic growing by Rob and Kathryn Hettler of Pilgrims’ Produce. They generously offered insights and experience and even gifted Hermann and Louise their first hoop house!

Wild Flight farmers’ market spread. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

This sentiment of reciprocity has remained a top priority as Wild Flight has grown over the years, whether through co-marketing, exchanging insights and info, coordinating with other growers to share shipping to Urban Harvest or Farmbound, or joining forces to save costs by splitting a pallet (or more!) worth of goods between several growers.

Nearing the end of their third decade, Wild Flight continues to have the same dedication to providing organic produce to as many folks as possible. Farming still requires them to navigate new challenges with unique and innovative solutions and it appears that traversing their next steps of farm succession will be no different. “Our hope is that the farm will continue in a similar direction,” says Hermann when asked about their idea of Wild Flight in the future. But, Louise adds, “our kids definitely don’t want to farm.”

At the edge of one of the fields, behind the alley of hoop houses stands a proud new house, ready for its first occupants. “Building it is definitely a gamble,” Hermann shares, but they recognize that having on-farm housing is a necessity. The intention with the build is that the house will attract potential successors, and the entering farmers will have a comfortable place to live with the space to raise a family, if they chose to. With the price of land increasing at such an alarming rate, it remains one of the largest barriers for aspiring farmers, not to mention the widespread trouble accessing affordable housing. (1, 2)

Several years ago, The Bruns’ decided to incorporate Wild Flight Farm, but keep the land and infrastructure that the farm uses under their private ownership. “The idea is that because the farm doesn’t actually own any of the land itself, it is more affordable for someone to buy into the business,” explains Hermann. “The farm would continue to operate, they would make their salary and then be able to use the profit, or some of the profit, to invest back into further ownership of the business, while continuing to lease the land and buildings.”

Looking forward, Louise and Hermann see exciting potential. They envision a sense of gusto brought to the farm by folks who, as Louise imagines, “can use the infrastructure to make it their own.”

wildflightfarm.ca


Brianne Fester is grateful to have been involved in organic growing in various capacities since taking a job with Wild Flight Farm in 2013. Brianne is passionate about all things food and is particularly interested in how we can work to create a more just and equitable food system.

Feature image: Bringing in the harvest. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

References:
Cheung, C. (April 20, 2021). To Ease Housing Crisis, BC is Largely looking to Developers as Partners. The Tyee. thetyee.ca/News/2021/04/20/Housing-Crisis-Developers-Partners/
Fawcett-Atkinson, M. (August 12, 2020). Young BC Farmers Can’t Afford Farmland. Canada’s National Observer. nationalobserver.com/2020/08/12/news/young-bc-farmers-cant-afford-farmland

Grazing the Way for Small Scale Meat

in 2021/Fall 2021/Grow Organic/Livestock/Marketing/Organic Community

By Ava Reeve

Drive down any rural road in this province and you’re sure to pass cattle on the range, a flock of sheep, or mobile pens for pastured poultry. Small-scale livestock production has a long tradition in BC, and has been reinvigorated in recent years with practices such as rotational grazing and regenerative agriculture that allow for significant meat production without industrial practices. Demand also seems to be growing for local and sustainable meats.

But are there really enough of these small producers to play a serious role in BC’s economy today? And how much potential does this industry have for the future?

Associations representing commercial livestock producers collect data on their own members – those producing over 300 hogs with BC Pork, for example. Commodity producers also enjoy the benefits of their association’s advocacy, and commerce support from marketing boards.

Meanwhile, producers selling directly to consumers, raising multiple livestock species, or simply operating at a smaller scale have lacked a collective voice in provincial conversations about agricultural policies. And little is known about the current scale and potential capacity of these producers.

Credit: Small Scale Meat Producers Association.

The Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA) aims to address both of these issues. In spite of a diversity of livestock types and sizes of operations, the organization says that its members are united by operating without the supports of the existing commodity associations or marketing boards.

SSMPA was established by a group of farmers and ranchers in 2017, and its membership now includes representation from all livestock sectors. “The Small-Scale Meat Producers Association represents British Columbia farmers and ranchers who are raising meat outside of the conventional, industrial system,” reads the SSMPA website home page.

This might include a pork producer raising 200 hogs per year, and all poultry producers who sell direct to consumer. It can also include cow-calf operations that process a few cull cows for sale to friends and neighbours, even if they otherwise primarily sell at auction.

It has also succeeded in becoming recognized in consultations and conversations with the BC Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, such as in the development of changes to on-farm slaughter licensing that the province recently announced.

Julia Smith of Blue Sky Ranch near Merritt is the President of SSMPA. “We’re happy with the regulatory changes,” she says of the announcement. But, she notes, “There’s more work to be done to build a thriving small-scale meat industry.”

Including Smith, SSMPA’s founding members were selling their meat products directly to members of their communities, rather than through a marketing board or distributor, and feeding communities in the process. And their experience was that their industry was growing.

Suckling piglets. Credit: Small Scale Meat Producers Association.

Smith raises a rare heritage breed of hog as well as a small herd of cattle on pasture. Selling directly has helped her see better margins than many commercial producers, where processors and retailers realize the lion’s share of the profit.

The demand for her product has been enough to enable Smith to grow her operation, from raising just two pigs in her first year, to running a farrow-to-finish operation with fourteen sows and two boars just four years later. She has supplied meat and other farm products to hundreds of British Columbians and currently has a waitlist for both meat and breeding stock.

Smith says this experience is repeated across the province. “We know that a small-scale operation can contribute to food security and the local economy. What we don’t know is the cumulative potential of producers like this spread all over the province – or their specific barriers to reaching that potential.”

She says information like this hasn’t been available because the right questions weren’t being asked. This summer, SSMPA launched a comprehensive survey of meat producers. She says the resulting information will help the organization define its policies and priorities to support these producers moving forward.

The province seems to agree that the industry has promise; many of the new changes to the slaughter regulations had been advocated for by SSMPA for years. Smith believes the number of producers that could be affected by policies like this is in the thousands. And they should all be giving their two cents to SSMPA.

“Everyone who processes at a provincially-inspected abattoir or on-farm should be participating in this survey,” she says. “Tell us: What is your path to growth? What obstacles do you need to overcome in order to reach your goals?”

At Blue Sky Ranch, Smith’s own goal was to produce just under 300 hogs per year. But the operation met with processing roadblocks at 125 hogs.

“We’re not the only operation that isn’t reaching its full capacity,” says Smith. “SSMPA is using the survey to document this. We want to know what would happen if we could create the conditions for successful operations across the province. For example, how many abattoirs would need to be built before producers could book the slaughter dates they need, with enough reliability to scale their businesses?”

“We’re connecting the dots, but without data to prove our case we won’t get the resources and support to let our industry thrive.”

Smith emphasizes that this survey is an independent project. “SSMPA is a producer-led organization and our mandate is to look out for producers,” she says. “We’ve gone to great lengths to protect the anonymity of survey participants and we will not be sharing survey responses or any other raw data with government, or anyone else.”

For an added incentive SSMPA connected with BC-based fencing company FenceFast, which has offered a $25 discount to every current producer who participates. Smith says FenceFast recognized the potential. “Really, this is just an example of the ripples of impact that can come from growing a locally-based industry like this.”

She adds, “We might be surprised at the opportunities being squandered because of challenges that are within our capacity to address. Even producers might be taken aback. We hope that there will be findings in our report that invigorate and inspire producers with a vision of what could be possible. We have so many people who want to enter this industry. Imagine the impact if these producers will have a fair chance at success.”

The survey is open until September 10, 2021 and can be accessed at smallscalemeat.ca/survey or it can be completed over the phone by appointment at 250-999-0296. SSMPA can also be reached at info@smallscalemeat.ca.

SSMPA is conducting regional focus groups in mid-September to dig deeper into potential solutions to the problems identified through the survey. By early 2022 they will be releasing a report on their findings, and announce how they will ensure that their own programming is geared to meet the needs of its membership.

Producers – and all supporters of local and sustainable meat production – are invited to join SSMPA by signing up for a membership.


Ava Reeve is the Executive Director of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association, where she gets to pursue her passion for the sustainable practices that result in a high quality of life for both livestock and people.

Featured image: Spray Creek Ranch Cattle. Credit: Small Scale Meat Producers Association.

Incubating Certified Organic Farmers at Haliburton

in 2021/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Spring 2021

Erin Bett

Our farm, Fierce Love Farm, is a one-acre vegetable, fruit, and flower farm in Saanich on unceded W̱SÁNEĆ territory. We are part of Haliburton Community Organic Farm, which is a beautiful piece of farmland in the middle of the Victoria suburbs.

Haliburton Farm operates as an incubator farm: new farmers can lease plots between half an acre and one acre for a short-term lease of up to eight years to start their farm business. Our farm, and all the other farmers at Haliburton Farm, are certified organic through the Islands Organic Producers Association (IOPA).

While Haliburton Farm operates somewhat differently than other IOPA incubator farms, since it is run by a non-profit society on publicly owned land, it served as part of the inspiration for IOPA’s incubator farm policy. The incubator farm policy aims to expand the opportunities for new farmers to start organic farms with the support of established IOPA farmers.

We started our farm business at Haliburton Farm in 2018, and are entering our fourth season. After both completing the UBC Farm Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture and working for many years on farms throughout the province, we were ready to take the leap and start our own farm. With land prices what they are in BC, and especially on the west coast, we knew our only option was to lease land. When the opportunity to join Haliburton Farm’s incubator model opened up, we jumped at the chance, and have benefited from it greatly.

Jon harvesting leeks. Credit: Fierce Love Farm.

Farming at an incubator farm gave us the head start that leasing a raw piece of land from a private landowner never could have. With the key infrastructure like hoop houses, irrigation, and a walk-in cooler in place, and existing plantings of cane fruits in the ground, we were able to hit the ground running in our first season.

Kevin Allen, who also started Elemental Farm at Haliburton in 2018, adds, “The incubator policy has created the opportunity to start the farm business in a stable and supportive environment. This will be the fourth year of Elemental Farm’s operations and I am grateful this incubator policy exists.” He highlights that the incubator allowed them to start small and build their level of investment over time, as their risk tolerance increased. “For example,” he says, “we didn’t need to invest so heavily in the fixed assets of a cooler.”

Our plot had been farmed by two previous farmers before us, so we were also inheriting years of work building the soil. We were incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work for the farmer whose plot we took over, Northstar Organics, the year prior to starting our farm. Having the mentorship of Shawn Dirksen on the land we would be farming, was invaluable to our business. Hearing his experiences, successes, and cautions gleaned over his time on the land gave us history and knowledge that would have taken years to collect on our own—a true gift to have before even putting pen to paper for our crop and marketing plans. Even three years later, he is only a phone call away to help us troubleshoot.

Being part of an incubator farm also gave us access to existing marketing channels. Our large stall at the local farmers’ market already had name recognition, and over the last three years we have worked hard to expand our dedicated customer base. We also partner with three other Haliburton Farm current and former lessees to collectively market our produce to restaurant and small grocer customers, which is coordinated by a fourth former Haliburton Farm lessee.

This combination of support, infrastructure, and our previous experience has allowed us to focus on the thing we didn’t have experience with—running a business. We have since been working to expand our own CSA, as we have always loved the CSA model and the connection with our community that it brings, and grow our farm to bring on more staff and our systems, while we plan for the future and a more permanent home for our farm.

While for us, the thought of starting over on another piece of land is daunting, and the barriers to land access for farmers are all too real, we are grateful that we have been able to start our farm business at Haliburton Farm.

Kevin’s farm has grown beyond the borders of Haliburton, too. “Starting last year, we were able to find another plot to lease and expand our plantings,” says Kevin. “We’ve now graduated out of the incubator policy and are continuing to search for more land to lease.”

Much needs to be done to make sure we set up the next generation of organic farmers for success, and incubator farms like Haliburton Farm are an important piece of the farm landscape. Haliburton Farm is celebrating its 20th year of operation this year, and as a member of the IOPA certification committee, I’m so excited to see applications from new farmers, who are being mentored by established organic farmers under the incubator farm policy.

If you would like more information about IOPA’s Incubator Policy and you are located within IOPA’s region of Vancouver Island and surrounding islands, reach out to admin@iopa.ca.


Erin Bett farms at Fierce Love Farm, a diverse, small-scale, organic farm located at Haliburton Community Organic Farm in Saanich, BC. Erin and her farm partner Jon are two first-generation farmers growing a variety of high-quality vegetables, berries, and flowers on one acre of leased land.

Feature image: Erin Bett showing off a bucket full of dahlias. Credit: Fierce Love Farm

A City Boy Goes to Work on the Farm

in 2020/Fall 2020/Marketing/Organic Community

Devon Cooke

On April 15th, I uprooted myself from my Burnaby basement suite, packed as much as I could into my hatchback, and hit the road. Pandemic lockdown plan: go to where the food is. Destination: Amara Farm in the Comox Valley. I had negotiated what I thought was a pretty sweet deal. Amara Farm would provide me with room and board, and I would offer my labour on the farm. And one more thing: while I was there, I’d be filming my documentary, The Hands that Feed Us, about how farmers are coping with COVID-19.

I’m a city boy, with no farm experience and no particular desire to be a labourer, but Arzeena was thrilled to have me on the farm. Usually, she relies on interns for labour, and with travel shut down for COVID, she was wondering how she was going to get through planting season when I called. For myself, I saw a selfish opportunity to make my film, but also a safety net. The apocalyptic part of my mind could see the possibility of a Great Depression, and I wanted to be at the front of the breadlines. I might not make any money on the farm, but I wouldn’t starve, and I’d be learning how to grow food to feed myself, if it came to that.

Filmmaker Devon Cooke. Credit: Derek Gray.

I’ve had back problems for almost 20 years, and the legendary farmer work ethic made me a little nervous about how my body would stand up. I was envisioning working the fields sun-up to sun-down, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the farm’s work hours were 8:30-4:30, with a full hour break for lunch. Those are better hours than I’ve ever worked, and certainly much better than the 12-plus hour days that are standard in the film industry.

The last hour of the first day turned out to be the hardest on my body. My assigned job was to mark holes for onions that would be planted: three rows per bed, spaced 12 inches apart. Doing this efficiently meant squatting down, marking a few holes, standing up, shifting down the row, and squatting down again. Squatting was especially bad for my back, and with three beds left, I couldn’t stand straight. At that point, the farm manager, Kate, took pity on me and took over. I felt defeated. Kate’s comment: “That’s farm life. Sometimes it defeats you.”

Since then, I’ve had days where my back was sore, but my body has toughened up as I’ve gotten used to farm work, and now I don’t worry about my back. For the first time in years, I’m not paying $120 a month to have someone “fix” my back. Who knew that all I really needed was some actual work!

Amara Farm salad fields. Credit: Michaela Parks.

One day, I wanted to film customers, so I needed to stay close to the farm gate where I could intercept them before they picked up their orders. I couldn’t be in the fields while I waited, so I asked if there was any work I could be doing between customers. There was! The wash station was right where I would be waiting, so I was assigned to wash produce tubs.

After a few hours and a half dozen customers, I thought, “Gee, I wish I could be doing something more useful with my time.” Cleaning tubs didn’t feel like “real” farm work—real farm work was planting, or seeding, or weeding. But, as I ruminated a bit more, I became aware of the prejudice in my thought. Cleaning tubs is just as much a part of farm work as seeding or weeding. If I didn’t clean them, someone else would have to do it later. Cleaning tubs is useful work; it was only the mundane nature of the task which made me feel like I wasn’t contributing to the farm.

Arzeena Hamir and Neil Turner of Amara Farm. Credit: Michaela Parks.

My realization contains a bigger lesson. We don’t tend to place much value in the mundane. We like cleanliness, but cleaning tubs is a job for somebody else, and often we want to pay the absolute minimum to get the job done. Food has the same problem. What could be more mundane and routine than eating a meal? We eat three times a day—and we do it quickly and thoughtlessly so we can spend our time on “more important things.” Is it any wonder that our culture spends so little on food?

This cultural attitude was illuminated for me enroute to my next farm. I stopped in Vancouver for a day or two, which meant that for the first time in two months I had to buy my food at a store instead of just raiding the seconds bin.

Walking into Whole Foods, I was overwhelmed. Any food I could imagine was on a shelf somewhere, enticingly displayed and picture perfect. For a moment, I had no idea what to do. At Amara, I cooked whatever was growing at the farm; the idea that I could simply buy a pair of artichokes and a lemon for dinner didn’t make sense. Are artichokes in season? How long ago was the lemon picked? I couldn’t answer these questions, and that disturbed me because, at Amara, I would have known the answers intimately. I had helped grow it!

COVID-19 protocols at a Whole Foods Vancouver store. Credit: Devon Cooke.

Allow me to use Whole Foods as a symbol. In our culture, Whole Foods is a shrine to food; it represents the best of our cultural ideals around food: organic, wholesome, healthy, and plentiful. It’s more expensive, but people shop there anyway because they care about the quality of their food. Before I set out on this journey, I was a worshiper at the shrine of Whole Foods. And, indeed, the values behind Whole Foods are good values, ones that I still hold dear.

Nonetheless, my time on the farm has taught me that Whole Foods is a false idol. The ubiquitous bounty on the shelves, the fact that I can buy mangoes from the Philippines at any time of year, all that encourages me to treat food as mundane, as something I can obtain on a whim if I’m willing to part with a sufficient amount of cash. Because it is so easily available, I’m discouraged from knowing where the food was grown, who picked it, and what growing conditions were like. I can’t know these things even if I want to; I simply trust that Whole Foods has taken care of that for me. I pay a bit more to Whole Foods because I believe they are better priests of food than the ones at Superstore, but the bottom line is that I’m still delegating control of my food to someone else. In doing so, I treat food in the same way I was thinking about cleaning tubs: a job for someone else.

Farm interns working at Amara Farm. Credit: Michaela Parks.

I’m now on my third farm and fifth month of this journey. I’ve had many lessons since I left Amara Farm, with many more to come in the coming months. I expect that once winter comes, I’ll stop working on the farm and focus on completing my documentary. I can’t say what I’ll be doing for food at that point, but I can say that I won’t be satisfied shopping at the supermarket. Now that I’ve spent time learning how to grow food, I don’t think I can simply put food in my mouth without asking where it came from or how it was grown.


Devon Cooke is making The Hands that Feed Us, a documentary about how farmers make a living during COVID-19. You can follow his journey as a farmhand online.

Feature image: Basil harvest at Amara Farm. Credit: Michaela Parks.

Green bean harvest. Credit: Michaela Parks.

Sparkly Eyes, Grit, and Land Access

in 2020/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Marketing/Organic Community/Summer 2020

New Organic Farmers on Leased Land

Tessa Wetherill

Spring on an organic produce farm looks like baby greens, tiny radishes, overflowing seedling greenhouses, and freshly turned soil. Everything feels precious and new and brimming with possibility. Touring around Loveland Acres in Salmon Arm with farmers Robin and Maylene, those feelings were especially palpable and poignant since it’s their first season on the land. They’ve had a long journey getting here, one filled with familiar challenges and dreams. The other familiar things these farmers have are sparkly eyes and grit, ineffable qualities that go a long way in agriculture.As a farm business, Loveland Acres’ main goal is to provide high quality organic food for as many months of the year as possible. Robin and Maylene have been personally committed to eating as locally and seasonally as possible for many years and have identified a gap, often referred to as the hunger gap, in the availability of local produce in the region.

Crop rows in gorgeous soil under row cover. Credit: Tessa Wetherill.

“We want to help promote the Eat Local message all year round,” says Maylene. Which is why their next big project is to purchase and convert a shipping container into a commercial kitchen, an investment that will give them a place to process their produce, dry peppers, can tomatoes, and make pickles.

In discussing this next step in their business plan, Maylene points out that “no one talks about the money when starting a small farm.” She makes a good point. Even with all their sweat labour, these new farmers have invested a huge amount of money that they saved over a long time of working two jobs each into infrastructure, systems, and set up. They have poly tunnels, seedling greenhouses, storage spaces, and a very impressive irrigation system—all necessary to launch into marketing their products this season. The next step in building towards their goal of providing local food 12 months a year will take more capital than they have available right now, but seeing what these farmers have done in a couple years, I have no doubt they will make it happen.

In 2014, Robin and Maylene both left their professional careers in publishing and printing to pursue a siren song towards sustainable organic agriculture and a better quality of life. In her former life in Toronto, Maylene describes her experience with insomnia and a feeling of unease with the constant race and pace of the city and industry she worked in. When Maylene is asked what she loves most about farming, the answer is easy: mental space. Thinking about whatever she chooses all day long, rather than the 300 emails in her inbox. Contemplative, diverse, connected labour. That said, they both admit to having the occasional nightmare about their greenhouse flying away and that time they missed the window on flame weeding carrots!

Robin in the high tunnel hoop house. Below: Maylene with the celeriac harvest. Credit: Loveland Acres

Robin and Maylene met interning on an organic farm in Ontario. They fell in love with each other and the land and made a life-altering decision. Being in that environment and working in sync with the processes of nature, they both immediately began feeling healthier and sleeping better. They were learning that this was the life they were called to. They spent the next four years working and volunteering on farms across Canada and eventually found full-time employment working on a third-generation family-owned orchard in the Okanagan.

“For any aspiring farmer, working in agriculture is essential. It is the best way to learn and get hands-on experience. The only catch is that wages in agriculture are prohibitively low, which makes the prospect of land ownership, especially in the Okanagan, pretty unrealistic,” says Maylene. “With the average agricultural wage hovering around $14 an hour and the average price per acre of land in the Okanagan sitting at about $100,000, it’s not hard to see that land ownership is essentially out of the question for most agricultural workers.”

The high cost of land was the biggest hurdle they faced. Starting their new farm business on leased land was the only viable option for them, which is how they ended up connecting with the B.C. Land Matching Program (BCLMP) and with me, the land matcher for the Okanagan region.

Robin on the tractor. Credit: Loveland Acres.

Loveland Acres is one of 78 matches the BCLMP has supported on over 4,600 acres across the province since launching in Metro Vancouver in 2016 and expanding province-wide in 2018. The BCLMP provides land matching and business support services to new and established farmers looking for land to start or grow their farm business, as well as landowners interested in finding someone to farm their land. The benefits of land matching are hands-on support services to help new farmers and landowners evaluate opportunities, access resources, and ultimately find a land match partner. The program aims to address a lack of affordable farmland as a significant barrier for farmers entering the agricultural industry. The BCLMP is delivered by Young Agrarians, a farmer to farmer resource network, and is funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Real Estate Foundation of B.C., Bullitt Foundation, and Patagonia.

After registering for the BCLMP, we worked together to refine their focus on what attributes Robin and Maylene were looking for in a piece of land, taking the guesswork out of the leasing process and then connecting them with interested landowners.

“The BCLMP is so much more than a program that links landowners and land seekers. They helped us negotiate a stable and secure land lease, provided advice and access to a lawyer to look over our agreement, and connected us with their business mentorship program,” says Maylene. “If Tessa hadn’t reached out to us, we’d probably still be unsuccessfully trying to convince bankers and mortgage brokers that we weren’t crazy, and that, yes, you could make a living growing vegetables on two acres of land, with only a walk-behind tractor and a few simple pieces of equipment.”

Robin and Maylene knew from the beginning that organic certification was a priority for them, so when they were introduced to landowners Dag and Elina Falck, who own the land on which Loveland Acres has made their home, there was an instant spark of connection through their shared values.

Maylene with the celeriac harvest. Credit: Loveland Acres

Besides wanting to give their customers a guarantee that the food they produced was being done in a way that met the highest criteria for environmental sustainability, they have also felt the support of a community of fellow organic growers in the region. The pair emphasized the importance of being connected to a group of people who understand what they are going through, are available to answer questions, and generally help alleviate the feeling of being alone in a tough industry. On one particularly bad week, filled with unfortunate life events, including a car breaking down and other irritations, they recalled attending the annual general meeting for the North Okanagan Organic Association (NOOA). Just being in a room with other organic growers gave them the encouragement they needed to push through and keep going.

The willingness these farmers have in engaging with the community and accessing all possible resources to support their dreams has been instrumental in moving them into the exciting place of possibility they are at now. When I asked, what’s the most exciting thing for you right now, they responded by loading me up with freshly-harvested arugula and French Breakfast radishes, which I ate in handfuls on the way home.

Land matchers love being able to help farmers achieve secure access to land to start or expand their businesses, and to help farmland owners enjoy the benefits of agriculture of all kinds on their land. Farmers, get in touch to start a conversation about leasing land for your operation! Landowners, reach out to the BCLMP to help a farmer access land, whether you have hundreds of acres of farmland, or a small urban plot. There are so many growers looking for spaces to produce food across the province, and your land might just be the perfect fit.

Find Loveland Acres online!

First farmers’ market . Credit: Loveland Acres.

Send an email to land@youngagrarians.org and a land matcher will get in touch to learn more about your needs and vision and help you get on your way to making a match.

The B.C. Land Matching Program is funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Real Estate Foundation of B.C., Bullitt Foundation, and Patagonia.

Tessa Wetherill farmed full-time and with all her heart for 11 years, first in Vancouver and then the North Okanagan, before joining the Young Agrarians team as the BCLMP’s Okanagan Land Matcher. She loves all things that grow—plants, people, and communities—and what really lights her up are relationships and collaborations that form strong, diverse human ecosystems.

Feature image: Robin and Maylene with starts. Credit: Tessa Wetherill

Maylene with low tunnel row cover hoops. Credit: Tessa Wetherill

Organic Stories: UBC Farm, Vancouver, BC

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Stories/Past Issues/Seeds/Winter 2019

Cultivating Climate Resilience in a Living Laboratory

Constance Wylie

Surrounded by forest and sea, the University of British Columbia is a quick 30 minute bus ride west of downtown Vancouver. A city unto itself, more than 55,800 students and close to 15,000 faculty and staff study, work, live, and play there. A small but growing number also farms. Countless hands-on educational opportunities are offered at the UBC Farm: from internships and research placements for university students, to day camps and field trips for school children, to workshops and lectures for interested community members. There is something for everyone, including bountiful amounts of fresh organic produce.

Globally, agriculture accounts for 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Half of that is from land use changes such as deforestation, while the other half is attributed to on-farm management practices and livestock. Moreover, our food systems are contributing massive amounts to our ecological footprint. Food accounts for about 50% of Vancouver’s footprint, according to UBC Professor Emeritus William Rees. Evidently, food can, and must, be an agent of change. In our rapidly changing world where the future of yesterday is uncertain, farmers are on the front line.

The folk at UBC’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems are digging into these challenges using their very own “living laboratory,” aka UBC Farm, as a testing ground. It is a hotbed of leading agricultural research with “aims to understand and transform local and global food systems towards a more sustainable food secure future,” according to the farm website. It is also a green oasis where everyone is welcome to find a quiet moment to connect with nature; the hustle and bustle of campus dissipates on the wings of beneficial insects and chirping birds.

At 24 hectares, this certified organic production farm makes for a unique academic environment. As Melanie Sylvestre, the Perennial, Biodiversity, and Seed Hub Coordinator, puts it, “having a farm that does research in organic production is unique in BC and vital for the future of organic agriculture” in the province.

We can all whet our farming practices by reviewing some of the 30 ongoing research projects at UBC Farm. It should come as no surprise that many of the projects relate coping with the effects climactic changes have on agriculture, locally and globally.

UBC Farm. Credit Constance Wylie

Organic Soil Amendments

One such project is Organic Systems Nutrient Dynamics led by Dr. Sean Smukler and Dr. Gabriel Maltais-Landy. Their research compares the performance of typical organic soil amendments: chicken and horse manure, blood meal, and municipal compost. Depending on the type and amounts of organic soil amendment applied, crop yield will vary, and so too will the environmental impact. They found that often the highest yields result from over fertilization of Nitrogen and Phosphorus, which leads to greater GHG emissions. For example, chicken manure releases potent levels of GHG emissions.

It is a challenging trade-off to negotiate. This information is critically important for the organic grower trying to decrease their environmental impact. Another topic of study was the value of rain protection for on-farm manure storage: for long-term storage, it is always best to cover your manure pile!

Climate Smart

Were you aware that the application of black or clear plastic mulch with low longwave transmissivity can increase soil temperatures by about 40%? Conversely, a high reflective plastic mulch can reduce soil temperatures by about 20%. These are some of the findings of the Climate Smart Agriculture research team, composed of Dr. Andrew Black, Dr. Paul Jassal, and PhD student and research assistant Hughie Jones. In an interview for his researcher profile, Hughie explains that through his work he is “trying to get direct measurements … so that people have access to hard, reliable data” for enhancing crop productivity with mulches and low tunnels for season extension. “By increasing the amount of knowledge available we can reduce the amount of guessing involved for farmers, increasing their predictive power.” When it comes to getting the most out of a growing season, less time spent with trial and error can make a huge difference to your yields and income.

Fields of curcubits at UBC Farm. Credit Sara Dent @saradentfarmlove

Seed Savers

With the fall frost of 2018, the first phase of the BC Seed Trials drew to a close. The collaboration between UBC Farm, FarmFolk CityFolk, and The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security kicked off in 2016 to run these trials. Lead scientist and project manager Dr. Alexandra Lyon explained that the first phase asked, “What are the most hardy, resilient, well adapted varieties that we already have access to?”

More than 20 farms from across the province were involved in trialing seeds including kale, beets, leeks, and spinach. These varieties were chosen as crops that are already known to perform well in BC. The seeds in question are all open-pollinated varieties which boast “higher resilience then hybrid varieties in the face of climate change,” says Sylvestre, who has also been a leading figure in the seed trials.

While farmers may choose hybrid seed for their higher yields and other selected traits, Sylvestre explains that they lack “horizontal resistance, the concept of having diversity within a population allowing it to withstand various climatic changes. Through our selection process, we try to achieve horizontal resistance and therefore offer new varieties that would be better suited in various growing scenarios. It is important to understand that goal of horizontal resistance is among multiple other goals to reach varieties with agronomic traits that will be desirable to farmers and customers.”

“Community building around our local seed systems has been significant through this research project,” Sylvestre adds. The seed trials are also contributing to community building at UBC Farm itself. Rather than compost the crops grown for the seed trials, they are harvested and sold at the weekly farmers market.

With new funding secured from the federal government, the BC Seed trials will continue for at least another five years. Going ahead, the “role of UBC Farm is to train and connect farmers for farmer led plant breeding” says Lyon. While institutional academic research will play a significant role in seed selection and adaptation, “lots of types of seed trialing will be really important.” This means that farmers across the province “supported with tools and knowledge for selecting and saving seed” can contribute significantly to our collective seed and food security. Lyon encourages farmers to reach out with their experiences with regards to climate change and seed. She and members from the team will also be at the COABC conference February 22-24, 2019 with the intention to connect with BC farmers.

Ultimately, at UBC farm, “all the issues people are working on play into what we will need to adapt to climate change” says Lyon. The formal and informal networks made at UBC Farm are really starting to take root across the province. This is an amazing resource for us all to profit from. Take advantage of these slower winter months to dig in and digest the information available to us—it may very well change the way you approach your next growing season.

FOR MORE INFO

Check out UBC Farm online at: ubcfarm.ca

More on Organic Systems Nutrient Dynamics: ubcfarm.ubc.ca/2017/06/01/organic-soil-amendments

More on UBC’s Climate Smart Agriculture research: ubcfarm.ubc.ca/climate-smart-agriculture

For BC Seed trial results and updates: bcseedtrials.ca

Dr. Alexandra Lyon can be contacted at alexandra.lyon@ubc.ca

Seed grown at UBC farm is now available through the BC Eco-Seed Coop. Keep an eye out for two new varieties: Melaton leek and Purple Striped tomatillo.


Constance Wylie left her family farm on Vancouver Island to study Political Science and the Middle East at Sciences Po University in France, only to return to BC where she took up farming, moonlighted as a market manager, and got a PDC in Cuba and Organic Master Gardener certificate with Gaia College. She now lives, writes, and grows food in Squamish with her dog Salal.

Feature Image: UBC Farm. Credit: Sara Dent @saradentfarmlove

Foodlands Cooperative of BC

in 2018/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Summer 2018

Breaking New Ground

Michael Marrapese

Spring is often a time of optimism and renewed expectations. This will be Ariella Falkowski’s first year breaking ground for her new Sweet Acres Farm.She is leasing two acres of land at Lohbrunner Community Farm Cooperative on the outskirts of Langford, BC. She’s still getting to know the land and is excited by its potential. “It’s been really busy,” she says, “but some parts of the field dried up fairly early so I’ve been able to get crops in the ground earlier than I expected. My two projects this month are to finish putting up my hoop house structure and installing the drip irrigation.”

The Lohbrunner Farm is also home to Vitality Farm. Farmer Diana Brubaker and her husband Doug have been growing market vegetables on the property since 2012. When Brubaker first arrived on the property it was held in trust by the Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC). Norma Lohbrunner had wanted the 40 acre property with its rich peat soil and rolling wooded hills to be preserved as a working farm and wildlife sanctuary. Brubaker and a group of community volunteers signed on to maintain and enhance the existing crop beds and berry bushes after Norma Lohbrunner died in 2011. However, TLC was facing financial difficulties and the fate of the farm was uncertain.

There were hopes that TLC would still function in some manner and that the group of fledgling farmers could arrange to lease the seven acres they were hoping to farm. “We tried for about four years but it just didn’t happen. Our second option was to buy it,” Brubaker explains. “We were trying to develop a co-op and buy the property. TLC couldn’t do that because they were in the courts trying to resolve their difficulties.”

Ariella Falkowski with her walk-behind tractor
Ariella Falkowski with her walk-behind tractor. Credit: Diana Brubaker

Unfortunately, the process ended up with a court order to put the Lohbrunner Farm and other properties up for sale in order to cover some of TLC’s funding shortfalls. Brubaker and her farming group had to scramble to find another option. “The last option for us was to look for someone to transfer the land to who could hold it as a farm for eternity. That was our main drive: how do we keep this farm as a farm forever.”

The group turned to the newly formed Foodlands Cooperative of BC (FLCBC). FLCBC’s visionary mandate is specifically to hold farmland in trust and ensure that it is actively farmed, managed by a community group, and accessible to the broader community. Heather Pritchard, the co-op developer with FLCBC, notes the process of developing Lohbrunner Cooperative and taking a farm in trust is new ground for all involved. “The leases, agreements, governance processes, and Cooperative structure of Lohbrunner are essentially the template for how other farmlands can be held in trust,” she says. “The lessons learned from Lohbrunner Community Farm will be the basis for other lands held by the Foodlands Cooperative.”

However, FLCBC hadn’t finished incorporating and couldn’t act quickly enough to take the Lohbrunner lands into trust. Pritchard met with funders and stakeholders and arranged to secure the funding and have FarmFolk CityFolk hold the title until FLCBC had fully incorporated and secured charitable status.

Celebrating the Fall harvest web. Credit: Michael Marrapese

Brubaker recalls that, even though the farm had been secured, the co-op members at Lohbrunner soon realized there was still much to be done. The governance and management structure, the co-op’s constitution and by-laws, and core operating agreements all had to be worked out. “The Foodlands Cooperative has been so supportive in helping us establish our own co-op. It’s given us lots of flexibility to design something that works for us. It’s truly incredible to be in this place of options and choices. We’re extremely blessed,” she says.

While cooperative ownership can be challenging, it has big benefits, particularly when starting a new enterprise. Principally, with the high cost of farmland, pooling personal and community resources can be one avenue to secure financing. Falkowski notes that there are other practical benefits. “One of the things that initially drew me to leasing land at Lohbrunner was the opportunity to have a more stable long-term lease. Another benefit is that we have really helpful co-op members with really different skill sets. Different people have different experience and different connections that they can bring to the table.”

One of the current challenges is securing organic certification. As it turns out, the unusual ownership model has made organic certification more difficult. Initially, the Islands Organics Producers Association (IOPA) was suggesting an incubator farm model but it just didn’t fit. Brubaker reflects that, “the problem seems to be that we’re the ‘square pegs that don’t fit into their round holes’. I really liked the idea an incubator farm model where a new farmer, who doesn’t necessarily have the skills, could be mentored to help them get started. However, when they wanted to move on, they couldn’t take that certification with them—they’d have to start over again.”

Falkowski was involved in a lot of back and forth discussions. She recalls that, “what seemed to make the most sense for Lohbrunner was to certify as three different entities—as Vitality Farm, Sweet Acres Farm, and Lohbrunner Community Farm. One of the benefits of doing it this way is that if I were to leave the property or to lease some additional land elsewhere, my certification number would go with me.”

Diana Brubaker working the field while her dog Bella supervises. Credit: Ariella Falkowski

The downside to this process is that each certification will cost $500. “Using this approach we now may have to pay $1500 a year to be certified,” Brubaker says. “At this point, I’m not sure there’s enough revenue off the farm to justify the expense.” The further implication is that when other farmers come onto the property the costs could rise to $2000 or $2500 a year.

Brubaker also finds the certification process particularly arduous for their diverse market vegetable operation. She has many different inputs for the different crops. Chief among them are all the different seeds she purchases—three to four hundred different seeds from different catalogues. “I’ll have to detail why I choose one over the other and whether they are organic or not. If we were just growing one or two crops it would be far less work.”

Despite the difficulties, Brubaker asserts that the certification process has been valuable for her. “As part of my professional career as a leader in health care one of my roles was quality improvement. When I apply those similar principles to the certification process I appreciate that it is a really good process to go through. I look differently now at everything I buy, everything I bring to the farm. I think that, in the beginning, we had the very basic principles of organic farming but this process has taken us a step further.”

Trying new processes and new approaches, breaking new ground, is difficult but in the spring, the season of optimism, it seems possible. “It’s not going to be easy,” she says, “and there are lots of unknowns. We’re hoping this year has more laughter and hugs than tears.”

foodlands.org

lohbrunnercommunityfarm.org

sweetacresfarm.ca


Michael Marrapese is the IT and Communications Manager at FarmFolk CityFolk. He lives and works at Fraser Common Farm Cooperative, one of BC’s longest running cooperative farms, and is an avid photographer, singer and cook.

Feature photo: The Lohbrunner Farm crew with their garden hoophouse. Credit: Michael Marrapese

Ecological Farm Internships and the Law

in 2018/Organic Community/Winter 2018

Charles Z Levkoe and Michael Ekers

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in “Ecological Farming in Ontario”. This is part 4 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC. In 2017, the authors published a workshop report on Ecological Farm Internships that is available for download here: www.foodandlabour.ca/results-and-reflections.

This article is the fourth in a series that describes the increasing trend of non-waged interns working on ecological farms across Ontario. In this article we explore some of the legal implications of these practices and the ensuing concerns from farmers and interns across the province. This article should not, under any circumstances, be considered legal advice and we recommend that the appropriate government departments or legal specialists be contacted regarding specific questions. Also, the laws surrounding farm internships in Ontario are extremely vague. We do not try to determine whether these internships are legal or not, as we are ill-equipped to do so as non-lawyers, but we do attempt to highlight the legal landscape as we understand it and the gaps and ambiguities that deserve further legal research

In previous articles, we established that ecological farm internships offer many things to trainees (e.g., knowledge and skill training), farmers (e.g., support for ecological food production) and the broader food movement. However, the legality of these labour arrangements in Ontario remains uncertain, especially after cases have been settled elsewhere in which unpaid interns were awarded back-wages. For example, in 2013, two farm interns in British Columbia claimed their work arrangement did not meet provincial employment standards and settled out of court for several months’ worth of back-wages. This case caused significant concern for farmers across the country using non-waged interns.

There have been increasing government crackdowns on (non-agricultural) internship programs throughout North America. According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, between September and December 2015 employment standards officers found that of 77 workplaces that had interns, almost a quarter did not meet legal requirements under the Employment Standards Act (ESA). As a result, many Ontario farmers have been deeply concerned that their use of non-wage interns could be judged in contravention of the law. One farmer commented, “I worry sometimes because there are some farms who aren’t doing things properly with payroll and that’s the type of thing that could end with crackdowns that affect all of us”. A farmer and non-profit director explained, “Some farmers are surprised when I suggest that there’s a risk because they are technically breaking labour rules and relying on the good will of the intern and the internship going well to avoid litigation down the line”.

In Ontario, there are two main areas of legislation that impact farm internships. First, the ESA sets out the rights and responsibilities of both employees and employers and contains fairly clear guidelines to what makes an internship. In short, if you perform work that is of benefit to another person or business, you are considered an employee and therefore entitled to rights under the ESA such as minimum wage. One exception to these rules is for trainees; however, these cases have very restrictive conditions. According to the Ministry of Labour, if an intern receives training used by employees, they would also be considered an employee unless the following six conditions are met:

  • The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.
  • The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.
  • The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.
  • Your training doesn’t take someone else’s job.
  • Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.
  • You have been told that you will not be paid for your time.(www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/internships.php)

In addition, farmers taking on interns should be clear on whether they meet regulatory compliance guidelines in Ontario. Aside from the ESA, employers must be in compliance with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (WSIA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). As operators will know, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) administers the WSIA and delivers no-fault workplace insurance and all agricultural employers must provide coverage to their employees. The OHSA also sets out a number of rights and duties for employers and workers. Compliance includes providing mandatory information about health and safety on the farm and the right to refuse work if it is believed to be dangerous.

The second area of legislation is the agricultural exemptions to the ESA. In general, farm workers involved in primary production (e.g., planting crops, cultivating, pruning, feeding, and caring for livestock) are not covered by some employment standards including minimum wage, hours of work, overtime, general pay with holidays and vacation (of note, this is different for harvest workers and landscape gardeners). However, one farmer noted that when interns do anything other than primary production, they may be on shaky legal ground: “If they’re going to a farmers’ market and manning a stall and working independently, it gets murky”. According to the Ministry of Labour, anyone whose work is related to the harvesting, canning, processing, or packing of fresh vegetables or fruits, or their distribution is entitled to all minimum ESA standards (www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/factsheets/fs_agri.php).

The legislation varies slightly in each province. In Alberta farm owners and related family members are excluded from occupational health and safety laws, but not waged workers. In British Columbia, all agricultural workers are entitled to minimum wage and vacation time. It should be stressed that there is a considerable uncertainty around internship law and agriculture exemptions to labour standards and at this time there is no detailed account of how these areas of law intersect.

Surrounding these legal details, there is an ethical question that many farmers and interns have raised about the value of labour and fair compensation. A labour lawyer noted, “There’s quite a tension there. How do you ensure protection, because, say somebody dies or gets seriously injured on one of these farms? [Employment laws] came in the early part of the late 19th Century as a means to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation and set a floor so people could live”. While there are many benefits that emerge from ecological farming, most farms are businesses and farmers derive various benefits as owners. Anyone doing work on a farm is contributing to the value of that business and deserves compensation. This is especially important for new farmers building the skills, knowledge, and financial (or other) capital to eventually start their own farm business. The best advice we have heard is to always pay minimum wage and ensure employers and interns are adhering to all provincial legislation.

There are a number of government programs farmers can access to help support new farmer training and internships. The following are three good options:

Green Farm Internships (Agriculture and Agri-food Canada): Part of the Agricultural Youth Green Jobs Initiative, this program offers up to 50% of the cost of hiring young workers (up to $16,000 per intern) for environmental activities, services, or research that will benefit the agriculture sector.

Career Focus Program (Service Canada): This program supports 4-12 month agricultural internships for recent graduates of a qualified post secondary program.

Rural Summer Jobs Service (OMAFRA): The program provides wage subsidies for rural and agri-food businesses that employ summer students ages 14-30.

If you would like more information on this research project, to comment on these issues or contact us, please visit our website:

foodandlabour.ca


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces. 

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Ecological Farming with Interns and Volunteers

in Organic Community/Spring 2017

Michael Ekers and Charles Levkoe

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in Ecological Farming in Ontario, Volume 36, Issue 5. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC.

There are increasing numbers of interns, apprentices, and volunteers working on small- and medium sized ecological farms across Ontario, but also across North America and Europe. More and more, farmers are looking to young people seeking farm experiences as a way to train the next generation of farmers and meet the labour demands of their operations. As readers will surely know, interns often exchange their labour for room and board, a stipend and importantly, training in organic, agro-ecological, and/or organic production methods. This is a relatively new and potentially defining trend within the ecological farming sector with considerable significance for farm operators and interns alike.

Over the last two years we have been leading a research project examining the growth and implications of farm internships and the experiences of these types of farm workers. Incredibly generous farmers, interns, and non-profit members have made our research possible by completing our surveys and taking time out of their busy days to patiently and thoughtfully answer our questions. This first, in a series of short articles, reports on some of our initial findings. We will explore further results and observations in subsequent pieces.

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Many of the farmers and agroecology advocates that we initially met with noted the lack of data and information on farm internships and volunteer work, which we describe as new forms of non-waged work. In response, we conducted two Ontario-wide surveys in 2014 and 2015 of farms making use of interns and volunteers. The goal of the survey was to determine the scale of internships and volunteer positions on farms and the types of farms making use of non-waged workers. It also sought to explore the benefits and challenges of working with interns and volunteers. There were several key trends that emerged from the 200 responses to the survey.

The farms making use of non-waged workers tend to be relatively small to medium sized with an average of 69 acres under cultivation. In terms of production methods, about 60% of the farms in our sample were non-certified, but practicing ecologically-oriented methods, including agroecological, biodynamic, permaculture, and organic farming. 21.7% had a recognized certification, with the majority being certified organic. 14.5% identified as practicing other kinds of agriculture, while just under 4% employed conventional methods. 87% of the farms we surveyed market their products directly to consumers through a CSA or a farmer’s market while 39% of farms sold to retailers and only 9% sold to a wholesale buyer.

On the types of farms we just discussed that responded to our survey, there was an average of 4.2 non-waged workers on farms compared to an average of 1 minimum waged-worker per farm. Our results suggest that 65% of the workers on the farms we surveyed were non-waged, while the provincial average for the entire agriculture sector is 4%. While it is difficult to gauge exactly how many farms are using non-waged workers our research suggests that there are at least several hundred farms in Ontario that are sharing their knowledge and skills and meeting their labour demands through the recruitment of interns and volunteers.

Levkoe_3

One of the key findings of our survey was the thin profit margin associated with ecological forms of agriculture production. We suggest that the use of interns and volunteers must be understood within this economic reality. Respondent farms reported an average annual gross farm revenue of $94,786. Perhaps more illustrative of the strained financial situation of the farms we surveyed is the personal net on-farm income that farmers drew from their revenues. On average respondents reported a personal on-farm income of only $13,629.

The challenging financial situation means that many farms felt dependent on their non-waged workers to meet the farm’s labour demands. Almost 60% of farm owners and operators felt that they were dependent on interns and volunteers. However, our analysis suggests that the dependency of farms was not related to a farms’ reported revenue. Famers with high revenues were as equally dependent on non-waged workers as lower grossing farms. However, one factor that determined whether a farm was dependent on non-wage workers was levels of off-farm income. The average off-farm income for dependent farms was $20,554 lower than non-dependent farms.

Farmers’ dependency on non-waged workers is a significant issue for the ecologically oriented farming sector given the increasing public and legal scrutiny on various internship programs across North America. Additionally, many survey respondents flagged the risk of being dependent on non-waged workers that despite the best of intensions generally lack experience with farm work and may not be as committed or dependable as paid workers.

A pressing issue that comes out of these findings is around the sustainability of non-wage workers as a model for farmer training and on-farm labour. We need to ask the question: Is it possible to scale-up and expand forms of ecological farming though non-waged workers? Is this a trend that is fair for all? There are no easy answers to these questions but in our next installments we will explore some of the tensions and possibilities in the comingling of farm labour and educational training on farms.

If you would like more information on the project, to comment on these issues or contact us please visit our website: foodandlabour.ca.


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces.

 Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Photos: Charles Levkoe

Horse Power

in Livestock/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2017

Naomi Martz

Sometimes the best tool for a job isn’t a tool at all

Despite what some may think, farming with horses is not always about wanting to go back to the “good old days”. For me, it comes from a pretty extensive list of things that are important to me as a young person starting a farm business: less time spent fixing engines and running power tools, more time listening, less fossil fuel use, more conscious fine-tuning of the work/play/sleep/love/grow balance that sounds great in theory. With all that in mind, choosing to start farming with live horsepower has very much been a decision based in the present.

At this point, I would consider myself to be “barely a beginner” at draft horse work, so if you are looking here for expert advice I strongly suggest seeking out experienced teamsters who are willing to share their craft. Publications by Lynn Miller, Stephen Leslie, and the Small Farmer’s Journal can also provide a jumping off point for further resources. But I can share what adding two 2,000 lb coworkers brought to my first year running a farm.

Having completed an apprenticeship with Ice Cap Organics where the Zayacs gave me the inspiration and confidence to start my own vegetable-growing endeavour, I spent the 2015 season at Orchard Hill Farm, a horse-powered CSA farm in south-western Ontario in the hopes of putting to rest my curiosity for draft animal power. While there, somehow the Laings managed to instil me with enough confidence to return home to BC, find some land to lease, and buy a pair of draft horses the following spring.

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This season, Four Beat Farm grew produce for a 20 week, 30-member vegetable CSA as well the local farmers’ market. I rent a small house and 10 acres of farmable land as part of a larger property, with 4 acres in cultivation at the moment (1.5 in vegetables, 2.5 in cover crop to expand next year’s vegetable production), and the remaining 6 acres are used for horse pasture with intentions of haying and diversifying in the future. Currently theoperation is in transition to organic and biodynamic practices are employed as well. There are countless neighbours, family members, and friends who provide infinite moral and practical support, but on paper and in the field Four Beat Farm is currently a one-person, two-horse operation, with a dog who works bear patrol.

Tom and Judy, two Belgian drafts in their mid-teens, were purchased based on their kind demeanour, having done farm work and wagon rides before, and their ability to stand still. If the latter seems silly, imagine being a work crew of one with a tractor that cannot reliably be taken out of gear or turned off when something needs to be tweaked or loaded in the field. Other than the initial ploughing that was hired out in the spring around the time the horses were purchased (ploughing is heavy work and can easily lead to soreness for out of shape horses and a frustrated novice teamster), the vegetable farming has been horse-powered this year.

This has included lots of discing and harrowing to prepare for vegetables and manage cover crop, using a straddle single-row cultivator for weed control (all crops except salad beds and one row of hot crops are direct seeded or transplanted in single rows with 3’ between to allow space for the horses to walk), planting and hilling potatoes, spreading compost, and hauling in crates of produce as well as moving other heavy objects, such as bags of soil amendments, around the farm.

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While a task like hilling an eighth of an acre of potatoes is not unreasonable to do by hand, establishing horse-powered systems that can be scaled up in the future, not to mention improving my own teamster abilities, was a key priority for this season. Taking the eight minutes to harness and hook up the team rather than doing a repetitive task by hand whenever feasible meant not just a lot of time savings overall, but also that this autumn I felt physically better than ever after a season of farming. This seems like a key component of sustainable agriculture that us youthful small-scale farmers prefer to overlook when handling heavy storage crops in the cold rain.

There are many articles written and discussions to be had about the role of draft horse power on a working, profitable farm. Horses can eat from, work on, and fertilize the fields. Horses are light on the land, and they can be worked in single- or multi-horse hitches depending on the task at hand. With the right knowledge and equipment, horses can also grow and harvest their own hay and grain, and breeding can lead to new engines being born and trained on the farm as the older ones slow down.

I agree with all of these and dare to add a few of my own. For one, farming with horses lends itself well to the pursuit of thrift and of mechanical simplicity. My equipment repertoire currently includes some long-forgotten tractor discs and harrows, a roller-packer, a work sled built in an evening from scrap lumber, a small borrowed trailer, a forecart which has a ball hitch attachment to pull the trailer or discs with horses, and a row cultivator. Other than the forecart and cultivator, which worked out to about $1000 and paid for itself in time savings within about six weeks, the rest of the implements ranged from free to one hundred dollars.

When things break or need restoring sometimes I make time to work on them myself; sometimes I drag them to a neighbour’s shop if they can make time to fuss around with my antiques, knowing someone else will do twice the job in half the time and I enjoy visiting with neighbours. Developing the skill set to speak the language of engine repair, not to mention actually repair engines, would not be impossible but would be a big learning curve in comparison. If I were a person who enjoys and excels at running heavy machinery and tinkering with tractors, or if I did not actually like horses, my farm would probably look quite different than it does at the moment.

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As a final note, horses appreciate the importance of a morning routine, of stopping for a midday break in the shade, of that extra ten seconds of grooming before suit- ing up for the day, and this is reflected in their work quality and productivity. I daresay I am similar but am equally prone to working myself into the ground when left to my own devices. Farming can be overwhelming on the quietest of days, but 4,000 lb of friendly, hay-burning accountability helps to keep me physically, emotionally, and financially grounded and present.

It goes without saying that there are unique challenges. Sometimes my horses have had several days off and have lots of energy and need to pull something heavy for a half hour to let off steam before they are ready to carefully cultivate baby beets. Sometimes even when they are doing a spectacular job a bear pops out of the woods and causes a hoof to sidestep, which can mean a few broccoli plants get stepped on. Sometimes I am amazed by how often I need to buy hay or set up a new pasture fence, and I have to remind myself that relying on a renewable fuel source that can be bought from neighbouring farmers and turned into next year’s compost pile is worth more than just the cost of hay on a budget sheet.

So that is a bit of what happened in this first year of horse-powered vegetable farming in southwestern BC. Lucky for me, as the list of things I know I don’t know just continues to grow, there is plenty of work to enjoy for a long while yet.


Originally from Vancouver, Naomi Martz is thrilled to have stumbled across a career that incorporates her love of math, mornings, and good food. She sees farming as an excuse to tromp around in the rain, a means of satisfying her appetite for carrots and community, and a way to live well in a changing world.

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