Rolling up our sleeves: Why we need new family farms

Editor’s note: This profile was originally published in India Today magazine in December. It was written by Eric Jeffrey for The Globe and Mail in November 2015. This version has been adapted and republished…

Rolling up our sleeves: Why we need new family farms

Editor’s note: This profile was originally published in India Today magazine in December. It was written by Eric Jeffrey for The Globe and Mail in November 2015. This version has been adapted and republished with permission.

Canada’s agriculture sector would be a very different place without the arrival of the megafarming family. Many great public policies and the best business and government leadership have coalesced around the idea that farming for food and not profit is the best way to deliver nutrition to a rising population. Families have provided that connect.

The sector still has a long way to go. The combination of high production costs, low margins and erratic harvests that farmers faced over the last few years have forced many to market much of their land through complicated partnerships and joint ventures. Many of these have failed. While the idea of the family farm continues to inspire governments and farmers at large, economic conditions are forcing families to think out of the box.

Story continues below advertisement

The movement toward organic farming and smaller farms, in particular, has transformed the very notion of farming as currently understood. Or at least it has for some Canadians who have been hit hard by recent commodity and farm downturns.

The push toward farm transformation might be one of the greatest issues the Canadian agriculture sector will face. But there is reason to think it could also represent one of the largest opportunities.

Since the end of the 2008 financial crisis, we’ve seen rising interest and enthusiasm around organic farming. While the numbers are small – perhaps as little as 4 per cent of Canadian land is organic – the movement is slowly moving ahead. Farmland sales are up, along with the interest and demand for organic produce. This is a trend that has potential to become mainstream in Canadian agriculture.

And with a historic price for live animals (prices which farmers are having to continually compete with – an issue we hear again and again at our farm in Toronto’s East York – it’s not surprising that this interest is spreading. Local food is an issue that Canadians feel deeply about. So will organic be next? It would be a change that would actually benefit not only the agriculture sector but Canada’s health-care system.

The megafarming family was born in the mid-nineteenth century in a rural India. In just a few generations, a man who was a nomad and herder, a subsistence farmer, and a poor textile worker became a source of food security for 1.4 billion people.

This small but mighty group of Canadians controlled their land and employed tens of thousands of workers. The Canadian agriculture sector that we know today didn’t exist. The Indian “megafarming family” paved the way for the next generation of Canadians and has provided the inspiration behind new models of local agriculture for communities to share in.

Canada has its own start up in Edmonton where a group of four families including 14-year-old Fauja Singh are sharing 1,700 acres (578 hectares) of land and working together to start their own carbon-sequestering farm. This model of a family farm, a micro-business or a diversified dairy and grain operation can open new opportunities to help reduce the environmental footprint of cities, create jobs, bring a new crop of young Canadians into agriculture, and provide all Canadians with the opportunity to grow the local food economy.

Story continues below advertisement

Story continues below advertisement

The Canadian companies and brands that have adopted this model over the past two decades (think Labatt, Willowdale and Appaloosa Milk) are growing organically and have turned small land into a competitive advantage, a shareholder asset and a potential investment destination.

A diverse family farm model of small-holdings grows together as a “village.” It helps you know your neighbours and builds strong communities, especially where one is at the epicentre of population growth in urban centres.

We must encourage Canadians who choose this model to ensure they maintain strong family networks, encourage their family members to work together, have women involved in key roles and contribute to their plan to build a community of shared interests and values. Together we can make a real difference in building a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable farming system for Canada and the world.

The Canadian agricultural sector is going through a transformation. Now is the time to embrace this transformation and create pathways for Canadians to benefit from it, through our family farmers.

Leave a Comment