The New World of Agriculture
The world of agriculture is changing. And while we are at a moment of real crisis, we are also at a moment of opportunity and choice. Years ago, as industrial farming progressed, we lost our small family farms. With industrial farming, we have seen fewer, larger farms, a loss of seed and animal diversity, a lack of crop rotation, environmental degradation, increased tillage, animals confined to feedlots, the “ownership” of seed by a handful of chemical companies and increased use of pesticides every year.
The statistics of Canada’s farm situation is bleak. Most of our farmers are over the age of 55, and with more farmers retiring every day, many of these farms aren’t being taken over by younger farmers. And while we have many folks interested in farming, there is a real lack of access to affordable farmland. The National Farmers Union states that we have lost two thirds of farmers in Canada under the age of 35 since 1991. We have a subsidized food system which exploits farmers and also makes highly processed foods cheaper than whole foods and fresh produce.
In the meantime, our global food system is becoming more fragile due to climate change, from floods to droughts, pests and extreme weather events. If we continue with our current tillage practices, it is estimated that we have less than 60 years of topsoil left globally to grow our food. Because of increasing pesticide use and habitat loss, scientists estimate that in as little as 30 years, we will have a crash in our global insect population. And while very few people care about insects, these insects include the ones we need to grow food.
There is so much that we have traded off to be bigger, faster and more efficient. But farmers still aren’t making money. In fact, many farms barely make it and only survive from off-farm work. In 2019, the National Farmers Union reported that Canadian farm debt had reached a record of $106 billion, twice the amount that it was in the year 2000. What will things look like in 20 years from now? Who will grow our food and how can we move forward and make our food system better – for the environment, for the consumers and for the farmers? How do we ensure a secure food system when we rely on food imports for much of the season due to our longer winters, and when that global system is increasingly at risk?
I consider farming to be one of the most important jobs in the world. We all need to eat, and we are all fed by farmers somewhere. But if someone asked you to start a business where you would work harder than you ever had before and possibly not make any profit, you likely wouldn’t do it. But that is the reality of starting a farm business in Canada. However, there is some good news, and this is where we all have opportunity and choice, both farmers and consumers. The good news is that despite a lack of access to land and start-up capital, we do have a new generation of people interested in starting farm businesses.
There are enthusiastic farmers all across Ontario who are becoming successful farmers and making a modest living due to a changing shift in our food paradigm. And this new generation of farmers are looking to farm in new ways. We have smaller farmers. We aren’t interested in using pesticides. We are interested in using more ecological and intensive farming methods that maximize space and make it possible to run a farm business on a much smaller footprint. We are interested in building our soil and not depleting it.
We know that if we don’t have good soil, we can’t grow food well. We are networking with each other and learning from each other. We are members of progressive farm organizations like the Ecological Farmers’ Association of Ontario and the National Farmers Union. And while agriculture is a major contributor of climate change, it also has the potential to be a big part of the solution.
Right now we all have a choice. As the farmer, we have a choice of growing our food in a manner that benefits the land rather than depletes it.
We have opportunity to find different and creative avenues to sell our products, and with more interest in local food, we have an opportunity to ask for a fair price so that we can sustain our farm businesses for the long-term. As a consumer, we have an opportunity of asking where and how our food is grown, and we have a choice as to what we are going to purchase and where we will purchase it.
We have an opportunity to choose whether we pick foods that help reduce our carbon footprint. And we have an opportunity to think of new ways of how we can fairly pay farmers but also make local food accessible to those who do not have a financial opportunity to do so.
Starting and growing a farm business in Almaguin Highlands takes a lot of work and a lot of learning. We have a very short season, and we need to learn what seeds work well for us, when to plant to optimize production and experiment with different methods that extend our season and work with the challenges that climate change is bringing to our farms, such as increased severity and length of droughts and higher frequency of intense wind and storms. We are always learning, adapting and investing in how we farm. Every year there are new challenges and new successes.
On our own vegetable farm, we grow a wide range of crops to ensure that if a few crops fail during the season, we still have produce to sell. We have been practicing low till/no till, and we integrate plants and landscaping practices the support pollinators and beneficial insects year-round, within our crop system and around our farm as a whole.
It’s both a risky and exciting time. While the overall picture is bleak, we really are at a crossroads. But as the interest in local food grows, the closer we move to building a new agricultural system that is better for all of us, and there are many farms in Almaguin that are helping to lead the way.