Small Scale Farming, Strong Food System
News has just emerged from NASA that California has 1 year of water left. The vast majority of our fruits and vegetables come from this single state so what happens when the supply chain runs dry? Even if we are able to source food from elsewhere, we know that conventional agriculture, which produces the bulk of our meat, grains, fruits and vegetables, creates almost 20% of all planetary greenhouse gases.
As we struggle to find solutions to all of these issues, one answer may be found in small-scale agriculture. Small-scale farms tend to use smaller machines and more hand-labour, thereby decreasing carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, they tend to stock animals at lower densities, as opposed to confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs), where the methane emissions can be a huge problem. Small-scale farmers are playing an integral role in moving towards a sustainable future that is less dependant upon global trade and non-renewable resource extraction.
The Comox Valley is a great example of how a number of smaller farms can create a strong, resilient food system. Walking around the Saturday Farmer’s Market, you’ll come across a myriad of products from kohlrabi and turkey bacon to goat milk gelato and pastured, organic eggs.
So are we not sitting pretty in the Valley?
Take a look around the farming community. Although we have a vibrant farmers market, it only represents a small subset of all of our farms. The vast majority of local farms grow hay for animal feed and over half of all farmers are over the age of 55. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 only 25 farmers in the Comox Valley were 35 years old or younger. While older farmers can and do grow beautiful produce, vegetable growing is physically taxing. The amount of squatting, bending, and lifting would put any Boot Camp to shame.
In addition, entrance costs into farming, even small-scale vegetable production, can be quite dramatic. It’s estimated that to for each acre converted into vegetable production costs the farmer at least $10,000 in infrastructure costs. Irrigation equipment, machinery, and greenhouses are a must in the Valley and prices can be quite high compared to the mainland.
How do we encourage more farmers to get into production? Do we wait until the crisis to hit, where food prices go through the roof and allow market demand to create the incentive for more people to farm? Even waiting for this scenario to happen will require a number of lean years where little affordable produce will be available until production can ramp up.
Or, can we as a community proactively encourage young people to farm? Studies from other communities have found that new farmers require things: access to land, access to capital for infrastructure, and access to training and education.
The Comox Valley is blessed with a large amount of arable land, over 30,000 acres. However, only less than 500 acres is in fruit or vegetable production. Those who own land tend to be older, closer to retirement than able to get into a new venture. Luckily the organization Young Agrarians is working on linking landowners with those wanting to farm.
Finding the dollars to get into farming is another matter. One way that consumers can support farmers is by joining a CSA – Community Supported Agriculture. Farmers offer a set number of weekly vegetable boxes and consumers pay for the boxes at the beginning of the season, when farmers need the money to purchase seed and equipment. Farmers are also working together to share equipment so that not each farm has to invest in a tractor or walk-in cooler. Merville Organics is doing just that, supporting new farmers by sharing equipment and markets that established farms already have.
Lastly, educational opportunities on the North Island are few and far between. Farming requires a whole slew of skills from soil management to saving seeds, making compost, breeding animals, and post harvest handling. For the most part, these skills are shared between farmers. Farm apprenticeships through organizations like SOIL provide new farmers with hands-on experience. The Young Agrarians hosted a number of workshops back in March during a day-long skills sharing event. We need to support more of these and ask our colleges, farmers institutes, and government agricultural departments to step up to the plate.
Climate change, fluctuating fuel prices, and an aging farm population are putting everyone’s food supply at risk. Small scale farmers hold a major key in solving the issue but they need the support of the entire community before we can say that the Comox Valley has a safe, resilient food supply.
Here’s to a great growing year!
Front row, L to R: David Roch, Kira Kotilla, Robin Sturley, Moss Dance
Back Row: Jacinda Flynn, Neil Turner, Arzeena Hamir, Russell Heitzman, Calliope Gazetas, Ems Rixton (Woofer)