Where have all the small Canadian farms gone?

Where have all the farmers gone? More than 80% of the world’s farmers farm on less than five acres of land, often for little financial benefit, yet their hard work means access to healthy food for the rest of us. Family farming is so vital to the health of our food and ecosystem that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) named 2014 the International Year of Family Farming.

But despite the value small farms provide to our food supplies and economies, there is concern that farming is a dying, or at least declining, vocation: the average Canadian farmer is now 54 years old, and according to Statistics Canada and the Toronto Food Strategy, earns only about $8,000 per year, at least in Ontario. According to Roderick J. MacRae, professor of Environmental Studies at York University, who is featured in the new documentary The Family Farm, some 40% to 80% of farms are expected to change hands in the next decade, but the big question is, whose hands will the nation’s farms be in?

The plight of the family farmer — about half of whom require a second job to make ends meet — caught the eye of Canadian filmmaker Ari A. Cohen, who made the documentary to tell the story of everyday life on a small farm in Canada. The film is is both beautifully shot and soberingly relevant; we learn about the devastation that Mad Cow Disease caused Mennonite farmers in Ontario, the massive losses caused by floods for farmers in Western Canada, and of the daily aches and pains that come from being a small cog in a very large commercial system that does not always consider individual farmers’ best interests. Not all of the farmers featured are optimistic about the future of their chosen job, but all share a common love and appreciation for the land.

“We’re a dying breed,” says Ray Ferri, an Ontario farmer featured in the film.

“The corporate farm is slowly taking us over, and there doesn’t seem to be too much concern about it. It’s not only the production of food, but we’re looking after the environment, and the land. And when it gets into corporate hands, things get lost.”

One of the biggest issues highlighted in The Family Farm is that of the broken relationship between the farmer and the consumer. The result is a society that is largely disconnected from where food is grown, processed and shipped from, and the value local food holds in our lives and society.

“Most people just get their food at the grocery store. They’ve never put their hands in the ground and pulled out a vegetable, or been there when an animal has been killed,” Cohen says. “I wanted to put that in the film because I think people are disconnected from the process.”

Many of the farmers interviewed echo his sentiments. “People have lost connection with where their food comes from,” says Jamie Riaume, one of the growers featured in the film. “There’s not a grocery fairy that waves its wand overnight, every night at the grocery store and restocks the shelves and makes it all pretty again. That’s not there. Their food actually comes from a farm.”

“During harvest time, which starts anywhere from June all the way through until November, we’re harvesting food for your table, either that night or the next day.”

So why not just fold everyone into a large-scale corporate farm system? While large-scale farming has benefits for feeding large numbers of people at the lowest possible prices — in many ways a necessity on a planet with more than seven billion people, Cohen and others are concerned that large corporate farming conglomerates also tend to create monocultures, where small numbers of crops or types of animals are farmed or raised, which can strip the soil of nutrients and lose the symbiotic effect of a “real-world” situation where plants, animals, soil and water all interact to create and support life for one another. They also put the life of our entire food system into a smaller and smaller number of hands.

“I like supporting small farms because that is like supporting a small business, and small enterprises matter,” Cohen says. “The bigger the business you are, the more money you have to make, so you become more concerned about quantity than care.”

While Cohen’s film focuses on storytelling, ideas and opportunities for change are embedded throughout. From the relaxation of rules that restrict the ability of small-scale farmers to provide pasture-raised eggs to their local communities, to adjustments of regulations that allow cheap produce that are not grown to Canadian standards to flood Canadian supermarkets, there is a growing consensus that we need to do a better job of keeping our best food at home, and find ways to get it into the hands of those who need it the most: everyday consumers, and not just those who have access to and can afford to shop at a trendy farmers’ market.

To watch “The Family Farm” Trailer click here

Source: Jennifer Sygo, National Post