Food

How to become an organic farmer

Author: Canadian Living

Food

How to become an organic farmer

A new generation of people want to farm. Their parents are more likely to have been nurses or teachers or plumbers or engineers, but they are more interested in working the land than working for the man. Across Canada, farming is capturing the imagination of a growing group of men and women who have no recent ancestral connections to agriculture. These are the people who will likely play an important role in a new food system and make the idea of local food possible in Canada.

Farm internship programs are rising in popularity, like the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training in Ontario. CRAFT matches aspiring farmers with organic farms in the hope of strengthening the organic farming community in the province. Applications for their two dozen internships have risen into the hundreds in the last few years. The international organization called WWOOF - World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms - which facilitates volunteering on farms, has a Canadian membership that is growing exponentially, primarily with people in their twenties. John Vanden Heuvel, the founder of the Canadian chapter, said young families are starting to take their kids to work on farms in the summer too. Across the country, training programs are being launched for those drawn to agriculture but who don’t have a farming background. The non-profit Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta is starting courses to train future farmers because of the high demand for this service in the West. And they are basing their program on the work of yet another organization, FarmStart, in Ontario, that has been helping new farmers move into agriculture since 2002.

FarmStart, based in Guelph, was founded by a woman named Christie Young who had worked with farmers as well as in the community-food sector for years and saw a huge gap in the food system between aspiring farmers and the reality of farm life. She saw that there was little support for people who wanted to learn how to run their own operation. There wasn’t an apprenticeship program like the ones for electricians or carpenters, in which someone at the beginning of their career works closely with a more experienced person to learn on the job before starting their own business. So she founded the not-for-profit FarmStart to help put more farmers into the fields with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed.

Their focus is not only on getting new farmers out there growing food for Canadians. Christie Young wants to help the new inductees rethink agriculture in Canada and help them to create a more ecologically, and economically, sustainable way of farming. Those who register for the FarmStart courses tend to be people with university degrees, many from the environmental sciences, who are not only ideologically committed to sustainability but have a practical side that makes them good business managers. Young is hopeful that interest from this new segment of society can radically change the way food is produced. “Ecological agriculture is thinking about the farm as a whole system, basing it on soil health and looking at it differently,” she said. “We’ve done some pretty serious things to the land. But I’ve seen farms turned around by someone who is concerned with building their soil.”

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locavoreExcerpted from Locavore: From Farmers' Fields to Rooftop Gardens - How Canadians are Changing the Way We Eat, by Sarah Elton. Copyright 2010 by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced except with permission in writing from the publisher.



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Seed to Supper is a joint collaboration featuring Canadian Gardening's growing expertise and Canadian Living's Tested Till Perfect recipes. To help this new generation accomplish these goals, Farm Start offers a wide range of services, such as technical courses on how to build soil naturally or business planning to help people figure out how to improve their profit margins. They also have an online land-matching system, farmlinkontario.ca, that puts landless farmers in touch with people and businesses (including real estate speculators who can sit on agricultural properties for decades) who want their land to produce food. They also teach immigrants who have an agricultural background, and wish to farm here, about Canadian agriculture. And they run two incubator farms where these new farmers can put their business plans in place and start to farm without taking on the initial risk and expense of buying land. One of these new farmers who has been very successful is Daniel Hoffmann, a vegetable grower who is working a two-acre plot at FarmStart’s McVean Farm.

The McVean Farm is a beautiful farm. The fields are flat, the soil a rich clay loam. It’s also lovely to look at, with an old wooden barn, some old apple trees and black walnuts where a flock of blue jays perched the day I visited. It also happens to be smack in the middle of urban sprawl, a sliver of farmland drowning amid newly constructed houses with multi-car garages and driveways the size of an ample market garden. Located at the edge of Toronto in the suburb of Brampton, the thirty-seven-acre farm is owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which is likely the only reason this old farm, bought after 1954’s Hurricane Hazel as part of a flood and soil erosion program, was never turned into a subdivision.

Daniel Hoffmann drives here about five times a week from the main-floor apartment he rents in midtown Toronto. In 2008, Hoffmann started the farming/social work operation he calls the Cutting Veg, which encompasses a variety of activities, including growing vegetables for two Toronto-areafarmers’ markets, producing global varieties of seed garlic he sells to other farmers, and a sixty-eight-member CSA, as well as wellness counselling and food and garden consulting. Hoffmann hopes his business will promote social and environmental health and balance, not only by growing organic food for city folks but by providing them with an opportunity to nurture a connection to the land and to the food that nourishes them. He offers internships through which he trains people interested in farming in exchange for vegetables and draws on a large pool of volunteers who leave the farm after a work shift with food to eat. Hoffmann grew up in the city and studied social work at university, but farming has called to him for years. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he ran an organic farm on Vancouver Island before moving to Toronto to work with adults with mental illness. He always felt, as a social worker, that food and farming had a healing element. Now he combines both his passions by feeding people organic food and helping those who wish to reconnect with the earth.

Compare the way Hoffmann farms with the traditional farmer ploughing the back fifty with his tractor. Both are legitimate. Both produce food. But how they approach what they do is so different. The new generation of people who are attracted to farming are redefining all aspects of it: the way they gain access to land, their cultivation techniques and the way they market their produce. Christie Young of FarmStart said the new farmers they see are more likely to farm ecologically than conventionally. Because they don’t generally have access to large sums of capital and are wary of going into debt, they devise tractor-sharing schemes with their neighbours and other creative ways of getting the job done. “They approach the business model differently. They grow slower. They rent land. They grow higher-value crops on smaller acreages,” said Young. When it comes to selling their produce, they tend to avoid the traditional supply chains and instead focus their marketing efforts on a specific community. Hoffmann, for one, drew on his Jewish cultural connections to start his CSA. He called it Tikkun Adamah, which means “healing of the earth” in Hebrew, and used a Jewish educational garden in Vaughan as the CSA depot where members could pick up their produce. He has since been approached by another synagogue to grow for them as well. Because of his approach to farming, he has been successful. Not only has he contributed to the food chain but he’s figured out how to make a living at it. “I’ve earned more this year than I ever did at any job,” he said. It’s an Internet-generation approach to farming: looking to networks that are rooted in community for information sharing, equipment, marketing and sales. By rethinking how farmers earn a living and sell their food, these new farmers are creating a new kind of food system in which the connection between eater and farmer is strengthened and farmers are able to profit more from their work - which is not unlike what the Really Local Harvest Co-op has done in New Brunswick.

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locavoreExcerpted from Locavore: From Farmers' Fields to Rooftop Gardens - How Canadians are Changing the Way We Eat, by Sarah Elton. Copyright 2010 by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced except with permission in writing from the publisher.



Visit Seed to Supper for more in-season gardening and cooking tips.
Seed to Supper is a joint collaboration featuring Canadian Gardening's growing expertise and Canadian Living's Tested Till Perfect recipes.
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How to become an organic farmer

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