All is not well with the farm

This was originally posted to CSA members in our Harvest Newsletter July 15, 2019. Minor edits have been made.

Dear Farm Members,

Okay, time to come clean. All is not well with the farm. I do try and paint a rosy picture for y’all (and myself). It’s healthy to remain positive, and there are certainly positive things happening: a wonderful garlic harvest this week, and a community of dedicated eaters, growers, volunteers and staff who make Farmers on 57th a great organization to be a part of. I like to focus on the crop successes, the ever-surprising wonders that are plants and soil and beautiful people.

But the flip side is that agriculture is really hard, and the decks are stacked against small-scale farmers. Not only do we worry the beets haven’t sized up and the kale is under aphid attack, we tussle with the fact that our farm relies heavily on volunteers & people earning minimum wage. And, yes, our volunteers & staff benefit in so many ways: community, outdoor recreation, fresh produce, training & work experience, “the lifestyle”. But how sustainable is a model that relies on free & underpaid labour? We want to put forward a model of sustainability & social justice but we can’t make enough from the sale of food to pay people to do the work. And we don’t even pay rent on our land, or pay for water. How do other folks do it?

Well, the CBC documentary Tomorrow’s Harvest sheds some light on that. And the answer is, other folks attempting small scale regenerative agriculture in our region are burnt out, face serious economic hardship and land insecurity. And these are our next generation of farmers risking it all. Take Zaklan Heritage farm in Surrey for example, featured in the 45 minute film. Doug and Gemma have invested in hoop houses, heated seed starting tables, germination chambers and a tractor. All capital investments that increase yields, sales volumes and improve labour efficiencies. Yet the land they farm is under development pressure and once it is sold they’ll need new land. In a region where produce sales can’t pay off million dollar mortgages, the new generation of landless farmers have few options. Young farmers invested in a sustainable future need to be able to grow food here.

If you’re interested in the documentary, you’ll see stellar appearances of people working towards solutions for our local food system. Sara Dent of Young Agrarians. Soil Scientist Art Bomke and SPEC, who helps us each year with soil analysis & fertility recommendations. The Zaklans. City Beet & Fractal Farms. And beautiful cinematography by our national broadcaster.

Discussing these things with the crew this week I’m heartened by what our fine community had to say. Farmers on 57th is a small example of what agriculture can look like. We are not the pinnacle of sustainability and social justice, but each year with learned efficiencies, our ability to raise funds for capital improvements & paid internships, and more and more people getting involved & being inspired, we are demonstrating growing practices that can be scaled up, scaled down even & replicated. We are providing city folk the training grounds to do it and learn from. And eating super yummy food in the process. And all that, truly, makes me so happy.

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