|Newcomer FarmStart-Up program participant Peter Seenath
by Catherine Scott
“Farming this land is the best thing that’s happened to me in my 27 years in Canada. To me, farming is the greatest thing you can get involved in.”
These are the words of project participant, Peter Seenath. Earlier this month, 13 Heifer volunteers and staff members visited the Newcomer FarmStart-Up Program at McVean Farm, a peri-urban project in Brampton, just outside of Toronto, Ontario as part of the Heifer Canada Study Tour. Prior to the visit, many of our study tour members had been wrestling with the question of “Why does Heifer work in Canada?” After all, Canada is a developed nation, with a relatively strong economy, and a bigger social safety net than many other countries around the world. Despite these factors, however, there is a high degree of food insecurity in the country. However, 15 percent of Canadian children are living in poverty, and between 1989 and 2004 the number of Canadians using food banks increased by 123 percent.
Another major issue in the country is the lack of new farmers. Right now, only 2percent of the population is engaged in farming, and the average age of farmers is 55. In the next 15-20 years, 60-70 percent of farming land will be transferred from current farmers, and many have no plans for the land use (much of the farm land may be given over to large scale mono-cropping projects, or used for urban development). There is a compelling need to train new, young, energized farmers. Enter FarmStart-Up. One of the goals of this project is to work on farm succession plans: Older farmers have land. FarmStart-Up has farmers. This can be a win-win for all involved. With Heifer’s help, FarmStart has provided land and training to new immigrant farmers, who hail from 27 different countries, and are growing mushrooms, radishes, garlic, hot peppers, melons, squash, etc. and marketing these crops to local sectors.
In addition to the need for new farmers is the increasing desire from people to know where their food is coming from. Under the current, broken food system, much of the food that is grown in Canada is shipped to the US for processing, and then re-enters Canada for sale and distribution. FarmStart wants to address the food system at the local level, by engaging with new immigrant farmers who can then sell their products through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and local farmers’ markets. Right now, Toronto only has enough fresh food to last for seven days if all imports stopped.
It is staggering to consider that 60 percent of the food is imported in a country that was partly founded on farming. Nearly 100 percent of the garlic sold in stores in the area is imported from China, despite having conditions that allow for high quality garlic to be grown locally. As farmer Bahauddin “Bob” Baloch told us, most food here is incredibly cheap. In Canada, “you have value, but no flavor! We are producing good food, to help make good, healthy people” explains farmer Bob.
When we asked Bob how they select the farmers who participate in FarmStart, he replied, “You need really good looks!” Good looks aside, these folks submit proposals each fall that outline their marketing and farming experience, and their plans for their land plots. Most of the farmers start out with ¼ acre test farm for one year. If they are successful, they can expand in the following year. FarmStart is founded on a farm incubator model, with the end goal being to move these farmers onto rural lands when older farmers retire. Heifer provided one of the most important elements for this project: the pipes to allow the land to be irrigated. The farmers also attend three compulsory workshops on weed management, small tool use, and soil coverage to increase their chances at success.
From start to finish during our visit, we saw an incredible display of Heifer’s Cornerstone of “Sharing and Caring.” More experienced farmers were mentoring more inexperienced farmers. They were selling one another’s products at the farmers’ markets, and they were making strong connections with the local, surrounding community. We were graciously allowed to help work on the land that afternoon, and most of us were soon cured of our romanticized vision of farming. It is hot, sweaty, tiring work, and we are grateful for all those who farm, so that we may eat. At the end of the day, Newcomer FarmStart-Up’s Program Manager, Sridharan (Sri) Sethuratnam explains, “Farming is as much about people, as it is about food. It’s about community. It’s good to have a face behind the food.”
Catherine Scott is a senior grant writer for Heifer International. To learn more about the Newcomer Farm Start-Up Program, visit their website.