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Molly, a dog resembling a small German shepherd with a curly tail, slips out the bottom of the green canvas tent. I watch her with one eye through the mesh door of my tent as she trots around a patch of alders.
Chickens cluck just out of sight. She returns a few minutes later from the opposite direction. She circles the property – passing the chicken coop, through the three gardens, around the picnic table and tarps used as a kitchen, and behind the big, dark haunted house at the front of the property. She crawls back into the tent and finds her place beside Kyle and Anna. I hear the crumple of the tarp below them as she lies back down.
Kyle, Anna and Molly lived in this tent all summer. They raised birds and grew vegetables just outside Bathurst city limits. Always interested in food production, this was the easiest way for them to learn what it’s like firsthand.
Their chance came when they met a lady at the farmers’ market while they were selling homemade food. She had land she wanted to see used.
“After she left we kept looking at each other, like, ‘Did that just happen?’” Anna said.
My brother, Kyle Hodnett, is a tall, skinny, 22-year-old guy with dark blond hair. Anna Slater is his girlfriend. She is shorter, but also has blond hair and blue eyes.
They’re the only people I know from my generation that have made any serious attempt at producing food.
“The biggest part for me is food security and freedom,” Kyle said.
Meanwhile, the average age of farmers in New Brunswick is 57, farm debt is at a record high, and there isn’t an agricultural school in the province. New Brunswick could face some major problems if local food security isn’t considered as important to everyone else as it is to Anna and Kyle.
During the depression, 100-acre farms were given to 4,400 families in the province. In 1941 the census showed a rural farming population in Canada of over three million people. Thirty years later, there was less than half that, and the country’s population had nearly doubled. In fact, the rapid decline prompted the government to conduct a census every five years in order to accurately measure the change. By 2006, Canada’s farming population was 684,260.
New Brunswick has undergone a similar decline, but the amount of land being used for agriculture hasn’t changed much. For the last 40 years, the number of farms in the province has declined at an average of nine per cent every five years, but the size of farms has increased by about five per cent. This means fewer farms are operating on larger scales.
Susan Machum, Canada Research Chair for Rural Social Justice and a sociology professor at St. Thomas University, describes the big issue with agriculture as a conflict between two accounting systems – one that produces food for financial investments and stock markets, and one that produces food for local communities and social well being.
“Even though we’re producing more food than ever, the global food system is producing food for dollars,” she said.
In fact, a 1996 study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization said there was enough food being produced that every man, woman and child could eat 2,700 calories a day. Most adults only need about 2,000, yet many people still go with considerably less.
Food-for-money also leads to specialization, mono-crops, soil depletion, and quite literally an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket situation.
“If you specialize in a few crops and interest in those crops declines, then your whole economy declines,” Machum said. “It makes us extremely vulnerable to the world markets.”
Why, then, doesn’t everyone produce what they’re best at? Then our modern marvels would make trade easy. We’d be an efficient planet.
“That’s the model we have and that model is failing…we’re basically engaged in behaviour that doesn’t perform well, but we’re so committed to the system…because there are people that are winning big time from how we’ve organized things, but there are also a significant amount of losers,” Machum said.
An increasingly popular solution to this problem is buying and growing locally. The reasons vary from supporting local economies to being healthier.
But, like everything else, it’s easier said than done.
When 31-year-old Daniel Boudreau decided information technology (IT) work wasn’t for him, he dropped his Compu College course with $50 in his pocket. Boudreau walked into a Co-op and bought as much sweet corn as he could.
Then he started selling it.
That was nine years ago. Now he owns Silver Valley Farm and has 25 acres of land.
“I’ve really always been interested in it,” he said. “It’s fun being your own boss.”
But Boudreau says there are a lot of obstacles that stand in your way. Buying the land, a house, some sort of barn, equipment and fertilizing the land takes a lot of time, and even more money.
“It’s not something you’re going to jump into and say, ‘I’m going to make a fortune tomorrow,’” he said.
The outstanding debt for farmers in the province has been increasing steadily, around three to four per cent a year. This is while the net income fluctuates recklessly, changing year to year with anything from a 98 per cent drop, to a 634 per cent jump. Like Boudreau said, it’s a tricky business.
It took Boudreau four years to get Silver Valley Farm where he wanted it. In the meantime, he bought produce from fellow farmers and supermarkets to sell alongside what he had already produced. That way he could “fill the gaps.”
Now, he’s at the Boyce Farmers’ Market every Saturday, sells produce in Minto twice a week, and has a roadside stand near his farm on Woodstock road just outside of Fredericton.
“We try to direct-sell everything because there’s no money in wholesale,” he said.
You used to be able to sell to most general stores.
Now there are only three main buyers and they’re in Moncton and Nova Scotia, adding transportation costs for many New Brunswickers.
“Chain stores want everything for nothing,” Boudreau said.
Machum says the lack of money involved in farming makes the career a hard sell for young people.
“The first thing we have to do is start letting farmers make money,” Machum said. “Because young people don’t tend to be attracted to a business where you’re not going to make a livelihood.
“If we want to…make farming an attractive career option, then we really have to start rethinking the whole food system.”
Food is necessary, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when it cuts into your weekend money. Most of us don’t understand why food prices are so high. The market is incredibly fussy and prices are all over the place.
And even if these farmers see high cash sales, current farmers still have high costs, said Susan Machum.
“They also deal with high-risk, high-stress work environment with very little return.”
In order to make that return, farmers depend on aspects that are out of their control, like the weather and the market.
“There’s an incredible amount of commitment on the part of farmers and yet society undervalues what they’re doing.”
But we will always need good food and water if we want to be healthy.
Paul Manning, a third-year student at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro, N.S., is one of eight young Atlantic Canadians chosen to help stir global change with the Active-8 campaign. His message is for a sustainable food movement.
He has been encouraging people to visit farms and “see the hard work and effort that it takes to produce food.”
His second piece of advice is to try to grow your own food.
“A summer of dealing with white-tailed deer, Colorado potato beetle, and striped cucumber beetle, gives individuals a firsthand look at all of the issues that producers deal with on a daily basis,” he said.
Maybe that would give consumers an idea of what they’re paying for. Until then, farms will continue to be sold to the highest bidder, the one who is able to run the industrial-style operation just to make the small profit worthwhile.
“The future of food is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, so those will become the weapons of the 21st century—food and water,” said Machum.
At Christmas, my sister was horrified to find out she knew the turkey we were eating when it was just a chick, huddled beside a heat lamp. I had to tease her.
Between gifts and plenty of meals, the turkeys, chickens, and vegetables have all been eaten. Kyle and Anna have been renting a house with some friends to get through the winter. When the weather warns up, they’ll be taking what they’ve learned to Nova Scotia. There’s an inherited farm house with like-minded people – and plumbing.
And since there’s nothing to keep them here in New Brunswick, the province will lose two more creative and hard-working young people.