By Chelsea Holdsworth
If you travel 25km outside of any one of Canada’s major cities, chances are you will find yourself surrounded by large fields. If you drive a little farther, you will soon see both functioning and dilapidated farms along the same road. It won’t take you long to realize that agriculture and farming is a large part of Canadian culture, and in fact it has been for centuries. The truth is Canada boasts a vast, fertile landscape, capable of providing its entire population with every necessary food product for the average Canadian diet. Despite this, Canada imported $2.5 billion worth of vegetables and $4.3 billion worth of fruit and nut products last year. Each year as Canada continues to import cheap, international produce, small Canadian farmers lose a substantial amount of market-share. In order to take back market-share, farmers need to be incredibly creative when designing solutions. In response, Community Supported Agriculture systems (CSA’s) have been popping up across Canada over the past few years.
Alvaro Venturelli is co-owner of Plan B Organic Farm located in the Hamilton area. “Farmers don’t really have access to markets,” he says. “So, they need to build their own markets.” This is precisely what CSA’s have allowed farmers to do.
“Farmers don’t really have access to markets…so, they need to build their own.”
Every farm that participates in a CSA program can set its own boundaries and operations. Plan B Organic is is run by Alvaro, his wife Melanie, and his brother Rodrigo. The farm services 1000 shareholders, which is no small endeavor. “The web has been helpful,” says Venturelli, “and most of our clients are city people.”
Simpler Thyme Organic Farm, located in Hamilton, also participates in a CSA program but only services 40 members. “We used to service 100 shares,” explained Bill Orosz, a partner in Simpler Thyme, “but we are slowly scaling back because we want to move into retirement.”
Some small-scale farmers still attempt to increase market-share by selling produce wholesale to grocers and by participating in local farmers markets. The difficulty of these traditional markets is that wholesale often leaves farmers at the mercy of extremely low market prices and farmers markets impose stall fees and do not guarantee consistent purchasing schedules.
Both Simpler Thyme and Plan B Organic also sell their product in local farmers markets around the Hamilton area, but more than 85% of their produce is pre-designated to their shareholders.
The greatest benefit of participating in a CSA is that farmers know exactly how much produce they need to harvest in any given week. This reduces waste and over-harvesting, and it allows for consistent, guaranteed income at the beginning of the growing season that assists in the everyday operation of the farm. The CSA model also disperses the risk on investment from being concentrated on the individual farmer and their family to being covered by the shareholders in the event of a potential threat to the product.
While it might appear that small-scale farms are being phased out of the Canadian economy because of the readily available produce at large grocery stores, the demand for local produce is actually on the rise. As more and more people recognize the benefits of eating local and organic, small farms are seeing an increase in the demand for their crops. The demand is so high that farmers are having difficulty keeping up. “You know that campaign that says ‘Farmers Feed Cities’?” asked Orosz. “The truth is farmers can’t feed cities – they can’t keep up. It used to be that there were 100’s of farms servicing people all over the place. Now there are only 2 or 3.”
According to a Statistics Canada report, Canada has lost over 16,000 family farms from 2005-2009. Ontario alone has seen a decrease of over 10%, losing over 2,830 family farms in that same period of time.
Local farms have no choice but to recognize that they are unable to fulfill the demand, and it will continue to become even more difficult if more farms continue to close year after year. Farms such as Everdale, located in Hamilton, have begun to offer workshops to help people learn basic farming skills. Their list of workshops includes topics such as small-scale gardening, weed control, and introduction to beekeeping. Everdale even has a training program for individuals interested in starting their own small farming business.
“To fulfill the demand, people need to be growing their own produce,” says Orosz, even though this means directing away so called ‘business’ from already existing farms. Small-scale farmers know that they will never be able to fulfill all the demand, and therefore they support anyone who wants to get into the field of farming.
While local farmers are fighting to take back their market share, other threats are also becoming pressing concerns. Changing weather patterns, pesticide use, and the use of toxic waste on farmlands are all current concerns that threaten the success of small farms. Depending on where a farm is located or which produce it harvests, each farm could be affected by either one or all of these threats.
There is one such threat that is no respecter of farms, no matter the circumstances – the continual decrease in bee populations. “They are finding millions of bees dead, not knowing why,” said Orosz. “Humans can only live so long without bees, and they don’t realize it.”
Creative solutions like CSA’s have made a huge difference in the business of small-scale farming, and the benefits are evident in the success of the program. While CSA’s only solve the problem of market-share, one can hope that other comparably creative solutions to other threats will be equally successful.