Got land?

How exactly do you become a farmer, in this day and age?

A group of university students at Memorial University of Newfoundland are currently looking at ways to increase local food options on campus. At the first meeting for the Campus Food Strategy Group, held last week, conversation touched on the importance of increasing food production in order to offer more locally produced food on campus.

At an Atlantic Canada Organic Regional Network–Newfoundland and Labrador conference last year, a young woman volunteering at the registration table told me about her experiences working for another farmer, and her hope to secure land in order to start a farm with a friend that spring. There was the possibility of renting land, and there was talk of another would-be farmer’s attempt to have a conversation with a retired food producer about maintaining agricultural production on his property, but prospects remained uncertain.

While all these people are working on widening the pathway toward a local, sustainable food system by influencing purchasing policies, many budding agriculturalists come up against a series of road blocks: how would one finance such an endeavour? Where would a new farm be located?

“Farming is a community event,” says a young woman named Sarah Crocker. Her experiences pursuing this career help illustrate exactly what she means.

Becoming a farmer

Sarah Crocker has been farming with the Seed to Spoon Organic Farming Collective in Portugal Cove for the past three years. The operation follows a co-operative business model, which entails shared decision-making about short term and long term plans. All three members of the co-operative work the land together and share the profits. “It’s suitable for us,” she says, “but most farmers work individually.”

Her work with Seed to Spoon is her top priority, but Sarah has also worked with community gardens in St. John’s, and is coordinating the “Buy Local! Buy Fresh!” campaign with the Northeast Avalon Regional Economic Development Board. The ever busy Crocker is skilled at making time for those who are involved with food security-related initiatives on the Avalon, and she spoke with me while harvesting produce on a Friday afternoon. She described how she became involved with farming, and the satisfaction that she gets from planting, harvesting and selling healthy food.

Tracing out the development of her interests in becoming a farmer, Crocker explained: “I’ve always been into gardening. I volunteered at the MUN Botanical Garden and had a garden at my parents’ place when I was in high school. When I went to university, I became involved in food activism and [worked on organic farms] in Manitoba and Nova Scotia during summer breaks.”

Although she anticipated that she would remain there for six months, Crocker wound up apprenticing for two years.

“After graduation in 2005, I volunteered at The Organic Farm (in Portugal Cove). I intended to be a casual volunteer, but I guess they liked me, and I liked the work, so I wound up helping out for an entire season there.”

She says that mentors have been important to her pursuit of farming as a career. Mark Wilson, who was managing The Organic Farm in 2005, encouraged her to seek out an agricultural apprenticeship in Ontario in order to learn more skills, and she found another good mentor in a 30 year old woman who was running a two acre market garden just outside of Ottawa. Although she anticipated that she would remain there for six months, Crocker wound up apprenticing for two years.

“It was a really good fit. I had a lot in common with her, and I saw that there were ways to make it a viable career. It’s never going to be really high-paying, but it’s satisfying. It’s a great way to supply myself and my friends with good food.”

For Sarah and the other members of Seed to Spoon, the Community Supported Agriculture model, which involves selling shares of produce to consumers at the beginning of the season, and delivering bags of fresh food (tomatoes, herbs, garlic, lettuce greens, spinach, beets, beans, potatoes, carrots, kale, swiss chard, onions, shallots, and more) for fifteen weeks of the year, has been a good way to earn a living through farming. In 2011, Seed to Spoon sold 45 shares to persons who, for the most part, reside in St. John’s. The collective offered full shares (for families) and small shares (for couples who really love vegetables, or small households). They also sell their produce at the St. John’s Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.

Sharing the Land and Enjoying Farming

Crocker describes the collective model as a particularly good one, since it involves sharing work with two others who form the co-operative. Crocker’s enjoyment of farming comes through: “This work is really rewarding. I find it satisfying on many levels. First, it’s physically rewarding, second, it’s pleasant, and I also get to be my own boss and set my own schedule. I get excited about providing good food for others.”

While all three members of the collective are interested in pursuing agricultural careers, they do not own land. Crocker is also involved with the Newfoundland and Labrador Young Farmers’ Forum, and she identified access to land as a key issue for those who wish to begin farming in the province.

“One of the biggest barriers to farming in Newfoundland is not having access to land. There’s nowhere to try it out here, and it’s the type of thing that you can’t plan to do unless you have a chance to see what it’s like. It takes a long time to find the right spot. It’s just so wild here! Newfoundland is home for me, but it’s a hard spot to be a farmer, too.”

According to Crocker, much of Seed to Spoon’s success is related to the opportunity that they were given to rent agricultural land from the Lien family, who own it, and who previously operated an organic farm.

Describing the importance of good land to the success of their operation, Sarah observed “We were able to rent a beautiful, productive, established farm. A lot of our success is due to the Lien’s hard work. The land was ready, which is pretty special.”

Protecting Agricultural Land

Crocker acknowledges that she’s been lucky to find a place to grow food here, and emphasized that protecting land for agricultural activities is an important step toward developing a local food system.

“The best agricultural land around St. John’s is being turned into suburbs,” she said. “If people want to buy locally, they need to recognize that we need that land in order to produce more food.”

These sentiments have been echoed at other food security events, by young people who wish to become farmers. Crocker pointed out the ways in which local food purchasing policies in cafeterias at institutions such as schools, offices, hospitals and seniors’ homes could affect the development of local food economies.

“It would have a huge ripple effect in the farming community,” she said. Echoing the conclusions that were reached at the Campus Food Strategy meeting, she was careful to note: “We won’t see a difference in provincial agricultural output until we see changes in access to farmland. We need land first and foremost.”

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