Saving Farmland: the fight for real food

by Nathalie Chambers
with Robin Alys Roberts and Sophie Wooding

cover of the book Saving Farmland: the fight for real foodAs we dig into the history of Victoria’s lost farmland, we see the impact both on farmers and on human health. Where we once grew blueberry bushes in healthy bogs, tomatoes on sunny hillsides or green beans alongside a salad patch waiting to be picked out of the rich, dark, naturally composted soil, thousands of customers now pluck cake mixes, instant pizzas and cereal boxes from grocery shelves.

Subsidies to industrial farmers of commodities such as corn explain why, between 1985 and 2010, the price of high-fructose corn syrup drinks dropped 24 percent (increasing the rate of type-2 diabetes in children as they consumed more), while over the same period the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 39 per cent. As consumers buy cheaper, bland, prepared food revved up with salt and/or sugar – or beef fed on corn and other grains – they manage to convince themselves they can save time and money, without considering the long-term costs to their well-being.

In addition to these health concerns, with both fishers and farmers going out of business, the decrease in traditional agricultural practices leaves cultures on the brink of destruction… [and] over four million Canadians are food insecure. In Toronto today, every third child goes to school hungry. As most people turn to food banks only as a last resort (in fact, fewer than 25 percent of food-insecure households make use of them), this means millions of Canadians are still truly down and out.

In the four years between 2008 and 2012, food-bank use increased by 23 percent in BC and 73 percent in the Northwest Territories, with a 30 percent average increase across Canada. In the summer of 2013, BC’s Minister for Children and Family Development claimed that child poverty had declined by 41 percent over the previous decade. If that claim had been true, the province would have come down to the lowest rate in more than three decades. But at the end of the decade between 2001 and 2012, according to the non-partisan 2012 Child Poverty Report Card, which was using Statistics Canada’s figures, 43 percent more individuals in BC were using food banks. BC has been crowned with the worst overall poverty rate of all Canadian provinces. Canada still remains one of the few developed countries without a national meal program for children…

We need to redirect ourselves to a truly whole, sustainable approach, vastly increasing our awareness of how we produce food. Ideally, we should focus on sustainable agriculture… The overriding imperative is obvious: we must protect all farmland in perpetuity. For 40 years, BC protected 4.7 million hectares (11,613,953 ac) of land in the ALR, but in 2014, the provincial government planned to open a majority of that land up to mining. BC still wears the crown for food insecurity. The price of farmland and the lack of support for farmers (only one percent of our provincial budget goes toward agriculture) must be addressed.

Paying trees to keep us healthy

David Suzuki points out that, historically, we look at a temperate forest in terms of lumber and calculate its worth simply in those dollar values. But Suzuki looks at what that forest is “worth” alive and working. He reminds us how hard a temperate forest works. It captures, filters and supplies water. It helps prevent floods. It stores carbon. It purifies air. If we had to buy those services, we’d have to pay about $2,000 per hectare (2.5 ac) per year. Farms located alongside forests experience additional benefits, including natural preservation of soil quality and natural homes for beneficial pollinators like birds, bats, a variety of bees and other insects.

Of course, all this labour should increase the value we place on a forest. If we add in everything, including the recreational benefits a forest provides, the trees could be receiving over $5,000 per hectare (2.5 ac) in wages every single year.

We need to treasure the biodiverse ecosystems all around us that naturally control excesses of one species over the other, instead of killing masses of life forms for assumed economic benefits – whether we kill trees for lumber or a few “pests” at the expense of many other beneficial organisms. Trees simultaneously provide shelter, preserve moisture and build soil as leaves fall and branches rot. We see this so obviously after an ecosystem loses its pollinators, so we must remember that food security – a nation or community’s access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food – depends on biodiversity on the farm and around it.

Keeping farms affordable

The high price of farmland remains the largest obstacle to food security on Vancouver Island, across Canada and throughout many parts of the world. Expensive farmland denies farmers the ability to produce food and thus creates food insecurity. Currently, farmland located around cities is speculated at the same price as residential real estate, especially when negotiations may include the promise of a zoning change – making it enticing for speculators but completely unaffordable for young farmers. As Jeff Rubin explained in an autumn 2013 article in the Globe and Mail, “The price of farmland in Canada has outpaced both residential and commercial real estate, gaining an average of 12 percent over the last five years. In some hotspots, such as southwestern Ontario, the price-per-acre has been going up by as much as 50 percent a year. Even pension plans and hedge funds have become players in the pursuit of prime agricultural land, interest that is only sending prices that much higher.”

The pressures to rezone are being felt across the country, not just in southwestern Ontario and BC. Investors follow the old real-estate adage, “Don’t wait to buy land, buy land and wait.” They can pay $50,000 to $100,000 per 0.4 hectares (1 ac) for farmland that has potential for alternate use close to the city of Regina. While waiting for the land to be rezoned, they derive payback income for their mortgage by leasing the land out to farmers. Their patience is rewarded when the multi-family residential zoning goes through and their land skyrockets to $750,000 per 0.4 hectares (1 ac).

As young farmers aren’t replacing older ones, the multi­national corporations are moving in, for the rising crop prices, the uncut timber and other natural resources on the land. Until we address this issue, we cannot hope to get the next generation out on the land and our chances for food security will continue to diminish.

With such farmland price speculation near urban centres and potential mining centres, the pressures are mounting. In addition, changes to farming practices that have occurred over the last half-century – vast swaths of monoculture devoid of supportive habitat and overwhelmed by chemical pest and weed controls – have had a deadly impact on bees and their pollination success. All these weigh heavily on the ability of young farmers to take up the mantle…

In the spring of 2012, after a 20-year period, the number of Canadian farmers under the age of 35 had plummeted from 77,000 to just over 24,000. We have to admit that industrial agriculture, complying with free-trade policies that encourage exports at local expense and top-down corporate control that pays the local farm the least, hasn’t been the solution. Paul Slomp, the youth spokesperson for the National Farmers Union, said, “Parents who are farming are telling their kids it’s not worth the stress and it’s not worth the debt.”

So, what does the next generation of farmers look like? Despite the obstacles, Nathalie says, “Hordes of the next generation of farmers are educated. They practice sustainable agriculture: agroecology, biodynamics, permaculture and biological farming. They are eager to get their shovels in the soil. At Madrona Farm, we cannot keep up with the number of farmers who want to work here. The problem isn’t finding people who want to farm. It’s in getting access to farmland itself. We have a responsibility to the next generation and to ourselves to ensure that the farmland is available.” …

We can’t keep tinkering with chemical sprays or chemical fertilizers that kill millions of microbes in the soil, destroy pollinators, slash the trees that offer shade, habitat and mulch, and affect the very water that we all drink. How can we remove benefactors from ecosystems and expect them to function well? Farming makes sense only when farmers champion biodiversity…

The moment we become proactive, “they” becomes “we.” We understand the suffering of those slogging it out on Bay Street, Wall Street or in the Beijing financial district. Our first and biggest obstacle is to collectively climb the mountain that is hiding what humans as a whole have lost as a result of practices like fracking and industrial farming. When a swath of big, old growth trees is slashed, we’re all reduced. We need to climb our densest peak, remove our blindfolds and take a look at the full view. From side to side, top to bottom, through the rocks, down into the oceans, we must recognize that we’re all connected, and no one human, no one being, is any greater than the next.

Most of all, we need to reconnect our adult selves with the innate awareness we had as children. We were born with a joyful understanding of the vast multiplicity of our connectedness. Too often, however, we gave over this joy to those who would manipulate us into dividing our world into small, separate compartments, each with different, all-controlling recipes for managing life. If we thought otherwise, or still expressed the desire to explore other areas, it seemed to be an excuse for further segregation through mockery and bullying from peers and adults, which redirected us into a culture dominated by top-down leadership…

It became dangerous to question the authorities about topics like money, religion, politics, extreme sports, wars, peace missions, intellectual pursuits, mythologies, consumerism, classism or even such basics as how agriculture can best provide us with the food we eat. As a result, many of us grew up submissive, unquestioning, alone, obese and unhappy. None of us desire such passive isolation as adults. However, by severing our fundamental connection with the world around us, we’ve dug a hole in our soul.

We all need love, support and appreciation for each of our abilities and ethical intentions. If we all base our ethics on kindness and respect… we can cultivate a natural diversity that can make our hearts and bodies vibrate.

As is so often the case, people are the problem – but they’re also the solution.

Excerpted from Saving Farmland: The Fight for Real Food by Nathalie Chambers with Robin Alys Roberts and Sophie Wooding. (RMB / Rocky Mountain Books, 2015)

Nathalie Chambers is the founder of the Chef Survival Challenge Inc., a fundraising event for farmland conservation, and the Big Dream Farm Fund, which directs funds towards farmland acquisition and sustainable farming education initiatives. Nathalie and her husband, David Chambers, live and work on Madrona Farm, where they grow more than a hundred varieties of produce year-round for over 4,000 regular customers, including numerous wholesalers and local restaurants.

Robin Alys Roberts taught at the University of Victoria and has written a manual, websites, newsletters, conference presentations and magazine articles. Sophie Wooding has a degree in creative writing and English literature from the University of Victoria. She apprenticed at Madrona Farm surrounding a stint at GoodRoots, a Community Sustained Agriculture Farm near her hometown of Langley.

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