October 16 is World Food Day and this year’s theme is Family Farming: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth.
My Alberta at Noon column this month will share what kinds of challenges family farms are facing and what’s going on with the family farm movement right here in Alberta. This post will provide some background information.
The United Nations declared 2014 as the International Year of the Family Farm – #IYFF. They have collected a beautiful collage of photos from family farms all over the world.
They’ve also curated a collection of essays and stories about family farming called Perspectives – 2014. If you browse through them you’ll find Canada and Alberta are represented and that our farmers are taking leadership roles in finding solutions to the challenges family farms are facing.
What are those problems?
Here’s a recent New York Times essay by Bren Smith that describes a few of them.
Here’s Bren Smith’s summation again as follows:
We need to fight for loan forgiveness for college grads who pursue agriculture; programs to turn farmers from tenants into landowners; guaranteed affordable health care; and shifting subsidies from factory farms to family farms. We need to take the lead in shaping a new food economy by building our own production hubs and distribution systems. And we need to support workers up and down the supply chain who are fighting for better wages so that their families can afford to buy the food we grow.
The world’s most famous farmer, Joel Salatin, also offers many solutions for the future of farming and I’ve written a good deal about Salatin and his “healing solutions” in previous posts.
Here in Alberta I recently discovered a grassroots charitable organization called Farm On that is devoted to finding solutions to uphold the family farming tradition. I interviewed Ben Wilson who shared some statistics with great implications for this province.
The two most staggering statistics are that less than 10 per cent of all farmers in Alberta are less than 30 years of age and the average age of a farmer is 60. Add to that that in the next 10 years 40% of all land will change hands and you have to start asking who will that land go to? We need to ask where did the next generation of farmers go to and what’s keeping them from family farming?
Wilson told me that a variety of factors are at work including the following: land is expensive, access to loans is difficult, farmers don’t have succession plans for buy out so that they can retire, and farming is under the greatest public scrutiny it has ever seen.
Farm On was formed in Bashaw Alberta in 2008 by a small group inspired to create movement dedicated to “bringing farming back”. In Alberta less than two per cent of our population are farmers and yet Alberta’s rural economic footprint is an astonishing $77 billion dollars according to the Rural Agriculture Development Fund website. Wilson told me that our farmers are working harder than ever. Many take a job off the farm so they can afford to feed their own families. And yet, family farming is a value that many young farmers would like the chance to return to.
Farm On is taking on the role of sharing the best practices of farms around Alberta since a lot of the transfer of knowledge from current farming masters (that cohort of 60 year olds) could otherwise be lost with the generations that have left the farms.
Farm On Foundation staff travel around Alberta and interview and videotape “best practices” and then turn the info into something they call “the fast farmer”. They realized that with most young farming couples – one works off farm, the other does chores and cares for family and the two might sit down to learn something at the kitchen table at about 11 p.m.
They’ve taken expert knowledge in skills acquisition and adult learning to boil important topics down to four basic principles and then they show exactly how to operationalize those principles in short video “show how” presentations. And the good news is that young farmers are trying things out and reporting success.
While you and I won’t be able to help with this kind of project directly, we can contribute to this charitable organization financially and we can lend emotional support by getting to know farmers.
The World Food Day hashtag of #toastafarmer and the Farmon hashtag of #farmvoices are ways to follow young farmer’s stories. Hearing about their lives we see their humanity. We appreciate our food more. We become aware of issues of food security and the very basic power that family farms have to solve world hunger.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organiztion (FAO) has as its mandate to end hunger in the world by 2030. We know that we have the technology and resources to do so. The International Year of the Family farm raises awareness of the role the world’s 500 million family farms can play in ending world hunger.
Today and always I #ToastAFarmer. I toast all the farmers I know. Without the food they grow me, I’d never be able to savour it all.
Here’s a few photos from some of the visits I’ve made to Alberta’s family farms. Long may they farm.