BY KIRK STARRATT
Kings County Advertiser/Register
It may be of assistance to young farmers getting started, but it seems the issues of capital investment and a fair return are what stakeholders in our agricultural industry would like to see addressed.
Provincial Agriculture Minister John MacDonell recently announced THINKFARM, information on programs and services for new farmers in Nova Scotia, including a coordinator working on resources for new farmers, a guidebook, resource sheets and a website. Progressive Conservative Agriculture critic Chuck Porter is pleased with the announcement, but still questions the NDP government’s promise of a $900,000, 10-year agricultural strategy. He says farmers were promised a new strategy in the 2009 election campaign.
Porter is encouraging MacDonell to pursue THINKFARM aggressively, in light of a 2008 policy paper by the Young Farmers of Nova Scotia that shows farm business will require a minimum of $500,000 of initial capital by 2010.
Kings County Federation of Agriculture president Dan Fulton says the program is not going to make a big difference.
“What is needed is capital investment,” he says. “This program may provide some small assistance to a few young people, but what is really needed is financial assistance, be it through grants, loan guarantees, subsidies or other incentives.”
Fulton believes the Young Farmers’ paper is right about the initial capital needed to start farming. While government might be trying to support current farmers, it’s falling far short. He says, for example, his family farms about 700 acres but, because of the way their business is structured, they are not considered farmers.
Another example of what Fulton describes as a poorly thought-out program is recent interest relief for beef farmers. One beef farmer with about 100 head of cattle received about $100; a neighbouring farmer with six cattle got $600.
“As for the 10-year strategy, $900,000 will do nothing. I heard that Quebec has recently announced a $75 million investment in agriculture. There is a government that recognizes the importance of agriculture to its economy.”
Fulton says not everything can be blamed on government. One farmer was telling him about the price of gravenstein apples: selling for about $70 per bin, less than the farmer’s grandfather sold juice apples for years ago.
“The grocery stores continue to make record profits while the farmers face record losses,” he says. “Something must change in this province, but I have seen nothing to indicate that this government will help make that change possible.”
Laura VanHattem-Contant, 31, operates Heart and Soil Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Woodville. She has been farming for four years; agriculture is in her blood, on both sides of her family. She says she’s a dreamer - not a risk-taker: borrowing money to start a business that might not succeed seemed not only daunting but also impossible to her, considering her huge student loan, but, early on, she knew she needed something to set her apart. She changed her marketing to a CSA model, raising vegetables, fruit, eggs and chickens and turkey. She hopes to integrate pasture-fed pork, sheep and goats for various value-added products.
Four years ago, something like the THINKFARM booklet would have been helpful. She had to find out most of the information now in the program on her own. The new program could help those new to the province or who don’t already have a lot of good contacts and resources.
“What I feel that people like me need is clear and concise information on how to make our farms profitable, like how and where to market our products,” she says. “The pork industry is a good example of the government helping farmers to keep running and producing, but, with nowhere to process or sell their product, why bother? I think the ‘why bother’ attitude we hear all around us discourages many young farmers.”
VanHattem-Contant says 10-year government strategies probably won’t benefit her. Farming is year-to-year, month-to-month, with everything depending on the growing season and the price of inputs. Many small-scale, young farmers feel there is a more ethical, sustainable way to provide food to a growing population. VanHattem-Contant believes government should invest in those niche opportunities and help educate the public to shift ideas of where our food comes from all the time - not just in the summer, when local food is abundant.
Elmridge Farm Limited produces a variety of fresh market fruit and vegetables in Sheffield Mills. Greg Gerrits, 40, who owns and operates the farm with his wife, Suzanne, says there are a lot of problems facing young farmers and the agricultural industry, but most of them come back to one point: if you don’t intend to pay farmers a fair price, everything else is a waste of time.
“When you start to look at the dilemmas facing young farmers, almost every one of them has a single solution,” he says. “We need to make agriculture profitable again.”
Instead of trying to deal with food prices and profitability - the same issue, government, agricultural groups and concerned citizens groups are trying only to fix symptoms of the real problem of farmers not being paid enough.
“If there was reasonable profitability in agriculture, there would be no battle over saving farmland because farmers could farm the land and still have a lifestyle comparable to their non-farming neighbours,” he says.
Special programs wouldn’t be needed to “lure another generation into agriculture,” because a realistic chance of making a reasonable living would entice young people to take up “what is, quite arguably, one of the most rewarding career choices.”