The Farm Crisis: Local Solutions

Although food prices have risen in recent years, farmers haven’t received their fair share of the increase.

June 21, 2005 | | Environment

Last fall I had a conversation with a farmer friend. After he complained about the greenbelt and about farming in general, I mentioned that I’d been disappointed with the quality of local apples. My friend concurred and then piped up about the great Fuji apples he’d recently bought at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. This prompted me to ask him, “Don’t you buy your apples locally?” Looking slightly embarrassed he mumbled some excuse. What surprised me about this exchange was not that a farmer bought apples, likely imported apples, in Toronto, but that even he, like so many of us, had apparently failed to link his purchasing choices to our agricultural dilemma.

In Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: the food buyer’s guide to farm-friendly food, author Joel Salatin writes, “To all caring food buyers, I honour you. To all farm-friendly food producers, I honour you. We must be committed, focussed, and persistent if we are to see farm-friendly food triumph. It can. It’s up to us. Let’s keep on keeping on.”

After my conversation about apples and after reading a draft of Darrin Qualman’s sobering article in this issue about the global farm crisis, I had been wondering what I could write about agricultural solutions that would add up to anything in the face of the overwhelming barriers. Joel Salatin’s words reminded me again that small solutions can have a positive effect.

Photographer Gord Handley captures a quintessential countryside icon – a red barn.

In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that social change, everything from fashion trends to the rise in teenage smoking to, I propose, changes in our agricultural and food-buying practices, happen like an epidemic. “Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses do,” he says.

Comparing changes in agricultural practices and in food-buying patterns to a virus is somewhat distasteful, but it is apt. The practice of eating food produced by local farmers or, by the same token, the concept of producing food for local consumers really does need to take off like an epidemic rather than crawl along like a two-toed sloth.

As Gladwell explains, the most important three traits of social epidemics are, first, that they don’t happen gradually, they occur all at once. He calls this the tipping point. Second, that the behavioural changes must be contagious; and third, that little causes have big effects. He compares the effect to the way measles moves through a classroom.

In this article, I describe actions some local farmers are taking in order to survive the global crisis. While each may seem like small potatoes compared to the considerable structural problems that Darrin Qualman describes, it’s possible that one of them could be the small action with the big effect that tips us toward a dramatic shift in the decades-old habits of consumers and farmers.

Setting the Stage

The four federations of agriculture in the Greater Toronto Area recently released their GTA Agricultural Action Plan. It states, “GTA agriculture is distinct and its unique strengths must be capitalized on and marketed.” These farmers recognize that GTA agriculture, commonly referred to as near-urban agriculture, operates on a different playing field from farming in more rural areas.

Companies that provide agricultural services have mostly abandoned the Greater Toronto Area, forcing farmers to travel long distances to buy equipment, slaughter their animals, or process their grain. Near-urban farmers are apt to get an earful from their non-farming neighbours each time they spread manure, or from drivers on busy roads who make it clear that they don’t appreciate having to follow a slow-moving tractor. Furthermore, farmers in south Caledon who have been able to rent enough land to make their operations viable are now finding that the inventory of rentable farm-land is disappearing. And it’s not being sold to other farmers; real estate prices in this area are out of reach for most people interested in traditional farming.

On the other hand, near-urban farmers have a huge market on their doorstep.

With this in mind, Dr. Stewart Hilts, chair of the department of land resource science at the University of Guelph, recently embarked on what amounts to the second phase of a multi-dimensional study funded by the George Cedric Metcalf Charitable Foundation. Hilts breaks down his work into two broad categories: protecting farmland and supporting near-urban agriculture.

Although Hilts admits it may not be perfect, Ontario’s new greenbelt has done a great deal to realize his first objective: protect farmland. So Hilts and his students are now studying how to support near-urban agriculture; something the greenbelt doesn’t do. Over the next two years, they will identify the values that underlie our food system and how to overcome barriers to agricultural practices that could make a difference, such as supplying food locally, community-shared agriculture, pick-your-own operations and on-farm markets, among others. They will also endeavour to open up the dialogue between rural agricultural producers and urban food activists.

Connecting Directly with Customers

Although food prices have risen in recent years, farmers haven’t received their fair share of the increase. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture reports that the price of retail beef increased by $5.67 per kilogram between 1981 and 2003. Farmers, however, only received 14 cents, a mere 2.5 per cent, of the increase. This has prompted some farmers to figure out how they can bypass the wholesalers and retailers who eat away at the farmers’ share.

Gayle Weber and her husband are among a group of 15 producers around Mount Forest who created Beef Con-nections last year. Their mission is to supply top quality home-raised beef to urban neighbours at reasonable prices. By raising and finishing their beef on farm and selling directly to customers (they deliver), these enterprising farmers get almost the same return as before BSE struck. The best part of their co-operative approach, explains Gayle, is the direct contact with happy consumers. “It gives you the feeling of it [farming] being worthwhile,” she says.

Tom Wilson owns Wilson’s Orchard and Market on Dixie Road in south Caledon. He is one of a handful of farmers on the Peel Plain to take advantage of the five million customers who live minutes away.

Tom Wilson of Wilson’s Orchard and Market in south Caledon. Photography by Pete Paterson.

On about 50 acres of land, Tom grows 20 varieties of apples as well as strawberries. “In 1988 we started to push the pick-your-own,” he says. “2001 was the last year I shipped any apples off the farm.” Now Tom’s customers come to him. At 33, Tom is part of a new generation of farmers who are involved in niche marketing.

Organic Agriculture

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture reports retail organic food sales in North America are growing at about 15 to 20 per cent per year. The retail organic food market in Canada was estimated at $1.3 billion in 2003, and $14 billion to $17 billion in the U.S. (Imported products still make up over 85 per cent of the organic food Canadians consume.)

This rapid growth helps explain Ted Zettel’s claim: “If you take a snapshot of today, organic producers are struggling too, but we are on the positive side of a growth curve.” Ted, a pioneer in organic agriculture, milks 40 cows in Bruce County and hasn’t used pesticides since 1988. Organic milk in Ontario fetches a 16-per-cent premium on top of the price set by the Dairy Farmers of Ontario for conventional milk.

Paul De Jong is on his way to being certified organic at his dairy farm near Dundalk.

Paul De Jong demonstrates that organic production is moving from niche into mainstream agriculture. He milks about 70 cows near Dundalk on his 450-acre farm. He is halfway through the three-year process of becoming a certified organic dairy farmer. Paul believes that because “organic farmers have a better understanding of how the environment works,” they have an advantage over traditional farmers as consumers’ attitudes and regulatory standards evolve. Only 36 years old, Paul is one of Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers, an award handed out by CIBC.

Community-shared agriculture

Community-shared agriculture (CSA) is an alternative local food system that links farmers directly with consumers. Amunda Salm from McGill University’s Macdonald College says CSAs help solve two problems: that farmers bear all the risks in food production, and that consumers need more awareness about where their food comes from.

Tarrah Young is the assistant farm manager at Everdale Farm near Hillsburgh. She says the farm has 100 CSA members who, for a fee of about $600 each, receive enough organic vegetables to feed a family of four during the summer season.

Tarrah Young of Everdale Farm.

In addition to the CSA, Everdale sells its vegetables to wholesalers and at farmers’ markets in Toronto (Riverdale) and Milton, and also from their own farm west of Hillsburgh on Saturdays. Its nine acres of vegetables provide full-time employment for a farm manager and seven interns who receive a stipend, room and board, and lots of education.

Though the margins are tight, community-shared agriculture offers farmers a way to escape the squeeze. They don’t use costly chemical fertilizers and the prices they charge aren’t set by giant grocery stores.


Phil Armstrong, a Peel Plain dairy farmer in his mid-40s, explains, “What’s kept agriculture viable in Caledon has been access to vacant land in Brampton and Vaughan. We’ve farmed this [rental] land for 30 years, but that’s going now [as a result of sprawl].”

Phil sees an opportunity to further intensify the dairy farm he works with two siblings, but he has to do it without taking up much space. “We’ve always had a rule of thumb here. We need to double every 15 years to stay in the same place,” says Phil.

Phil Armstrong at his farm in Caledon.

He’s crunching the numbers to see if he can build a new state-of-the-art barn that will allow him to double his operation from 250 to 500 milking cows. His cattle never leave these climate-controlled barns. Phil notes that an advantage of farming in Caledon is that there’s lots of room to spread manure because there are so few livestock operations left.

Work off the Farm

At 57 years of age, Wayne Cunningham has already retired from his firefighting career. That’s allowed him to return full-time to his first love.

Wayne is a fourth-generation farmer. His father cultivated potatoes in Erin Township. Now Wayne plants a variety of cash crops on 500 acres of land, most of it rented. In combination, the cool climate northwest of Hillsburgh, the rolling hills and the light soil result in average yields. Wayne manages to break even, but tells me, “My accountant says I’m working for about 50 cents an hour.”

Wayne Cunningham at his potato farm in Hillsburgh.

Wayne got into cash cropping because he could only farm in the evenings and on weekends while he was still working for the fire department. Like so many farmers, Wayne and his wife Beth supple-mented their meagre farm income with salaries paid by off-farm jobs. Now their pensions make up the difference.

Supply Management and a Sharp Pencil

After more than ten years and three terms as a member of parliament representing Dufferin-Peel-Wellington-Grey, Murray Calder is back on his 450-acre poultry farm near Mount Forest.

He doesn’t make bones about the state of agriculture. “If I didn’t have the benefit of supply management then I’d be like the rest of the farmers,” he says, “I’d be a price taker [rather than a price setter].”

Murray Calder runs a 450-acre poultry farm near Mount Forest.

As it is Murray can only make a living at farming by squeezing everything he can out of his margins. He advises, “You have to make sure the pencil is pretty sharp.” In addition to his 350,000 chickens, Murray, a farm manager and two part-time staff also harvest veneer maple from a 130-acre woodlot and rent land to a cash cropper who also takes their manure.

Poultry is one of four commodities in Canada that are subject to supply management. The others are milk, eggs and turkeys. In order to farm these commodities, farmers must purchase part of the existing quota. This system helps prevent oversupply that can lead to weak prices. It also makes it expensive for farmers to enter the marketplace or expand their operations.

When Armbro Farms on Highway 10 in Caledon decided to shut down its operation, Tim Armstrong lost his largest customer. Armbro Farms used to purchase pretty much all the hay Tim could grow on his own 90 acres and on the other 170 acres he rented. To make up the lost revenue, Tim is contemplating adding another six cows to his dairy herd. His quota currently allows him to milk 41. But, at over $29,000 per cow, he says, “It will take about 12 years to pay off any quota I buy.”

Hay farmers Tim and Rose Armstrong lost their biggest customer when Armbro Farms shut down.

As Murray Calder demonstrates, supply-managed farming can be profit-able. Tim Armstrong, however, isn’t so sure he wants to borrow the money he’s going to need to make a go of it.

[Despite introduction of Ontario’s new greenbelt, pressure to convert prime agricultural land into housing developments remains alive and well. This has prompted those interested in preserving farmland to come up with some new solutions.]

Land Trusts

A land trust, according to the Ontario Farmland Trust, is any organization that holds or protects land ‘in trust’ for public benefit. Individual land trusts are usually developed to protect a specific type of land that serves an important function and that may be threatened by competing land uses. Land trusts commonly protect land with natural heritage values, such as woodlands, wetlands, shorelines or rare species.

Stewart Hilts heads up the new Ontario Farmland Trust. It aims to protect agricultural land by using a number of tools, including conservation easements and donations of farmland. Hilts recognizes that those remedies can provide limited financial help because landowners must have a reasonable income to take advantage of the tax breaks that go with putting a conservation easement on their property. Nonetheless, the province’s three main agricultural organizations sit alongside conservationists and academics on the OFT board. They are exploring what it has to offer.

What the OFT is unlikely to do is buy farmers’ development rights. Hilts explains that Canadian farmers are mistaken in believing they have development rights to sell. He says that it’s a dream from south of the border where organizations like the American Farmland Trust purchase development rights from farmers for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Property rights in the U.S. are held by individuals (that’s why hillbilly Jed Clampett owned the black gold that bubbled up in his back forty), in Canada they are held by the Crown. This allows our governments to zone land without compensating landowners. It also allows governments in Canada to place land in agricultural reserves without paying compensation.

British Columbia’s agricultural reserve comprises 4.7 million hectares of prime agricultural land and Quebec has set aside 6.35 million hectares. Ontario’s greenbelt will contain only 720,000 hectares, almost half of it is already included in either the Niagara Escarp-ment and Oak Ridges Moraine plans.

Agriminiums and Population Density Credits

Stewart Hilts is investigating agricultural condominiums, or ‘agriminiums’ as some people call them. The idea is that since the type of agriculture practised by near-urban farmers, vegetable growing for instance, may require tens rather than hundreds of acres, several farmers can use one 100-acre farm. The condominium model allows the farmland to remain intact while it is used by a number of farmers.

Another option that Hilts is looking into involves awarding population density credits to farmers. Density credits provide compensation to owners for parts of their property that cannot be developed because they contain critical areas and/or critical area buffers. When density credits are allowed, residential development can be concentrated on the portions of the property not restricted by buffers, setbacks or critical areas.

In southern Ontario, population density credits could be issued for a county or region as a whole. Farmers who don’t want their land developed or are unable to develop it due to land-use restrictions could sell their credits to developers who could increase their densities at some other, presumably more appropriate, location. What Hilts likes about this tool is that the money would be contained within the private sector and not involve public funds at all.

Environmental Services

Professor David Douglas, also from the University of Guelph, says many European farmers receive a substantial portion (20 to 40 per cent) of their income for preserving wetlands and hedgerows, or for not using pesticides, for example.

In the past year, some of Canada’s farmers have begun analyzing a similar practice dubbed Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) by the group from Prince Edward Island that developed it. ALUS involves compensating farmers for their land stewardship practices that benefit us all.

Elbert van Donkersgoed, strategic policy advisor for the Christian Farmers’ Federation of Ontario, is very keen on the need to compensate farmers for the environmental services they provide. “ALUS is about society paying for environmental goods and services rather than seizing them by regulation,” he says. “Farm families are very willing to increase forest-cover by planting trees, set aside land for marshes, manage grass-lands with songbirds in mind, maintain natural and healthy wildlife habitat, and keep the air clear and water fresh. Society should pay for these services.”

To this end, the Christian Farmers’ Federation has called for a task force on environmental payments, comprising an independent chair and representing farm-ers, other rural residents, and consumers.

Changing the Message

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes how a nurse named Georgia Sadler managed to tip San Diego’s black community into getting mammograms and tests for diabetes. An existing program, held in conjunction with the church, had only been able attract the attention of the already converted. So Sadler moved her campaign into beauty salons. She trained hairdressers about breast cancer and diabetes and had them spread the message. The strategy worked.

Patrick Carson, former Loblaws’ market-ing manager who introduced that grocery chain’s line of green products, has the Irish gift of the gab. The author of Green is Gold: Talking to Business about the Environmental Revolution, Carson is critical of the failure of farmers to market their products effectively. “Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark,” he says. “You might know what you’re doing, but no one else does.”

Perhaps society will tip if farmers find a new message and deliver it via a different messenger.

Statistical sources:

*       GTA agricultural profile update, GTA caucus, regional planning commission of Ontario (
**       Ontario federation of agriculture
***     Canadian federation of agriculture

About the Author More by Nicola Ross

Freelance writer Nicola Ross lives in Alton and is the author of the bestselling 'Loops and Lattes' hiking guide series.

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