Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Two Faces of Farming

It's an interesting term: hobby farm. To many it means someone IS farming but it's more for fun than profit, its success isn't all that important, people can walk away from it whenever they want.   I think it's a little more complicated than that. There is an issue of scale, essentially how much one or two people can do while presumably working somewhere else.  There is the question of  affordability, the old joke about winning the lottery and farming until the money runs out. There's probably more truth to that than people realize.   There can be real rewards both physical and psychological from planning, working land,  planting a crop, successfully fighting off bugs and disease, and harvesting something of value. So much of what we do and consume is ready-made, a simple cash transaction. Farming, hobby or something bigger, demands real effort and risk. The weather can sweep away months of work in a heartbeat Disease can kill a promising clutch of chicks, or a group of wiener pigs.

Everyone is pouring over the latest data from Statistics Canada (Will we ever have such accurate data again? Canada's premier statisticians say no, the voluntary nature of future census gathering prevents that). One bright spot in agriculture in this region is the boom in hobby farms in Nova Scotia (a story below).  Let's think a bit about what this means.

I have enormous respect for people who buy small plots of land with the idea of growing and marketing food. Call them modern "back to the landers", new age farmers, whatever.  They voluntarily take on long hours of hard work, with little knowledge of  who will be their customers, or what they'll be willing to pay. CSA's or Community Supported Agriculture is a a huge improvement, defining a customer base, and sharing some of the financial risk in the spring.  They grow good food,  treat the land well, what could be more important?

At its heart I think are values and lifestyle, not business and profit.  That's its greatest strength, but also it's biggest weakness. I farmed like this myself for several years in the 1970's. I never worked so hard, or made so little money. Talking about farming on CBC was much easier, and much more profitable. As consumers we should do everything we can to support these small farming operations, even paying a little more than they're asking (farmers are notorious for not charging enough).

Here's the but, and where I get in trouble with many people I respect. I don't think this kind of farming can underpin a provincial economy, can create the financial returns needed to support healthcare and education. Many small/hobby farmers (and I know this from personal experience) are one truck breakdown from insolvency. Anyone who heard Paul Offer's honest portrayal of the life of a long-standing organic vegetable producer on PEI knows at the heart of it was risk, hard work, and  no financial return. Only off-farm income kept the enterprise afloat. He and his wife do it because they love doing it.  Clearly more than a hobby, but not the foundation of a functioning provincial economy,  one that's facing cuts in virtually every area of federal transfers, from equalization to ACOA, to employment insurance.

So two different stories on farming, one on the expansion of hobby farms in Nova Scotia, and one on the hardship being faced by a large progressive Nova Scotia Beef producer who's facing bankruptcy.

Nova Scotia’s hobby farms are thriving

    by Gabriela Perdomo on Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Farming continues to experience a decline across Canada, but one province is bucking the trend. Driven by cash crops and an emerging wine industry, Nova Scotia is enjoying an agricultural boom, according to a recent Statistics Canada report. The Atlantic province posted a 2.9 per cent jump in the number of farms since 2006, for a total of 3,905. By contrast, the number of farms across Canada has decreased by 10.3 per cent. And Nova Scotia is not only home to more farms: overall agricultural profits have also increased over the past five years, by nine per cent, to $595 million.

What’s driving the boom? There’s been an increase in the number of smaller farms (those that earn under $10,000). “That’s people who want to try the farming lifestyle, wanting to start small,” says Henry Vissers, executive director of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture. Vissers says the appeal of a farming lifestyle, coupled with a growing interest in farmers’ markets and consumers wanting to buy local, is pushing this boom.

Another big driver is the wine industry. Land dedicated to grape growing has increased by 41 per cent from 2006. Nova Scotia could soon be recognized as Canada’s third wine region after Ontario and British Columbia—the province’s coasts are now dotted with 16 large wineries and at least 60 independent grape growers. Carl Sparkes, president of Jost Vineyards, says the industry is growing at a furious pace. “I even think the census numbers are low. This year we’ve seen a lot of activity,” he says.

Along with the rise of hobby and specialty farms, another dramatic change is the decline of livestock farming. Hog farming is down by 80 per cent, the largest drop in Canada, driven by a combination of high prices for grain feed, stiff competition from Quebec and Manitoba, and the closing of two Maple Leaf processing plants in 2010. Beef production is also down by almost a third.

Meanwhile, the acreage dedicated to corn crops in the province has increased by 77 per cent in five years, and soy acreage has tripled. The price of cash crops has seen an upsurge in recent years, and Nova Scotia farmers have taken notice.

Family farm on the brink

LINDEN — Linden Leas Ltd., one of the province’s largest cattle farms, is on the brink of foreclosure.

“We’re on our knees now,” Edna Foster said as she scrubbed and re-scrubbed the same spotless dishes.

“We’ve got no cards left and they have them all.”

The “they” she is referring to is the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board, which called in $2.5 million in loans earlier this spring.

The Bank of Montreal, meanwhile, is calling in a further $350,000.

At the kitchen table behind her, her husband, Frank, and her children were plotting with a consultant, developing, they hoped, a last ditch offer to stave off bankruptcy.

The Fosters have thrown a cog in the foreclosure wheel by filing for farm debt mediation. On Wednesday, they were preparing their latest offer to the Farm Loan Board.

The Fosters have become a rallying cry for organizations representing Cumberland County farmers, with strongly worded motions of support passed by the Zone 3 Cattle Producers Association and the area board of directors for the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture.

“Now, after years of hardship, misery and barely hanging on, many beef farmers are facing the reality that the provincial government, rather than seeing the current rebound in beef prices as an opportunity to rebuild a shattered industry, is instead taking the short-term approach of liquidation to recover previous financial investment,” said Leon Smith, Zone 3 president.

So how did it happen?

How did a farm that pioneered grass-fed, locally sold beef, with $40 million in farm gate sales since 1989, end up crippled by debt?

In short, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease and BSE, happened.

The Fosters’ story started with a strange idea: Nova Scotia’s cattle farmers have an advantage over the industrial scale farms of Western Canada and the United States. That instead of feeding cattle almost entirely on expensive imported grain, farmers could use the grass from their pastures to fatten their animals.

“We have a grass advantage here,” said Frank Foster. “For centuries people had farmed this way here and it’s the way they still do it in England.”

So in 1989, the Fosters converted Linden Leas Ltd. Farm from a dairy to a beef farm.

When the cost of importing grain from Western Canada skyrocketed in 1996, they completed the transition to a pasture-feed operation, roughly matching their growing herd to the seasonal growth of their 405 hectares of fenced pasture.

“We’re not purists, but an animal is what it eats,” said Foster. “A pasture to cattle is like a dinner plate to us. The timothys, clovers and varied grasses of the pasture form a salad that is healthy for the animal and makes for healthier beef for us.”

While the conversion was expensive, debt and farming are uneasy companions that walk hand in hand.

By 2001, the Fosters had bought out two neighbouring farms, had 1,484 head of cattle, owed $1.1 million to the farm loan board and $400,000 to the Bank of Montreal.

The price for cattle was $1.60 per pound, the farm had gross receipts for its cattle of more than $1.2 million annually.

“We were in it for the long haul, for our children and grandchildren,” Foster said. “We were on a course to pay down the cost of setting up the farm.”

Then, in 2003, an Alberta farmer found a cow that couldn’t stand up.

It had BSE, a neurodegenerative disease capable of spreading to humans.

The American border closed to Canadian cattle, the market flooded and, almost immediately, the price for beef dropped by more than 50 per cent. The Linden Leas herd lost $1 million in value overnight.

The entire cattle industry was in chaos. Some went bankrupt, others held on.

Compensation programs to protect the industry and keep cattle from heading to the slaughterhouses were introduced by the federal and provincial governments. The evolving series of subsidies, funded between the federal and provincial governments, had mixed results in Nova Scotia.

The complex rules helped some and left others, like Linden Leas, out in the cold.

“We have received about one-third of the compensation for loss based upon agricultural activity and output per unit as other farms,” said Foster.

“If we had been treated equitably, we would not be in this situation.”

The Fosters responded with the Beef Mobile.

Trailer in tow, they made weekly stops in Amherst, Truro, Pictou and New Glasgow, selling their beef direct to the consumer, getting retail prices and selling out.

Their veterinarian daughter, Jillian, son, Rob, and a growing army of grandchildren, bent their backs to keep the wolf from the door. But without access to capital to buy new cattle and bills piling high, the Fosters weren’t able to make payments on their loans.

By Wednesday, interest upon interest upon interest had piled onto the original $1.1 million loan to make it about $2.5 million.

With beef prices rebounding to pre-BSE levels this spring, the Fosters made a desperate offer.

They offered to turn ownership of the farm over to the Farm Loan Board if they were allowed to get access to about $500,000 to purchase more cattle and continue farming on the land under a lease.

In return, they got a letter calling in the loans.

“We have created a market for ourselves and we have the land, the skills and the past track record,” Foster said. “All we need is capital to put hooves on the ground and we can pay the money back.

“I know I can be my own worst enemy and I’ve made my share of mistakes. If it takes me getting out of the way so the department can deal with my son, Rob, I’ll get out of the way.”

In an email, Agriculture Minister John MacDonell said he could not speak about specific cases involving the Farm Loan Board due to privacy concerns, but did say there is no legislative authority to prevent foreclosures.

Meanwhile, the Zone 3 Cattle Producers Association and the Cumberland County Federation of Agriculture are demanding a review of how BSE compensation programs were administered and an 18-month moratorium on beef farm foreclosures.

Agriculture Department spokeswoman Adele Poirier said staff who administered the BSE programs are no longer with the department and it would be difficult for her to speak on specifics.

“The cattle industry is challenging and BSE certainly added to the challenges,” said Poirier. “Lately, however, the industry has been rebounding. Nova Scotia is working at creating a niche market for grass-fed beef.”

The irony was not lost on Rob Foster as he looked over the farm’s much reduced herd of 645 animals.

“My five children were sorting our grass-fed beef to be sold locally before the new strategy came out,” he said.

“They’ll want to keep farming this land after I’m gone.”

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