Family farming is a life I know well. I grew up on a family dairy farm in Pictou County, where my brothers continue as the sixth generation of McLeans that farm the very same land. I married Peter, a third generation farmer, and have lived for 30 years on the Wile Family Farm in Wileville, just outside Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.
It’s a unique life – farming and family activities become closely linked, connected and intertwined. It is complex, too and often misunderstood by those looking in from the outside.
Many people have an idyllic picture of a smiling, happy family herding cows, gathering eggs and working in the garden. But beyond those smiling faces is the reality of the situation: family farms are businesses, run by folks who rely in whole or in part on family labour. Families who farm have all the same challenges of non-farm families, including balancing afterschool activities, volunteering, caring for aging parents and, for those who may work off the farm, juggling work commitments. Then there is the ever-present challenge of balancing home life with farm work.
Business partners are often family members and the reliance on family labour to complete the daily farm chores and manage the operation can impact decision-making and farm management. Successful family farms find ways to balance the work requirements of the farm with the goals and aspirations of each family member. Ultimately, the farm needs to be profitable to support the family and this is a constant challenge as markets change and costs rise. The financial challenges of the farm can have a dramatic affect on family life.
Many farms in Nova Scotia, across the Maritimes, and indeed across the continent, are facing the challenge of finding family members willing to continue with the farming operations. This not only reflects the difficult economics of farming and its capital requirements, but also the wider variety of career choices available to young people.
Still, what is it about this institution that makes it so important? So valuable, in fact, that the United Nations would declare 2014 the year of family farming? And beyond this, why would such an important international body advocate for policies that foster and support farm families around the world?
Family farms provide an important means of feeding people and maintaining food security for their communities. From an economic perspective, surplus food produced on the farm can be sold to generate income to improve farmers’ lives. The family farm can be a source of employment for others in the community and therefore stimulate economic activity beyond the farm gate, cascading into an important stimulus for labour and economic security as well. Throughout Nova Scotia, farms are important economic drivers in rural communities.
Family farms continue to present opportunities for rural economic development and revitalization of rural communities throughout the world, at a time when rural economies are weak and rural communities are shrinking. And, while family farms vary dramatically in their size and scope, their impact on the environment is more sustainable: the strong connection family farmers feel to their place motivates many to steward their environment, leaving land and waterways in better condition compared with other approaches to farming.
Peter and I are delighted to sponsor a year-long series of articles in Rustik Magazine about family farms – the benefits of buying direct from a farm family are significant for maintaining healthy, vibrant rural communities. But we also hope that, by getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse at family farms, this series will inspire you to make weekly visits to farmers markets wherever you may find yourself, whether in Lunenburg County, somewhere in Nova Scotia or anywhere else across the Maritimes and beyond. We want to encourage membership in community supported agriculture (CSAs), and visiting U-Pick farms in season to not only foster support for family farms, but encourage healthier eating, too.
And, if all of that is not enough to encourage a visit, we know that you’ll meet some of the most interesting folks, too!
Elspeth McLean-Wile and Peter Wile are the founders and managers of Wile’s Lake Farm Market and hardworking members of the Wile Family Farm. In addition to selling products from their own farm, the market supports more than 30 family farms in the Lunenburg County region by selling their products and produce, as well.