Throughout 2014, Rustik presented the stories of family farms in Atlantic Canada. The special feature was supported by Wile’s Lake Farm Market and Elspeth McLean Wile, who grew up on a family farm herself, kicked off with the first article. We have invited her back now to reflect on the series and what can be learned from the stories of hardworking Maritime farmers.
Last year, to honour International Year of Family Farming, Rustik Magazine and Wile’s Lake Farm Market teamed up to run a monthly series featuring farm families from across the Maritimes. The series uncovered a host of interesting stories that shared common threads – a deep love of the land and respect for its potential, a commitment to family, an eternal optimism, and a fierce sense of independence. The challenges – sometimes considerable – were also made clear.
Despite such challenges, global statistics show that more than 80 per cent of the food produced in the world comes from family farms. Among the underlying reasons why family farms are so successful is their ability to provide food for themselves and sell surplus crops or produce crops for income. This has a significant impact on rural economies, as farms purchase their inputs locally and generally also fill additional labour requirements locally, as well. While farms are the perfect engine to fuel rural economies, they struggle economically in most parts of the world.
There continues to be growing downward pressure on returns to farmers. Whether harvesting cranberries in Lunenburg County, rice in Japan, or coffee beans in Costa Rica, farmers are often unable to pass on the true costs of production as economic pressure grows. Family labour remains the favoured substitute for hired labour, which ultimately subsidizes the cost of production. The agriculture industry’s dependence on oil for production and transport has also significantly contributed to the pressures facing farmers.
However, change is happening. The growth in local marketing by farmers and growing interest by consumers in buying local is shifting the conversation about food in a positive direction. Serious questions are being asked about where food is sourced, how it is produced and how it is processed. These are good changes that begin to build stronger connections between the farmers who produce food and those who consume it.
Still more can be done and luckily there are a number of simple ways consumers can support family farms in their local communities. Here are just a few:
- Visit a U-pick farm. Great for adults and children alike, a farm visit helps us learn where our food comes from and gives us all the experience of directly harvesting the food that appears on the dinner table.
- Buy direct from farmers. The opportunity to meet the farm family and see where your food is produced is relatively easy to find in the Maritimes. Check online sources like ACORN or Select Nova Scotia to find local suppliers for meat, eggs, fish, vegetables, fruit and dairy.
- Regularly shop at roadside markets like Wile’s Lake Farm Market and the numerous other markets found throughout the region, where you know the business is locally owned and products are locally sourced.
- Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. Each week a delicious box of farm fresh products will arrive at your door or at a convenient pick up location. CSAs vary in the range of products available, but a number of them are quite sophisticated in their offerings. The movement is growing throughout the region and provides a great way for urban shoppers to connect with their country cousins. ACORN has a list of organic CSAs in Atlantic Canada and Ecology Action Centre has a list of CSAs in Nova Scotia.
- Weekly farmers’ markets are held in many communities and a growing number are open year round. These are wonderful shopping experiences and a great place to meet your neighbours. Peter and I love to visit the Lunenburg Farmers Market during the winter months when we are not open.
- Visit and support restaurants in your community that feature local food and are renowned for sourcing local ingredients. You will soon connect with many up-and-coming chefs who are pushing out great local food. A growing number of food trucks are promoting the local food scene. It’s hip to be local!
- The most important step we can all take is asking for local food in our large grocery chains. Although many people are seeking ways of connecting directly with farmers, this is not always practical or convenient for everyone. Some people must rely on traditional grocery chains to supply their food needs. But we can all push for more local choices in these stores. Never underestimate the power of consumer demand to influence the availability of products in these stores.
Buying local and supporting local farms may require more effort and research in the early stages until the planning and routines are in place. But, my own experience tells me that you become more thoughtful about the food you consume, more aware of what foods are in season, and more appreciative of the great fresh flavours that can be lost through mass processing and handling.
There is a strong tradition of family farming in the Maritimes. This is a tradition that is good for all of us. Let’s commit to do what we can to ensure family farming continues.
Elspeth and her husband Peter are the founders and managers of the Wile’s Lake Farm Market and hardworking members of the Wile Family Farm.