Blog Post by Ayla Fenton. A huge shout-out to Ayla for organizing a fabulous two-day mixer in Parham Ontario! Here are some notes, photos and resource hand-outs from the mixer. Thanks to everyone who participated! For more event photos vist: Young Agrarians Eastern Ontario Mixer Album
In March 2014, I attended my first Young Agrarians event, a two-day young farmer mixer on Vancouver Island. I farm near Kingston, Ontario, but was visiting Vancouver Island for the National Farmers Union annual Youth retreat – four days spent learning and strategizing with other young farmers from across Canada. For the last day of our retreat, we attended the Saturday portion of the Young Agrarians mixer.
Partly, we were there to speak to the group about the NFU, but we also had an absolute blast eating, drinking and chatting with all the Vancouver Island farmers!
I knew immediately that I wanted to bring this experience to young farmers back in Ontario. There are many farm organizations in our province that provide a variety of valuable services, but I realized that no one was creating social spaces for young farmers to connect and establish community. I have attended many conferences and workshops and have observed that the most important things I take away from these events are the connections I make with other farmers, and the key ideas and pieces of information that come up in informal conversation during breaks in the schedule.
Being part of a strong community is crucial for farmers – this is something that has been understood since agriculture began. Oftentimes we are confronted with jobs or challenges that are simply too big to tackle alone. In these times, families and neighbours have traditionally come together to get the job done, not for payment but for the simple understanding that their friends will return the help when the time comes. However, a pre-existing community doesn’t always exist for today’s young farmers.
Many of us entering ecological agriculture today do not come from a farming background. We grew up and were educated in cities, and many of us began other career paths before turning to agriculture. When we decide to return to the land and produce food, we are filled with passion and dedication but we need lots of help. We need to learn about production techniques, business management and so on, but we also need to build new communities for ourselves. When my tractor breaks down or my beets don’t germinate, I can’t just call up my parents or school friends for advice.
If this new model of small-scale, ecological agriculture is to be successful, it is absolutely crucial that young farmers are able to work together and are connected to the people and resources they need to sustain and grow their farms. Workshops on cultivation and business planning are great, but they are not enough. We need to have more conversations with each other – we are all learning at the same time and can’t afford to keep replicating the same mistakes. We need opportunities to develop strong friendships, partnerships and mentorships with other ecological farmers.
This is why I decided to organize a Young Agrarians mixer for eastern Ontario.
On October 25 and 26, about sixty young farmers gathered at beautiful RKY Camp in Parham for a two-day mixer. We offered an extensive workshop schedule, plenty of free time, and fantastic local food throughout the weekend, as well as a community potluck feast, live music and bonfire on Saturday night.
We surveyed participants at the beginning of the weekend and realized that although almost everyone farmed within an hours’ drive of the camp, hardly anyone knew each other prior to arriving at the mixer. This quickly changed as Sara began facilitating community-building activities on Saturday morning. Soon enough, everyone was running around and laughing together, setting the stage for a weekend full of great conversations and lots of fun.
A dynamic lineup of presenters taught us about business planning, Brix and plant nutrition, principles of biodynamics, value adding, calculating cost of production, seed saving, wild foods and medicines, effective networking and marketing to chefs. Here are some photos of presenters and resources to download from workshops where provided.
“Biodynamics for every farmer” with Allaine Nordin and Tom Waller of Elm Tree Farm:
“Intro to Brix and Plant Health” with Harris Ivans:
“Value Adding in a Small Farm Business” with Tim Noxon, Vicki’s Veggies:
“Increasing effectiveness of networking and the power of groups” with Paul Reeds. Click here to download Networking for Farmers Handout 1 Networking Skills Handout 1 and Networking for Farmers Handout 2 NetworkingNegotiationSkills_Handout-1_Farmer-Partner-Rod-Exercise1.docx.
“Calculating Cost of Production” with Evan Quigley, Kitchen Garden. Click here to download Evan’s Enterprise Budget Template: Enterprise Budget Template and Resource List: Calculating Cost of Production Resource List.
“Wild Plants – food and medicine” with Sid Vereecken, local young farmer. Click here to download Sid’s Grow Wild notes: wild-harvesting-workshop.pdf
“Seed Saving for Farmers” with Cate Henderson, Heirloom Seed Sanctuary: click here for Cate’s Planning For Seed Handout: Planning for Seed Handout.
I worked with the fabulous Mara Shaw, executive director of Loving Spoonful and chair of the Kingston Food Policy Council, to develop an interactive policy strategy session that would identify the policy needs of new farmers in our region. The results from this productive session will be used to inform the work of the National New Farmer Coalition (a new project led by the NFU Youth) and the Kingston Food Policy Council.
Of course, we ate like kings throughout the weekend. An old friend of mine, Maurice Boire, is an incredible local chef and volunteered his time to cater for us. We were able to source most of our ingredients through donations from local farms, and Maurice worked his magic to bring everything together. For our dinner on Saturday, everyone also contributed a potluck dish made with food they produced on their farms.
We had a great time that evening listening to live music and then sitting around a bonfire into the wee hours. The MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Company had generously donated a keg of their delicious Crosscut Canadian Ale, a fitting choice for our gathering as these guys grow all of their ingredients and brew right on their family farm in Bath. The beer certainly helped the good times flow and sustained some great farm-nerd chats late into the night.
Most importantly, this mixer allowed some great personal connections to be made. One young student made dozens of contacts to help find his first farming job next summer. During the open discussion space at the end of the weekend, a group of landless farmers from the Ottawa region got together to discuss land access options and the possibility of developing co-op farms. And we all came away from the weekend with at least a few new friends.
We hope that this event will serve as the launch for building a Young Agrarians network in Ontario. Several attendees expressed interest in hosting future YA events on their farms, which we will work to coordinate over the next several months. Keep posted for more news and please get in touch if you’d like to help organize with us!
Funding support for this event was provided in part by: the National Farmers Union of Canada Ontario Locals, and the Agricultural Management Institute (AMI). Thank you to everyone who donated and participated for a fabulous weekend of farmers, food and friends!