A few years ago my partner and I started a small market garden, Wind Whipped Farm, on Southern Vancouver Island. Like many new farmers, we didn’t come from farming backgrounds, didn’t have much money and had only a few years experience working on a farm. Critically, we had support from other farmers in our community who shared their time, knowledge, equipment, and manure. They helped us get started and encouraged us to keep going. Our experience made us realize how crucial it is to be part of a community of farmers: to learn from each other, to help each other out, and especially, to help more new farmers, like us, get started.
In recent years we have benefited from becoming part of a much larger community of farmers, the National Farmers Union (NFU). We got involved originally through a meeting of the NFU Youth; we were attracted by the opportunity to connect with more young farmers from across Canada. As we have learned more about the NFU; its democratic structure, history of fighting for family farms, support of new farmers, solidarity work with international farmers, and policy positions on pressing issues, we have become more involved. At the last convention I was elected to the Board of Directors as Vice President of Youth. While I am very new to the position and have much to learn, I wanted to take this opportunity to share some information and perspective with the Young Agrarians network about the NFU and the NFU Youth. I want to explain why I think building a movement of young farmers is critical. I want to invite any young farmers who are interested to get in touch and get involved.
NFU in a nutshell
In 1970 the Parliament of Canada consented to merge provincial farmers Unions into the National Farmers Union. For over 40 years the union has represented members from across Canada (except Quebec) in all sectors of agriculture. The NFU provides Canadian farmers with a forum for addressing common challenges and for developing policies. Decisions are made at a board level through representational democracy and at a policy level through participatory democracy at annual conventions. While anyone is able to join the NFU as an Associate Member, only active Farmer Members can vote and hold elected positions.
The NFU is committed to family farms as the primary producers of food; gender equity in shaping food policy; environmentally-safe farming practices; fair food prices for farmers and consumers; supporting youth farmers; improving communities; ensuring adequate supplies of safe and nutritious food; and, standing in solidarity with family farmers internationally. The NFU is a founding member of La Via Campesina (LVC), the international peasants movement that represents over 200 million farmers, peasants, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities. The NFU promotes Food Sovereignty, a concept developed by LVC that goes beyond “Food Security” to challenge existing power structures and make explicit the need for rights to self-determination over how food is grown and distributed. As a member organization, all NFU members are members of LVC.
At first I was skeptical. Being in my late 20’s, I didn’t really think of myself as qualifying as a “youth”. The Oxford dictionary defines youth as “the period between childhood and adult age”. (It also mentions that the most common modifiers used with the word youth are “unemployed, disaffected, nuisance, and drunken”). In Canada, depending on the province or territory, minors officially become adults and therefore stop being youth, at age 18 or 19. By most standards someone my age would not qualify as a youth. This was also the case for the NFU twenty years ago when, according to Statistics Canada, there were around 78,000 farmers under the age of 35 in Canada. In 2011, the last census year currently available, there were around 24,000 farmers under 35, a precipitous drop of around 70%. Accordingly, over the last 20 years the NFU has amended it’s constitution three times to increase the age limit of “youth”. The upper limit is now at 35, lower than the Canadian Young Farmers Forum age limit of 40. This is the nouveau “youth” of Canadian agriculture. It reflects the many, often prohibitive challenges that farmers face today and is an alarming indication of the state of agriculture in Canada.
Despite the demographic trends there are encouraging signs. As you likely know, there is growing support from customers for local food and an interest in building relationships and trust with farmers. Farmers are innovating new ways of growing and distributing food: in urban areas, on land trusts, through Community Supported Agriculture, by bicycle, on incubator farms, in co-operatives, with community investment, and more. Through the NFU Youth I have gotten to know young farmers from across Canada who are innovative, successful, and are actively building Food Sovereignty. In the downtown East side of Vancouver, Seann Dory, Co-Director of SOLE Food Street Farms, is turning abandoned lots into raised box gardens and training inner-city farmers. In Central Alberta, Blake Hall, Herdsman at Prairie Gold Pastured Meats, grazes his livestock to mimic the natural ecology of grassland herds and butchers his own meats. In Saskatchewan, Kalissa Regier grows and direct markets certified organic whole grains, pulses, oilseeds and stone ground flour on her family’s farm, Hestia Organics. Outside of Ottawa, Paul Slomp runs Grazing Days, a grass fed beef CSA financed with the help of community investors. In Nova Scotia, Cammie Harbottle, NFU Youth President, operates Waldegrave Farm, part of a 100 acre Community Land Trust.
The NFU Youth gives young farmers the opportunity to connect with other farmers from across the country to learn from each other, share strategies, address common challenges, and learn about and get involved in the NFU. Through the NFU Foundation, Youth members have access to financial support to attend national conventions and Youth meetings. There are also two dedicated positions for Youth members on the Board of Directors as well as NFU policy statements specific to Beginning Farmers. The NFU Youth also works with other organizations who share common goals and values; we are happy to collaborate with Young Agrarians to mobilize and support young farmers in BC!
Building community, building Food Sovereignty
Being part of a community of farmers enabled us to start our farm. It has also been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of our farming experience. While there are many practical benefits of being able to access the knowledge, support and resources of other farmers it is also encouraging and fun to connect with farmers and know that when we are working on our farm we are not toiling alone.
Being part of community of farmers also gives me hope for what this food movement could achieve. Working as a whole we are much stronger than the sum of our parts. Food Sovereignty in Canada is possible only if we work together and grow more new farmers. Engaging in organizations like the NFU gives us the ability to build support and a strong unified voice for our generation and future generations of farmers. With the resources, knowledge and passion of the NFU and its members and a commitment to Food Sovereignty, I believe we have the opportunity to help build real solutions to our most pressing ecological and social justice challenges, while promoting real, long term prosperity, in our communities, in Canada, and around the world.
If you are interested in getting involved in the NFU please don’t hesitate to get in touch. For more information and to become a member visit: http://www.nfu.ca
Alex Chisholm Fletcher and his partner manage a small market garden, Wind Whipped Farm, in Metchosin on Vancouver Island. They coordinate and market their produce through The Local Food Box, a CSA partnership. Alex is the representative for BC on the NFU’s International Programs Committee and serves on the Board of Directors of the NFU as Youth Vice President. Alex is also a member of the Young Agrarians BC Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org