Food – along with air, water, and shelter – is a need that all living organisms share. Growing our own food is one of the behaviours that sets people apart from the rest of the animals. Earlier in our social evolution, we hunted for it and gathered it from our local environment and moved on. Then, some bright spark (some say it was a woman) discovered the secret of seeds. These marvellous little packets of energy could be saved and sown in greater quantities and in new places, places that often had other amenities favourable for human habitation, like plentiful water.
The need to keep wandering in search of food was no longer imperative.Groups of humans could plant enough of a crop to enable staying in one location and have enough to feed themselves. Civilizations began to flourish. People now had more time to develop complex cultures.
Over time, and because different kinds of food grew in different kinds of places, trade networks developed. A famous one developed in western Canada called the “grease trail.” Coastal people who had access to oolichans (candlefish) made a very valuable commodity called oolichan grease that was traded far and wide for items that were not available on the coast.
Food was used as currency in many early societies. As we know, money confers a degree of power. Whoever held the foodbasket held the power. The most powerful civilizations in ancient times were those that had secure stores of food. Leaders throughout the ages knew how important food was to their people – and their power. It seems to be something that today’s leaders have forgotten.
In a letter to the (presumed) new American president (“Farmer in Chief,” New York Times, October 9, 2008), Michael Pollan advised Barack Obama that high food prices can be a serious political peril. He linked food prices to national security to energy policy to health care and to climate change, and said the new president “will need not simply to address food prices but to make the reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of your administration…”
Just when we are all being urged to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables to help bring down rising health costs (and be healthier, of course), we find out that the price of fresh foods has risen by 22%. The two main reasons for this are shortages of water and shortages of oil increasing the cost of industrial agriculture.
Why does food production relate to climate change? Because modern food production, says Pollan, “depends on cheap energy that we can no longer depend on… [in fact,] …the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do – as much as 37%….” Between the various aspects of commercial food production (pesticides, fertilisers, packaging) and its distribution, our food system consumes about 20% of all the fossil fuels we use. Pollan’s ultimate comment on food security is good food for thought, especially for our national leaders: “While there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food.”
Put into the contexts of the current global financial crisis, the western health crisis, and the massive looming “peak oil” debacle, food security and food safety require a concentrated rethink and our food supply “system” requires some re-tooling.
Community Farming – A Healthy Way To Go
You are what you eat – on a molecular level, anyway. When you eat a lot of contaminated molecules, sooner or later, you get sick. The tremendous increase in heart disease, cancers, diabetes, and neurological diseases is evidence that something is amiss somewhere. It relates, in large part, to the huge amounts of contaminants present in our air, water, and the food we eat. As well as our bodies, our food supply system is also sick, as evidenced by the many scares and recalls over the past few years. Local as well as global economies are certainly suffering. Family farms are disappearing at an alarming rate, as is good farmland, falling to the sprawl of our cities and towns. Farmers and communities everywhere are looking at ways to bring wellness to all of these at the same time. A healthy response to the illness in our food supply, our local economies, and our bodies is community farming.
The concept of community farming is inherent in a number of emerging activities, such as the local food movement, farmers’ markets, even the “100-mile-diet.” This particular phenomenon shot to popularity like a rocket a few years ago and, in some locales, has even morphed into “the 10-mile diet.”
Wikipedia defines the local food movement as a: "collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies…in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption are integrated to enhance the economic, environmental, and social health of a particular place" and a part of the broader sustainability movement. It is part of the concept of local purchasing and local economies, a preference to buy locally produced goods and services.
Two primary challenges face people wanting to participate in ways to get healthier food, enhance their local economies, and support farmers: the increasing age of the current crop of farmers and the loss of good farmland on which to grow crops. Other challenges include:
• Knowledge about farming is disappearing
• Low incomes, hard work, and high risks discourage new farmers
• Demand for local, organically-grown food is up, and exceeds supply
• High cost of farmland is a barrier for new farmers.
Communities, certainly farmers, are looking for – and finding – solutions. Community farms are one of these. Their goal is to promote closer interaction between farmers (producers) and consumers (the rest of us). They can help address some of the challenges faced by farmers and communities because they:
• Support local food systems
• Protect farmland for long-term food production through land trusts, covenants, and other means
• Give new farmers access to affordable land through long-term leases
• Provide supportive and flexible labour pools.
A Diversity of Solutions
In response to the need to provide a safe and secure food supply, and to support local farmers and local economies, numerous approaches have been made, including a variety of organizations, co-ops, and urban farming groups that have sprung up in both the city and the country. Some operate in partnership with the Land Conservancy. Many are part of the Community Farm Network.
Lohbrunner Farm near Langford, west of Victoria, is a 16-acre farm that its 81-year-old owner donated to the Land Conservancy. The conservancy leases the land to three young organic farmers, who have also organized a company that grows vegetables in residential backyards and shares the produce with the property owners.
Linnaea Farm on Cortes Island (www.linnaeafarm.org) is a 315-acre enterprise that provides both locally produced organic foods and educational programs. It is “governed by a society whose mandate is to protect the Linnaea Farm land trust and provide public education for ecological and sustainable living.”
Haliburton Community Organic Farm, just north of Victoria, is a seven-acre certified organic farm situated on the Cordova Bay ridge at 741 Haliburton Rd. “We strive to protect agricultural land, supply one-acre parcels of land two farmers, grow and sell food at our own farm stand and at farmers markets, offer a farming apprenticeship/mentorship program, as well as workshops and facilities to professional growers and the community, promote other organic farmers, and teach growing skills at our weekly community work parties.”
One of the oldest farming and sustainability organisations in BC is the lower mainland’s FarmFolk/CityFolk. Their website (www.ffcf.bc.ca/) says “FarmFolk/CityFolk is a non-profit organization that connects farms and cities across British Columbia to create and support local, sustainable food systems. Our projects protect agricultural land, help farmers access farmland, support local and small-scale growers and producers, and connect local food communities through education, communication and celebration.” They define the community farm as “a multi-functional farm where the land is held in trust for community rather than owned privately. It is managed by a community group or cooperative. The primary focus…is local food production using sustainable agricultural practices.”
The Community Farms Network is a “mutually supportive network of community farms in BC to share best practices in sustainable organic agriculture and cooperative farming and living (see the description and list on FarmFolk/City Folk’s website, Programs.) Also see www.bcfarmfresh.com/