This article was originally published on VueWeekly on January 8, 2014.
Young farmers use co-ops as a new way to work the land
‘I’ve helped out on many family farms, and I love them. I think they’re great. It’s not my dream. My dream’s a little bit different.”
David Laing is a young Edmonton man offering me tea to keep warm at his new apartment for the winter. I can picture him during the summer with soil under his fingernails and his heart on his sleeve. Laing is president of Edmonton’s Seeds, Feeds, and Needs Co-operative, which just finished its first agricultural season.
“I’m trying to build a co-op farm, a community farm,” Laing says. “Something where we’re bringing people together. We’re sharing profits. We’re making decisions collectively and building community around agriculture.”
Using a mix of garden space throughout the city and a farmer’s field 45 minutes away in New Sarepta, they were able to start farming before having land of their own.
Laing is one of many young faces around the country actively involved in building an agricultural movement that embraces sustainable practices and local availability. Unlike familiar images of quaint, organic family farms or massive corporate farms, there are more and more people going into agriculture as worker co-operatives.
“When it comes to how we’re structured, every member of the co-op has voting power, has equal say, everyone’s ideas are valued,” Laing says. “We don’t hire workers to work for us; we all work together and we’re all equals.”
Worker co-operatives are diverse. At the base of them, however, is a simple formula: three or more workers can start a co-operative where they—the membership—democratically own the venture. This membership has access to employment. Just like other businesses, owners share the risk, and the returns, of their investment. Some are non-profit.
“In the very sense of the worker-to-boss relationship, we’re trying to smash that down from the start and build something different, something new, something revolutionary,” Laing explains.
That they’re a “revolutionary” co-op isn’t surprising given that the group formed out of the Occupy Edmonton protests of 2011 – 2012. Seeds, Feeds, and Needs views “food as a right, and poverty as a form of violence.” So far the group has sold vegetables within their networks to afford supplementing groceries for local projects and events that challenge food-poverty.
Occupy was just one of many other social movements around the world to have renewed public interest in co-operatives. The 2008 and onward economic crisis, which fuelled these movements, highlighted the far-reaching economic impacts that a few people can have over many. Co-ops in their very structure expand the eligibility for decision-making to a defined membership. For example, those who rent in a housing co-op, those who bank at the credit union or those who work at the worker co-op. Canada has a long tradition of co-operatives, the rarest being worker-owned enterprises.
Former National Farmers Union researcher and writer Darrin Qualman describes a “debt-bomb ticking beneath barnhouses.” He wrote the chapter “Advancing Agriculture by Destroying Farms?” in the 2011 book Food Sovereignty in Canada: Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems. Here he argues that the growing debt farmers are facing is the direct result of policy favouring big agri-business. Canadian farms today, on average, incur more than $20 in debt for every $1 of net income—a figure that has skyrocketed seven-fold since the ’70s.
Guaranteed debt surpassing one’s income by 20 times is far from a safe career choice. No wonder many young people are leaving farming behind. From 1991 to 2006, Qualman notes there was a 62-percent drop in the numbers of young farmers in Canada. Combine this with the overall loss of family farms in Canada during the past 20-odd years, and one sees the likely loss of over half of the country’s intergenerational family farms.
Natalie Dyck grew up on one such Manitoba family farm, where “inedible monocrops” and “scary GM experiments” were grown for market. The old family farm now only has one relative running it—the “only one who had the interest, but also … the capital to take it on,” Dyck says. “It was a family affair—many generations living on the same land. We would have some of these cash crops, but we still had our garden and our orchard that people took care of and that actually fed us.”
Now Dyck lives in Winnipeg. In a few months, she will have passed her probation at Urban Eatin’ Gardeners Worker Co-op. She will no longer be just a worker, but a boss (along with the rest of her co-workers). Their company functions as a contractor. Edible and permaculture landscaping, creating compost systems, assisting community groups launch and sustain community gardens are just some of the things they get hired to do.
Dyck spoke to me at the last annual conference of the Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation, which took place in St Albert in November.
Urban Eatin’s founding members “were all interested in making a livelihood from being a gardener,” she says. “I think they had all been working in landscaping and realized some really awful power dynamics that they had been a part of. And they just saw a need for this type of education in the community and wanted to see this kind of edible urban space everywhere.”
Instead of waiting for the right job to come along, they hired themselves.
“What has kept me in an urban setting,” Dyck says, “why I know this is where I want to be right now, and why I love the worker co-op that I’m part of is that we have all these limitations we’re forced to work within and be really creative.”
The co-op rents a room as an office space from one of its members. “In the backyard we have our makeshift greenhouse. And then down the back lane, we rent a garage from someone else to keep all our tools in. We do all our building in a back alleyway: we can’t accumulate any stock, so that really limits our growth. But where are we going to find a space that fits all [of the compost] boxes, that we can afford, that’s in the inner city?”
At the same time family farms are disappearing, the mega-farms (organic and conventional) are expanding. Canada’s 7500 largest farms—from a total of about 200 000—produce 40 percent of the country’s output.
It’s these large farms (or at least those who own them) that Qualman argues are benefitting most from inter-governmental subsidies and deregulation over multinational investment and ownership of farmland.
Qualman examines the widely held notion that Canadian farms are becoming more efficient in production. “In the current context,” he writes, “‘efficiency’ does not mean reducing input and energy use within the system, it means reducing the number of farmers, while the use of every other input is increased.”
In Ormstown, Quebec Jessica Elwell takes time from her September workday to speak with me as she walks down a row of deep and almost-neon-coloured Romanesco cauliflower, harvesting just the big ones with a machete. As her farm’s only native English-speaker, she’s stuck with the interview request.
“I think there are a lot of people right now who are interested in agriculture, but I don’t know to what extent they’re willing to work like dogs,” she says. “A lot of people come out and they’re like ‘oh, this is so nice’ but no one’s coming out to help on days when it’s five degrees, you’re harvesting carrots and you can’t feel your hands.” She chuckles, adding, “The paperwork sucks. … The start-up costs aren’t easy either: tractors and land. There are ways to do it, though.”
Elwell’s Co-operative Les Jardins de la Résistance, on the outskirts of Ormstown, has made farming possible on a shoestring budget. After having moved to one of Quebec’s regions of high unemployment with her partner and child, Elwell was looking for a new line of work that could help pay the bills. Unlike independent farmers, Elwell and her colleagues can claim employment insurance in the winter like other seasonal industry workers. (Recent reforms to EI by the federal government now make it harder to remain in one’s seasonal industry while claiming EI, which worries her.)
Yet, unlike the rest of her co-op’s members, she hadn’t put in the organic agriculture industry’s standard entry-level time of doing no-wage and low-wage labour while learning the trade. Now she is a co-owner of the business, even though her hourly wage is close to minimum.
Thanks to the local and nearby Montréal residents who signed up in advance, Elwell’s co-op knew they had 160 boxes of vegetables and honey to deliver regularly for 20 weeks of the year. The stability of their income throughout the season guaranteed the co-op 160 paid hours of work for each week of the season.
“I definitely wouldn’t want to work in any other structure,” she says. “I like the co-op structure a lot. I wouldn’t want to be by myself doing this. It would be lonely and a lot of work.”
These three farms are certainly not the only worker co-op agricultural ventures in Canada. Glorious Organics in BC’s Fraser Valley has been operating since the ’80s.
In that province, even with a regulated Agricultural Land Reserve, farm land costs skyrocketed by 76 percent between 2001 and 2006, according to Hannah Wittman and Herb Barbolet in Food Sovereignty in Canada.
It isn’t just a question of getting started in agriculture in a way that meets one’s ideals. In Canada’s agricultural context, it increasingly looks like the most viable option a young farmer can afford is co-op farming.
When asked if she has any parting words that she would share with young people considering going into agriculture, Elwell laughs. “Always fertilize your kale every six weeks! Being a farmer’s great. Do it. It’s not that scary, you’ve just got to do it.”
Peter Driftmier is a freelance journalist in Calgary. He can generally be found back in the kitchen where he belongs.