In April the PEI Food Security Network held its annual meeting. The program included a panel discussion during which 5 Island farmers – Soleil Hutchinson, Travis Cummiskey, Shawn Loo, Lorna McMaster and Douglas Campbell – spoke about farming and food sovereignty. We’re publishing the panel discussion in three parts – here’s part one, with Soleil, Travis and Shawn.
Stepping Up to the Plate
“It all started with me being an angry girl and my mom fearing that I would one day become a politician. Now she probably worries that I’m a farmer,” says Soleil Hutchinson of Soleil’s Farm. “This is my story, I never intended it to become what it is today, but I have to say that I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. There’s still a lot to learn and I sometimes have my moments of wondering what we’re doing and if we’re crazy, but being part of a community of farmers, chefs and customers is such a gift.”
One of the things that inspired her to become a farmer was time she spent in Sri Lanka – her experience there made her want to do something beneficial for her community, herself and the environment. An angry radical vegan protester who hated corporations, Soleil became a farmer. Starting as market farmers with her partner Lee Clark, she quickly realized it would be very difficult to grow everything and meet the large demand for local organic vegetables.
They tackled the problem by asking, “How can we farm sustainably: for the environment, for our community and for us?” Their simple goals were to:
Start small and Ensure quality and reliability for their products.
They started with a pick-up truck and worked collaboratively to create Plate It, a business supplying organic produce to local restaurants. They quickly learned the value of working together, cooperatively with other farmers to make Plate It a viable business. Despite farmers often being independent people with independent ideas, this collaboration has been successful and many participating producers are now their close friends.
Soleil and Lee learned about supply and demand through open dialogue with chefs and farms while Plate It was in its early days. They also learned to make the process as efficient and user-friendly as possible using online ordering and pick-ups at farms.
With no land, they lived in a yurt four months of the year with no electricity or running water. They started with: 10 farms (8 of which are certified organic) and over 20 restaurants; Twice a week delivery in the summer/once a week starting in October; Prices and product determined before the growing season.
Their goal was never to exclusively feed the elite, Soleil says, but they needed to start somewhere. They now have a home base with electricity, running water and a kitchen.
After working together, they decided last year to create Good Food Baskets. This CSA initiative uses the same model and delivery system as Plate It. The difference is these baskets are meant for all Island consumers, not exclusively restaurants. Members can place orders for custom baskets of vegetables, cheese, eggs, craft brew and prepared meals through Plate It’s online ordering system. These baskets include products from multiple producers since they are provided in the shoulder/off season when it is more difficult to supply everything alone. Soleil says the goal of the Good Food Baskets is to supply a variety of good food to Islanders year round and complement the efforts of other producers and community groups.
Speaking at the PEI Food Security Network AGM, Soleil said the first season of the Good Food Baskets went well and they are looking forward to offering spring food baskets this year. “We’ve learned a lot this winter about storage and growing for the winter months.”
Since beginning Good Food Baskets last winter, they have increased the number of baskets and added another pick-up location. “We’ve increased efficiencies to be able to supply good organic food to as many Islanders as possible,” says Soleil.
For more information about Soleil’s Farm & Plate It, visit http://www.justplateit.com or on Facebook
A Family Affair
Travis is a fourth-generation farmer. His great-grandfather started farming in Tarantum in 1918. He eventually left the land to Travis’s dad and uncle. Travis’s dad kept a milking herd, his uncle had a conventional hog operation and they kept beef cattle and grew seed potatoes on 250 acres.
Travis loved growing up on the farm and as a child imagined himself taking over the dairy herd from his father. However, times were tough. BSE, Potato wart, and PVYN all hit within a couple of years of each other. Prices the family received for their beef calves and seed potatoes were well below the cost of production, if they could sell them at all. The dairy herd was the only product that kept them on the land. With poor prices and the closing of the hog plant in Charlottetown, the hog business wasn’t much better.
Travis was encouraged to get an education and seek employment off the farm. So after high school he went into the Resident Care Worker program. Today he works at Whisperwood Villa. But deep down he knows that is not where he is meant to be. He “hears the call of the land”.
Today the family is still farming but the beef component is all that remains.
Travis just completed a business plan, with hopes of raising mixed pastured livestock – turkey, chicken and eggs, grass finished beef and pork. He plans to market products to consumers and restaurants. An arrangement with a local distribution company is also in the works. Travis is not planning on organic certification as he finds organic standards for livestock agriculture to be too restrictive and cost prohibitive. He does however support the work of organic producers.
Why such a drastic change in direction? Well, not all that long ago it was almost impossible to find Island beef in local stores. Farmers’ markets were non-existent and CSAs unheard of. People wanted to support local producers but had very few ways of doing it. Travis says he remembers harassing the manager of the meat market at the local grocery store about where the beef was from. “Why is local meat nowhere to be found?” he wondered. “Why can’t we finish these calves ourselves and market the meat directly?”
Travis has firmly believed in direct marketing to consumers for a long time. But it was not until he became aware of the methods of Joel Salatin that he saw the potential of raising livestock on pasture. Not only did these methods fit well with his personal values and the methods his father had employed with his beef and dairy herds, he also saw there was a real demand for these types of products.
“Consumers want a product that is humanely raised, on a local farm, in a more natural way and they are willing to pay for it.”
While some would argue that higher food prices would not lead to an increase in food sovereignty, Travis counters that we have had a cheap food system for the last generation or more and food insecurity has never been higher. “Household food insecurity is an issue of poverty, and cheap food is not the solution; it only serves to make food producers food insecure.”
“A truly food sovereign province or community would produce as much of its own food as possible. But not without farmers! We likewise cannot have food sovereignty without taking care of the land. Holistic pasture management eliminates tillage while building soil organic matter and fertility. It is also important to connect consumers to their food and for farm families to be able to feed themselves.”
Travis believes that his leveraging of the value chain combined with holistic pasture management will allow his farm to accomplish both of these goals while providing an adequate living for himself and hopefully in time, a family.
Travis says, he’s excited to see the explosion of ways to market local food here on PEI, whether it is through distributors like Just Plate It, markets like the one at the Farm Centre or online through sites like the recently announced TopFeed. These are clear signals that things are changing and there is demand for local food products. Travis says he looks forward to serving his neighbours and helping improve food sovereignty “one paddock at a time”.
The next challenges are securing financing and/or funding and striking a balance between his current employment at Whisperwood Villa and the demands of the farm business. Travis also serves as co-chair of the PEI Food Security Network’s board.
Addressing Water Quality & Food Literacy
Shawn was raised on a family farm and early on developed an interest in agricultural sustainability, which lead him to study environmental science at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College. Eventually he ended up studying groundwater contamination at the University of Calgary and working on a thesis about how we go about measuring the nitrates lost from specific fields.
As a hydrogeologist, Shawn sees very clearly the links between water sovereignty and food sovereignty.
“It’s important to consider the impacts of various practices and look at which practices have the least nutrient losses. These practices are called BMPs (Best Management Practices). This is more geared towards industrial-scale farms, but can surely be applied in smaller-scale farms and gardens. This would lead to not only reducing groundwater contamination – it should also lead reduced inputs for the same or higher yields.”
Shawn says his life plan was to make a career in academia then retire to a farm and continue his research there while growing his own food – but the plan changed as the farm needed people to help keep things going. In Mille Clarkes’ film, Island Green, Shawn’s uncle, renowned PEI organic farmer Raymond Loo, said PEI has two choices: either have 1 or 2 really big farms in 100 years or choose to do something about it now.
Another well-known organic farmer, Shawn’s aunt Margie Loo, said that part of her motivation to farm came from her experience in Central America – after years of fighting what was wrong in the world, she decided she needed to do something positive in the world, starting at home. Getting more people into food production just for themselves or on a commercial scale is the most important way for us to create food security and decrease our impact on the environment.
Shawn has started planning based on a cooperative model. “In the past, and sometimes currently the model of succession is that a farm is given to one child, usually the oldest son and almost never a daughter. But it often happens that, these days, farmers have too much invested in farms to give to just one of their children. And in some cases young farmers are being asked to pay for the farms. In both cases: What about the members of the family whose parents didn’t stay on the farm?”
A cooperative model addresses this by creating opportunities for more members of the family to work together on the farm, have a say in steering the farm and share in the risk. “We’re hoping that the cooperative serves as a model for changing the way that succession occurs.”
Shawn says he would like to see this model being used to attract young farmers who don’t currently have access to land.
Another venture Shawn has embarked upon has to do with education. He was recently asked to sit on the new PEI Learning Partners Advisory Council and is eager to see how, as a province, we can integrate food literacy into the system and deepen students’ understanding of food security/food sovereignty.
At the PEI Food Security AGM, Shawn talked about his recent appointment to “Learning Partners”, the new advisory committee on education in PEI. He is committed to finding ways to incorporate learning about food production and food security into the school curricula.