The Role of the Family Farm in a Healthy Food System


Stela and Reg Meal in the field

Portrait of a Family Farm – Stella Shepard and Reg Phelan

By Douglas Campbell – Doug is a second generation dairy farmer from Southwest Lot 16 where he farms with his wife Kathy, son Tristan, and nephew Tyler. Doug has been an active member of the National Farmers Union for the past 25 years, and is a strong advocate for family farms. He is currently the District Director of the NFU, Region 1, District 1.

In 2016, the world has a population of 7.4 billion with a projected annual growth rate of 1.7%. For the first time in history, more people live in urban centres than in rural communities. Governments see this as a positive, as services can be delivered at lower costs to denser populations. Rural communities and the economy of agriculture have slipped into the background of their planning, seen as negotiable for the good of the bigger economy.

“When tillage begins, other arts follow; the farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.” -Daniel Webster, American orator

Agriculture and its farmers are the foundation of our modern economy. The beleaguered farmer has fed the nation.

The urban-rural ratio presents numerous challenges. For urban populations, the most pressing issues are affordable housing, transit and social services. There is little thought given to where food comes from.

But who is going to be able to efficiently, successfully, and affordably feed our massive urban populations? Who will protect the rights of all individuals to access quality food? Who is going to guarantee in a global economy that individual countries retain food sovereignty?

For nearly 50 years, the National Farmers Union has supported the family farm, based on the belief that it offers the best hope for food sovereignty and food security.

It is repeatedly stated that large agricultural corporations, based on economies of scale, can produce food more cheaply. If that is true, then why, according to Statistics Canada, have food prices in Canada increased faster than any other major component of the Consumer Price Index? Between January 2007 and December 2012, food prices rose by 19%, while all other items rose by 10.7%. Independent farmers did not benefit from that increase.

Under the corporate system, land becomes a commodity controlled by the highest bidder. Where will we be when only a few control the land base? They will dictate who eats and who doesn’t; what is produced and what isn’t. Corporations are about profits, not people. It will become the basis of social unrest.

A diversified family farm can be a more conscientious steward of the land. Single crop farming, often the method of big corporate farms, frequently results in the overuse of fertilizer, chemicals and water. The total cost to produce food rises as yields decrease. Costs are passed on to the consumer. As land is depleted so is the quality of the crop being produced.

The current PEI vision is one of producing one or two crops for the export market. And yet we know that monoculture presents environmental and pest management problems and leaves us open to the dictate of the markets. Government is selling PEI as a “Food Island” with even greater export potential.

Our local markets must not be overlooked. Why is the family farm disappearing, and what is disappearing with it?

Since the end of World War II, the federal government has had a cheap food policy believing that lower food prices could be achieved with greater efficiency on the farm. And farmers, in the hope of prosperity, have bought in. Policy makers kept pushing for bigger and bigger units and scales of economies, which gave corporations their foothold. They are now in the driver’s seat. The losers have been farmers and rural communities. It can be clearly seen in Prince Edward Island where rural communities are struggling.

As farmers decrease in numbers, so does their political influence. If food sovereignty is to become a reality, all Canadians have to become aware that it is in their interest to support independent farmers. If unfair trade agreements are going to be prevented and Canada’s food sovereignty protected, Canadians must become aware and voice their concerns to government. While Canada may be a trading nation, farmers’ profits and independence should not be used as a negotiating tool to sell more consumer goods to world markets. The family farm is not a quaint way of life that has outlived its usefulness. History has proven it is the backbone of this country and history always comes full circle.

Seeds of Community

Lorna McMaster was one of the farmers who took part in a panel discusgreen-beauty-snow-peasion at out Annual Meeting in April. She introduced the new PEI Seed Alliance and talked about how seed saving and food sovereignty are connected.

When Lorna moved to Prince Edward Island in 2010, she brought with her one packet of seeds of Painted Mountain Corn. In 2015, after five growing seasons, she harvested 2 tons of corn – all from that original packet. She and her partner Brian have a taco stand at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market.  Their handcrafted tacos are made entirely from ingredients they grow, from seed they have saved – the Painted Mountain corn, Agate Pinto Beans, and seasonal greens.

Recently Lorna and some other local organic farmers started the PEI Seed Alliance – a collective that is currently producing seed for gardeners but is looking at producing for farmers over the long term. Members of the Alliance grow open-pollinated and heirloom varieties adapted to PEI’s growing conditions. The Alliance is part of the global movement for seed sovereignty, and believes that seed, the root of our food system, is a public trust.

The Alliance is also a great way to open up a conversation among people who are already saving seed. And there are many people who have been doing this – Lorna talked about one woman who when she saw the Alliance’s seed for sale, said that she has been growing her grandmother’s seeds for years.

At the beginning they started with certified organic seed, but that has been a bit limited, and they are looking for diversity so they are including non-certified seed growers who are farming ecologically.

The Alliance aims to become self-supporting but to start things off, there has been financial support from the Bauta Family Seed Initiative through USC Canada. 1/3 of all seed sales go back into the Alliance. Seeds are sold at the Farmers Markets in Summerside in Charlottetown and at the Voluntary Resource Council and at events such as the Dandelion Festival.

Why is this important? Varieties of foods, and seeds are disappearing at a very high rate. Diversity is declining. This has implications for food sovereignty. Seed savers and local seed producers can produce seeds for crops that are adapted to local growing conditions. At the same time, large seed companies are getting bigger and bigger, buying out smaller independent companies. That puts a lot of control in the hands of big corporations, taking that power out of the hands of people producing food on a small scale at the local level.


Growing Food Sovereignty

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.soleil's farm

Stepping Up to the Plate

Soleil Hutchinson

“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 or on Facebook

A Family Affair

Travis Cummiskey

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 Loo

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.

Food Insecurity affecting Islanders’ health

Commentary by Jenni Zelin, Family Physician and Board Member, PEIFSN

The recently released report, Health For All Islanders, examined the prevalence of chronic diseases among Islanders according to their income, age and sex, and revealed those with the highest income and education had better health.  This comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following news about health outcomes and socioeconomic status. It is well known that health and wealth are directly correlated, and that the greatest social determinant of health is household income.  Income is directly related to employment and education, other important determinants of health. All together, these factors influence household food security and housing, also important determinants of health.

Social determinants affect health on many levels.  On a basic level, one cannot make healthy lifestyle choices without financial security.  Healthy food, optimal housing and secondary education are expensive, and healthy choices are more challenging for those with fewer opportunities. Health Minister Henderson says Islanders should take more responsibility for their own health, and yet the poorest among us are caught in a cycle of poverty, where healthy lifestyle choices are a luxury. Many chronic diseases and illnesses are more prevalent in those in the lowest socioeconomic strata of society, such as respiratory illness, diabetes, depression and cardiovascular disease. Once ill, people with financial insecurity are less able to pay for medical care, such as medications, transportation to medical appointments, or uninsured services. It becomes a vicious cycle.

As a family doctor working in Charlottetown, I see my share of Islanders who are financially disadvantaged. It is challenging to do the work I have been trained to do when a patient is unable to afford basic healthy lifestyle practices, nor the treatments and medications I recommend. Often such patients cannot afford to take time off from work or pay for transportation to attend medical appointments or tests at the hospital. Suggesting that these patients quit smoking or buy healthier food seems like a simple solution, but in reality, is rarely feasible. These patients need, first and foremost, a liveable income.

PEI has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in Canada. It also now shows itself to have poor health outcomes. The report recommends “redistribution of societal resources” to address the disparity among Islanders in the state of their health. This is an excellent suggestion, but would mean a shift in our current thinking of health care policy. This would mean redefining our health budget to include social programs, income assistance, or consideration of a guaranteed basic income. It would mean putting health dollars and resources into education, housing and food security.  It would mean putting more money and efforts into upstream health initiatives, rather than downstream, once disease is established. It means looking beyond a four-year political mandate and beyond partisan lines and thinking broadly for the health of all Islanders.


Community Food Security Efforts: Is Charity the Answer?


At our Annual Meeting on April 12, Anne Mazer presented a “map” of community food efforts that have been organized by volunteers, mostly, from one end of the Island to the other. The generosity of Islanders is evident, in spades. The question is, can charity alone solve the problem of food insecurity? Here’s what Anne says about the project:

This is a gathering of information about community-supported activities related to feeding Islanders – it is a visual display meant to start a conversation – it’s not a collection of statistics. It’s a small map with a big problem. We knew that there was lots going on, we just wanted to see it all in one place. I talked to 39 people on the phone, and found out about 9 others on the internet. Some contacts were involved in more than one activity, so in total, 60 activities were surveyed. This is just a glimpse of what is going on – there are many more initiatives out there. Really, it’s just scratching the surface. For example there are only 12 of 139 churches represented.

In 2013, Valerie Tarasuk released the report on Household Food Insecurity (2011), reporting that 1 in 4 children under the age of 18 was living in a home affected by food insecurity. That year, 37 of the activities included here existed. 23 of the 60 “activities” included on the map were started since 2013.

The longest standing organized activities are probably the Salvation Army and church groups. The Upper Room Hospitality Ministry was established in 1984.

The most recently announced at this time is “Soul Soup”, described in the Guardian on April 9th as a weekly hot meal at the Church of the Nazarene in Summerside. “We are going to start small, with one hot meal a week,” they say, and they already have plans to expand. The newest Food Bank opened in Tyne Valley in January of 2016.

People ask, “How many volunteers are involved?” Basically they are all volunteers, with the odd person paid for their work. An example: The Upper Room Food Bank and Soup Kitchen has 1 full-time paid staff (the manager) and 6 part-time paid staff. The Food Bank sees ~1,600 people every month, and the Soup Kitchen served 4,400 meals in February. A dozen groups including the Monks take responsibility for putting on a monthly meal at the Soup Kitchen.

Activities vary from a single individual, Robert Benoit, who in 2010 started his own annual food drive for the Montague food bank. He has collected over $50,000 and 12 tons of food, to the Provincial Home and School Federation. In the winter of 2015 the PEIHSF passed a resolution calling for a universal school lunch program. A provincial lunch committee was established and it joined the national Coalition for Healthy School Food. The PEI committee is currently collecting information about school food in the province. The goal is to compile the information from all sources and present it to relevant decision-makers in Government in May, 2016.

Groups are very aware of the growing problem. All but one person interviewed said their numbers are going up. One person said, “The need is increasing. We work on a bigger scale now, with more volunteers,. Donations have increased. We are making ourselves more visible but we have to be careful because we don’t want more than we can handle.”

An example of how insecure this “system” is: For the past 20 years, Tim Horton’s has had an annual food drive in June. Trucks park at all 18 shops from Thursday to Sunday, to receive food and cash. 50-70 volunteers from food banks look after this. The Montague food bank said the food drive usually brings in thousands of pounds of food for the shelves, enough t get them through the summer. One year it rained, and they received only 240 pounds of food and $12.50.

Support for the Healthy Eating Alliance

Charlottetown – The PEI Food Security Network is calling upon Minister of Health and Wellness to work with the PEI Healthy Eating Alliance to ensure that the organization has the staff and operational funds it needs to continue to oversee school breakfast programs and to promote nutritious food and healthy eating in the broader community.

downloadThis is a province where one in five children lives in a household affected by food insecurity. Any plan to bring that number down will be enhanced by collaboration between government and community, and should rely on the contribution of knowledgeable practitioners. For years, the Healthy Eating Alliance dietitians have offered their expertise, resources and management skills to schools, family resource centres and early learning centres. They have ensured that school breakfast programs are based on healthy, nutritious foods and that they have the best possible chance of being utilized by students.

The Healthy Eating Alliance could be a good example of how adequate government support of community-led organizations can result in effective programming. But the key here is that the support is adequate. “It is unreasonable to expect that this work can be done without a full complement of personnel. The Alliance’s dietitians monitor breakfast programs, develop resources and offer cooking skills programs – their programs cover the province and need to be managed, implemented and evaluated,” says Travis Cummiskey.

The Co-Chair of the PEI Food Security Network, Cummiskey questions the suggestion by the Minister that he would work with the Alliance to find ways to lower administrative costs. “The Alliance spends less than 10% of its budget on administrative costs. This is not a question of spending money unnecessarily”, he says. “The real question is around the expectation that this kind of work can be done without core funding.” Since 2003 the Alliance has operated from one year to the next based on conditional funding arrangements. This uncertainty impedes the ability of the organization’s staff and volunteer board to set long-term goals and plan for the future.

In other provinces, most notably Nova Scotia, the kind of programming offered by the Healthy Eating Alliance is embedded in provincial health and wellness strategies,and is supported by core funding. The PEI Food Security Network sees this is a model that could work well in this province. Cummiskey notes that the PEI Wellness Strategy clearly states that food security “is a complex issue and needs a collaborative effort to address it.” He says, “providing secure, dependable and adequate support to the Healthy Eating Alliance would be a good first step.”

Household Food Insecurity in Canada 2014


The percentage of PEI homes affected by household food insecurity fell slightly in 2014 (from 16.7% to 15.1%). Still, 8,900 Islanders experienced some degree of food insecurity, and of those, 1,900 experienced severe food insecurity. Download the report here.