New face of farming on P.E.I.

Mitch MacDonald
Published on March 26, 2016

NFU survey shows shifting demographic in new farmers

MORELL – While Byron Petrie and Carina Phillips don’t exactly have farming in their blood, it’s definitely in their hearts.

About five years ago, a love of the land prompted the young couple to trade their Montreal apartment for a life of farming in rural P.E.I.

Today, the two live a sustainable lifestyle by growing their own food as well as produce for the Sea Spray Organic Co-op.

They’re also raising chickens and building their own barn on a plot of land, which the two are planning to name “Thistle Dew.”

“I find it empowering being able to grow your own food,” said Petrie, who “ping-ponged" back and forth between the Maritimes and Quebec while growing up. “There may be more stuff going on (in the city), but you don’t really have the freedom to work on projects or grow your own vegetables.”

Phillips, who grew up in Fairview, P.E.I., and later moved to Montreal where she met Petrie, said the two were also inspired by new farming ideas and innovative techniques allowing higher yields from small acreage.

“Some of that new innovation is really inspiring. Our food system seems like it’s under attack, so it feels good to grow healthy, nutritious vegetables that improve the soil and land,” said Phillips. “Learning skills about homesteading and canning, saving your harvest for the winter season and eating seasonally… all of those are really empowering skills.”

Petrie and Phillips are not the only ones who’ve looked to escape the city for what they feel is a more empowering life in the country.

A survey developed by the National Farmers Union Youth, in partnership with University of Manitoba PhD candidate Julia Laforge last year, showed an increasing number of Canada’s new farmers did not grow up on a working farm.

The survey, which saw more than 1,300 respondents from across Canada, showed a majority 68 per cent of respondents did not.

In addition, nearly 58 per cent of those new farmers were women.

The results show a shifting landscape in agriculture, especially when combined with the previous NFU statement that about 75 per cent of soon-to-retire farmers do not have a family member to take over their farm.

It also poses new implications and different needs, including the issue that many new farmers will not inherit land or farming knowledge from families.

Petrie and Phillips had some big help in their move to the country.

While the two prepared by reading up on farming innovations and techniques, it was little compared to the support received from their new neighbour and mentor, Reg Phelan.

Phelan, the NFU regional co-ordinator for the Maritimes, has been one of P.E.I.’s longest organic producers and was a founder of the Sea Spray Organic Co-op.

He has personally seen the demographic shift in the industry with many young Islanders who grew up in the farming industry now getting out.

“They were seeing what their parents went through. In terms of trying to make a living on a conventional system. Once the big companies get involved, there’s not much left for the farmers,” said Phelan, who first offered the couple some work before eventually selling them a plot of land. “It’s food security. We’re losing it and we need to get it back.”

One solution some NFU members have focused on has been cutting out the middle men and wholesalers by “direct marketing” to the consumer.

It’s a method that has worked well for the Sea Spray co-op, with Petrie and Phillips doing much of the marketing.

“I think (organic produce) appeals to people who go to the farmers’ markets because I can tell you that carrot was probably in the ground an hour ago… and I still got the dirt under my nails to prove it,” said Petrie. “There’s an appeal for people who are concerned about where there food comes from…. I think if you’re supporting farms locally, at least it’s another form of food security because we can’t always rely on produce being trucked in from 4,000 kilometres away.”

Food security and accountability are concerns the two have also explored as members of the NFU Youth, including at a retreat earlier this month in northern Alberta.

Those issues, as well as ones regarding land access, reversing a decline in the number of new Canadian farmers and implications of the TPP, were also discussed during the NFU district convention in P.E.I. two weeks ago.

While there is no “easy, fix-all” solution, Phillips and Petrie are leading by example and are hoping to continue the discussion around those issues in a seminar being planned for next month in Moncton.

The two also urged Islanders to visit and support their local farms.

“P.E.I. is such an agricultural Island and beautiful landscape,” said Phillips. “And people want to see beautiful, healthy farms. I think it’s so important to support a local farmer and get to know your farmers.”