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Is there a new back-to-the-land movement, spurred by climate change?

Verena Varga, left, and Amy Smith stand behind the bar of their new store, Farmacy + Fermentary, in Charlottetown on Aug. 1. It’s an extension of their farm, Heart Beet Organics, located in Darlington. - Daniel Brown
Verena Varga, left, and Amy Smith stand behind the bar of their new store, Farmacy + Fermentary, in Charlottetown. It’s an extension of their farm, Heart Beet Organics, located in Darlington. - Daniel Brown

It started as a homesteading journey.

Cathy Munro and her husband quit their jobs out west, and bought nearly 10 hectares of rippling Nova Scotia countryside with a century-and-a-half-old farmhouse.

Yet their eco-conscious drive to live sustainably and grow healthy organic food soon turned into a thriving small business, with Bramble Hill Farm now growing microgreen salad mixes year-round in its Pictou County greenhouse.

“We just wanted to be more self-sufficient and grow our own food,” Munro says. “But as our family grew, so did our gardens."

 Cathy Munro’s BrambleHill Farm is now growing microgreen salad mixes year-round in its Pictou County greenhouse. - Christine Whelan Photography
Cathy Munro’s BrambleHill Farm is now growing microgreen salad mixes year-round in its Pictou County greenhouse. - Christine Whelan Photography

It's one of dozens of small-scale farming ventures to crop up in Atlantic Canada in recent years as a small wave of new farmers flock to the region’s affordable land, breathing life into sluggish rural areas.

Millennials are leading the movement, with the number of female farmers on the rise, according to Statistics Canada.

The trend could be an early indicator of a budding back-to-the-land movement on the East Coast, as organic agriculture attracts a fresh generation of farmers.

Like the hippie generation, many of the new farmers are migrating from cities to rural areas with the dream of making a livelihood off the land.

Yet unlike homesteading in the 1960s and 1970s, which was largely motivated by resisting war efforts and challenging societal norms, today’s rural relocation appears to be primarily fuelled by environmental concerns.

Many small-scale farmers in Atlantic Canada say climate change has played a critical role in their desire to leave the city behind and set up a sustainable farm.

“The back-to-the-land movement of the 60s and 70s was partly about draft dodging,” says Karen Foster, a Dalhousie University associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada.

“But now concerns are about climate change and social dislocation.”

Environmental and health concerns, along with an increasing emphasis on community engagement, have also spurred sales of organic, locally grown food.

The shift in consumer preferences has carved out a growing market for local producers.

“Eating local and organic is no longer just for health nuts,” says Foster. “It’s mainstream.”

Canada’s total organic market had an estimated value of $5.4 billion in 2017, a surge of more than 50 per cent from $3.5 billion in 2012, according to research by the Canada Organic Trade Association.

The organization also found the market share of organic food and beverages within mainstream retailers grew to 2.6 per cent in 2017, from 1.7 per cent five years earlier.

Meanwhile, the movement towards a more agrarian lifestyle also appears to be propelled by a generational shift in attitudes about work.

Millennials, now the biggest generation in the Canadian workforce, tend to prioritize work-life balance over job security, making farming an appealing option.

“One of the buzz words that’s come up among millennials is work-life blend, this idea that you don’t clock in and clock out of your job and then start your life,” Foster says.

"There’s a lot to be said about the autonomy and flexibility of having your own farm, even if you have cows and can’t go on vacation and work longer hours than at a desk job.”

The small but growing agrarian movement is not unique to Atlantic Canada.

But the region’s largely affordable, fertile farmland is attracting new farmers from across the country and beyond.

***

Amy Smith is among them.

The former social worker was living in western Massachusetts when she decided it was time for a career change.

Her love of gardening and desire to contribute to her community made growing food the right fit, so she quit her job and began working on a farm.

“I loved everything about it,” says Smith, co-owner of Heart Beet Organics in Darlington, P.E.I. 

Verena Varga, left, and Amy Smith, are co-owners of Heart Beet Organics farm in Darlington.
Verena Varga, left, and Amy Smith, are co-owners of Heart Beet Organics farm in Darlington.

“It didn’t matter how hot, how sweaty, how buggy I was … at the end of the day I was so satisfied.”

After three years apprenticing on different organic farms in Massachusetts, Smith moved to Quebec where she spent two years managing a small market garden.

It’s there that she met her partner and farm co-owner Verena Varga.

Together, the two decided to start a farm. They considered New England, but its crowded local-foods market and costly land prompted them to consider Atlantic Canada.

“My Massachusetts mentality made me assume we’d just rent land, so we were only looking at land to lease,” Smith says.

“On a whim we looked at land for sale and found the perfect farm, and it already had two greenhouses set up.”

Heart Beet Organics, certified organic in 2011, now grows over 40 different kinds of vegetables.

While they still sell at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market, they’ve also opened a new store and taproom called Farmacy + Fermentary, which features their handmade Kombucha on tap, light food, and produce for sale.

The farm also offers apprenticeships, and Smith says she sees a growing number of young farmers turning to the profession amid mounting environmental concerns.

“We have a young woman working with us now who says farming is her form of social activism, a way to help combat climate change,” Smith says.

***

While many new farmers sell their food directly at local farmers’ markets or in stores, others have flourished through the increasingly popular system of community-supported agriculture, or C.S.A.

The model sees members directly support a nearby farm by buying a share in the winter, giving farmers a cash infusion to buy seeds and supplies, in exchange for a weekly basket of fresh food during the harvest months.

Codiac Organics Ltd. in Moncton, N.B. has a farm market on site, but also relies on community-supported agriculture.

“It takes a lot of pressure off the farmer,” says Fran Day, who owns and operates the booming urban farm with her husband Mark.

“We get money upfront to buy seeds, and consumers get a regular supply of in-season vegetables.”

Demand for Codiac Organics’ C.S.A. program was so high this year, Day says her farm had a lengthy waitlist.

“Conventional farming numbers are down, and organic farming is going up,” she says. “We see interest growing every year.”

***

Although demand for local and organic food has ballooned across much of Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador is somewhat unique.

Traditional farming methods in Newfoundland are in fact largely organic, with growers using kelp and capelin — a small fish — to fertilize crops naturally.

But Mark Wilson, owner and operator of NL Organics Ltd. and the Newfoundland Gourmet Mushroom Co., says organic food isn't yet mainstream.

“The typical Newfoundlander is just now becoming aware of what organic means, and the health and environmental advantages,” says Wilson, also the province’s only inspector for organic certification.

The province continues to import the vast majority of food, in part due to a short growing season and rocky, acidic soil.

It’s something the provincial government is working to address, with the aim of doubling food self-sufficiency by 2022.

To reach the goal, the province has launched a pilot project to serve locally farmed food in hospitals, will supply farmers with conventional at-cost fruit and vegetable seedlings and has expanded the amount of Crown land used for agriculture production.

Wilson, originally from southern Ontario, says he was able to start his farm on the eastern Avalon Peninsula after receiving an agricultural lease from the province for about 3.5 hectares of farmland.

“I was lucky enough to get an old dairy farm, though it still needs a lot of rock removal,” he says.

Despite it was a slow startup, Wilson credits part of his success — and the small uptick in recent demand for local, organic food — to St. John’s vibrant restaurant scene.

“People want what’s in the restaurants, so it’s a big help when a chef posts a new burger on Instagram and credits my farm for the herbs and veggies he used.”


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