Friday, 22 February 2013

Organic Faming Conference in Guelph

We drove out on a Saturday morning at the beginning of February to attend the annual conference in Guelph and, like any trade show, it made for a tiring day, but unlike many trade shows I've attended, this one had me talking to people at length and listening with interest.  There were booths set up by farmers looking for volunteers and interns; there were organizations supporting bans on GMOs; there were vermiculturalists, and apiarists, and pretty much every kind of farmer; there were networking rooms for farmers' markets, and there were recruiters from agriculture programs at Universities.  There were seeds for sale and people talking about  the benefits of a particular variety of this or that vegetable.

There were many people, and a broad range of levels of involvement in organic farming.  We were novices, or maybe novices to be.  After strolling through the exhibits, we decided to participate in an hour-long speed-dating style effort to match landowners with land seekers.

First we sat across from a couple in their late sixties, both in knitted sweaters.  They were from Lancaster area and the husband was a naturopath, who moonlighted as a farmer and the wife appeared to be an old-school helpmeet.  They were looking for someone who wanted to lease a portion of the land and live in the second, currently unused house that sat a few acres from their own house.  That was as far as we got because the whistle blew and we had to move on.  The next man lived in the Niagara area, where he farmed on 80 acres.  he was 88 and spoke in a hoarse, whistly voice.  I leaned in to try to understand what he was offering.

"So you are looking for someone to take over in the next few years," I ventured.

"Well, in the next twenty years or so," he said without irony.

That was as far as we got in that round.  Next we spoke with a man who worked for an organization that paired local farmers in the Muskoka region with local restaurants in order to promote local food.  I got as far as telling him that that was a great idea.  The whistle blew and we had reached a bottleneck, as more people were seeking land than offering it, so we sat out for a couple of rounds before jumping back in some distance ahead of where we'd exited.  There was a man producing native plant nurseries, a woman raising sheep on her plot of land, both looking to share the land they had, and another woman who was growing 2 acres of market garden, who wanted someone to take over for a while while she pursued other interests.  The last woman would remain in my mind - she looked tired and itching to get away from the loneliness of farming.

Our pitch had been, "we really just want a small piece of land - 5 acres tops, with a small garden and a few chickens and a pig.  We would produce vegetables for sale, keeping the rest, and see if we can't become as self-sufficient as is humanly possible."  But we gathered that the right fit hadn't presented itself. 
One question we ask ourselves is, do we really want to take this on all by ourselves?  Could we work with other people or would we grow impatient and restless in an arrangement of compromise?  When it comes to collaboring with people in the pursuit of farming, I expect it's a bit like trying to start a band and realizing that without chemistry and shared enthusiasm, it's more work than is worth one's while.  But, what I suspect, and what I've heard, is that if you do find the right people, it can be a lot more interesting to farm with others.  I have the sense that farming solo doesn't work for very many people.  Working in a pair could work quite well, but having a few more people around might be even better, or perhaps it's about making sure that there are people around in some way, whether or not they are farming partners, and I sensed an air of collaboration in the air among these people doing their own projects but also trying to keep connected to others who shared their still relatively outsider values.

As we took a break from wandering, before we left, and sat with our organic apples from the "Stop GMO apples" booth, and took a few pictures from a storey above the main atrium.  This was our first conference, our first look at what the province's local food-sustainable ag crowd looked like when crammed together in a tight space.  It was a vibe that made me think this was worth pursuing further.