Bigger doesn’t mean better and unconventional doesn’t mean unprofitable.
In fact, Lisa Clouston of Spring Creek Farms, a holistic rancher and part-time social worker, thinks it’s time to toss those ideas aside when it comes to farming.
“You need to look at your costs, your time, and quality of life … higher volume doesn’t mean higher profits,” she told participants in the Growing Local conference in Winnipeg.
Along with husband Greg Wood and their four children, Clouston raises South Devon cattle, Clun Forest X sheep, Berkshire, Tamworth and Large Black pigs, pastured chicken, pastured turkeys and ducks near Cypress River.
But the decision to go holistic was driven by more than just the bottom line.
“I think it has to do with personal values,” she said. “In my personal opinion, commercial farming does not fit those values.”
Several of those at the conference questioned why all farmers don’t adopt the kind of practices used at Spring Creek and lessen their reliance on inputs and long-distance shipping.
In response, Joe Braun of Owl Tree Farm near Altona pointed to the heavy involvement of seed and chemical companies in conventional farming as one reason why many farmers are pushed to produce high quantities.
“The money that is place in the seed and fertilizer and pesticide companies means they call the shots, it’s all about making money today,” he said. “The banker is waiting, so the farmer has to make their profit, which is very small, but the bigger the crop the better they’re able to make their payments.”
Braun sold his family farm in 2002 to market-garden full-time. Previously he used the profits from his melon crop to fund the inputs he needed for wheat and barely.
Wood said there is work being done on how to transition from conventional farming to traditional farming, pointing to studies and work going on in North Dakota.
But the first step is changing the way profit is viewed, he said.
“It’s not how much you produce,” said Wood. “Producers who start looking at it from a point of profitability, it’s really about what the difference is between your costs and what you sell it for.”
And that may mean more small operations, selling to closer markets than we currently see.
“I think every old homestead and house out there in the country should be full of young families living off the land,” said Clouston. “They should have a couple of pigs, a couple of cows, and a few chickens, and the kids should be out doing chores.”
But when asked if the impediment to this was a rural-urban divide, Clouston was clear.
“No, this is a rural-rural divide … the people in the country don’t get it,” she said.
Anne Lindsey is one of the Organic Food Council of Manitoba’s founding members and an avid urban gardener. She said more can be done in a number of ways to promote and encourage sustainable agriculture.
Policy development at the government level is one thing that can be done to facilitate sustainable practices, along with increased promotion of local foods.
“There is a lot more that can be done to promote local foods,” she said. “And I do give the government credit for promoting Manitoba-grown foods, but we need to do more than that.”
Increasing awareness of food issues and local producers is another area that is lacking.
“I’d like to see more of it in the mainstream media as well,” Lindsey said.