Fighting for ag

A high school in Sussex, New Brunswick is fighting to keep its agricultural class.

According to a story at CBC news, a teacher at the school was told the Agriculture 12-0 class would be cancelled. A campaign to keep the class extended its life by another year, but the long-term future of the program hasn’t been decided yet by the Department of Education. The department did, according to the story, suggest turning the Agriculture 12-0 class into an environmental science class, with a two-week unit on agriculture. In an effort to maintain the class, students and teachers have planted a garden on the school property and they’re hoping that move will help sway the province into keeping the Agriculture 12-0 class as is.


At almost the same time the students in Sussex were unveiling their new garden, Farm Credit Canada released its twice-a-year Farmland Values Report. The report started in 1990, and twice a year, 245 benchmark farm properties are appraised for their value. The selected properties represent the most prevalent  classes of agricultural soil in each part of the country, says FCC, and changes in value are weighted based on cultivated farmland per acre.

FCC found that New Brunswick farmland values were unchanged during the first half of 2012, following a 1.3 per cent increase in the second half of 2011, and no change in the first half of that year. Farmland values have increased or remained static in New Brunswick since reaching a peak increase of 6.3 per cent in the last half of 2008.

Sussex has long been known as one of New Brunswick’s strongest agricultural areas and as the milk producing hub of the province. But according to FCC’s report, “the area continues to see an ongoing trend of large acreages and former farmland purchased for rural residential use and hobby farming. Agriculture transactions were limited by this type of activity, along with the expansion of potash mining in the area. Moreover, dairy farm expansions in this area were limited as a result of the lack of available production quota.”

Nationally, we’re seeing a shift away from agriculture too. My colleague Owen Roberts, The Urban Cowboy, writes about a major change at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto.

So if some of the statistics show a decline in traditional farming in Sussex, is it reasonable to teach students about agriculture? Or is it time to move agriculture to the history class instead?


Agriculture needs the support of community, and that means including it as a high school course in agriculturally rich areas and keeping its name in traditional agricultural-related events.

The agriculture landscape of Canada is changing but the change should be considered an opportunity.  If there are an increasing number of hobby farms in the Sussex area, purchased by the parents and grandparents of the students who attend Sussex High School, then an agriculture course is key to helping the younger generation learn a bit about farming. By nurturing the family’s existing desire for rural life as they start their new home in the country, agriculture in the high school could turn the love for gardening or a backyard chicken flock into a career choice for the students.

How do you promote agriculture?

Loved these nice signs at the farm gate that welcomed us!

Open Farm Day was held in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba on Sunday. In the Maritimes, the sun was shining, the skies were blue and the breeze was brisk. It was a perfect day for a trip to the farm.

Even though I write about agriculture, I don’t live on a farm and I don’t have any relatives close by who farm. I try to make my kids aware about where their food comes from, but it’s a constant discussion, isn’t it? There isn’t a lot of ag education going on in my kids’ school, so Open Farm Day is a great chance for a bit of education, mixed in with a lot of fun.

Each of the farms had lots of great promotional material about agriculture — word searches, colouring books, fact sheets. My daughter scooped up all of the information she could find and talked about sharing it with some of her friends. I think next year, my husband and I will each take a carload of kids and their friends and head out to area farms during Open Farm Day.

So what do you do to educate the kids you know about food? What do you do to educate their friends?

In areas of the world where agriculture is more prominent, it may be easier to get in touch with farming. But agriculture in Atlantic Canada is small (but strong!). It takes a bit more effort to get our kids to link to their food.

That’s where the parents and the community come in to help. Whether it’s a community garden at the school, inviting a farmer in for Career Day or taking our kids to the corn maze, helping kids recognize, appreciate and know where their food comes from is an important job.

My son was endeared by this calf at Waldrow Dairy, near Sussex, N.B.
This calf was really more interested in seeing whether my daughter Olivia had a bottle of milk than she was in having her photo taken. Perryhill Farms, near Sussex, N.B.

From the archives: Switzerland’s bumper spaghetti harvest

Some stories are of such high quality that they can stand to be repeated. This news story below is a prime example.
The story about Switzerland’s bumper crop of spaghitte broke April 1, 1957 and garnered great reaction from the BBC viewers who wanted to know where they too could buy spaghetti trees. The bumper crop was credited, in part, “to the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.”
Here’s an excerpt from the script:
It is not only in Britain that spring, this year, has taken everyone by surprise. Here in the Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower at least a fortnight earlier than usual.

But what, you may ask, has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well, it is simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it’s resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop.

The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmer. There is always the chance of a late frost which, while not entirely ruining the crop, generally impairs the flavour and makes it difficult for him to obtain top prices in world markets. But now these dangers are over and the spaghetti harvest goes forward.
Historic news footage of the Swiss spaghetti harvest

The full story about the Swiss spaghetti harvest of 1957 is located at the BBC website.

(Special thanks to Truffle Media for posting about this on Twitter)

Celebrating Canadian Farm Families

I’m writing a book, Celebrating Canadian Farm Families (working title), and I need your assistance.

This book will profile farms of all sizes, from all sectors, from all parts of Canada and I’m looking for farmers to write about.

Who am I looking for?

Male or female, it doesn’t matter. Size of the farm doesn’t matter either — I want to profile corporate family farms that are thousands of acres in size and the family farms that are the size of a postage stamp. As long as someone is earning an income from the farming they do, I’m interested. Organic or non-organic (and everything in between) — that doesn’t matter either.

Since the book is a celebration of family operated farms, that’s a key element to who I’m looking for. But just like families come in all shapes and sizes these days, so do the farms. Maybe you know of a multi-generational farm, siblings working together or spouses. In all of these cases, I want to interview several members of the family farm operation, so an openness to sitting around the kitchen table or taking me out to show me around the farm is important.

Also key is passion and enthusiasm for agriculture — loving what they do and loving the life they’re living. I recognize there are problems facing Canadian farmers and I’m open to talking about those matters with the families, but I will focus on those who approach issues as problem-solvers, rather than problem-moaners, with the overall celebration of family farming as the main theme.

If someone comes to mind , I would appreciate it if you could forward their contact information to me and maybe tell me a bit about them. If you’ve written about them, just send me a link to the story, or direct me to the family farm website.

Alternatively, you can send my contact information to them and ask them to contact me. I will be travelling this fall and winter and visit many of the farmers to profile in this book.

A million thank yous for your help with this — and please contact me at if you have questions or comments. Also, please feel free to circulate this.

Promoting what’s ours

I’m not sure if it’s lack of pride, enthusiasm or money, but something is lacking in New Brunswick with agriculture promotion.

I’m spending a few weeks travelling in Maritime Canada and currently, I’m in Prince Edward Island.

Fruit and vegetable stands are around every turn and maps at every tourist bureau point to the flavour routes… highlighting agri-tourism or agriculture experiences, farm markets and restaurants. Local food is highlighted in every restaurant.

Many of the promotional steps are simple and cost effective. A map with farm markets, pick-your-own farms and other agriculture activities has advertisements — it’s a promo tool that likely paid for itself. With thousands of tourists through visitor information centres each summer in PEI, the spin-off of promoting themselves is invaluable.

Personally, with this handy map highlighting local foods, I’m using it to plan my meals, whether I’m doing the cooking or eating out.

So why isn’t this happening in New Brunswick? I know farmers are proud of the product they produce, but are their energies too tapped out to do the promotion? What role does the federal an provincial government play?

Brewing passion

It’s hard to remember sometimes where our passion comes from. Do I truly love this here and now or do I love this because I always have?

I was feeling a bit of that when I set off for Belgium in April for the International Federation of Agriculture Journalists annual congress.

See, the idea of forming an Atlantic chapter of the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation was something that some of us in this part of Canada had been talking about for several years. Four of us had been talking prior to IFAJ and decided to get the ball rolling with an event at the end of April. But as for planning the details, we decided to wait until I returned from IFAJ in Belgium.

In the weeks leading to up to IFAJ in Belgium, I had worked on several additional contracts. In fact, after several consecutive 18 hour days, I calculated that I had written 10,000 words in seven days. By the time I reached Belgium, I was exhausted and feeling quite burnt out.

When I thought about continuing the push to form the Atlantic Canada Farm Writers Association, I was overwhelmed. So much work to, was it worth it? Is it a worthwhile project to put my time into? Why is it worthwhile? And whose big idea was this, anyways?!

But attending IFAJ just prior to the first meeting of the Atlantic Canada Farm Writers couldn’t have been any more perfect. My passion was reignited.

I don’t know exactly when it happened.

Maybe it was at the beginning or end of each day, when Janet and I caught up with what was going on in our respective lives. Or maybe it was hearing Billy’s Facebook updates about his crazy travels to reach the congress, or when Rodney and I shared the joys of working from a home office, or when Markus blocked the bathroom door for me at the farm, or when many of us stared with disbelief at the Belgium blue cattle, or when Adrian told me about his recent trip to Africa, or one of the many times Joe cracked a joke, or when Marc let me try on his wooden shoes, or when Kelly, Lilian, Joanne and I piled into the clown car. Or, or, or, or….

All of the reasons, none of the reasons, each one individually, none of them in particular, all of them put together and so many more brought the passion back for me. It was never far away anyways, but you know, sometimes we just need reminding.

In Belgium, I was reminded of exactly why it was important to have a local farm writers’ group: Farmers and agriculture — around the world, throughout our country or in our own back yard — have important stories to tell and we need to help them. It isn’t any more complicated than that and it certainly isn’t any simpler. And as writers who help tell these stories, we need to gather together so share our experiences about what works and what doesn’t work when we tell these stories. We need to learn about the new practices farmers are adopting and how they’re working on the farm. We need to stay informed and up-to-date with the latest communication methods. We need to polish our photography skills and sharpen our reporting proficiency. We need to network with each other.

So zeal renewed, I came home and caught up with Wayne, Andy and Heather to plan our June 4 Atlantic Canada Farm Writers’ Association meeting.

I have always been confident that we had the potential in Atlantic Canada to have a good size group, but how many would I actually see on June 4? Nine had contacted us and expressed an interest, so with that number in mind, I set off for Charlottetown. By the time I started my presentation talking about what CFWF and IFAJ have to offer to those of us in Atlantic Canada, there were 12 of us. Twelve!

I. Knew. We. Could. Do. It.

And do you know what the best part of whole experience was? I didn’t have to “sell” them on the advantages of regional, national and international farm writers’ groups. They already knew. They could feel the energy in the room and see the potential of what broader groups can offer. We’re already brewing our very own passion, right here in Atlantic Canada.

Allison’s Follow Friday Twitter List

Here’s my Follow Friday list for this week… and some of the reasons why these are great folks to follow.

@KimEagles – for her organizing tips
@upmagazine – for seeking out freelance writers
@AaronBillard – for the love of Star Wars
@LtoG – for her hard work at freelance writing
@briancormier – for his brilliant idea of buying two coffees at once at Tim’s
@rebeccahannam – for her curiosity about all things ag
@SteakPerfection – come on… steak. Perfection. What more do I need to say?
@JPlovesCotton – for our shared love of making an entrance
@FredMarcoux – for hot news tips
@Tamara_Stecyk – for helping feed Edmonton’s hungry

Farm Writers in Atlantic Canada

Have you ever had the experience of working with people who are so excited and enthused about a project that it rubs off on you? I love that feeling.

I had that experience earlier this week when I had a conference call meeting with three people from Atlantic Canada. Together, we’re working to start a regional branch of our national farm writers’ guild, the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation (CFWF).

Up front, I have to say that the desire to start our own group is in no way a reflection of the branch we currently belong to, the Eastern Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation (ECFWA). The simple vastness of Canada and the geographic divide between the majority of our current ECFWA members means farm writers in Atlantic Canada feel disconnected.

Personally, the desire to gather together with some of our own is inspired by ECFWA, as well as CFWF and our international group, the International Federation of Agriculture Journalists (IFAJ). Once I experienced gatherings with like-minded individuals, I felt the aspiration to do it more often with those closer to me.

Not all farm writers in Atlantic Canada are onboard with the formation of a regional group. Some have said they want to maintain connections with former colleagues within ECFWA, while others may not be interested in the work involved in setting up a new organization (not that anyone has said that to me, I’m just speculating). I hope they’ll reconsider.

The folks I met with earlier this week are keen and ready to get a local group formed. We’re pooling our talents to host a day of farm and research centre tours on June 4.

Early in my career when I wrote for daily newspapers from rural New Brunswick, I kept hearing the untold stories of farmers and opted to help be one of their voices. From that, I found out about CFWF and that connection eventually led me to focus my career on agriculture writing.

Through CFWF, I’ve toured farms across the country, met agriculture experts and associates, gained writing and editing jobs and met hundreds of Canadian farmers. I’ve also met a lot of great people and developed some very good friendships.

Cumulatively, what the organizations have given me inspire me to help create like opportunities for farm writers in Atlantic Canada. I hope we’ll create a network, come to count on each other and grow opportunities for ourselves.

Then together, we can help farmers tell their stories about the food they grow for us.

How two families tackle business decisions

originally printed in AgriSuccess, January, 2010. If you’re interested in reprinting this, please contact me at

How do you make important decisions on your farm? Is there a lack of consultation or, on the other hand, is there so much talking it causes paralysis by analysis?

In the run of a day, there are dozens of decisions to make. From simple, straightforward choices to those that require planning and reflection, nearly every step during the day needs some background preparation before moving ahead.

Now, mix in a team of knowledgeable co-workers who also happen to be related to you – suddenly, even the simple decisions could become much more complicated. Many family farms in Canada seem to have found their stride working together, including Four E Farms in Leamington, Ont., and Steppler Farms near Miami, Man.

At Four E Farms, father Peter Epp and sons Ken, Ron and Ed produce 2,200 acres of corn, beans and wheat, and 240 acres of processing tomatoes. During their years in business together, family members each found a niche in the farm operation. In some instances, their roles evolved over time, while in other cases, the sons were guided by their father.

“Dad recognized some of our strengths and tried to guide some of us to certain areas, Ken recalls. “’Why don’t you do this?’ he would ask. If it worked out and we enjoyed it, then we stayed.”

And if it didn’t, the role changed. Finding each person’s place at Four E Farms took about 10 years, Ken says. Now, day-to-day operational decisions fall to the shareholder who handles that part of the farm.

At Steppler Farms, parents Dan and Pat are in partnership with their sons Ian, Geoff, Adam and Andre. The charolais, grain and honey producers formalized their partnership in 2008. Prior to that, each son was farming on his own, with everyone helping the other out. But they faced an annual mountain of accounting paperwork. When Dan and Pat started succession planning a few years ago, incorporation became part of their plan. The family has now pooled its resources and divided the workload, so decision-making is clear-cut and well-defined.

Since the sons farmed prior to incorporation, they knew their areas of specialty. Dan is chairperson and takes on the role of mediator and advisor. Dividing up the managerial roles between his sons provides each with autonomy.

“As operational bosses, each son makes and enacts day-to-day decisions and has the authority to make essential minor purchases like repairs, medications and so on,” Pat explains. Major expenditures and budget decisions are made by all five, with input from everyone.

Both the Epps and the Stepplers agree that decisionmaking in a family farm business relies on one very important factor: communication.

At Four E Farms, the Epp brothers and their father meet every morning to discuss farm plans for the day ahead.

“Sometimes, not everyone agrees, but you build a consensus,” Ken explains, noting that no matter what decisions the family farm faces, the family maintains a common philosophy. “We work for the good of the company and not the individual.”

The Stepplers, while firm believers in communication, were skeptical when it came to the idea of setting up formal meetings with those who are so close.

“At first the idea of family meetings seemed awkward,” Pat says. “Before incorporation, we talked or planned somewhat individually with no formal structure. Now, we conduct each meeting in a semi-formal manner.”

Dan and Pat set the agenda, including issues brought forward by the sons and matters they want discussed. With each decision, everyone has the opportunity for input.

“Dan actually goes around the table to make sure that each person states his opinion,” Pat explains. Meetings are monthly during the winter, but that changes with
the seasons.

“We hold weekly meetings to plan the work that is ahead of us for that week, as well as long-range decisions on things that have to be fixed or purchased,” Pat says. “Each morning, the four boys meet for about 20 minutes to plan out that day’s work so that when the workers arrive at 8 a.m., the day’s schedule is in place. Over the noon meal, any changes to this schedule are then made.”

Both families also agree that keeping an open mind when working with family helps facilitate decision-making.

“Choose your attitude,” Pat advises. “Recognize when to shrug your shoulders, when to press a point,” she says, adding this advice also applies to older generations, reluctant to release control.

The International Federation of Agriculture Journalists Congress in Belgium is over and life goes on. We’re back in the real world now, back to work, back to our routines.

But I’m feeling a bit heavy-hearted. It’s hard to say good-bye to new friends, a new part of the world and new experiences. The daily pace of bus tours was exhausting, yet many of us thrive in that atmosphere. To be blunt, daily working life is boring after IFAJ (don’t get me wrong, though, I’m still glad to be back home and to see my family).

There seemed to be precious little time to visit with new friends during the congress in Belgium. That didn’t stop us, though. We managed to find time for chats, whether it was on the bus, over an afternoon drink, while wandering through a barn or during late night walks. I’m happy we made the time to do this — thankful I had the chance to get to know more about you, your work and your lives.

We shared stares of amazement and awe at the Belgium Blue cattle, wondered about the ethics of breeding such large, muscular animals. We meandered together though La Floralies, impressed and curious with the floral displays, entertained by the police escort and maybe a bit frustrated with the structure of being herded through the show. We shared toasts from our home countries, challenges to pronounce each other’s last names and countless laughs. In between, we continued to find time to talk about the world of agriculture from our home countries — the stories we tell, the farmers we write about, the challenges they face. I think many of us discovered that no matter where it is around the globe that we call home, where the farmers are that we write about — much of agriculture deals with similar challenges.

This was a unique travel experience highlighted by the eruption of the dormant volcano in Iceland and the resulting grounding of air traffic. Many of us were stranded in a foreign country and, for a short time, had no idea how or when we would get home. The European members worked together to help us figure out alternative travel plans, offered to take us in, drive us to airports, navigate the train system and decipher the language. This touched me deeply. If I had to be stranded, I’m glad it was with colleagues from IFAJ.

I sincerely hope to see each of you again next year at the IFAJ Congress in Canada. I look forward to showing you around my part of the world, renewing friendships, making new ones and sharing more about who we are and the people we write about.