The changing face of farming

Blair Churchill could have been anything when he grew up but he chose to follow the footsteps of generations before him.
“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” he says.
As a child Churchill was raised on a dairy farm on the outskirts of Yarmouth where he learned the tricks of the trade from his father and grandfather.  He is the fifth generation of Churchill Brothers farmers and when his father hangs his hat up the family business will be passed down to him.
The lifestyle of farming lost its allure to the younger generation in past decades but it’s slowly making a turnaround.  The average age of farmers is creeping towards 60 but, according to the most recent agriculture census, the number of young farmers is on the rise.
There’s hope for the future of farming as the interest among young people grows.
Carmen Fuller and her two daughters, Laura, 14, and Sarah, 11, operate a self-sustaining produce farm in Yarmouth County.
The girls haven’t wasted time following their mother’s lead. A few years ago Laura began growing her own flowers to sell at the Farmers’ Market with her mother and Sarah wasn’t far behind in joining them.
The next generation is the glimpse of hope as the number of farms dwindle. With age on their side the next generation is ambitious and willing to make sacrifices.
But not everyone is as fortunate as Churchill, and starting from scratch can be a difficult thing to do in the world of farming.
Churchill and Fuller have both been around to witness the changing face of the industry. Fuller has been in the business for nearly 30 years and says she’s watched it shrink by about 90 per cent.
“Ten years ago there used to be eight or nine dairy farms in Yarmouth, now there’s only two,” says Churchill.
Cook’s Dairy is another example of a local farming business that has seen its share of family generations come through the door.
But the cost of starting up a dairy farm from scratch runs upwards into the millions of dollars.
“The big challenge is how expensive things are becoming. Anything you can think of that you need to farm is going through the roof,” says Churchill.
Fuller says you have to prove to the younger generation that they can make a living in the business because the real deterrent is the cost of starting up.
The government provides some assistance to farmers, such as low interest loans. They also help dairy farmers by supporting their supply management system, which is considered a success in the Canadian dairy farming industry. Supply management is a quota and distribution program that allows farmers to meet demands while maintaining their costs.
But Fuller feels the government should offer more support than it does for new farmers.
“The idea of nature reserves (donated land to operate a farm) has been passed around but it will never come about,” she says.
So with so much working against them, why would anyone choose to be a farmer?
Growing up on a farm certainly isn’t your run-of-the-mill kind of childhood.
“Kids that grow up on a farm have chores and responsibilities, they don’t sit around and play video games all day, it builds character,” says Fuller.
Sarah and her sister Laura are homeschooled by their mother and although Churchill attended public school they all have something in common – ambition.
“It was great to be able to make a couple extra dollars when I was little to go buy some candy,” says Churchill.
Laura and Sarah Fuller are thinking further ahead.
“We’re saving our money for a college fund or to buy a car,” says Laura.
Their mother says that despite the hard work her daughters will thank her later, something Churchill can attest to.
“I love farming, it’s a great lifestyle and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says.
But everything comes with a cost.
“People underestimate farming, they have this fabulous idea of laying back on a farm and sipping lemonade,” says Fuller.
Churchill can tell you that that certainly isn’t what he does everyday.
He gets up every morning while the rest of the world is still sleeping to milk the cows. Milking twice a day, he works hard to get home by suppertime. Rain or shine, he is at it every day of the year.
Although he says it’s not an easy life, there has been a lot of attention on smaller farms.
“Buy local” is a term that’s turned a lot of heads lately.  Fuller says she thinks it has to do with the media coverage, the numerous food scares and fear of pesticides – but whatever it is, it works for her.
“People like to be more connected with their food and know where it comes from,” she says.
Going to the market seemed so outdated when the “super” markets took over.  But like everything, what’s old becomes new again.  The get big or get out school of thought is slowly dwindling among farmers and consumers alike. Small farms have been more successful in the past few years than they have been in decades, with no sign of that success slowing down.
Community farmers’ markets are sprouting up all over Nova Scotia and becoming more popular each year.  Buying local not only assures customers that their food is sustainably grown, fresh and free from poisons, but it also helps ensure that small farms are here to stay.
Laura Fuller says her dream is to win the lottery and buy a dairy farm of her own.  While the chances of that happening are slim, the cost to operate a small farm is far more within reach.
The fate of farming lies within small farms, new ideas and young ambition. Laura beamed with excitement as she spoke about some of the new innovations she’s seen in farming.
“The stuff I’ve seen to make farming easier and make the food better is so cool,” she says.
There’s also a new means of marketing in the farming industry: social media.
It’s simple to create a Facebook group for your farm or product. By adding a few friends, those friends add a few and before you know it you’ve reached more people than word of mouth ever could.
The future of farming must focus on how it can successfully keep up with the changing world, not just how to manage the decline.
With the use of new tools and methods of marketing products, farming can be a profitable industry, attracting young people for both the source of income and the lifestyle. Whether it’s handed down or built on dreams, as Churchill says, “I couldn’t imagine a better life.”


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