Of land and lifeboats

I’ve spent most of the last three months re-living my time at Amara Farm, and polishing little nuggets of wisdom from Arzeena.  The nugget that stands out the most is an analogy:  Arzeena compares her farm to a lifeboat where her community can find food and security in stormy weather.  She describes it as her motivation for building the farm:  she’s building a lifeboat.  What’s striking to me is how distant her vision is from the way economics understands things.  Economic language loves to talk in terms of incentives, by which it usually means money.  That view of motivation is built into the way I approached the project; my central inquiry revolves around how farmers make money.  The implicit expectation is that money is necessary for farming to happen.  The money is an incentive to farm.  The lifeboat analogy is beautiful to me because it completely disarms that economic view of things.  Money may be necessary to keep things running, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with Arzeena’s reasons for starting the farm.  Her motive is much more fundamental:  she’s creating food and shelter for her family and community.

Another nugget I found is less inspiring, but no less insightful.  This quote from Arzeena’s husband, Neil, sums it up: 

“I tell people that when they buy a farm their biggest asset will always be their land … but to get it out of your head the idea that you will make more money farming on your land — more so than the appreciation of your land.  No … the small farmer on a mixed farm:  Your land will make more money than your business.”

That’s crazy.  Crazy and true.  There’s a lot of implications to his words, and I’ll highlight two.  One, simply owning land and waiting for the price to go up is a better business than farming.  Two, that fact destroys the business case for farming, because it’s impossible for a farm to ever pay for its startup costs.  If the increase in land value alone is more than the farm will ever earn, the farm business will never be able to pay for land.  The only reason farming is viable at all is because farmers can re-sell the land at a profit when they retire.  That means a farmer will go into debt to buy land at the beginning of their career, and they will pay interest on that land throughout the life of their farm.  In effect, farmers don’t own their land.  They rent it from the bank because it would be impossibly expensive to own it outright.

Up next:  Pushing the boulder over the precipice

A year ago, I arrived back on the West Coast with 200 hours of footage, a head full of ideas, and boundless enthusiasm for the next step:  Editing those 200 hours into a polished, coherent documentary.  I figured I could finish in about six months — a year at the outside.

Well, it’s been a year.  Am I finished?  Not even close.  I would guess I still have 80% still to do.  This is not a sustainable situation.  I would fire myself if I was working for money, and I certainly can’t afford to keep working at this pace for another four years.  Whatever I did last year, it didn’t work.  So, once again, I find myself making a schedule for the year to come, and my goal is to finish the film in six months — this time, by June 2022.  This is achievable, but obviously I can’t do what I did last year.

Right now, I have two things going for me.  One, my enthusiasm and determination to see the project through are strong as ever.  I’m not bored, and, surprisingly, I’m not discouraged.  I’ve come this far, and I know I’m going to see it through.  Two, I have some momentum that has been building since November.  Most of my progress on the film has been made in the last two months.  Every week, I’m able to look at a scene or two, and get excited about the tangible results of my work.  I’m still working about half or a third of the speed that I expect of myself, but even that slow progress is infinitely faster than the maelstrom I was stuck in for most of 2020.

A filmmaker friend of mine once compared making a film to pushing a boulder up a mountain.  You push for days or months, and never feel like you are getting anywhere, but you just keep pushing.  And then, you get to the top, and the boulder starts to roll downhill, and you just have to hold on while it takes its course.  In my case, I think the boulder got stuck in a swamp first and I spent most of the year digging it out, but the last two months I’ve definitely started pushing uphill.  And, even though it’s a heavy boulder, I can tell I’m making progress.

How to own a farm in China

Neil’s quote about the impossibility of buying farmland got me thinking about alternatives to private land ownership.  If it’s impossible for a new farmer to afford farmland, what other options are there?  In Canada, the most interesting option I’ve seen are land trusts, where a non-profit is formed to hold the land, often with a mandate to maintain the land as a farm.  But this still requires purchasing the land, and it effectively relies on charity, which doesn’t seem realistic on a large scale.

Eventually, the penny dropped.  If I wanted to know how land tenure could work without private ownership, China is a real-world example.  China abolished private ownership when they adopted communism in the ’50s.  <deep breath>  Communism.  That’s not really where I thought I was going with this.  If that’s the alternative, maybe private ownership isn’t so bad!

Fortunately, thinking about land tenure doesn’t require adopting a whole political system.  As I thought about things a bit more, I realized I haven’t the foggiest idea how state ownership of land actually works in practice.  And, as it turns out, neither did the Chinese in 1949!  Farms don’t farm themselves collectively.  The hard work is done by specific individuals, and they needed a system to figure out which specific individuals were responsible for farming which specific pieces of land, and to make sure that those individuals didn’t starve to death while they were doing it.  That’s a challenge I have some sympathy for!  Building a new system was messy, and it took several decades for the Chinese system to stabilize.  I’m glad I wasn’t there.  But, long story short, several competing, but still communist-approved methods of land tenure developed.  I’m a long way from advocating for any of them, but it has been mind-opening to read about them.  This report from the FAO (part of the UN) in the ’90s has been my main (ok only) source of information so far.

The report outlines four different systems:  A “lease” system, a hybrid subsistence-commercial system, a “collective” system, and co-op system.  The lease system is somewhat analogous to the way we manage resources on crown land:  Farmers get a fixed term lease (~30 years) from the government which gives them the right to farm a particular piece of land.  Leases can be inherited, mortgaged, exchanged, sublet, etc.  It’s like private ownership with an expiry date, after which the government reclaims possession and leases it out again.  The hybrid system sets aside a “subsistence” plot for every eligible citizen (on the understanding that they grow food to support themselves), and then makes the remaining agricultural land available to rent on commercial terms (with a requirement that it must be actively used for farming).  The collective system could also be called a corporate system:  It makes villages into landholders and assumes farms will be run and managed by the village.  And the co-op system works much like our co-ops do, with the proviso that membership can’t be bought or sold, and is contingent on being resident in the area.

All of these systems have different advantages and cause different problems.  Some are more “equal” than others.  Some produce better yields.  Some cause land fragmentation, and others make concentrated holdings easier to accumulate.  What is fascinating to me is that they all “work”, in the sense that people know who is responsible for which land, and there is some agreement that the arrangement is fair and should continue.  The biggest eye-opener for me is the reminder that multiple systems of land ownership can co-exist, and the fact that decisions about land use are being made locally.  Both of these are principles that I think we could learn from!  More broadly, I like the idea that different ownership structures can make it easier to uphold different values:  Equality of access and soil health can be incentivised along with (or instead of) pure pursuit of yield or profit.  I suspect not everyone is as geeky as I am about land tenure, but I hope some of my enthusiasm rubs off when you read this!

Water where you don’t expect it

When the skies opened and the deluge came, it wasn’t real for me until I saw the dairy farmers of Sumas Lake (ahem Prairie) trying to herd their cows to safety in boats.  The disaster reports of mudslides and highway washouts bounced off me, but the thought of a submerged barn full of gentle, friendly dairy cows choked me up.  The impact on the animals made a bigger impact on me than the human victims.  Their innocent dependence on humans and the mostly-futile efforts of the farmers trying to save them spoke to me, and I could only imagine how the farmers felt.  Even when the animals were dry and “safe”, I have to wonder how on earth they managed to eat.  I recall reading a headline boasting that someone had airlifted in five tons of feed for the cows, and thinking great, that will last, what two days?  Feeding a hundred cattle is no small task!

While that was going on, Robert, my dairy farmer in Nova Scotia, sent me this photo.  B.C. stole the headlines, but we weren’t the only ones who got flooded in November!

Overview Farms Welcome Sign, submerged in a metre of water.
Welcome to Overview Farms … if you can get there!

Thankfully, the water here is on the road, and the cows and the barn are safe up on the ridge.  I drove that road every morning while I was there last December.  The road is well above the creek that runs beside it.  I have no way of measuring, but I would guess the water in the photo was up at least 10-15 feet above normal.

Back on the West Coast, Kevin and Annamarie at Klippers Organics weathered the flood without skipping a beat.  Despite every highway to the Lower Mainland being closed, they somehow managed not to miss a single market.  I’m told they drove 12 hours the first Friday after the flood so they could be there.  That’s either heroic or foolhardy — I’m not sure which.

What’s next?

It’s taken months, but I’m settled in to my new home and building momentum on the edit.  Each farm that I visited has its own section in the film, and each section is made up of about 8-10 scenes.  Right now, I’m putting those scenes together, one by one.

  • I’m nearly done all the pieces of Amara Farm, so Klippers will be next.  I’m editing in the order I visited, so the order will be West to East.
  • While editing is definitely the top priority, I’m still fundraising in the background.  In the next couple months, I’ll be applying to the HotDocs Forum, two funding streams with Telus, and a British documentary fund called The Whickers.
  • Now that I have a permanent home, I’ve started a local discussion group called First We Eat Metchosin (named for Suzanne Crocker’s wonderful film).  With luck, this will become a place where the ideals of the film can be put into action.

How can I help?

  • We are looking for non-profit partners who can help us access funds and which are interested in using the film to support their mandates.  I’m looking for suggestions of which organizations to approach:  We are looking for an agricultural partner and a health partner.
  • Land tenure is an important part of the film, and I’m a bit out of my element.  It’s a big topic!  So, I’m looking for research suggestions:  Who or what should I be reading to learn about land tenure in China, Europe, or elsewhere?  Are there real-world examples?
  • Moral support.  I’m a bit sensitive that I accomplished so little last year.  Hearing what you hope to see in this project is great for my morale 😉  Criticism is also welcome … I actually thrive on knowing where I can do better!

If you have suggestions for any of these items, please let me know at devon@thehandsthatfeedus.ca