Eight weeks at Amara Farm

Eight weeks at Amara Farm has flown by!  It’s hard to believe it has been that long since I packed my camera into my car and got down to the serious work of making this documentary.  It’s hard to sum up two months of almost-daily filming, but here are the highlights:

  • Arzeena Hamir, the farmer at the centre of Amara Farm, taught me what “The Farming Lifestyle” truly means and why it’s worth sacrificing some income for the ability to raise her children on the farm.  She showed me time and again why raising her two daughters on the farm was the best decision she could make to prepare them for life, and her daughters demonstrated that these farm lessons had been well learned.  The story of Amara Farm truly is the story of a mother’s love for her daughters — even the name “Amara” is a portmanteau of her daughters’ names.
  • Scott Bell, the farm’s previous farm manager, told me how he left farming as a career because he didn’t see a path to achieving his dream of having a piece of land to call his own and put down roots.  A farmer without land is a sad story indeed!  He also shared how in his first full year making films (yes, he’s another filmmaker) he earned as much as he had made in his tenth year of farming.  He also shared why he thinks “The Farming Lifestyle” is a romantic lie that hides the fact that farmers aren’t paid fairly.
  • Sina, a university student home because of COVID-19, inspired me by demonstrating what living her ideals around sustainable food truly looks like.  A member of Amara Farm’s Seedling CSA, she planted a “Victory Garden” and is teaching herself how to grow food for herself and her family.
  • Neil Turner, Arzeena’s husband and farming partner, shared the unfortunate reality that most farmers in Canada stand to make more money from the rising property value of their land than the food they grow on it.  We also talked about the disconnect between land prices and the value of land as a farmer sees it:  soil quality, water, environmental health, biodiversity; none of these factors are well-represented in the price of the land.

Scaling up:  First week at Klippers Organic Acres

On June 9th, I pulled up stakes and headed east to Cawston, B.C., where Klippers Organic Acres will be my home for the next eight weeks.  My first impression is one of scale.  Amara Farm had about 2.5 acres in production.  Klippers has 50.  Amara Farm had a family of four, two grandparents, a farm manager, and two interns (including me).  Klippers is a family of six, a grandparent, an intern, twelve workers, a fully staffed restaurant, and countless volunteers.  Despite the difference in size, the basic business isn’t all that different.  Klippers still sells primarily at farmers markets, and they’ve branched out to do some online orders and local sales to replace some of the restaurant orders that have disappeared due to COVID-19.

Klippers is an interesting place to be at a time when the world is marching alongside Black Lives Matter and Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program has been in the headlines all spring due to COVID-19.  Klippers employs about a dozen Temporary Foreign Workers from Jamaica.  In the shadow of Black Lives Matter, it’s hard to avoid thinking about the racial history of black slaves toiling on white farms.  The historical parallel is there, but the situation here is different in one important respect:  Everyone involved is doing so by choice and has made a real effort to do so.  Every worker has jumped through bureaucratic hoops and travelled thousands of kilometres to be here.  And farmers Kevin and Annamarie put up with an additional level of reporting and paperwork to comply with the program’s strict requirements.  So, the question I’m left with is:  Why have they entered into an arrangement in the first place?  One would think it would be much easier and less racially fraught for my farmers to hire locals and the workers to find jobs in Jamaica.  I think we need to take it seriously when we hear that farmers literally can’t find Canadians who want to work on their farms!

I can’t fault Kevin or Annamarie for bringing the workers to Canada or the workers for coming all this way.  Where I find fault is in the Temporary Foreign Worker program, which creates an entirely separate class of people within Canada — one with fewer rights than regular immigrants and no path to Canadian citizenship.  This is not a program that fits with the equality espoused in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  I also fault Canadian culture, which values food and physical labour so little that farmers literally cannot pay Canadians to do the work, leaving them to hire foreigners who don’t see farm labour as beneath them.

One of Klippers’ “temporary” workers has been coming to the farm for almost two decades.  This year, a change in the program has made it possible for him to apply for permanent residence, which he is going to do.  While I’m here, I hope to document what it takes to do that — the hoops he has to jump through seem designed to precipitate failure.  I’m sure The Hands that Feed Us (and Canada) would be better for showing his experience, but it’s an open question whether he’ll want to participate.  If he doesn’t, I’ll respect his choice, but I hope that he does.  While I can lend my voice to the cause as a Canadian, I cannot duplicate his experience of coming to Canada as a second-class person.  I can only hope he has the courage to speak out.

Footage preview:  Timelapses

Sorting through the amount of footage I’ve generated is a massive job, and I haven’t stayed on top of it.  So, much as I’d like to share the best of my footage, I’ve already forgotten which are the best bits!  I’m filming almost-daily, so remembering what I have turns into a bit of a blur!

The exception is timelapses:  I’ve been doing a lot of them and I’ve published some of the best to YouTube.  They basically come in two flavours:  Picturesque views of the farm, and growing vegetables.  Here’s a selection of each to whet your appetite (for the film, or the food — you decide).

I’ll continue to post footage to this YouTube Playlist, so if you want to see what I’m shooting, check back in from time to time and I’ll be adding to it.

What I’ve learned from working on the farm

My personal saga of working on the farms where I’m filming has continued, and I’m now up to a dozen episodes that document what I’ve been learning behind the scenes.

The most recent video, fresh from my arrival at Klippers Organics, is The Culture-language-class-race Gap, but I think my favourite episode so far is What I Learned about Money Laundering on the Farm.  As a bonus, it also previews a visual metaphor that I’ve been developing for the film…

What’s next?

  • I’ll be filming at Klippers Organics until mid-to-late July
  • One of the big themes at Klippers is their knack for acquiring land.  Part of their orchard was planted by a 98-year-old farmer who still lives on his old land, rent-free for the rest of his life.  I’m hoping he lives just a bit longer so I can ask him about it…
  • Another theme is scale:  At 50 acres, Klippers is about as big as it can get as a direct-to-consumer farm.  Getting bigger means selling bigger orders to bigger customers, like White Spot.  This introduces a whole new complication; Klippers isn’t capable of delivering personally to all 67 White Spot locations, so they need a distributor:  Sysco.  I’m hoping I can talk them into giving me a preview of the hardest challenge in farming:  Moving food from A to B.

How can I help?

  • Tell people about the project.  The more momentum we can build as the documentary comes together, the bigger an impact this project can have.  Share one of the timelapses (the Zucchini Satellite is a good one) to get people’s attention, then send them to the website to find out more…  Or, share my vlog and they can learn what it’s like for a city boy to start farming.
  • We still need funding!  Right now, this project is entirely farmer-supported.  It’s only because of the generosity and hospitality of the farmers who are in the film putting me up and feeding me that I’m able to devote all my time to this project.  We are currently pitching CBC, but our goal is to find some sponsors.  If you know of any food companies that might benefit from standing behind a project like this one, maybe reach out an put a bug in their ear that we are looking…
  • I’m still seeking a dairy farmer for the film.  I’m offering a month of my labour in return for room, board, and the ability to film them on their farm.  My current goal is to visit in November, by which time hopefully COVID-19 will be well under control.  Put them in touch.