Heading east into the unknown

Last week, I packed up my car after seven weeks at Klippers Organics and headed east across the Rockies.  I’ve been filming and farming in B.C. for four months, and it’s time to see how farming works in the rest of Canada.  B.C. has taught me a lot about selling at farmers markets, but the prairies sells trainloads of wheat and hundreds or thousands of head of cattle.  It’s a different system, and it’s time to see how it works.

One problem:  I don’t have a confirmed destination.  As my departure approached, the two Albertan farmers I’ve been planning to film with voiced concerns about whether they wanted me around in the middle of a pandemic.  An understandable concern!  As I write this, I’ve been in Alberta for five days, and I don’t have anywhere to film.  I’ve had encouraging conversations with both farmers, but it’s still unclear whether they feel comfortable with having me around.  But, I can’t tell a story about Canadian farmers by staying in B.C., so I’m here, and one way or another, I’ll find a farmer to film with.

Once again the scale of farming that I’m seeing has increased.  By B.C. standards, Klippers’ 50 acres is a fairly large market garden farm, but land on the prairies is measured in quarter sections, 160 acres at a time.  In the late 1800s when the prairies were surveyed, a quarter section was considered to be the minimum amount of land needed to make a viable homestead.  That was barely true at the time of settlement, and farms have gotten a lot larger since then.  Farms in Alberta are at least an order of magnitude bigger than the ones I left behind in B.C.

Klippers’ second job is running Vancouver’s best new restaurant

One of the ideas that provoked The Hands that Feed Us is a statistic:  2/3 of Canadian farmers have a second job.  I found that shocking when I first heard it.  How can farmers — the people who grow our food — not earn enough to make a decent living?  There is nothing more important than making sure we can eat.  How can it not be a decent business?  As I’ve researched this project, the statistic has developed some nuance:  The number of farmers with second jobs fluctuates quite a bit, and 2/3 was the high water mark sometime around 2011.

Another nuance didn’t become clear to me until I actually started living on farms:  The rural, farming lifestyle isn’t one that lends itself well to the cultural myth we have around having a single career.  Farmers are rarely just one thing because, as a farmer, you don’t commute to your office every weekday, put in your eight hours, and go home.  Having a second job may be about money, or it may be because being a farmer allows us to wear more than one hat.

For example, at Klippers Organics, Kevin and Annamarie are successful enough that the farm can easily support them.  Yet, in addition to the farm, they run three other businesses:  A cidery, a restaurant, and some guest suites.  They do this not because they need the money, but because they wanted to.  The businesses complement each other, and they all fit the life that the Klippensteins have built for themselves.  The Klippensteins work 17 hours a day, every day staying on top of these four businesses.  They do this willingly.  That’s more hours than I want to work, but I understand the compulsion:  They are building something they believe in; they are working to create a vision that they share.  I can see this compulsion in myself on this project:  I too am working all day every day to try and bring this project to fruition.  I’m even managing to do some farming of my own while I do it.  I wear multiple hats as farmer and filmmaker, but all of my efforts are aimed towards the single goal of understanding why farming is such a tough business.

In retrospect, this also applied to Arzeena Hamir at Amara Farm.  She took a job as a politician, not because she needed the money, but because she saw something that needed changing.  Her role as a farmer allows her space to take on the secondary role of a politician, even though being a politician is itself a full time job.  That being said, in many cases, the money from a second job is quite necessary to surviving as a farmer, and I’ve heard many stories of farmers who have subsidized their farms with other jobs, especially in the early years of the farm.

And Klippers?  While I was at Klippers, Annamarie worked 11AM-10PM every day at the on-farm restaurant, Row Fourteen.  I had trouble filming her doing actual farm work, because she was spending so much time at the restaurant, but if I got up early, I could catch her on her “farm shift” from 5-11AM.  Does that make her less a farmer because she was spending more time running a restaurant?  I don’t think so.  She’s spent 19 years building her farm; it almost runs without her, and Kevin picks up the slack.  The restaurant is barely in its second year, and it needs her attention right now.  Is it worth it?  I’ll let the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic, Alexandra Gill, have the last word:  She named Row Fourteen the best new restaurant in Vancouver — four hours away — for 2019.  I can attest to that.  I ate there four times while I was at Klippers…

Food Security is not a subset of Poverty

Food security has been a big worry during COVID-19 — one that will only become bigger as government support runs out and struggling businesses start to go under.  Canadian statistics suggest that households experiencing food insecurity has spiked by about 50%, but that’s nothing compared to stories from the USA, where food banks have had lines for hours, and more than a third of New Yorkers reported skipping meals or reducing portions.

It has become de rigueur to describe food insecurity as an “income problem” rather than a shortage of food.  I like that this attitude takes the focus off farmers.  The idea that food needs to be cheap so that everyone can eat has not been good for farmers.  To some extent, our recent food policy could be described as “solving poverty by making farmers poorer”.  But, thinking of food security as a subset of poverty not only takes the focus off farmers, it also takes the focus off food entirely, and I think that’s a mistake.

My latest blog post explores this idea more thoroughly:  Why food security isn’t a subset of poverty.

Eating peaches, tomatoes, and dirt

One of my favourite moments at Klippers was seeing the first tomatoes and peaches of the season.  These went to Row Fourteen (of course), where one lucky couple got a special off-menu treat:  A tomato peach salad, served personally by the chef.  I documented that moment for the film, and talked about it in one of my weekly YouTube updatesTomatoes and Peaches at Vancouver’s Best Restaurant.

Other video updates from Klippers include:

What’s next?

Good question!  Without a confirmed destination, I can only guess, but my goal over the next three months is to film a grain operation and a cattle farm.  Both of these are commodities that are bought and sold very differently from the market farms I’ve been at so far.  With luck, both farmers will come through and we’ll negotiate a way for me to film safely during COVID-19, otherwise, I’ll be looking for new subjects at the last minute!

  • On the grain farm, I’m hoping to film harvest in a couple weeks, and then a grain delivery at the elevator where the grain is shipped by train. 
  • On the cattle farm, I’m hoping to film a cattle auction and talk to a buyer about where the cattle go after leaving the farm.
  • In both cases, the challenge is that the farmer sells their produce to the next buyer in the food chain — commodities are sold to middlemen, not the person who eats the food, so they are more complicated — and harder to film — than the direct marketing that my previous farmers have used.
  • I’ll be pitching a spin-off audio documentary to the Whicker Awards, a British funding organization for radio docs.

How can I help?