It’s the use of crowd sourcing ( http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/saving-best-acre-farms ) by Best farms in Tryon PEI to raise money to plant a crop that’s attracted all the attention, but the fear of creditors refusing to extend operating money is well understood by family farms everywhere. If it weren’t the Bests, it could easily be dozens of others.
Debt, huge sums of money for most of us, casts a dark cloud over most family farms, the result of years of rising costs, and the loss of any ability to recover those costs (much less make a profit), in a hostile marketplace dominated by huge processors and retailers with access to the lowest cost commodities wherever they are grown. It’s allowed Canadian consumers to enjoy the cheapest food (relative to income levels) in the world, but it’s taken a heavy toll on the bottom line of the region’s farms.
If you think this is just Petrie whining and complaining again, take a look at the numbers:
Farm debt (and this is just on PEI) rose from $414,239,000 in 2000, to $714,282,000 by 2010 (the latest available numbers from Statistics Canada). That’s almost three-quarters of a billion dollars at a time of shrinking farm numbers, and very low interest rates.
The way farms finance themselves in a way hides the poor economic fundamentals at play in agriculture. Farms use their equity, the value principally of the farmland, as the basis for lines of credit at the bank. (It’s similar to the way home equity loans are used by the rest of us.) This allows a farm to lose money, even for several years, and continue to operate normally. Fertilizer and fuel are purchased, machinery replaced or repaired, fields get plowed and seeded, on the surface everything looks fine. Even the long list of suppliers of goods and services get paid, employees are hired and paid, so the PEI economy ticks along, but the hard truth is that the it’s being financed with additional debt, and it’s the farm families who become just a little bit poorer every year because of it. Pride, stubbornness, the hope that NEXT YEAR will be better, keeps this economic wheel turning. It’s only when the bank, as it has now with the Bests, says enough, that the true costs become evident.
David Best’s story is unfortunate but not unusual. He’s 73 and the third generation of Bests to grow potatoes on the farm (the 6th generation of Bests to live on PEI). He owns (for now) about twelve hundred acres of land including the farm cleared by Samuel Holland, the man who originally mapped the Island in the 1760’s. He normally grows 400 acres of potatoes (fresh and processing) in a 3 year rotation. David Best says for forty years he couldn’t do anything wrong, but for the last fifteen years it was hard to get anything right. Much of the difficulty was outside of his control. In 1991 an obscure virus called PVYn was discovered in PEI seed potatoes grown by someone else, but Best and hundreds of other farmers had to destroy millions of pounds of potatoes. In 2001 the Bests had 200 thousand bags on a train going to Mexico when potato wart was discovered again on another farm, and again markets were lost and potatoes destroyed. There was some compensation for both of these, but not enough to cover costs, and even worse, long-time customers were lost for good. Then in 2008 there were huge downpours in late August. Fields flooded and potatoes became waterlogged and vulnerable to a host of fungal diseases. The Best farm lost another half a million dollars. This past year, because of a huge crop grown in Idaho, potato prices were 40% less than a year ago, well below the cost of production. More money lost, and the bank refused new credit, and demanded repayment.
Farmers are adults and choose a way of life they know is full of risk and hard work. David Best’s son Brian who’s 44 has worked off-farm but insists farming is still what he wants to do. Both father and son feel a range of emotions from frustration with governments who say they support primary producers but do little to show it, to profound sadness that they may be the last Bests to work this land in Tryon. Neither blame consumers. Most non-farm families are facing their own debt issues, and if they’re paying a little less for food than people elsewhere, it gets quickly gobbled up by the fuel bill, insurance, hockey gear, credit card payments, or the dozens of other bills waiting to be paid. What we need to think about is that, with a few exceptions like aerospace, PEI’s economy is fundamentally linked to what Islanders can produce from the land and sea, and as we lose primary producers (and we are) our economy becomes ever more fragile.
The Bests are making a “Hail Mary” pass by going to crowd sourcing. They’ve had to put pride aside and speak openly about their problems, knowing many people and businesses are struggling, and that many will ask why farmers should be treated any differently. I don’t have an answer for that, other than I think (as I’ve said many times in this blog) that primary producers are being ground down by the sheer economic power of those higher up in the marketing chain. Some farmers (and fishermen) are going quietly, others like the Bests are making some noise. I’ve contributed something myself through Indiegogo because I can. If I viewed it as an investment I would say it’s a long shot, that the Bests can raise enough money quickly enough to get a crop in, that all of the weather gods will line up to produce good yield and quality, that Idaho won’t overplant again and drive the price down, all of that. But I still think it’s the right thing to do.
Pictures Courtesy of Perry Williams ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErTfIfwGozI )
In Their Own Words:
There's an interview with David and Brian Best here: