You don’t have to drive very far in any direction in Cumberland County to see farms in varying states of abandonment. In my community of River Hebert, there used to be a vibrant farm community of over 100 farms, whereas today, less than 25 active farms exist. This sad statistic is also true for the entire county, as well as for our province and nation for a variety of reasons.
According to a NFU report entitled Losing Our Grip (http://www.nfu.ca/issues/losing-our-grip-2015-update), the primary reason for the decline in farms in Canada is an agricultural system that favours export commodity markets over crops for domestic consumption. The report also cites other factors that contribute to the predicament we are in, such as land-grabbing (foreign governments buying up farmland abroad) and increased foreign and corporate investment in Canadian farmland. The report also cites the rising cost of farmland, escalation of farm debt, the rising age of farmers, as well as inadequate farm income.
The situation is not only dire, but complex to say the least. Each community faces its own set of unique challenges. In Cumberland for example, it is not so much that we are losing farmland to foreign investors, or to urban sprawl, such as may be the case in BC, ON, or the Annapolis Valley. In fact, Cumberland boasts the lowest rate of land lost to development in the entire province, at 1%. Our primary issue in Cumberland is farmland abandonment. Still, that doesn’t mean our farmland doesn’t need protecting and currently, not unlike most counties in the province, our municipality does not have a planning strategy that includes agricultural development or protection.
Cumberland faces many obstacles, from marginal soil quality, inadequate financing supports, to social isolation. New farmers not only care about soil classifications and debt repayment, but they must also consider proximity to cities and the educational and social conditions of an area, as this will also be their home. Even the lack of high speed internet availability may turn some prospective newcomers off, as Cumberland still lacks adequate access in some of the rural areas in the county.
But rural out-migration, along with an aging population, is a probably the biggest root cause of farmland abandonment in Cumberland. Our population has been on the decline for decades. We will need to look at marketing outside of the province to attract new residents and new farm businesses.
Above: Broken pasture fence (left) and overgrown pastureland (right)
The obstacles facing us seem daunting, yet a group of passionate citizens is beginning to convene, shedding a hopeful light. The group, including local farmers, business owners and local government, is in the early stages of creating what we are presently calling the Cumberland Farmland Bank, which has a broad mandate of increasing the amount of farming that takes place within the County.
One of our first steps will undoubtedly be to identify farmland that is available. We do not currently have a registry of abandoned farms, so this seems like a good place to start. We are considering undertaking some farmland mapping, similar to that of our neighbours in NB. According to Aaron Shantz, Coordinator of the Westmorland-Albert Food Security Action Network, the process of identifying agricultural lands is a great way of generating discussion at the very least, and provides a database of available land, including some indicators of soil conditions, etc., that are valuable for attracting new farmers, as well as for municipal land use planning.
The NS Department of Agriculture already has a really good online database of arable land and soil classifications by county which we will be able to draw from. (See: http://novascotia.ca/agri/programs-and-services/research-and-statistics/county-profiles/)
Another obvious next step will be to identify our assets, of which we have many. We have some of the most affordable land in the province and in the country. Also, Cumberland has the largest area of arable land of any county in Nova Scotia at 44,403 acres. Cumberland is full of natural beauty, geologic wonders and the people are the salt of the earth.
So, with all this going for us, I have often wondered why there are not more farmers flocking to Cumberland. There has been a recent flourish of new young farmers to the area: From 2006 to 2011, the total number of farms in Cumberland County had increased by nine, which is really something to celebrate. It will be interesting to look at the 2016 stats that will become available this year. Now all the aspiring farmers out there just need to know about us! As well, anything we can do to support them will go a long way to ensuring their success.
Some ideas being floated around include community based financing options, such as setting up our own CEDIF, similar to that of FarmWorks (http://farmworks.ca/home/). A Community Economic and Development Investment Fund (CEDIF) is “a pool of capital which is raised from individuals in Nova Scotia to invest in for-profit entities within a defined community”. CEDIF’s are ideally suited to funding small and medium sized enterprises with community based dollars, dollars that stay in the community, and these types of farms are inherently those who would produce for the domestic market which would increase our food security, as well as benefit the physical health of our citizens and our environment. Since the CEDIF program already exists in the province, we just need community mobilization to make it happen.
Programs for revitalizing abandoned farms may also help. A lot of these farm properties may have dwellings in varying states of disrepair, so grants or loan programs, such as tax breaks for renovations might help. Perhaps a program that incentivizes clearing back overgrown farmland (a farmland reclamation fund), would help make reinvigorating abandoned farms more viable for new farm entrants.
Many members of the group have suggested that farm programs for Cumberland be tailored to assist small family farms versus the current subsidization of large scale agriculture. The blueberry subsidy is a good example, as one must already be an established farmer to access it, so no new farms are assisted by the program and there is no opportunity to use the program to help attract new residents to the community. Programs will need to shift from supporting existing farmers, to assisting new entrants if we are to have meaningful impact.
FarmNext (http://novascotia.ca/programs/farmnext/), was created by the provincial government to meet that need. The objective of this program is to encourage and support new farmers to establish commercial farms in Nova Scotia. Program funds are intended to reduce the loan principal to provide a stronger equity position for the farm business in the first year of operation.
Income assurance plans for new farmers, for example tax incentives and tax deferral programs such as the Farm Land Identification Program in NB (FLIP: http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/services/services_renderer.14296.Farm_Land_Identification_Program_.htmlI) may help to help improve cash flow for new entrants.
It seems that there is no shortage of great ideas being generated. Wherever this path to increasing farming in Cumberland might take us, to be sure we have many options, and a lot of work cut out for us. Cumberland County faces unique issues which will require new and proactive means, including action from its citizens and all levels of government. I have no doubt we are up for the challenge.
Statistics used are from: (http://nsfa-fane.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Statistical-Profile-of-Cumberland-County.pdf)
CEDIF (Community Economic Development Investment Funds (http://nssc.novascotia.ca/corporate-finance/community-economic-development-Investment-funds