By Brian Barth
Part one of this series is available here.
Economists generally agree that the extraction and production of raw materials from the land are the foundational economic activities, underlying all other forms of material wealth in society. In Lanark County, this primarily takes the form of forestry and farming, activities that dominate the majority of the region’s landscape and two of the defining characteristics of Lanark’s cultural identity. In looking forward to the balance of the 21st century, visions of what Lanark will become must be sown in this economic substrate.
Here on the edge of the shield, topsoil is thin and sporadic, often filled with either rocks or mucky clay, limiting the possibilities for large-scale agronomic exploitation. Agri-business and its industrial style of farming has taken root in the few large pockets of flat terrain with deep soil, but fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) it is unlikely to ever dominate the landscape as it does in the greater St. Lawrence Valley to the south and east. Forestry was once big business here, too, but since the last of the old growth timber was cut over a hundred years ago, logging has only been marginally profitable at best.
As it is, Lanark’s economic base putters along and farming families cannot be blamed when a developer comes along offering to buy the land for a subdivision, strip mall or manufacturing plant. Likewise, elected officials can’t be blamed for courting this type of development as the tax revenue makes it possible to keep schools open, roads paved and hospitals staffed. A statistic I uncovered recently is very telling: the average sales per acre of farmland here is $146; unfortunately, the average operating expenses per acre are $136 (1995 data).
$10 per acre each year is not going to inspire many folks to go into farming, but it has inspired more than a few to get out of it. Most would agree that the pastoral landscape provided by farmland is part of the appeal of living here and don’t want to see farms disappear. Agricultural zoning, land trusts and tax subsidies are important tools to preserve the open space, but there is a lot of room for innovation and ingenuity with the other variables of the equation.
Diversification and Intensification
Since the economies of scale approach to profitable farming is not particularly applicable here—and is known to come with a host of questionable outcomes for the environment, local economies and local communities—another approach is in order. Concentrating production on less acreage using more intensive methods is one avenue to consider.
For obvious reasons, most of Canada’s fresh produce is flown in from warmer climates. I’m know I’m not the first one to ask the question: How can we produce more food locally and over a longer season? One would think that the costs of flying fresh produce in from California and Chile would be greater than those involved in a heated greenhouse. But if this was true, I think we’d see a lot more greenhouses and a greater abundance of produce with a Grown in Ontario label at the grocer.
I wonder if multiple products came from each greenhouse—say, tomatoes and cucumbers in the warm season, salad greens and root crops in the colder months and yellow perch and tilapia all year long—might the numbers play out more favourably?
The issue with greenhouses is the significant up-front investment required, not to mention the cost of fuel to heat them. It would likely take initiative from the government to make it happen, in the form of low-interest loans to provide the capital and a university program dedicated to the research and development needed to refine the technology.
In a climate not so different from here, Will Allen, author of The Good Food Revolution, has been quite successful with a similar formula. He’s built a 3-acre compound of greenhouses supporting aquaculture and vegetable production in the heart of Milwaukee. Though he began with a DIY approach, his efforts won a MacAurthur genius grant, allowing him to fine tune the technology and create a streamlined approach that can be replicated in other temperate climates.
Heating water for aquaculture tanks as a means of keeping a greenhouse warm is a very efficient use of energy, compared to simply heating the air (though Allen also uses the heat generated by large compost piles inside his greenhouses). Racks holding vegetable plants in a lightweight growing medium are suspended above the tanks. Fish water is circulated through the growing medium, where the plants absorb the nutrients, returning to the tanks free of fish waste. The cyclical process verges on elegance. It is also highly profitable.
Building the Market
If every 100-acre farm in Lanark had one acre of greenhouses, I think they would likely net more than $10 of profit each year and the remainder of the land could be left open to the sky. Serious capital investment is needed to get it started, but unproven endeavors like this also need a major investment in the demand side of the equation—the market.
If there is one thing the most profitable companies in the world have to teach us, it is the power of branding. A high quality product underlies any type of successful entrepreneurship, but from there, it’s all about the image that goes with it. Consumers make choices based on their self-identity. Offer them a product that affirms their intelligence, sense of style and world view, and they will become dedicated customers. Build a critical mass of these individuals and their enthusiasm will spread like a virus.
Many attempts at sustainable agriculture remain too small in scale and too insular in their culture to spawn the changes they seek. At some point, the bottom-up grassroots revolution in agriculture has to meet with top-down policies, financing mechanisms, marketing strategies and distribution networks. A locally-grown in Lanark approach does not have the economic weight to overthrow the forces that create mile after mile of GMO corn and soybeans meeting with mile after mile of cookie cutter subdivisions. But there is hope.
Local, organic agriculture needs to get smarter, more tech-savvy and better-funded to reverse the tide of tech-savvy, well-funded, yet senseless industrial style of agriculture, a model that is profitable only at a behemoth scale and reliant on poisons to manage weeds and pests. Lanark’s location in the middle of the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal triangle positions it perfectly to become the epicenter of a regional high tech food hub with access to a market of over 10 million people.
Building on the concept of ‘All Natural and Locally-Grown’, a future regional brand could sound something like: ‘The Food Artisan Revolution’; ‘Our Land, Our Food, Our Future’; ‘The Smart Food Source’; or ‘The Architects of Fine Food’. It is simply a brainstorm, but I believe technology holds the key to making earth-friendly agriculture profitable enough to prevent it from being paved over as urban areas expand.
Brian Barth is an urban planner, garden designer and lifelong student of the landscape. He and his wife, Christine, live in a heritage schoolhouse with their dog, Mitzi, where they continually learn more of life’s mystery and meaning on their daily walks into the surrounding forest.