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Thursday, October 07, 2010

Report on Macphail Farm Symposium

Macphail Homestead, Orwell, PEI: Oct. 7th, 2010, 7:00-9:00 p.m.


Remarks of general welcome were made by Friends of Macphail Board member Don Patton, who then made the official announcement that Dr. George McRobie had graciously accepted his appointment by the Board as Patron of the proposed Macphail Farm.  Patton also introduced Alan MacIsaac, the local Member of the Legislature and a strong supporter of the Homestead, who brought greetings from the Province.

And finally, Patton introduced Harry Baglole, the Chair for the evening’s Symposium. By way of context, Baglole read the text of the Macphail Homestead Motion, passed unanimously by the Prince Edward Island Legislature on May 4th, 2010:

Therefore be it resolved that the provincial government consider increasing its support to the Friends of Macphail, along the lines outlined in the document “A Proposal Regarding Future Directions for the Sir Andrew Macphail Homestead”;

Therefore be it further resolved that priority be given to the development of the Macphail Homestead as a world-class site for research, demonstration and outreach in sustainable agriculture and forestry.

The Symposium

Twenty years ago, Dr. George McRobie, one of the world’s leading proponents of sustainable agriculture and intermediate technology, proposed that the Sir Andrew Macphail property in Orwell include a centre for the development and promotion of organic agriculture.  On October 7, 2010, Dr. McRobie reiterated that proposal. In fact, arguments for creating such a centre, he told an audience of about fifty people at the Macphail Homestead in Orwell, “have become more urgent and persuasive” during the past two decades.

Dr. McRobie was the keynote speaker at a symposium aimed at exploring future directions for the Macphail Homestead – in particular, an initiative that would encourage and support small-scale sustainable agriculture on the Island.  Six other panelists, representing several different disciplines, affirmed Dr. McRobie’s vision for turning the approximately twenty-five acres of available cleared land on the property into a “Macphail Farm,” and offered suggestions for facilitating the project’s success.

Arguments in favour of such a farm included the following:

  • Conventional farming methods on Prince Edward Island are no longer economically viable, create more greenhouse gas emissions than organic farming, and lead to degradation of the soil, air and water.
  • Consumer demand for organic food is growing quickly across Canada, but is not being met by existing Canadian producers. Island farmers could help meet this demand, become known as producers of high-quality food and develop a reputation as stewards of the land.
  • A central facility such as the Macphail Farm could research and demonstrate profitable and efficient organic farming methods, conduct crop trials, and test and demonstrate small-scale equipment, soil-building techniques, pest control and alternative-energy technology.  The farm could also serve as a clearing house through which farmers could share ideas.

In his address, Dr. McRobie noted that, in the past two decades, it has become increasingly obvious that the supply of fossil fuel, especially oil, is limited, while the demand is rapidly rising. Sustainable agriculture – farming without the use of chemicals based on fossil fuels – could produce healthy foods without the threat of carcinogenic contamination and would cut down on the emission of greenhouse gases.

“How could a Macphail farm contribute to these objectives?” he asked. “It could become the knowledge centre on the Island for practical small-scale sustainable farming, sustainable energy, and sustainable livelihoods. I think that these are objectives that would have been very close to the heart of Sir Andrew Macphail.”

Dr. McRobie said the Orwell centre could be partly commercial and partly experimental. Carrying on the spirit and philosophy of Sir Andrew, the centre could be a place for research in such areas as companion planting; seeds and seedlings that flourish on the Island; the use of herbs and other vegetation to repel pests and plant infections; and different forms of irrigation, such as drip irrigation and water recycling.

In connection with irrigation systems, the centre could demonstrate the cost-effective use of solar-powered water pumps, low-level, small-power hydro power, and small-scale gasification systems using agricultural and forestry wastes. Heat pumps could be used for greenhouse and refrigeration facilities.

Dr. McRobie suggested that the centre experiment with small-scale processing of organic fertilizers, possibly given added strength with the addition of bacteria such as rhizobiam inoculant.  The farm could explore the feasibility of processing crops by methods such as freezing and drying. This would help small farmers add value to locally grown products and improve their access to niche markets.  The farm could also conduct trials on selective cropping, organic pesticides, blue algae under local soil and climatic conditions, and the production of compost with different proportions of nitrogen, calcium and potassium.

Dr. McRobie observed that all of his suggestions would require a well equipped centre, expert knowledge and attention from staff, and close contact with existing organic centres.  For the centre to succeed, at least one of the trustees on the Macphail board of directors should be an organic farmer, and others should be supporters of sustainable farming. An organic farm specialist, solely responsible for the Macphail farm, should be appointed, as well as a site manager to look after non-farm activities.

Wayne MacKinnon, communications officer with the provincial Department of Agriculture, agreed with Dr. McRobie that the present system of commodity- based farming is not working for the most part. Many beef and hog farmers, for instance, are facing great financial difficulty because they cannot compete with high-volume producers in other parts of the world.  At the same time, however, neither the agriculture industry nor government is displaying much leadership in creating a new vision of agriculture, one based on organic methods. For example, the federal department of agriculture recently announced a $6.5-million contribution to research into organic farming. “That may sound good, but it pales in comparison with the amount of research going into chemicals, pesticides and so forth.”

MacKinnon added, however, that some farmers are also missing an opportunity offered by the provincial department. Through the Organic Industry Development Program, the province has set aside funds – a total of $5 million over five years – for a number of programs in support of organic farming, but the demand so far has been limited, and less than half of the budget is being spent.

MacKinnon noted that, until the 1950s, Islanders had farmed for over 200 years essentially without the use of chemicals. In a study he participated in several years ago, older farmers recalled that traditional methods, compared with modern, chemical-based farming, resulted in more biodiversity, healthier soils, better weed control and more plentiful wildlife.  Today, Islanders need to learn from the past while moving ahead with new knowledge.

One present-day advantage for Island organic producers is the fast-growing demand across Canada for organic food. At the retail level, organic products are worth $2 billion annually, but roughly 80 per cent of these products are imported from other countries.

“The future of agriculture in this province relies not in producing quantity but in producing quality,” MacKinnon said. “If we have the political will to move forward, we could put this province on the map. We have the opportunity, as an island, to differentiate this province as a source of high-quality food. It would be nice to see Prince Edward Island one hundred per cent organic, but this probably will not happen in my lifetime.”

Ian Petrie, for many years a resources reporter for CBC television, outlined some of the factors that have led to the deterioration of the livestock industry on the Island. When the Second World War broke out, the federal government crated new programs aimed at higher food production. One, the feed-freight-assistance program, ensured that Maritime livestock producers could buy feed grains at roughly the same price as other Canadians.  That program disappeared in 1995, as did a transportation subsidy. In addition, free-trade agreements, the movement of livestock across international borders and the outbreak of “mad cow” disease created further difficulties. Fifteen or twenty years ago, Petrie said, there were 300 to 400 hog farmers on the Island. Now there are about 20. “The cattle industry is going downhill just as quickly,” he said.  In five of the past seven years, conventional farmers have been experiencing net negative incomes, and have been using their farm equity to keep going.

If a crisis in the food industry can open the door to new opportunities to promote organic farming, Petrie observed, “the timing is quite excellent.”

One of the possibilities would be to demonstrate the value of producing grass-fed beef, a product in which consumers are becoming more interested, partly because of the inhumane conditions, diet and “grim” carbon footprints in feed lots.

One of the challenges for organic farmers, Petrie said, is to educate consumers on the benefits of buying organic. Organic products represent a small percentage of the food sold in large retail outlets.  But if conventional farmers begin to realize that there is a market for organic food, and that there is money to be made, “you just have to get out of the way.”

Petrie said the proposed Macphail Farm could act as an inspiration to farmers and other Islanders, the way that the PEI Ark bioshelter at Spry Point inspired environmentalists in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nancy Willis, a journalist and writer who came to live in Prince Edward Island in the 1970s as project manager for the Ark, outlined some of the lessons organizers of the proposed Macphail Farm could learn from successes and failures at the world-renowned experiment in self-sustained living.

First, she said, the Macphail centre should try to obtain as much private funding as possible. “Funding was our death-knell,” she said. “If you become over-dependent on government sources, you are completely vulnerable to changes in government.”

Second, the mandate at the Macphail centre should be a broad one, encompassing much more than organic agriculture.  The Ark was an integrated solar living space with domestic and commercial greenhouse production, organic gardens, solar algae tanks for aquaculture production and innovative windmill design.  The slogan of the project was the “weaving together of the sun, wind, biology and architecture on behalf of humanity.”  Because the Ark researched and demonstrated a variety of fields, Willis said, “this made us very glitzy, very attractive.”  She pointed out that there now are about sixty organic farms on the Island, and some are already doing research on such issues as crop rotation and compost.

In the interests of diversifying, Willis suggested that the Macphail centre could encompass a horticultural therapy component, a depot for shared equipment, a processing facility and a distribution point for small farmers.  One way of generating funds for the centre would be to organize year-round workshops on a variety of topics, following the example of the Tatamagouche Centre in Nova Scotia and and the Rowe Conference Centre in Massachusetts.

Another key to the proposed farm’s success, Willis said, is finding the appropriate staff, including a resident caretaker. She suggested doing a nation-wide search for visionary people that will see the project as a mission – as the originators of the Ark did. “It’s a passion and a mission,” she said.

Dr. Ralph Martin, director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC) at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro, said a research and demonstration centre could help both conventional and organic farmers.  Although only about two per cent of Canadian farmers are certified organic, he said, there are far more who want to learn about organic methods. Most of the hits on the OACC web site are from conventional farmers, he said. “Many of them would like to save money or do things a little differently.”

Martin cited a number of studies that illustrated the value of organic farming:  Energy use on organic farms has been found to be about fifty per cent, on average, on a per-acre basis, of conventional farms.  On a per-product basis, with a few exceptions, organic farms are at about eighty per cent of conventional.  Greenhouse gases follow a similar trend. Soil organic carbon and biodiversity tend to be higher on organic farms.  The accumulation of pesticide residues in the body appears to be another negative factor in chemical-based agriculture. In one study of the urine of children aged two to four – some on organic diets and some on conventional diets – it was found that the organophosphate content in the urine of participants eating conventional foods was nine times higher.

Martin cautioned that promoters of the proposed Macphail farm must maintain a firm grip on the reality of the challenges involved. While the farm could serve as a beacon, he said, the small amount of cleared land will set limits on what can be done. In addition, research is very expensive and difficult to fund privately. “Most people expect the government to fund research, including at OACC,” he said.

On the other hand, Islanders do know how to grow food, and they do know how to attract tourists.  Finding ways to attract people to Orwell through workshops and other short-term educational programs would facilitate the union of agriculture and tourism.

Margie Loo, an organic farmer for the past decade, said the challenges she has experienced in learning her profession include obtaining reliable small-scale equipment, figuring out an integrated system of cropping, making high-quality compost, coping with the demands of labour-intensive work, and controlling pests.  She said most organic farmers are so busy in summer, it is difficult to take the time to conduct their own research and experiments.  She suggested that the Macphail centre could conduct trials on small-scale equipment and train farmers to modify existing equipment. An apprenticeship program attached to the centre could offer a diverse learning experience by providing a component of the training on existing farms. This would benefit both the centre and the farms involved.

The centre could also do research and demonstration projects on soil-building, habitats for beneficial insects, appropriate niche crops and season-extension crops such as spinach and lettuce, using methods such as moveable greenhouses.  “There is a huge amount of food brought here from California and other places that we could produce here,” she said.

Loo said the centre should complement, and not compete with, the work of the organic community on the Island. Although a great deal of research has already been done on organic farming, it is sometimes hard for farmers to apply that information to their particular farms.  “It’s a matter of taking it out of the theoretical and bringing it down to the practical,” she said.

Environmental consultant Richard MacEwen, manager of the P.E.I. office of Conestoga-Rovers and Associates, said the largest challenge facing agriculture on the Island is that of economic sustainability.  Farmers need help in decreasing input costs, and in instituting best management practices for resource management and efficiency.

In the interests of enhancing economic sustainability, the Macphail centre could serve as a focal point through which farmers could learn from one another on matters such as finding direct markets. Ideally, MacEwen said, hospitals and schools and other public institutions should be buying more local produce.  The centre could conduct trials in food-processing, and could research markets for sales of compost and biomass heat.  Manufacturers of farming and alternative-energy equipment could be asked to supply demonstration models free or at a low cost.

The centre could also educate Islanders about agriculture. Non-farm people have forgotten where their food comes from, and know little about the hard work it takes to produce it. “Every school child should have the opportunity to be educated in where food comes from, what good farming is, and what the future of farming is on Prince Edward Island.”

MacEwen said the centre could demonstrate to Islanders and people from other areas that agriculture does not have to harm the environment. “Instead of pictures of red soil on white snow, we could show soil remaining in place. Instead of heavy rainfall washing soil into streams, at Macphail we could show streams with no runoff of soil.”  The opportunity for the Macphail centre, he said, is to help farmers become known as stewards of the land. If agriculture is seen as environmentally sustainable, tourism and agriculture on the Island would work hand in hand.

In the brief discussion session that followed remarks by the panelists, David Ling, one of the pioneers in organic farming on the Island, outlined some of his experiences with both conventional and organic farming. A farmer all his life, he had tried a variety of crops, but found that every year his farm required more inputs because of soil degradation. “Eventually, it was costing as much to grow them as I was getting,” he said. In 1985, he reduced the size of his farm to 125 acres from 300 acres and went totally organic. Through the years, he has found that the soil has loosened; he is using less fuel in plowing and cultivation than he would on a chemical-based operation; and his yields are almost on a par with other farmers. His main product is grass-fed beef. “We’re not making a fortune at it,” he observed, “but at least we’re staying in business, which is more than many other farmers can say.”  He said his livestock is healthy, and his own health has improved since switching to organics. “If I can do it, I know there are lots of other people out there who can do it, too,” he said.

Responding to David Ling, Ian Petrie said it has been shown throughout the world that livestock have to be an integral part of sustainable agriculture.

Petrie said one way of developing more markets for organic food would be to revive the “lost art” of food preparation. “People don’t know how to cook any more,” he remarked.  “Two generations have grown up putting frozen food into a microwave. One way to get people interested in local food would be to help them learn how to cook.”  He said this could be one role of the Macphail centre.

A member of the audience said that home-processing of foods also needs to be re-learned.  “Women in my age group and younger have no concept of how to freeze broccoli or spinach, or how to make jam,” she said.  The Macphail Farm, she suggested, could teach people the basics of preserving foods to save money and develop healthier diets.

Another audience member said Macphail could be a place where children can become familiar with farm life – another part of Island culture that has been lost.

Marian Bruce, Recorder

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