The Small Island Family Farm and the Macphail Homestead
Might the Macphail Homestead have an important role to play in the revival of the Island family farm tradition? And if so, how might this be accomplished? These are two of the key questions to be addressed in an upcoming Public Symposium at the Macphail Homestead, on Thursday, October 7, beginning at 7:00. The public is welcome.
Sir Andrew Macphail was immersed in the Island family farm. He grew up on one, about which he wrote, with great insight and emotion, in his masterpiece The Master’s Wife. On this same farm, now the Macphail Homestead, he carried out experiments in the growing of tobacco, seed potatoes, and other crops. “A man who lives on his own land and owes no man anything,” Macphail wrote, “develops all the dignity inherent in his nature.”
During the time when Macphail flourished, in the early years of the 20th century, the small family farm was the bedrock of the Island economy and society. In 1910, just 100 years ago, there were 14,133 farms on the Island, with an average size of 85 acres. The total area under crops was 477,000 acres, including 31,000 acres in potatoes and 181,000 acres in oats. Among the livestock were 52,000 milk cows and 36,000 horses. By the most recent census, in 2006, the number of farms had declined to 1700, with an average size about 365 acres.
For years, Island farmers, journalists and politicians have been bemoaning the “crisis in agriculture” – a difficult situation which only seems to be getting worse. The reasons for this crisis were stated quite bluntly in a recent report – Growing the Island Way: Report of the Commission on the Future of Agriculture and Agri-Food on Prince Edward Island – commissioned by the Island Government and published in January 2009..
Today, our Island farmers find themselves competing in an industrial model of agriculture characterized by “globalized, efficiency-driven commodity markets where the largest scale, lowest operating cost, and least regulated operations win the day. The industrial, commodity-based model of agriculture is a system that does not play to our strengths.”
This 2009 Report goes on to paint a bleak picture of the state of Island farming: “The commodity system has created a ‘vicious circle’ in PEI, where ever-declining profit margins have forced farmers to consolidate and intensify their operations, resulting in negative environmental impacts that lose farmers the respect of the community and, in turn, costs them their own self-respect. Without profit or pride, the next generation of potential farmers, the ‘new entrants,’ are turning away from agriculture.
The future of Island farming, suggests Growing the Island Way, depends on riding a so-called ‘third wave’ of agriculture – a “a post-industrial, knowledge-based agriculture highlighted by research, new technologies, and local and regional food systems that can feed the world with a smaller environmental footprint.” For our Island, “the answer lies in developing niche markets and providing them with safer and higher quality foods.”
Following in the spirit of these ‘third wave’ recommendations, the October 7th Symposium at the Macphail Homestead will explore and discuss a possible new initiative which would encourage and support small-scale sustainable agriculture on the Island.
In particular, the Symposium will focus on one of the key recommendations in a 1990 report by Dr. George McRobie. Dr. McRobie suggested that the farmland part of the Macphail Homestead be given the name Macphail Farm, and developed as “a resource centre of information and practical assistance to farmers wishing to convert to organic, sustainable systems and methods, including a major outreach component of on-farm experiment and adaptation. It would also have a public information and education component.”
Dr. McRobie will be the main speaker at the Macphail Farm Symposium. Also participating will be six Panel members, representing a rich variety of agricultural experience and opinion.
George McRobie has long been one of the world’s leading proponents of sustainable agriculture and appropriate, small-scale technology. He was a close friend and colleague of the radical economist E.F. Schumacher, whose landmark book Small Is Beautiful made such an impact in the latter part of the 20th century. Following Schumacher’s death in 1977, McRobie carried on their joint work by writing a practical guide called Small Is Possible, published in 1981. More recently, he has served as President of the Soil Association, Britain’s foremost farm organization promoting organic agriculture.
At present, Dr. McRobie is a part-time Islander, dividing the year between homes in London and Brackley Beach.
The Panel members are: Margie Loo, organic farmer and member of the PEI Certified Organic Producers’ Cooperative; Richard MacEwen, environmental engineer and certified nutrient management planner, conducting small-scale sustainable-agriculture trials in both urban and rural settings; Wayne MacKinnon, authority on the politics and culture of rural PEI, and Communications Officer with the PEI Department of Agriculture; Ian Petrie, former CBC television reporter; Dr. Ralph Martin, present and founding Director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, based at the Nova Scotia Agriculture College in Truro; and Nancy Willis, award-winning professional journalist and former Project Manager of the famous PEI Ark at Spry Point, “an early exploration of the weaving together of the sun, wind, biology and architecture on behalf of humanity.”
(For further information, contact Symposium Co-ordinator Harry Baglole, 675-4134; email@example.com
Members of the public are encouraged to attend this event, which begins at 7:00 p.m.
This panel and agricultural idea are based on the proposal submitted to government in May of 2010. There was a motion of support made in the House, and that motion may be found here. It was passed unanimously in the House
Legislative Assembly Motion, May 4, 2010