Rarely does one hear of farmers who can pay off debts in less than a decade, let alone make money without holding other jobs. This wonderful book proves it’s possible.
Abandoning the urban rat race and heading for a farm in the countryside has always been a popular ideal, but it rarely works out as well in real life as it does in the imagination. Many would-be farmers find the food-growing life too difficult, usually from a financial standpoint. Many give up, shelving their dreams and returning to a life of cubicle drudgery.
Brent Preston and Gillian Flies were one such couple that liked the idea of getting out of the city. In the early 2000s, they purchased a farm, rather spontaneously, near the village of Creemore, Ontario, several hours north of Toronto where they lived, worked, and raised their small children at the time. They decided to try organic farming, once Preston realized that there wasn’t much else he could do while living in the middle of nowhere. (Flies initially maintained her consulting business from a distance.)
The pair knew nothing about farming and spent one winter reading every book they could find on the topic. Then, season by season, they worked to build a highly successful farm business that has ultimately become known as The New Farm. The farm now does a half-million dollars in business per season, while planting only twelve acres of vegetables. (The remaining eight acres is in cover crops.) If you know anything about the struggle most farmers face to pay off debt, let alone turn a profit, you’re probably wondering how on earth this is possible.
To satisfy that curiosity, you should really pick up a copy of Brent Preston’s just-published book. Titled “The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution,” it’s a surprisingly gripping read that opens with an eye-popping, seat-squirming story about euthanizing baby chicks that had been mangled by a feral cat, but goes on to describe the backbreaking and fascinating work of building a farm from scratch.
What sets The New Farm apart from many other small organic farms is Preston’s and Flies’ focus on financial sustainability from the very beginning. They wanted their farm to be viable and profitable, and so they based all decisions on hard data, which wasn’t always easy to do. As Preston writes:
“Our goal was to create a real farm. And what is a real farm? It is, first and foremost, a business. A farm can and should be a lot of things: a place where food is grown, a sanctuary for wild things, a gathering place for family and community. But for a farm to endure, for a farm to be sustainable in the broadest sense of the word, it must make money.”
Part of this meant growing fewer interesting heirloom crops and focusing on the ones that sell well – or, as Preston puts it, getting rid of the “stupid vegetables, like kohlrabi.” (I had to chuckle, since kohlrabi shows up every week in my CSA box and I never know what to do with it.) The New Farm now grows mostly carrots, beets, potatoes, cucumbers, and salad greens because these turn a profit like nothing else.
Another unusual approach was the decision to work as hard at selling food as they did at growing it. This, Preston writes, is the difference between being a gardener and a farmer. When they realized the traditional CSA and farmers’ market models wouldn’t turn enough of a profit, Flies and Preston ingeniously tapped into the restaurant world of Toronto, where the locavore movement was on an upswing. They also sell vegetables to two independent grocers in Toronto and partner with The Stop, a community food bank and advocacy center.
© The New Farm book
Through these valuable connections with the urban chef and food-activism worlds, The New Farm has achieved a surprising level of farmer fame in Ontario. Every year Preston and Flies now host an enormous fundraiser, with chefs preparing food and bands playing in their barn that raise close to $100,000 in a single night. Their crowning moment was The Tragically Hip’s performance last year.
Though Preston’s account hardly sugar-coats the journey, “The New Farm” book is deeply inspiring and shows how organic agriculture can succeed – both at feeding nourishing food to thousands of people and at giving the farmers a happy, satisfying, and profitable life.
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