Finding Success on The New Farm
A memoir of a (profitable) organic farm
The New Farm: Our Ten Years at the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution
A lot of city folk have daydreams about moving out to the country to start a little organic farm. That daydream usually doesn’t take into account the backbreaking labor, the isolation, the many expensive mistakes you’ll make along the way and the near impossibility of making a profit. This reality is why many of the people who actually try the whole farming thing end up moving back to their Downtown apartment after a year or two. In The New Farm: Our Ten Years at the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution, Brent Preston gives his account of living that daydream, doing it successfully and creating a model that could help countless other small farmers build their business.
When Preston and his wife Gillian Flies started their farm, they had no qualms about making profit their prime directive. Of course, they also made secondary goals of the many idealistic reasons most people start farming: the desire to change the broken food system, being able to feed their children fresh, healthy food and making a small chip in the huge environmental costs of conventional farming. When the couple and their two young children moved in 2003 from downtown Toronto to just outside Creemore, Ontario—a small farming village with fewer than 2,000 residents—they were met with head-scratching from both their city friends and their new neighbors. The other farmers in the area used conventional, chemical-driven farming to grow huge crops of canola and soy, not the huge variety of organic veggies that Brent and Gillian were planting. “Farm-to-table” wasn’t a coined phrase and Super Size Me hadn’t come out yet. That whole “move to the country and start a farm” daydream was barely a stereotype at the time—what they were doing was pretty novel.
“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,” writes Preston in his introduction. “But for a farm to endure, for a farm to be sustainable in the broadest sense of the word, it must make money.” Some of the anti-capitalist ideals of what Preston calls “the orthodoxy” of small organic farming, while noble, are what keep farmers in debt and prevent others from attempting it in the first place. As he and his family found on their farm, there are ways to grow your business and your profits without going conventional or giving up the values that made you want to start an organic, sustainable farm in the first place.
The early years were rough. They spent countless hours planting, irrigating, weeding, tilling, washing and doing all the other myriad tasks that keep a farm running—and they did it all without any outside help. They grew a lot of what Preston calls “stupid vegetables”—plants that simply didn’t grow well on their land, weren’t worth the effort and didn’t taste good (he has a particular hatred of kohlrabi). Their health suffered; their marriage suffered. They made a lot of mistakes and, thankfully, learned from them.
Each season they planted more, planted smarter, planted quicker. They began bringing on young Canadian farm interns, who were idealistic and tattooed and who had never worked a day in their lives, and then hired Mexican workers who already knew how to farm and who worked quicker and better than the interns. They got a tractor, which made Preston’s life so much easier he cried when he first used it. They began selling wholesale to restaurants—very much against the small-farm orthodoxy—and thus doubled their sales almost overnight. They began to win over the trust and friendship of their neighbors, and were suddenly inundated with advice and volunteer labor on particularly busy days. They partnered with a radical food bank that served quality, healthy food to their clients in a dignified setting, which ended up being the best business decision that Preston and Flies ever made. Without a whole lot of guidance, they became wildly successful by traditional farming standards.
Throughout the 10 years they’ve operated The New Farm, Preston and Flies fell into bed exhausted every night, knowing they would have to do all the work again the next day. As Preston says, “The kind of work I do is still physically hard—I lift and pull and carry and dig. My work makes me hungry, which makes good food taste better. My work makes me tired, so I sleep well at night.”
Preston doesn’t romanticize the small farm life in The New Farm. For all those who have had the daydream, who want to fix the broken food system and live a bucolic life in the country, he delivers the real talk on how hard the work is, what difficult decisions you will have to make (to live-trap groundhogs, or to let Smith and Wesson handle pest control?) and how you’ll never make as much money as at your cushy desk job. But he is also passionate about finding alternatives to the immensely destructive conventional farming system, and knows that more idealists with daydreams are very much what the good food revolution needs. “If we want to make serious change in the way our food is produced, if we want to do more than tinker at the edges, we need more farmers,” Preston says. “A lot more.”