Tractor crossing Canada to draw attention to plight of family farms

Jordana Divon
Contributing Writer
Daily Brew

With all the focus on big city blues, it's easy to forget that tough economic times have also slammed Canada's family-run farms.

Not that it's ever been a bushel of apples.

CBC has a digital series tracing the history of the country's family farms, and between high land cost, creeping urbanization and corporate competition, staying financially afloat would seem to be only one among a laundry list of challenges.

And though our urban tables may be laden with their produce, it's unlikely much dinnertime conversation is dedicated to the trials of the independent farmers.

To rev up some visibility, Hamilton, Ont., farmers John Varty and Molly Daley have taken their tractor off the fields and onto the highway to spark a conversation about the vital role family farms play on our national landscape.

As CTV News reports, the couple began their cross-country journey in P.E.I. and recently hit Winnipeg, portable farmhouse in tow and documentary camera on standby.

Along the way, they're interviewing the who's who of agricultural Canada: farmers, food executives, politicians and food movement members will all get their say on film.

"We know there is a steady decline in family farms," Varty told Canada AM. "The number of farms we have are fewer and those farms are getting bigger. We are getting the human stories on ground about the pressures that make that trend real," he said.

Varty is also applying his considerable academic chops to the task. In addition to growing up on his family's seventh-generation Kingston, Ont., farm, he's a writer and university professor in agriculture and environmental history. Daley, his fiancée, doesn't have a farming background, but she does bring a marketing and PR background that is being put to good use during their cross-country odyssey.

In fact, the pair believes so strongly in what they're doing, they've taken a year off work — and making any money from that work — to see the project through. And while facts and figures will likely drive their message home, it's the personal stories shared by farmers they meet that are, so far, providing the most powerful narrative engine.

Some of the tales they've encountered include what happens when regulators assign a low produce grade, and what that means for that farmer's ability to compete in the corporation-dominated agricultural market. Another major issue: the next-generation. Varty and Daley have discovered that children are rejecting their parents' life work in exchange for the lure of the big city — threatening the survival of the farm. The project also highlights a more surprising issue: the need for independent farmers to source outside work just to help fund what they jokingly call their "farming habit."

With so many job sectors competing for government attention it's hard to say how much the project will alter the status quo.

But in a time when visibility has become the new currency, Daley and Varty are certainly racking up some profitable mileage.