Whether we like it or not, the truth is that we inadvertently eat oil every time we go to the grocery store. This is according to peak-oil educator Richard Heinberg who says, ” we use oil to fuel farm machinery and power irrigation pumps, as a feedstock for pesticides and herbicides, in the maintenance of animal operations, in crop storage and driving for transportation of farm inputs and outputs.” This must change as the price of oil increases and will require a reinvestment in a people powered production model.
It’s been done in the past, in Cuba specifically. After the threat of nuclear annihilation gave way to the economic strangulation of the oil embargo, the national production model had to shift in response. So what did Fidel and his band of merry men and women from the Sierra Maestra do? They put a quarter of the country to work tilling the land. As the old idiom goes, necessity is the mother of all invention, but Cuba is just a tiny island nation and not a massive continent. Therefore wouldn’t it be impossible to introduce a similar agricultural model here in North America?
Maybe, but it must happen as soon as oil hits $200 a barrel according to Kent Mullinix of the Institute for Sustainable Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. When this happens, according to Heinberg’s estimates, it will require a seismic shift within the agricultural sector. Upwards of 50 million individuals will have to trade in their blackberries for spades in order to feed the continent. Applying this estimation within a Canadian context, according to Mullinix means that 15% of the country or roughly 5.5 million canucks will have to become farmers. But with the average of age of farmers pushing 55 and the children of farming families leaving the homestead for the city, the future looks bleak. Not so.
There is an emerging school of thought in academia known as Muncipally Enabled Agriculture [MEA] that seeks to revolutionize the agricultural system in North America by localizing food production on a: “human scale, ecologically, sound, in and around cities, for and by communities.” Leading this agricultural revolution are post-secondary schools.
Established in 2009, the Richmond Farm School is a joint collaboration between the Institute for Sustainable Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project, the Richmond Food Security Society and the City of Richmond. To successfully complete the program students must complete 350 hours of classwork and another 350 hours of fieldwork. Students can expect to learn about everything from animal husbandry to farm business planning, which is an essential skill for all the program graduates to have.
With the price of land in southern British Columbia at upwards of a $100,000 per undeveloped acre, landownership for any graduating agricultural student is not an option. To combat this phenomenon, the city of Richmond has stepped in to offer students temporary land tenure on a 300 acre parcel of parkland for up to three years in order to launch their farm based businesses. The program does have its drawbacks, the tuition is $5,000 and it is non-credit. The program was designed this way to cater to the mature adult learners who are the main demographic.
Now in it’s second year the Richmond Farm School has nine students. The academic year runs from March until November, a strategic decision employed to teach students how to complete a whole growing season. For those who don’t want to enroll in the whole program, they can opt to register for individual classes instead. This opens up the farm school to a wider audience. Also in the fall of 2011 a brand new bachelor of science program in sustainable agriculture will launch at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. The beauty of the program is that it will allow program bridging opportunities for those currently enrolled in the non-credit Farm School program.
Increasing awareness and access to good food, is what propels Kent Mullinix, farm school founder and faculty member at Kwantlen Polytechnic University to persevere, ” I am an agriculturist, my work is about and for the farmers. It’s about [helping] the people who have witnessed the long slow destruction of the agricultural world, in the relentless pursuit of progress.” This pursuit of progress has meant the disassociation of our food from the people who produce it.
Looking towards the future Mullinix sees an increasing level of agricultural interconnectedness on a regional scale, “we must organize along life-place [boundaries] to prevent rampant ecological degradation”. Gone will be the days of Peruvian bananas, but I don’t see much of a loss, when you consider what will be gained. Just imagine the bounty of the fall harvest, that we will be able to share across and throughout British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon.
If you are interested in farming apprenticeships and you don’t live in the Lower Mainland nor have the money to attend Kwantlen’s program check out Canada’s Sustainable Farm Apprenticeship Program to find a farmer near you who wants to take on a student learner.