February 25, 2014

"What does FARM mean?"

Time to get word nerdy. Farm – it’s a hot word these days. But what does it mean? I'm not talking about whether it's a verb, noun, or adjective - it's all of those. 
When we brush aside the quaint image of the homestead farm, we get to a more complicated truth about farming and who controls the land. What’s hidden in the very root of the word is the troubling historical context that is still very much an issue today.

What got me thinking about the word farm was noticing a farm name, in French, painted on a silo in Quebec. The French word for farm is ‘ferme’. Pretty eh? Funny enough “ferme” has other meanings including -“firm, hard, constant, fixed, solid, or definite.”  Ok now, keep in mind that I'm not an etymologist, just curious.


My amateur research led me to the Old English and Medieval Latin roots of the word. It looks like the meaning evolved during the period of Feudalism between 9th and 15th centuries. This was a time when a Lords controlled much of Europe and leased land to peasant farmers in order to generate revenue for their castles and armies. 

The word “ferme” came from the Medieval Latin “firma” and referred to fixed contracts in which peasants worked the land for a “fixed payment, rent, or lease”.  Sometimes land was inherited, other times, the contract terminated at death. So the farmers didn't actually own their land. Think of it as a mortgage to land you’d never own. And secondly the fees/taxes were fixed, rather than being a form of percent income tax as we know it today. Through good years and bad, regardless of your harvest, they had to pay up. It was not an easy arrangement for farmers.There's a hilarious Monty Python Skit from the Quest for the Holy Grail. Check it out!

As far away as we are from the dark days of Medieval Europe, I wonder if we’ve completely left behind this original concept of “farm”.  I find it interesting how an activity such as farming can go through so many centuries of changes and yet still struggle around the most basic of needs – land.  


What I've been hearing over and over again are that farmers today are often up to their eyeballs in debt. Between mortgages, leased equipment, and loans for buildings; there're lots of ways to accumulate debt. International trade and consolidation have driven down food prices driving a mad scramble for farms to get bigger or get out. The hope is that increased production will offset increased costs and make up for the increasingly tight market. It happens at many scales of farming but particularly has hit mid-sized family farms the hardest over the past 30-40 years. 

And although many farmers do hold the deed to their property, if crops falter for too many seasons, they might just lose it to the bank. Exit becomes very challenging to heavily indebted farms. Do you sell out to your (in-debted) neighbour and move into town? If your children are actually interested in farming, they might try to take it on – if they somehow afford to buy you out. Debt gets transferred on with the farm. I wonder where does the debt stop? And if farmers must perpetually live in debt, then who really controls the land?

Ok, now I've got a couple examples to get your head out of the gloom that is industrial-commodity farming. Let's look at a couple alternative ways that farmers are accessing land.

Land Trusts 


In Vermont I saw many great examples Land Trusts allowing farmers to get on the land. The Vermont Land Trust buys the development rights to the land, preventing it from being sold for housing developments or mines for example. Funds are raised through donations from citizens, towns, the State, and other groups that want to see farmland used for farming. In simple terms, this allows individuals or groups to purchase properties at the price significantly lower than the market value. The landowner still has the option to sell the property and will get what they paid for it plus improvements (up to an certain amount).

Both Wellspring Farm, near Montpelier, and Bread and Butter Farm near Burlington, are excellent examples of Land Trusts working for private farms. The Land Trust as lowered the cost of entry substantially and as a result is conserving pristine countryside and allowing local food production. Awesome farms - check them out.
Wellspring Farm
Bread and Butter Farm -  Beef, Butter, Winter Greens!

Another great example of Land Trusts at work is at Burlington's Intervale. Thanks to a Land Trust, The Intervale Center has been able to acquire hundreds of acres of prime farm land in Burlington, which it then leases to new and experienced farmers at a low cost. It's been an important incubator of new farms since the 1990's. I got to work on two very different farms at the Intervale - The Invervale Community Farm, a 44 acre, cooperatively owned CSA farm; and Half Pint Farm, a 2-acre privately owned, success story.

Intervale Community Farm
Harvesting Romaine at Half Pint Farm

Land Share 


Then there is the SPIN farming model (Small Plot INtensive) that has really raised attention of using borrowed land as a way to keep costs down. It's a neat concept and reminds us that there is plenty of unused land space all around us. I like the idea of using lawns to grow vegetables and in fact this summer that's what we plan to do. 

There are also website's such as Land Share Canada popping around the world. So far there's not a lot of activity on the site but I did get a response back about one yard in Calgary (unfortunately is was washed out in a flood last summer). And then there is the good old fashion way of looking for land by knocking on neighbours doors and putting up posters (both online and on lamp posts). 

On Borrowed Ground CSA in Edmonton or Green City Acres in Kelowna are great examples of the sharing land.

So to wrap this up I don't want to give the impression that I dislike the word 'farm'.  Clearly it's a powerful word and one that we can easily identify with. The organic farms that I mentioned above all use  the word "farm" in their names - even SPIN farming uses it. I just find this word to be an interesting vehicle for reflecting on the tenuous and important relationship that farming has with land. 

The challenge of getting land and keeping it is older than our time. It's precious. Land has often been associated with control - whether that's control over your own life or in the case of a feudal Lord, control over your fiefdom.

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