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Brent Preston and his wife, Gillian Flies, swapped city life for organic farming.

Jason van Bruggen

Title
The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution
Author
Brent Preston
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Random House Canada
Pages
325
Price
$32

Back in 2005 when author Brent Preston and his wife Gillian Flies swapped city life for organic farming – the fodder for his memoir – neither city-people-turned-farmers nor non-fiction books about the food system were a thing.

Sure, there were back-to-the-landers who'd launched the organics movement and Fast Food Nation was a bestseller. But the local food movement was yet to inspire the dozens of farmers' markets you now find across the country, chalkboard menus weren't ubiquitous and only health-food diehards ate kale salad.

Preston's book speaks to how quickly the foodscape has changed and where it may be headed. The memoir is both a book about the food system and a tell-all of his journey. The learning-to-farm part wasn't easy. Preston describes the hard labour that exhausted him and Flies physically for years, but also financially and emotionally. It's risky starting any business, but when you grow food for a living, you must contend with much that is out of your control – like the groundhogs Preston has to learn to shoot or a blight that destroyed thousands of pounds of tomatoes they planned to sell or the hogs' testicles that they didn't know to castrate but that they learned at the last minute would make the cooked meat smell bad – in Preston's words, "like piss." The ups, and mostly downs, he describes might have been a trial but they do make for a good read.

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Preston and Flies are strongly committed to being not just farmers, but sustainable farmers. Like others in the local food movement, they dream of a food system that is powered by the sun and human energy, as opposed to fossil fuels. Their farm is certified organic so they don't spray pesticides, only sow seeds that also are certified organic and enrich their soils with nitrogen-fixing cover crops and manure – details of particular appeal to farm nerds like me. This is one reason their name, the New Farm, fits. They also find innovative ways to sell their produce, including raising money so a non-profit in Toronto can buy their organic vegetables to feed people who wouldn't normally have the budget for it. As Preston describes how they figured out how to farm this new way, he weaves in some dirty secrets about conventional agriculture, such as the chemicals another farmer douses on nearby potato fields, including a herbicide to kill the potato plants just before harvest so the vines don't jam the machines. One of the potato farmer's relatives sneaks over to buy their organic spuds in secret to avoid these chemicals.

However, the question that drives both the personal narrative and the larger issue of the book is whether a human-powered, human-scale farm can succeed in a world where diesel-powered, industrial-scale farms are the norm. This is in fact the big question that many academics and people involved in the social movement working toward a sustainable and just food system wrestle with too. Can small operations such as the New Farm – where they followed the example of other small organic farms and relied on volunteer intern labour plus their own sweat and toil – make it? Even when they've figured out how to make money farming, Preston doesn't feel like they've cracked the question. He and Flies are just too tired and unfulfilled. And when they try to hire Canadians to work on their farm instead of taking on interns, they can't find anyone here who wants to do hard labour for minimum wage.

So they hire Mexican workers. Preston assures the reader that the men who travel to Canada to work, hired under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, are better off than migrant workers elsewhere. The thing is that the humans who work a human-powered farm are, well, human – a detail some bosses might forget. Preston learns that the Mexican men want to work long hours because they deeply miss their families when they aren't labouring. One day he visits the previous farm and sees its mouldering accommodations. They tell him of how another employer made them break rocks all day, not farm. Preston himself admits to being admonished by a Mexican representative for yelling too much at the men, but says after that, he changed.

It's complicated. Globalization delivers us non-stop cheap food from around the world, making it a challenge to build the sustainable and resilient food systems that Preston hopes for. Yet, globalization also brings low-cost labour from around the world, supporting both industrial and human-powered farms such as Preston's. But those problems are the topic of a different book. This one has a happy ending.

The Mexican workers help the New Farm find its sustainable sweet spot. The men are offered a share of the profit, plus their wages and support their families in Mexico. Despite the morass of issues below the surface, all's well on the farm.

Sarah Elton's books include Consumed: Food For A Finite Planet, and Meatless? A Fresh Look at What You Eat, which will be published this month by Owlkids Books.

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