Book Review: The New Farm – Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution

Sally Luce

The New Farm was written by: Brent Preston. 
This review was done by: Sally Luce

This book is a must-read for new and aspiring organic farmers and those who care about organic food.

Preston’s informative and thoroughly entertaining book shares the struggles and rewards that he and his wife Gillian Flies experienced as they built a thriving organic farm. In 2003 they bought a 100-acre farm on the windy Niagara escarpment. It came with a ramshackle house and a magnificent vintage barn. Over the following decade they weaned themselves from outside employment and became self sustaining farmers.

Preston begins with “All happy chickens are alike; each unhappy chicken is unhappy in its own way.” The opening line is a parody of the first sentence of Anna Karenina. Fortunately, Preston’s farm story has a much happier ending than Tolstoy’s story. Preston describes his happiness in settling fifty hatchling chicks into their new meticulously designed coop. The coop, however, was not a happy place for the chicks. As he soon discovered, a barn cat managed to reach into the coop and mortally injure four chicks. Moving the rest of the chicks into the house’s bathtub made the chicks comfortable, but, as he humourously describes, the family had to live with the ensuing noise, smells and mess until coop adjustments were made.

This book is filled with many interesting stories of hard lessons learned from naïve assumptions. Along the way the reader meets neighbours and others in the community who supported Preston and Flies’ fledgling farm. Although Preston provides a reality check for those idealistically yearning to become organic farmers, he concludes with an invitation to others to follow in his family’s footsteps to experience the joys of creating a new life with organic farming.

Many of the lessons they learned could help other new farmers. For instance, his discussion of the challenges of using interns as unpaid, but still costly, labour was very informative. Owing to the amount of time and resources they had to invest in the interns, Preston and Flies decided to hire Mexican seasonal workers instead. Their skills and efficiency repaid many times over their wages, housing and attendant paperwork. It was also interesting to learn why they decided at various points in their farm’s development to invest in machinery and building new structures to increase production. Their building of multiple hoop houses, for instance, substantially extended their growing season. On the humourous side, there is much to learn about Preston’s various attempts to deal with the groundhogs that were eating garden produce. Ultimately a dog proved to be the best control.

One big lesson for future farmers is the importance of collecting and analysing data on their farming operation for their farming and marketing decisions. As Preston explains:

We recognized that we had to put as much effort into selling our food as we did into growing it. We kept meticulous records and made business decisions based on hard data. We focused relentlessly on quality, producing vegetables that were worthy of the best restaurants on the continent.

The other big lesson is learning how Preston and Flies built the markets for their food among restauranteurs, chefs and specialty supermarkets that are dedicated to supplying their customers with fresh, high quality local food.  They also give back to the community by holding concerts and food showcases to feature local producers and to enable chefs to showcase their skills using local products. The admission fees for these events are used to help fund a community food hub with programs to feed and provide social support to the poor in Toronto.

Preston and Flies have found the right balance between the ability to continue to expand their farm, and the need to have a life rich with many mutually supportive community connections. Although they have not become wealthy, they are now self supporting with their farming:

Farming for us is the foundation of a meaningful and happy life. It’s the ultimate expression of independence and self-sufficiency, but it’s also a deeply political act, one that has the power to build community and inspire others to action. What better way to build your life?

 

Sally Luce is a social psychologist who has lived, worked and gardened organically in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. Now retired, she maintains a large garden and a strong interest in natural history and organic gardening methods.

 

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