With an extensive farming history that spans employment on farms in Canada, the United States and France, Christie Young, developed a unique, first hand understanding of family farming, its immense importance on the land it occupies and the communities it feeds. One troubling theme that continuously emerged for Christie during her travels was the growing trend of land consolidation that was jeopardizing the survival of the family farm. When she returned to Canada in 2005, while working to complete her Masters degree in geography and agriculture, Christie approached a local Jesuit Centre in her community with an idea to use their property, which was up for rent, as an incubator farm. Christie saw this land as an opportunity to curve the distributing trend of declining family farm operations, founding FarmStart as a resource to get young up and coming farmers into the agricultural sector. Christie initially piloted a scaled down version of incubator farming methods she had witnessed while working in the United States. She divided the rented farm land into sections and sourced it out to new farmers. She then mobilized a small board of supporters that included Faculty members from her Master’s program, local farm leaders and the leader of the Jesuit Centre, in order to provide advice and a support system to the young farmers while establishing a system of sharing between the farmers to address their farming equipment needs.
By 2006, Christie had formalized and evolved her incubator farming model into what would eventually be called the Start-Up Farms program, a hybrid between a farm incubator, co-op community and a business training program, that allowed new farmers to establish and grow their own farming operations utilizing FarmStart in-kind and financial resources. The Start-Up Farms program takes new farmers through the specific and distinctive phases of starting a farming operation. All participants of the program submit an application that includes a strategic plan. Applicants are evaluated on specific criteria which include their entrepreneurial quality and if accepted, participants are engaged as test croppers for a one year trial basis, and access to 0.25 acres of a 100 acre plot. Christie secured the farming land by through unprecedented land partnerships with public entities like the Toronto and Regional Land Authority and private sector entities such as Landmark Group. As test croppers, participants receive constant mentorship from FarmStart staff and volunteers, and are evaluated on the execution of their plan and their contributions to the FarmStart community. If successful, participants are given access to increasingly more land over a three year period to grow their operations. By their 5th year of the Start-Up Farms program participants begin planning an exit strategy, with a limit of 6 years in the program, at which point participants leave the incubator property to purchase or lease their own lands. Christie has identified this 6 year time frame to be the optimal amount of time needed for new farmers to grow their operations sustainability. All participants pay a low fee of $400/year to participate in the program. Between 2006 and 2012 FarmStart directly supported the operations of 56 new small and medium scale farmers, with 67% still continuing their operations to-date.
Christie also realized that a critical piece to supporting a new generation of farmers was to provide tangible learning opportunities that exposed new farmers, and farmers to be, to the evolving dynamics of the agricultural sector. To achieve this, Christie developed a farming and business curriculum of diverse courses designed to educate anyone interested in farming. Utilizing a peer education technique, Christie partnered with established farmers from her personal and professional networks, to act as teachers, mentors and designers of the FarmStart curriculum. Between 2006 and 2013 FarmStart designed and delivered nearly 200 courses and workshops to more than 5000 Canadians. So committed to the need for farmers to be educated in the rapidly evolving sector, Christie requires all applicants of the Start Up Farm program to complete one FarmStart course, as a pre-requisite to applying for the Start-Up Farms program. Christie strives to make her courses accessible to everyone, even individuals uninterested in becoming farmers, by making course minimal in duration, hands on and dynamic, with little or no fee (depending on the course). Many courses are also scheduled for evenings and weekends, to accommodate individuals with career or school responsibilities during the work week.
In spite of her successful programs, Christie still struggled with succession and sector diversity issues and expanded her strategy to specifically tackle these issues. First, Christie established a New Canadians, New Farmers initiative as a way to engage members of the Canadian new immigrant community in its educational and Start-Up Farms programs. Through active outreach to urban centers located near FarmStart farmland, Christie engaged local media outlets, social media tools and partnered with local organizations to boost new immigrant participation. With a response that exceeded FarmStarts capacity, hundreds of applications has resulted in, FarmStart supporting new immigrants originating from more than 20 different countries around the world. Success stories include a female farmer from the Philippines who now grows organic produce for high-end restaurants, and a former computer engineer from Pakistan who utilized resources from FarmStart to grow traditional Pakistani crops and business training provided by FarmStart to build a distribution partnership with a local supermarket chain. Another story of success saw a Mauritius farmer who used FarmStart workshops coupled with FarmStart secured seed funding to establish his first flock on his own sheep farm, where he later donated baby ewes to other participants of the FarmStart programming. Of the 56 new farms that FarmStart has helped to establish, more than half are owned by individuals mobilized through the New Canadians, New Farmers initiative.
In order to address the succession crisis, Christie sought to enhance the connective tissue that held the farming community together. Believing that farmers could identify non-familiar successors from the surrounding community, established an online platform called FarmLINK to cultivate non-familial relationships. She leveraged strategic and financial partnerships with mission aligned organizations in order to secure more than $1 million towards sector infrastructure and the development and launch of FarmLINK. This Canada-wide, interactive online platform acts specifically as a non-familial succession planning tool for established farmers and farmland owners. Piloted in 2010, FarmLINK quickly grew to more than 1,100 registered users by 2012, playing matchmaker for new and established farmers.
In 2014, Christie is beginning to shift her attention to the next big challenge for Farmstart, with growing interest outside of Ontario; FarmStart is already consulting on operations in British Columbia and the United States. Looking to distil the key components of the FarmStart model, Christie sees the growth of her work spanning across Canada. Christie is also interested in tackling the financing infrastructure of the farming sector that has created the ecosystem of high debt amongst its farmers. Looking to 2015, Christie is leveraging her sector partnerships with large Canadian Foundations to explore and implement alternative models of financing to support the new generation of mid-level farm operators.