For the past 10 years I have run FarmStart, a not for profit that was created to support and encourage a new generation of farmers to develop locally based, ecologically sound and economically viable agricultural enterprises. FarmStart offers flexible programs in Ontario that provide new farmers from all backgrounds with the resources, tools and support necessary to not only get their businesses off the ground, but to thrive.
I also own and manage a restaurant with my husband called Artisanale in Guelph, ON. We serve simple and delicious, handcrafted food. Everything we serve is made fresh, prepared in a French country style, using traditional and artisanal techniques that respect the flavour and beauty of seasonal and sustainable ingredients.
I have worked as a social entrepreneur for 17 years, working on ecological agriculture and community food initiatives, as well as with artisanal food producers throughout Canada and the US. Recently, I have undertaken research and lead initiatives to identify and cultivate practical impact investment strategies that could help to seed, strengthen and sustain our local food systems. I am most interested in approaches that integrate creative thinking with practical realities and systems thinking with concrete action.
Christie is providing an inspiring and refreshing alternative to the rapid increase in “Big Box” consolidated farming operations by making farming available to anyone regardless of experience, history, financial means, or formal training. She is accomplishing this by creating new succession pathways for existing and retiring farming enterprises and by removing significant access barriers that exist for individuals who lack traditional farming backgrounds, such as new immigrants and inhabitants of urban centers.
Adapting the concept of the start-up incubator to a farming context, Christie’s innovation uniquely combines land financing opportunities through co-op models of support and land acquisition opportunities that leverage under cultivated and dormant private and public land. She has built an extensive suite of resources in order to mobilize and nurture an expanding community of new farmers. With an emphasis on restorative agriculture, Christie has infused innovation in all aspects of her work, and solidified ground breaking models for success that are attracting young entrepreneurs, established farmers and new immigrants into a community of mutual commitment to ethical family farming.
Christie’s new idea is on a trajectory towards correcting the flawed infrastructures of financing, land leasing and ownership that perpetuates the continuing decline of the North American family farmer. With growing connections across Canada, the United States and Western Europe, Christie is establishing herself as a leader for small and medium scale food producers world-wide.
Why are North American farmers disappearing? One explanation is that farming operations are becoming too expensive for new entrants or familial successors to take on by themselves. One of North America’s largest agricultural lenders, Farm Credit Canada, reports that the average cost of farmland is increasing by 12% per year, 5 times faster than the rate of inflation in Canada. This sets up a perpetual conundrum in which successors of farming operations are burdened with inheriting more and more debt, as loans balloon, because financing is being calculated on the potential value of the farmland, as a commercial development property rather than the produce the land can actually reap. In 2010, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that Canadian farming debt tripled over the past few years and was found to be 17 times higher than the average debt of the U.S farmer. Although not as drastic as in Canada, U.S farm debt is also rising, however the decreased rate of debt accumulation is more attributed to massive government subsidies as stated in a 2014 U.S Congressional report on agriculture, which suggests a system being kept afloat by unsustainable financial models rather than innovative entrepreneurial solutions, and still, succession plans for U.S farms are decreasing, as observed by the increasing average age of the U.S farmer. This in many cases leaves no choice but for retiring farmers to consolidate their farmland, selling to larger farming operations, or to real estate and commercial development investors, in either instance, the small family farmer disappears.
The United Nations declared 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, identifying that family farming is the predominate form of agriculture for developed and developing countries alike. With increasing debts and declining family and single owned farms, strategies must be set in place in order to answer the universal question; Who will grow our food?
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.
After graduating, Christie worked on several farms across Canada, the U.S and in Europe, before returning to Toronto, Canada to work with an organization known as Food Share. While at Food Share, Christie transformed an annual food protest into a bio diversity festival focused on education and the celebration of food. Christie was excited by her work with the urban based organization, but feeling a need for a deeper understanding in the relationship between the agricultural sector, the food system and business, Christie returned to university in 2005 to pursue a Masters in Geography and Agriculture at the University of Guelph in Southern Ontario, it was here that she founded FarmStart.