Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sustainability of Small Farms: Q & A with John Schneider

My main intent in these interviews is to understand the business of family farming-- and to understand how Alberta's farms can be sustainable, both financially and environmentally, for the sake of the province's food security.  


Gold Forest Grains is a certified organic grain farm located just 30 minutes north of Edmonton. You can buy Gold Forest Grain's flour, pancake mix, flax seed and other products at Strathcona Farmer's Market, City Market and Alberta Avenue Farmer's Market. To buy bulk, contact John through his blog

1) How long have you been farming? 

 My son Garreth, or daughter Gretta will be the 5th generation of Canadian Farmers in our family should they choose to continue farming. I suspect that will depend on whether or not I am successful at making our current farm profitable. I have been farming since I was old enough to sit between my Dad's legs on the old Allis Chalmers tractor to be able to steer while we were plowing. I was about 10 I guess. I have had periods of my life where I was away from the farm working in the high rise towers of Edmonton. GFG has been operating for 7 years. Before that, it was my Dad's farm where we grew grain on about 2000 acres. Dad sold the farm during my stint away from farming and during a time when I didn't think I would return to farming. 

2) Next to Farmer, do you have another profession(s)?

I am a safety consultant in the construction industry. Currently, I am trying to stay afloat financially by consulting for small companies of all different kinds to get their safety programs up and running. Before Christmas I was laid off from a permanent part-time position at a local construction company as they struggle to get busier. Perhaps I will return to that company as they get busy this summer. Perhaps I will continue to consult to other cos.

3) You have written about taking odd jobs to keep financially viable,  this is something I know has been happening for years- farmers mining, farmers trucking. What are the benefits and problems with needing off-farm income? Is it a blessing or a curse?

To me, working off-farm is a definite curse. It takes away from my attention to the farm. Especially at this stage where we have just relocated the entire farm operation. I have built our house and an out-building but there is still so much to do along with the business of getting seed in the ground and maintaining the equipment etc. etc. I wish desperately, to be able to make my living strictly from the proceeds of my farm.

4)  The 'family farm'  is often talked about with notes of nostalgia-- What, by your definition, is the family farm?

My definition of a family farm is I suppose the same as everybody else's. Your question has me thinking about different ways to define the term "family farm". I know several family farms that are operated with foreign workers and live-in farm hands while the owner does whatever else interests him. I guess I define "family farm" as a relatively small farm operation where the members of the immediate family perform the farming activities. 

5)  What are the implications to Albertans and to the Alberta economy if the family farm was to disappear??

That is such a great question Carissa. I am not entirely sure what the implications are to the economy if we lost family farming. The large corporate farms are oftentimes foreign owned. They are usually subsidized heavily. We all know the story of corporate taxation on our continent. The rich get richer. If there were nothing left but corporate farms, my wages would be lower for performing farm activities...I would be making minimum wage I suspect (although there is an arguement that I don't even make that now! LOL) Even more foreign workers would come in to Alberta willing to work hard for less money. There are many scenarios that I am not smart enough to foresee. It would be a tragedy though to lose the way of life that has been a fabric of our society for so many thousands of years. I doubt that will ever happen. I am optimistic that the family farm will return as more and more people such as yourself make the conscious decision to purchase direct from the farmer instead of the supermarket.

6) One reason I feel concerned about the loss of numbers of farms, shrinking diversity of farms, and increasing scale, is that I wonder if we (Albertans) put our food security at risk. Is this concern valid? Thoughts?

Well, all I know about this is that I know of no incidents of people getting sick or dying from eating properly produced local farm products be it high risk products like milk or otherwise. The same cannot be said for corporations like Maple Leaf Foods now can it? 

What about the extreme short sightedness of corporate farming to blindly blunder into the world of GMO? Ever increasing usage of chemical inputs? Food security is really one of the least of my concerns compared to the world scale threat to our ecology and health. 

Why is there such an increase in milk sensitivity? Gluten intolerance? Peanut allergies? The simple fact is that human beings cannot de-evolve that quickly. We have been eating grains for at least 10's of thousands of years. We have not suddenly become allergic to wheat...that is ludicrous in my opinion. Is gluten sensitivity a mis-diagnosis of chemical sensitivity? A recent study in the UK found common farming-practice pesticide residues in bread on the grocery shelves...except for the Organic Samples! Even eating so called Whole Wheat flour from the store is not really "entire wheat". Much of the roughage that we need for proper health has been removed. Another article could be drafted discussing the human health benefits of eating "entire grain" products. The bad press of high-glycemic bread would not exist if the studies were done using bread that contained the entire grain in its flour. 

7) What do farms like yours need in order to be financially sustainable (or what are the systemic factors that challenge your financial success?)?

We are on our way to becoming financially sustainable. We are taking our produce and making it into a processed product that the consumer can use in their homes. We are doing this processing right here on the farm. By growing grains and turning them into freshly-milled flour we take the profits that would have been lost by trucking, milling, trucking again and finally retailing. The only problem with all of this is that the grocery stores have the advantage of everybody knowing they are there! I happily continue to struggle to get people to know we are out there. From our living room at night, I can see the lights of Edmonton sparkling and I think about all those people that use flour and would like to purchase directly from the farmer.

I think though that the key to all family farms becoming sustainable is both an infrastructure for consumers to buy the food and an education that meat, milk and produce from local farms is the responsible choice. An education that food shouldn't be cheap. It should be fairly priced, from environmentally sustainable practices and fresh. I would love to see a large chain of grocery stores that carry nothing but produce from local farms. Perhaps farmers markets will evolve into this model, but I still see so many challenges there. Consumers need to have the choice to buy bacon from one farm or another instead of just whatever farmer is represented at that particular market. Producers also need to get active with marketing and packaging to make their products professional in appearance. 

8) Besides purchasing food at farmer's market or CSAs (direct from the farmer), what can consumers do to advocate for more sustainable financing for small scale agriculture in Alberta?

There is nothing more that consumers need to do other than consume our products. That act alone will make small-scale, family farms viable. Once they are viable, they won't need financing. Once they don't need financing, the banks will be tripping over themselves to finance us! 

9) How do you determine pricing for your flour (the main considerations)? 

 For us, pricing is based on comparing current grocery store prices. We check prices on a regular basis to make sure that we are right around the current, acceptable pricing for organic flour. We do not charge a premium for being local...that's just silly to us. If anything, we would like to be in a position to be able to lower our prices. For now though, we are using established pricing from successful companies who have done all the figuring for us! Currently, with the cost of production of the grain and the cost to mill, package and transport to market, and the cost of the market is not a very big profit margin. We continue to lose money on our farm which is why I have to get a job elsewhere. I haven't been marketing grain direct to the consumer long enough to be able to do a cost analysis so I will have to get back to you on that. For us, we have many determinations for pricing to costs, fuel, taxes, labour, equipment repairs, equipment purchases, packaging, electricity, etc. etc. Once we can produce flour on a full-time basis including the actual production of the grain, we will be in a position to really crunch the numbers. If we can sell a whole bunch more flour, we will start to make a profit...that's all I am focused on right now. 

10) What could government or consumers do to help you be competitive?

Buy more flour products from our farm! 


Ashley @ Root And Twig said...

Thanks for this informative and encouraging interview and video!
I especially agree that a next great step would be to have more 'choice' of vendors when I go to the Farmer's Market. I love going and shopping from local producers, but I think it would be great if we didn't seem to have just one 'organic beef' guy and one 'organic dairy' guy, etc. I know we'll get there.
Hope you don't mind if I link my next blog post to this one, and the video!

An Avenue Homesteader said...

Yes- quite agreed! And please, link Away!

Evelyn in Canada said...

I linked to your post as well this week. Sorry - I never thought to ask! I only have a handful of readers, so I don't think you'll see any influx.

When I run out of wheat, I'll be buying from John because he's local, but also because his wheat makes good bread and we all need to support what he is doing.

An Avenue Homesteader said...

Have you had difficulty, Evelyn, with your Gold Forest Grains bread rising? I'm still working out a formula that has consistent results (the grind seems much finer than traditional whole wheat flour and I think requires more water). Any tips are appreciated!

Evelyn in Canada said...

I've been using wheat from a Saskatchewan farm for the last year, but will buy Gold Forest Grain when it finally runs out. The best tip I can give you is to weight your wheat instead of measure in cups. Gina at Home Joys blog has excellent bread making tips for use with 100% home-ground wheat. I've also had good luck with this recipe from Muddy Fingers Meg. It's not 100% whole wheat, but really yummy.

SherryGreens said...

I met John last weekend at the Farmer's market and we had a really interesting chat. I thanked him for giving my family a choice for local organic wheat! I have been baking bread with his flour for a few months now, I don't have problems with it rising at all. He sells a few varieties though. The flour I originally got was actually from Prairie Mills Bakery, who are supplied by Gold Forest Grains.