BY KIRK STARRATT
Kings County Advertiser/Register
The transition from what was to what might be is difficult for most farmers, but a new program will attempt to provide the tools needed to succeed.
Kings Regional Development Agency executive director Stephen Kerr made a presentation to Kings County councillors about the Kings County Farm Transitions Program Oct. 19. The Kings RDA and the Acadia Centre for Social and Business Entrepreneurship (ACSBE) will sponsor a series of workshops this winter to introduce farmers to value-added markets, marketing skills and product development. Many farmers’ experience and skills sets fit markets that no longer exist or are unprofitable for farms of their scale. Developing new skills, primarily marketing and value-added processing and packaging - while trying to farm and make ends meet - is tough.
“Farmers work long hours and don’t have a lot of time to investigate new opportunities.” Kerr said.
Agriculture is, essentially, a collection of independent entrepreneurs. The overall value of agriculture in Kings County has fallen since 2006, with one key reason being the failed hog industry.
He said agricultural departments across North America have struggled to move toward an economic development focus, but only five employees out of 200 at our provincial Department of Agriculture work directly with farmers: one staff member is responsible for 1,200 farmers. Even with a multitude of good programs, there is a disconnect between farms going through transitions and programs available. Nova Scotia also doesn’t collect any agricultural business retention and expansion (BRE) data .
Kerr said he would soon be meeting with the deputy agriculture minister.
“We’ve done a number of farm tours and met with key leaders in the agricultural community,” he said. “We’ve spent the necessary time understanding what the RDA can do.”
Kerr, a former dairy farmer and agriculture minister himself, said a farmer has to make a living but, for example, the vast majority can’t get into large grocery stores because they don’t have the scale. Transitioning is about taking a raw product and making it value added.
“It helps to have a very progressive agriculture department, but we don’t have one,” he said. “This is what I recommend to you: if I had the money, I’d hire an agricultural BRE officer. This is an economic issue, ultimately. Why don’t we as a province apply BRE to agriculture?”
He said this could be done for about $50,000, and he hopes the Department of Agriculture will give him a Kentville position for a year or two. Kerr said AgraPoint has committed some funding and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency would get involved if the project were about value-added production. He would like the municipality to participate financially. He believes they could do one-third of the farms in Kings County in one year if they had a BRE position.
The Kings County Farm Transitions Program will offer business planning and technical services to local farmers as part of a provincial effort to improve the profitability of agriculture in Nova Scotia. Once enrolled, farmers work with a farm business planner and cooperating organizations, or directly with an individual consultant for about a year to produce a written business plan. In the second year, farmers are provided with additional technical assistance and help updating their plans. Farmers who have completed business plans are eligible for grants towards capital expenses or additional technical support to implement the business plan.
Following the presentation to council councillor Dick Killam suggested holding a summit to get grass-roots feedback from local agrarians.
Killam said his vision is to hold a summit for every farmer in the county, across all agricultural sectors; themed around transitioning farms to value-added production.
“I think we have to at least say we’re interested and put a maximum on what we’ll spend,” Warden Fred Whalen said. Council would have to set a budget and come up with a logistics plan. Whalen suggested a small committee, spearheaded by Killam, come back in November with a plan.
There was a great deal of support from councillors willing to serve on the committee. Councillor Mike Ennis pointed out the assistance of a municipal staff member would be needed. Whalen said he and Atwater would also bring the summit idea up with the RDA board.
“We’ve spent eons discussing protecting farmland,” Councillor Jim Taylor said, “but people said, why would you do that if you weren’t going to help the farmer?
“Let’s start doing something in that direction.”
Atwater suggested including farm equipment dealerships as well. Kerr agreed: long before the last farmer disappears, the last tractor dealership disappears.
“You’ve passed the point of no return once that happens,” Kerr said.