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Promotion of local food and regional development | Non-profit | Southern ON
Interviewees: Brendan Johnson (Executive Director) and Gavin Dandy (Farm Director)
Initial interview (Brendan Johnson only): July 11, 2011 (Irena Knezevic)
Site visit: August 16, 2011 (Erin Nelson)
In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, the land where Everdale Organic Farm and Education Centre is located was known as Everdale Place, where a free school was operated. Following the closing of the school, the land was used for many different purposes, though none took hold. Then, in the 1990’s, Gavin Dandy, Karen Campbell, Wally Seccombe, and Lynn Bishop decided to build an organic farm and learning centre on the property.
Today, Everdale is a registered charity. One of Canada’s most established and well-known farm-based local food hubs, it is a working farm that produces not only food, but also education and new farmers, and its work helps build bridges between rural and urban interests. Everdale runs a CSA providing organic food to approximately 300 people in the surrounding communities and in Toronto; however, Executive Director Brendan Johnson points out that “the real niche Everdale fills is education.”
Every year, the farm hosts students from kindergarten through high school. An emphasis is placed on repeat visits over the years, so that learning can be graduated. Everdale also has a farm intern program that sees new and/or aspiring farmers spend a season gaining practical and theoretical knowledge about the production and business aspects of running an organic farm. As part of this program, Everdale tries to help those looking to obtain land connect with people who have land available.
In addition to the school visits and farm intern program, Everdale also runs a number of workshops and events throughout the year designed to get the general public engaged in, and excited about, organic farming.
Everdale is managed by a volunteer Board of Directors, with Johnson pointing out “how challenging it is to get Board members. I’m always grateful when people are willing to do that.” In addition to the Board members, Everdale also sees a lot of volunteers, especially during harvest time. These volunteers tend to be young people, many of whom come as part of the program Willing Workers on Organic Farmers (WWOOF); however, Brendan notes that “we get some Bay Street people too.”
In terms of paid staff, there are eight regular full time staff members, including Johnson and Dandy, along with a number of part time and seasonal positions. During the eight month farm season, there are usually approximately 6 full time interns at the farm as well. Staffing is always a challenge, because it tends to be very difficult to find grant funding to pay salaries.
As is the case with staff salaries, finding funds to pay for physical resources has proven to be a challenge. “It’s hard,” explains Johnson, “because no one wants to fund a roof.” As a result, the buildings that exist at Everdale (which include a strawbale construction used as office space and dorms) have been built gradually over time, as fundraising efforts have permitted.
When it comes to communication resources, Everdale takes advantage of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and also publishes a newsletter and manages a website. Using social media for marketing has been great, because it means that “marketing resources are next to nothing” – an advantage given that “we can’t buy ads, we can’t do that kind of stuff.”
A very important key to Everdale’s success has been that they are able to use the land they are on without having to purchase or lease it. Rather, it is held in trust by Everdale Place, and loaned out with no charge. “We’re very lucky to have this land” notes Johnson.
The CSA shares generate some income, and some educational program costs are offset at least partly by small fees, but the bulk of Everdale’s work is financed through grant funding from foundations such as Heifer, Trillium and Metcalf, and private donations. Johnson explains: “We do a lot of grant writing, and then have individual donors. We do some events, but it’s mostly grants and donors. That takes up a good chunk of my time, and I have another woman who works on it with me.” He goes on to note that “stewarding donors is important, inviting them here to get them to see what’s happening. I find…if they get here and they see kids here…they can see what happens and how transformative it is. You can tell them and they get it, but when they see the kids, it’s like ‘ah, there you go’, or you meet the interns and see how excited they are, and the learning they’ve gone through, it’s really nice. So we try to get them to come for a farm lunch, to connect with the place.”
Building community connections is a big part of what Everdale does. For example, a wall of photos in the farm shop provides profiles of CSA members and Everdale staff and volunteers as a way of introducing people to each other. In the words of Johnson: “It’s about seeing who we are, what we do, as members of a community. So you can say, ‘I rub shoulders with you every week’, and now I see you’re a graphic designer, or something, and people get to know each other like that. Our community food hub idea is kind of like that, connecting people, doing activities to get people congregating.”
When it comes to organizational networking, Everdale works closely with local school boards, and educational institutes such as Sanford Fleming College, where Dandy teaches. It also participates in Taste Real and the Guelph-Wellington Food Round Table, donates food to the East Wellington Food Bank, and worked with Guelph-Wellington Local Food to develop a funding proposal for a food hub project focusing on new immigrants and social justice. For Johnson, that kind of networking “is huge for all of us.”
Policy and Program Resources
Everdale gets no direct support from government sources. However, both Johnson and Dandy notice that “OMAFRA is starting to get what the local food movement is.” Part of OMAFRA’s perceived new recognition for the work of places like Everdale is because it is becoming increasingly clear that the local food movement is “not just a blip” or “something cute”, but rather a sustaining, viable movement, full of success stories. On the other hand, Everdale has also evolved, for example by introducing a business planning course.
The organization would like to achieve sustained funding. It also sees developing closer connections with faith communities, and potentially acquiring accreditation for some of its programs as useful future assets. In broader terms, Everdale would like to see OMAFRA provide some substantial support for the development of local food hubs, for example by potentially creating a pool of money that could be used to fund projects that would be vetted by an overseeing committee.
Challenges (and Overcoming)
Dandy explains that “the main challenge is financial. There is no shortage of other support. The ideas we’re developing and that other people are bringing to us from the community are great ideas, and they make sense in every way except financially, because they essentially challenge the current financial system, so it’s no surprise that there’s no money in what we do…” A related challenge (that both Johnson and Dandy are quick to point out is also an opportunity) is the current explosion of new local food projects, as everyone is competing for very limited amounts of funding.
The main way that Everdale confronts the challenge is to make it clear what niche they serve (i.e. agriculture-related education) and why it is important. “We really try to focus on communicating what we do” explains Johnson, “so that’s educating kids to be future consumers, getting young kids learning about food and farming and sustainability, and the other part is training farmers and getting them farming.” Getting donors out to the site is essential, and collaborative proposals – such as the one recently submitted with Guelph-Wellington Local Food – are also a useful strategy.
Other challenges include high land prices, which make it challenging for Everdale internship graduates to start their own farms, and high municipal taxes for new buildings on-site.
There are too many individual success stories of people impacted by their experiences at Everdale to tell them all in this report. One of many examples provided by Johnson: “One of our interns last year was someone who had visited as a kid, and his parents had been part of the CSA, and then he did the internship, and now he’s going to chef’s school.” In another case: “There was this woman, and she was working on Bay Street, and she always wanted to farm, so she came to volunteer for a month, and ended up staying five months, quit her job, bought a farm, and took our planning course, and now she’s helping administrate that planning course.” Johnson cannot say enough about how important these – and other – individual stories are, or about how excited CSA members are when the season starts, and how rewarding it is to be a staff member at Everdale.
In more concrete terms, Everdale feeds more than 300 people, and its programs have educated countless students, and trained 40 currently practicing organic farmers. They have also provided support to groups in other parts of the province seeking to develop sustainable food system programing, and they have made some inroads with government bodies such as OMAFRA in terms of achieving recognition for the local food movement. After years of work, and a trend towards ever higher levels of professionalism, Dandy notes that “now when we go to [OMAFRA], or go to the Agricultural Management Institute, and say we have this business planning course, and it’s for people who are new entrant farmers who have never farmed before they don’t just say ‘Are you kidding me, that’s a joke’, they say ‘we know about those people, we’ve heard about those people, and we feel that we want to connect with them somehow, because right now our policies and programs don’t connect with those people, so tell us more’.”
For Johnson, “it is really important to get other organizations across the province doing similar work [to that of Everdale], because 40 farmers is great, but we’re not going to do everything with 40 farmers.”
When it comes to thinking about how the Everdale experience could be relevant to others, one of the main messages is its focus on the positive, and on demonstrating success. At Everdale, Johnson explains the work is not just about critiquing a system that doesn’t work. Instead “we’re talking about how to make things better, and people come here and feel like there is some hope.” Offering tangible success stories could also be important when it comes to influencing actors such as OMAFRA. Dandy notes that “OMAFRA really responds when you can give a case study of Joe farmer, or Jane farmer who did this or that, they light up.”
The sustained success of Everdale, as well as the flurry of activity around new local food projects, helps to demonstrate that, in the words of Dandy: “The local food thing is not just a flash in the pan…It’s based on so much rational analysis of the world at large, it’s becoming an undeniable phenomenon, that is not just a cute thing…like ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice if we could all eat food that’s grown a block down the road’. Well not only would it be nice, but it’s actually essential, based on every benchmark you can think of, whether it’s environmental or financial or social or whatever, it’s essential that we do that.”