Early morning on June 20th, people from the Fredericton and the Miramichi headed to Pleasant Ridge in unceded Mi’kma’ki territory (near the Village of Rogersville) to learn about agricultural cooperatives at la Ferme Terre Partagée Cooperative.
Rébeka Frazer-Chiasson and Kevin Arseneau along with daughter Aube and son Hugo hosted us for the afternoon. The farm is as New Brunswick, and as bucolic as you would expect, gently rolling hills surrounded by forestland on either side of a quiet, rural road. Like many multi-generational family farms there are three separate farm sites owned by various family members over the years.
We arrived at Frazer-Chiasson and Arseneau’s home, which doubles for now as the vegetable production site and cooperative’s headquarters. Roughly 36 of the 100 acres at this site are under cultivation. The farm is transitioning towards organic and/or agroecological agriculture as well as a raising free-range livestock, on pasture without antibiotics.
We learned about the steep learning curve that new farmers have, especially when they are working hard to be environmentally and socially conscious. Members wanted to use less plastic in their row cropping, as much of it breaks down with ultra-violet light and weather, and ends up in landfill after a few years.
The solution was to invest in a woven textile with a much longer life-span. After purchasing the materials, they realized how labour intensive it would be to bury the edges to keep the fabric from being lifted by the wind. The winds here are so strong that in 2001 they lifted the roof of a barn and set it down several meters away.
Frazer-Chiasson’s father Jean-Eudes Chiasson farms a few kilometers up the road (which is part of the cooperative’s enterprise) where he currently raises, pigs, cattle and forage crops. Chiasson and Brassard take care of the laying hens and meat birds at that site as well. As a young person Chiasson was trained as a welder. With his skills and ingenuity, just two weeks before planting was to start, he got to work on fabricating a custom machine that would lay the textile on the beds, while at the same time covering the edges with soil. After the harvest is done, that same machine rolls the textile up again for winter storage.
Wendell Berry makes the point that traditional farming is for the generalist, while most of us are encouraged to be specialists to make a living. It is amazing to think about the diversity of skills that goes into the running of this cooperative; yearly planning, long-term planning, sales, growing crops, raising animals, repairing machines, public education, all while hosting community dinners and international interns under the WWOOF program.
This trip was co-hosted by the RAVEN Project and came about because of the increasing interest that many new farmers have in small-scale production that is focused as much on food sovereignty as it is on yields.
Food sovereignty means that people not only have an adequate amount of daily calories, but that the food they eat is highly nutritious, affordable and accessible, culturally appropriate, and produced in a way that is environmentally sound. This principle is deeply important to all members of the co-op.
Member Pierre Oliver Brassard is also an educator with the group La Via Campesina which the world’s largest peasant agroecology movement. Culture, human rights and a push for a life that is meaningful and abundant are concepts that very rarely make their way into mainstream media, but they do seem to be deeply tied to this cooperative’s motivations.
This effort is about more than farming. The founders understand that there is, for most people, the deep need to belong, to work with others and to feel ethically tied to our work. Brassard started his work on a conventional potato farm with his family in Québec. “One day, during a soil conservation course, his teacher asked him a question that would change his life: You produce 500 acres of potatoes on your uncle’s land but you do not even keep a single plot to produce your own food?”
Eventually, Brossard joined a producer’s cooperative in Québec. That cooperative was in the process of disbanding when he learned about la Ferme Terre Partagée through some common friends. He now lives in Pleasant Ridge and contributes daily to the cooperative.
Frazer-Chiasson was learning about social justice at St. Thomas University and the lessons kept circling back to her family farm and her rural community. The Chiasson family moved from Chéticamp in Cape Breton to Pleasant Ridge in 1886 where they worked at sustenance farming, which diversified and expanded to include a dairy in later generations. Like many young New Brunswickers, the thought of getting into farming then as now, can seem quite daunting. If she took up the task, Frazer-Chiasson would be the sixth generation to farm on that land.
In 2012 Frazer-Chiasson did just that and asked for help from her father to develop a farming plan that she could slowly ease into. They worked together to section off a 2.5 acres section of field and to get her started in strawberry production. She later learned how to raise, chickens, turkeys, seedlings and vegetables for market.
After a few years of easing into farming it was time for Frazer-Chiasson to leave her job in community development work and start farming full-time; although, farming and food security would certainly fall under community development. 2014 marked the first year of selling shares in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and four years later the family officially incorporated the cooperative and began looking for members.
There is a strong history of cooperatives in the Rogersville area. When I mentioned the trip to my own father, he asked if that was the “Brussels sprout place” and indeed it was. In 1966, the Rogersville Agricultural Co-op started to help farmers get better contracts, as big producers like McCain’s were working people against each other in a race to the bottom of produce contracts.
Frazer-Chiasson’s grandfather Gérard and father Jean-Eudes were heavily involved over the years. The cooperative lasted into the early 1990s when farmers on Prince Edward Island were being paid a subsidy to transition away from tobacco production. They decided they would grow Brussels sprouts and New Brunswick growers were gradually pushed out of their market share. This story about corporate pressure and inappropriate government subsidies interfering with small farmers livelihood further emphasizes the need to focus on food sovereignty and the family farm.
Arseneau takes a break from clearing land with a brush saw to join our group in the field. Arseneau won the Green Party MLA seat for Kent North in 2018, so he is spending less time on the farm these days, but still working on rural development and revitalization through his seat in the Legislature. He talks about how critical it was for them to form a worker-owned cooperative. “Sure, we could have gotten some more capital from investor shares, but we didn’t ever want to lose control of how we do things.” The cooperative hopes to eventually be able to raise the wage paid to employees/ members and also to start working on a retirement fund, something almost unheard of in farming.
An option that has been recommended to the co-op, is to consider using New Brunswick’s relatively new CEDC (Community Economic Development Corporation) as a way to gain capital. The fund allows New Brunswickers to invest in their own province at a 50 per cent tax break and provides capital for local projects without providing voting shares. This is an interesting option that could really catch on with other small farmers.
Many of the folks on our tour were there for general interest, but a few are themselves founders of cooperatives. Cheryl Cormier, Terri Cormier and Stéphanie Caissie are consultants with The Round Table Cooperative which incorporated in 2020 work on projects related to food sovereignty, community wellness and economic development in the Miramichi region. They were already very educated on using CEDC’s as tools.
Data Brainanta is a former graduate of the Hayes Farm Regenerative Farming Certificate. He worked with others in the Kennebecasis Valley (near Norton) to incorporate the landless farmer’s cooperative Toasa in May of this year. They are looking to lease land for farming in the Norton/Hampton area.
“In our case, we chose to form a co-operative to overcome the roadblocks in starting a profitable and regenerative market garden. Tom had the land and some farming equipment, but needed more labour, while Chris and I had labour to offer. Members can chip in to buy necessities like seeds and some equipment so we can get started sooner. By operating under a cooperative, we can have the organizational framework to account for those individual contributions and share the profit accordingly, as well as enter into a contract or agreement with other parties,” says Brainanta.
Many of the details are still being worked out, but Toasa members may support each other by doing things like having shared promotion and website listings, by having one vendor sell at market for multiple other vendors and sharing light farm equipment. Anyone in the province will be able to join the cooperative, although the want to focus on short-distance transportation of products to been mindful of CO2 emissions. You can learn more about their work and joining the co-op by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The process of finding people with shared values and vision to work together takes time and patience, but agricultural cooperatives have the potential to be the slow-and-steady solution for a small-farm renaissance in New Brunswick. We only have to look north to Québec where land sharing and farm land protection has become very popular in the last decade to see the potential for young and new farmers to get started in small-scale agriculture.
If you are a non-farmer that would like to support an agricultural cooperative, you can buy their products or ask if they have an Associate type of membership for the public. If you are interested in working with la Ferme Terre Partagée Cooperative they are able to take on new members, starting with a trial membership period of one-year.
Amy Floyd works on food sovereignty with the RAVEN Project and is an advocate for rural rights.