Brent Preston, farmer, author, and long-time supporter of Community Food Centres, has had a busy few months. In May, his first book was released, and on June 10, he and his wife, Gillian Flies, hosted the annual Farms for Change fundraiser on their farm near Creemore, ON. The fundraiser, originally called Concert at The New Farm, started out ten years ago, in support of The Stop Community Food Centre. In 2016, it grew into a multi-partner event that now raises money for Toronto-based The Stop and the Regent Park Community Food Centre, as well as for the national work of Community Food Centres Canada. Brent is a passionate advocate for healthy food access, sustainable agriculture, and community building. We caught up with him in the days following Farms for Change to talk about the event, the book, his work and our partnership.
You recently released a book, The New Farm: Our ten years on the front lines of the good food revolution. What inspired you to write a book about the New Farm's story?
I wrote the book to spread the word that a new kind of agriculture is both possible and necessary. The book is very much the story of my wife, Gillian, and I leaving the city and starting a new life on a farm, with lots of humour and funny anecdotes, but I also hope that it carries the message that farming sustainably, on a small scale, for the local market, is both a viable business opportunity and a good way to live one’s life. We have witnessed huge changes in our food system in the ten years since we started farming — more and more chefs, consumers and even public institutions are seeking out local, organic food, and that has changed the economics of small-scale agriculture. We hope our story inspires smart, ambitious, idealistic, and entrepreneurial young people to consider farming as a career.
Can you talk about your long-time support of The Stop Community Food Centre and, now, of Community Food Centres Canada and other CFCs? Why is it important to you, as a farmer, to be a leader in increasing access to organic produce in low-income communities? How did that work start?
Gillian and I started working with The Stop in our second year of farming. We realized early on that most of the food we were producing was going to very wealthy people — either in the farmers’ market or the high-end restaurants we served. We wanted to make our food more accessible, but we couldn’t afford to give it away. So we teamed up with The Stop to raise money so they could buy our food for their programs. Since then, that work has grown into a partnership with CFCC and other Community Food Centres. We believe that access to good food is a basic human right, and we have an amazingly generous network of chefs and customers who are willing to give their time, talent and money to help low-income Canadians access that right. Almost all the money we raise is used to buy organic food from small-scale family farmers for use in various CFCs, so we are getting great food into low-income communities while supporting local farmers at the same time.
Photo from The Creemore Echo
There's something really powerful about hundreds of people coming together on a farm to eat great food and listen to beautiful music. But Farms for Change is about more than food and music. What do you hope people take away with them after the event?
The annual fundraising event we hold on our farm — Farms for Change — brings together top-notch chefs, great Canadian bands, some very generous sponsors, and a lot of happy eaters. We’ve had chefs from some of the best restaurants in the country cooking on our front lawn, and bands like Stars, Sam Roberts, Sloan, and the Tragically Hip playing in the barn. This year we had Joel Plasket and The Emergency, over 1,000 guests, and raised over $110,000. The evening is all about good food and great music, but it also fosters an amazing sense of community. I hope our event helps people understand that they are all a part of the food system, and that we need to make broad change to that system to make it more sustainable, equitable and delicious.
What's your vision for the Farms for Change partnership in, say, 10 years? What would you like to see happening?
I would love to see the Farms for Change partnership grow and spread to other farms. There is an incredible desire for people to connect with the farms that feed them, and an increasing fascination with the farming life, so I think the time is right for other farms to throw open their doors and invite people in to help raise money for this important cause. Organic farmers are motivated by a lot more than making a buck – we all want to see a healthier environment and better access to healthy food for all Canadians. The great thing about the Farms for Change model is that it helps support organic farms and builds the capacity we need to produce more good food to feed more Canadians. I hope that in ten years there will be Farms for Change events on farms all over the country, and that the money raised will help build both community food centres and local farms.
The New Farm: Our ten years on the front lines of the good food revolution is available from your local bookstore, or online at Curiosity House Books, Indigo.ca and Amazon.ca.
Check out the 2017 Farms for Change video: