Book Review: The New Farm by Brent Preston
With spring's arrival, many of us prepare to build a garden. This is the perfect season to pick up this engaging book, a first-person account of how Preston and his wife Gillian Flies built a successful organic vegetable farm.
Preston acknowledges early in the book that they would have seemed unlikely to succeed as farmers, given very limited experience. The couple were world travelers, doing aid work and journalism overseas, but after settling into Toronto and having two small children, they set their sights on a more rural life. The book details the steps in the couple’s decision to run an organic farm near Creemore, Ontario, and the family’s slow but steady progress to becoming very successful.
Preston is a great storyteller, making the book an entertaining, quick read. He includes many amusing vignettes, even as he outlines the numerous challenges the family faces in the first few years on the farm. One amusing vignette centers on Preston’s argument with an obviously wealthy customer at the Creemore Farmers’ Market about his 2 dollar price for spring onions. His misadventures while constructing a greenhouse are also quite humorous. Other stories are more bittersweet in tone, such as the struggles the family faces during the yearly slaughter of their small herd of pigs.
In detailing several years of challenges on the farm, Preston also shares his first-hand insights about problems with the food system in Canada. Preston alludes to the challenges that both organic and conventional farmers experience. He is clear that his family’s efforts led them to build one alternative farm model, but that it is not the only model. In detailing the family’s story, he discusses the “small farm orthodoxy”, a set of guidelines that the family initially follows, including relying on volunteer interns and growing an extremely wide variety of crops. While they eventually move away from many of these guidelines, Preston and Flies have maintained a steadfast commitment to organic practices. The challenges of sustainable farming are clear as the couple only succeeds due to their extraordinary work ethic, a careful analytical approach, and a wide skill set including the ability to build connections with chefs, entrepreneurs and activists in the good food movement.
For anyone considering establishing a farm, this book would be an invaluable read. But it is worthwhile for all the rest of us as well. Preston clearly intended the book to serve as a call-to-arms, encouraging all of us to consider our role in the food system, whether as eaters or producers. He reminds us of the importance of conscious decision-making and advocacy for changes to policies about food systems.
Beyond the clear focus on food, the book also left me inspired by the strong sense of community that the family built and experienced as they built their farm. Living in the decentralized suburban community of Barrie, it may well be more challenging to build community ties than in a rural community. However, this book left me inspired by the determination of Flies and Preston, not only to consider my role in the food system, but also to be more intentional about engaging actively in my community.
I highly recommend this engaging book and hope that others will find it as inspiring and entertaining as I did.