Across the country, thousands of farmers take time during their busiest season to harvest crops that will be sold to support the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
A few have been going for more than three decades, but many came to be during the 23 years that the charity, an alliance of 15 churches and church-based agencies, has been run by Jim Cornelius, who retired this month.
There’s no question that rural Canadians are the foundation of an organization that grew from modest beginnings to providing hundreds of millions of dollars for food, agricultural training, and nutrition projects in the developing world, he said.
“We have been blessed at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank with tremendous support from farmers and the rural community more generally,” said Cornelius. “Without that, the whole thing wouldn’t work.”
And a key part of that steadfast support has resulted from sending farmers to see how the money raised by growing projects and other community endeavours is being used — something the Foodgrains Bank has been doing since its inception in 1983.
“I still run into people who are supporting us because of a trip they went on in the 1980s,” said Cornelius. “That’s how much it impacted them — they still stay engaged.
“People see the difference that is being made on the ground, and meet the people they are partnering with and how hard the people work to make a life for themselves.”
And, of course, people who go on the trips get to talk farming.
“Many of the struggles are the same, many of the issues are the same,” he said. “(The Canadians) also realize that the reality of the farmers they are meeting is so different than their own reality.”
That was the case for Colin Boender, a grain farmer from Leduc County who travelled to India in February, arriving home shortly before the international borders closed due to COVID-19.
On his tour, he saw projects done by partner organizations in India in the states of West Bengal and Jharkhand, around the cities of Bolpur and Pakur.
“They don’t have other jobs. They have one to three acres and they grow a little bit of crop once or twice a year,” said Boender. “They have gardens and that’s how they survive.”
The partner group was helping the subsistence farmers become more productive by using improved practices and varieties.
“These partner organizations were focused on teaching people how to garden, so every house had fresh food all year,” he said.
The trip gave Boender a much deeper understanding of what food insecurity means on a subsistence farm.
“I kind of assumed food security means that people don’t have enough food,” he said. “It’s way more complicated than that. You see how these partner organizations become part of these communities and build the growth from within. They have to realize where people are and start where people can understand.”
It is, of course, a world away from farming in Leduc County.
“We have a couple thousand acres and the reason we can farm this way is because we have access to banks that give us low interest, we have access to retailers that can give us proper seed, and we have proper equipment,” he said. “These people don’t have the same access. They weren’t born into the same thing. They didn’t go to university. Their hope is that their kids go to university.”
And while a garden seems like a simple thing, it’s not, he said.
“I’ve had a garden my whole life. But for these people to have a garden and nutritious food year round, it’s such a simple thing and a game changer for them.”
Boender said his trip renewed his commitment to the Leduc & District Growing Project.
“You realize that however many farmers in Leduc come together (often 20 to 30 farmers) and get this done, raise $100,000 a year, that makes an impact for people who can benefit from these Foodgrains programs,” he said. “To us it’s just one little field. But for them, it’s hundreds of families.”
The Leduc & District Growing Project has raised nearly $2 million since it began (which was shortly after Cornelius started as executive director).
The work done by the organization has become even more important during COVID-19, said Cornelius, adding every single Foodgrains Bank growing project went ahead this year.
“People recognized that this isn’t just affecting them,” he said. “Donations have continued to be strong, right through this time period.”
The pandemic has increased global hunger, with the World Health Organization predicting another 130 million people may experience “chronic hunger” this year (in addition to the 690 million people who went hungry in 2019).
As is so often the case, it’s a matter of distribution rather than a shortage of food, and Cornelius said the pandemic has had a huge impact.
“A lot of small-scale farmers sell their products in small markets and a lot of those markets have been closed down in an effort to constrain the spread of the virus,” he said. “Farmers are really struggling to market their crops. Supply chains have been disrupted, the ability to access inputs at many places has been disrupted. Credit arrangements are being disrupted.”
The Foodgrains Bank has been given an additional $2.3 million in federal funding to help farmers adapt and protect their farm businesses at this time. (It is focusing on sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest proportion of food-insecure people in the world.)
It is yet another daunting challenge for people who seem to have no end of them, but Cornelius is hopeful because he’s seen what’s possible.
“The solutions are not simple — we can’t import just what we’re doing in Canada,” he said. “The realities the farmers are facing are very complex. But there is a sense of solidarity. We have farmers talking to farmers. They can do that farm talk together. It’s really amazing to watch and see.”