Gillian Flies, Canadian food producer and regenerative agriculture advocate, named as IICA “Leader of Rurality”
San José, 2 May 2022 (IICA) – Gillian Flies, who practices regenerative agriculture on her farm in the Canadian province of Ontario and seeks to enable all consumers to readily access organic food, was recognized by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), as one of its “Leaders of Rurality”.
The “Soul of Rurality” award, as it is called, is part of an initiative by the specialist agency for agricultural and rural development to pay tribute to men and women who are leaving their mark and making a difference in the rural areas of the Americas – a region that is key to food and nutritional security and to the planet’s environmental sustainability.
Flies was living in Toronto with her husband, Brent Preston, and their two small children when they decided to move to the countryside to establish a farm to cultivate the type of healthy food that they wanted to give to their children, while also contributing to environmental protection.
This marked the beginning of The New Farm, where they produce organic food, by employing regenerative agriculture, which she defines as an agricultural system that leaves the land and the overall environment in a better condition than before. Her operation also trains young farmers who are interested in learning about good practices.
Today Gillian Flies is President of the Canadian Organic Growers, whereas her husband is President of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.
The Leaders of Rurality title recognizes individuals who are playing a critical dual role, namely as guarantors of food and nutritional security and as custodians of the planet’s biodiversity, producing under all kinds of conditions. The recognition also highlights these individuals’ capacity to serve as positive examples for the rural areas of the region.
Gillian Flies, the professional who embraced agriculture to make the planet a better place
Gillian Flies and her husband, Brent Preston, were living with their two small children in a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto, Canada’s most populated city and largest financial center.
They both had good jobs—she as a management consultant and he as a TV producer—and were living comfortably. However, when they looked around them, they noticed several issues that were of concern to them: global warming, climate change, a growing number of people with health problems and increasing obesity.
“At a particular point in time, we realized that all of these things were directly related to how we produce our food. So, 15 years ago, we decided to move to the countryside and to begin to develop an organic farm, as a way to address our concerns and to prove that agriculture could be practiced differently. We wanted to grow the type of food that we wanted our children to eat, while also helping to make the world a better place, because we understood that waiting for others to offer solutions was not an option”, recalls Gillian.
Gillian and Brent embarked on a new life and established The New Farm in Creemore, an Ontario village one and a half hours north of Toronto. Neither spouse had any technical knowledge about agriculture, despite the fact that Gillian was raised on a sheep farm in Vermont, on the East coast of the United States, given that this was her father’s hobby.
From then onward, the couple began to learn about their new job, gaining knowledge from other farmers, from books and the internet, as well as through the important contributions of farmer organizations. Therefore, amidst errors and setbacks, they gradually overcame their initial frustrations and began to carve out a path to produce healthy food, which would also contribute to community well-being and environmental improvement.
“When we began to produce food”, recalls Gillian, “the first thing we noticed was that there was a barrier preventing access to healthy food – the type of food that is produced in a way that does not result in any of the environmental costs of agricultural activity. Supermarkets charge more for these types of products than traditional food”.
Thus, Gillian and Brent launched the Farms for Change program.
“Through the program we collect money from large donors and members of our very generous community and use this to produce and sell healthy food to food organizations in Toronto and other places in Ontario. As of today, we have collected almost two million dollars and sent thousands and thousands of pounds of organic produce to 15 social service organizations”, she tells us.
The discovery of regenerative agriculture
After a number of years working on their organic farm, Gillian and Brent decided that were not satisfied with some of the practices that they were employing, such as continuous cultivation, given that these do not benefit soil health and the overall environment.
Flies explains that, “Although organic agriculture is by far the most beneficial form of agriculture for the environment, it also causes problems. After the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, we began to hear about regenerative organic agriculture and how it can contribute to soil carbon sequestration. When we began to do in-depth research on regenerative practices, we were surprised about its potential”.
“Carbon is necessary for life”, she adds, “but the problem is how it is distributed. Due to the production practices that have become widespread over the past few decades, there is too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in the soil. That is why, on our farm, we focus on sequestering more carbon than we emit and avoid applying agrochemicals or anything else that kills life in the soil. We never leave soil bare. So, we have become a training farm where many young farmers come to learn about regenerative agriculture”.
Gillian Flies is the president of the Canadian Organic Growers association, while her husband Brent Preston is the president of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO).
“Regenerative agriculture”, she explains, “is a way of producing food that leaves the soil healthier than it was and improves the overall environmental situation by sequestering carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Regenerative agriculture practices include reducing or eliminating tillage, using cover crops instead of nitrogen fertilizers, and avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. It’s a method that really benefits biodiversity because it involves planting trees and integrating animals into the environment”.
The New Farm in Creemore, Ontario, is the first farm in Canada to become certified in regenerative organic agriculture. Its owners have been surprised not only by the farm’s environmental benefits but also by its profitability. So much so, that they are currently encouraging production units in other parts of the country to transition to this method, so that they may become more resilient.
“Through the organizations my husband and I work with, we have established a coalition of 24 entities representing more than 20,000 farmers, called Farmers for Climate Solutions, and we are playing a key role in calling for agriculture that is aligned with climate change policies. We are encouraged by the fact that the Canadian government is listening to us and is starting to allocate more money to these practices”, she remarks enthusiastically.
Gillian is concerned about the need to attract youth to agriculture. In this regard, she argues that the first step is guaranteeing the profitability of this activity. “In Canada, as in other countries, farmers are not earning enough money and most producers have a second job to supplement their income. Large companies are buying up more and more land to form huge conglomerates and small producers are finding it increasingly difficult to compete. However, there is still room for governments to provide youth with incentives, such as payment for the ecosystem services afforded by agriculture. The family farmers who produce the food we eat every day require greater support from the government. Agricultural commodities should not be the sole area of focus”.
“Farmers are on the frontline in the fight against climate change. We don’t have much time and we must revolutionize the way we grow our food. Governments and consumers must be aware of the role of regenerative agriculture and support farmers. Farmers must produce food amid climate chaos, which is difficult; however, we also have a huge opportunity to become part of the solution to global warming – that is our responsibility”, she concludes.