There’s a new sign on a 41-acre (17 ha) cornfield in Vineland, Ont.
Towering over local farmer Larry Dyck, the orange sign bears a photo of a smiling child, and the words “Grow Hope” in big letters. In smaller type, underneath, are the logos of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and Bethesda Services, a Mennonite-run organization for people with special needs.
In fact, Bethesda, which owns the land, has been allowing local farmers to grow crops on it to raise money for Canadian Foodgrains for nearly two decades. This year, however, something new is being tried on the property-a model of charity crop-growing that is one of the first of its kind in Canada-that project partners hope may become increasingly common in the years to come.
The project, Grow Hope Niagara, is based on Grow Hope Manitoba, a project that began last year in Niverville, Man., a rural community about 45 km south of Winnipeg.
Both involve raising money for the account of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a Mennonite relief and development organization, in the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. What’s new about both is that they invite donors to “sponsor” an area of the field, to pay for the costs of growing and harvesting the crop. Foodgrains is asking would-be sponsors-churches, other organizations and individuals-to give $300, $400 or $500 per acre, depending on the crop being grown.
The Manitoba project initially raised $59,278, according to Canadian Foodgrains. This support funded the cultivation of 197 acres (79.7 ha) of wheat; when the harvest was sold, $92,400 in proceeds then went to the MCC account at Canadian Foodgrains. When combined with matching funds from the Canadian federal government, this could mean up to $462,000 for MCC to spend on food aid in poor countries, according to Canadian Foodgrains.
Donors to Grow Hope Niagara help pay the cost of raising the crop by sponsoring a parcel of the land. Photo: Simon Chambers
Excited by Grow Hope Manitoba, Dave Epp, Canadian Foodgrains’ Ontario representative, approached Dyck last winter about doing something similar with the Niagara field. At one time, Dyck was one of six or seven local farmers and a number of corporate sponsors involved in growing crops for charity on the Bethesda-owned property, but for various reasons, all the other farmers but Dyck had moved on. Copying Grow Hope Manitoba, Epp thought, might help re-energize the project.
“I’m not afraid to say the word ‘copy’-or ‘beg,’ ‘borrow,’ ‘steal’-because it’s a great idea,” Epp says.
Inviting donors to sponsor their own parcel of land, project partners say, taps into an important need that fundraisers are seeing, especially among younger would-be donors, for more direct contact with a project than simply writing a cheque and trusting an organization to use the money as it sees fit.
“The younger generation says, ‘It’s not that we don’t trust you-we want to be involved, and we want to see where it goes, and we want to know how we’re making a difference,’ ” Dyck says.
“If they get excited by the mission, the money will get there, but if it’s just a budget, there’s no real energy,” agrees Canadian Foodgrains CEO Jim Cornelius. “I think one of the things these projects do in communities is they create energy and excitement, and then people are willing to support it, and grow it.”
Grow Hope is also about building bridges between rural and urban people, because it aims partly to reconnect city-dwellers with the sources of their food, Dyck says. Sponsors are welcome to visit “their” acres in person.
Just under half-19 acres (7.7 ha)-of the Niagara field is now sponsored, Dyck notes.
But visitors hoping to see a bounteous harvest there this year will be disappointed. Southern Ontario has been wracked by drought, and the growth of the corn has been severely stunted. On the Niagara field, the corn on an early September day, when Dyck invites visitors to an information session, stands barely elbow-high. He peels off the husks to reveal mostly small, pale cobs with tiny kernels.
The weather over the coming weeks will determine how much of the corn can actually be harvested-if any.
“If the first frost is by Thanksgiving, it’ll be all mowed off,” Dyck says.
Government crop insurance programs will partly compensate the project for its losses, he says. On average, a corn harvest from the Bethesda field might bring somewhere in the neighbourhood of $20,000-$25,000, says Dyck, although the high variability of weather and prices can make for wild fluctuations from this range. With crop insurance, this year’s harvest should mean a cheque for somewhere in the neighbourhood of $12,000-$13,000 or more for Canadian Foodgrains, he says. And again, because the federal government matches Canadian Foodgrains contributions at a rate of 3:1 for food security work and 4:1 for food aid work, the final sum sent to help the hungry overseas will be much higher.
Epp says this year’s bad crop should also serve as a reminder to Canadians of how lucky they are to be living in a country where such events aren’t catastrophic, because of the safety net provided by government-and of the vulnerability of farmers in countries where there’s no such protection.
Canadian Foodgrains, Epp says, is eager to hear from other farmers who may be interested in starting similar Grow Hope projects.