Even crowdfunding can't save this family farm

This year, for the first time in decades, the Bests grew no potatoes on their farm on Prince Edward Island. They had tried crowdfunding online to try to get them out of their financial difficulties, but that, too, proved to be a dry hole, as Karin Wells reports.

A CBC Radio Sunday Edition feature on a family of PEI potato farmers

Brian and David Best stand at the entrance to the Best family farm in Tryon, PEI. This summer, for the first time in decades, the Bests grew no potatoes. (Karin Wells / CBC)

"There's three things that I wanted out of life," says David Best as he stood in the machine shed behind his house in Tryon, Prince Edward Island. "Plenty of friends, average health and to be able to pay my bills on time."

The bill-paying — the mortgage — is the problem. This summer, the Bests launched a crowdfunding campaign in a last ditch effort to save the family farm, the last family-owned potato farm in their district.

Also this year, for the first time in decades, the Bests grew no potatoes. "This should have been a field of Netted Gems and it's growing daisies — that's not very heart warming."

Best is 73, a straight-talking man who has been farming in Tryon, on the western portion of PEI, for 55 years. He walks with his hands in his pockets and a toothpick in his mouth. Two sons are also potato farmers, a third trucks potatoes down to Boston.

This week on The Sunday Edition:

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Fifty years ago there were about 5,000 potato farmers on the Island, today it is down to 250. Family farms have been beaten out by large-scale corporate operations and international competition. Prices can be undercut by potato farmers in India.

Best Acre Farms started to get in serious trouble five years ago when torrential rains rotted the crop. "We lost 54 per cent of our crop that year, 283 acres lost." In cold hard cash, "we lost in excess of $600,000 in two years."

Each year the family added to the mortgage to put in next year's crop. It was a downward spiral.

"We're right up against it. We needed something," explains Brian Best, 44. "A guy I know came in to buy some seed potatoes and said why don't you try crowdfunding."

All the younger Best knew was the saga of the school bus monitor in New York State who was bullied on her bus. The crowdfunding campaign launched on her behalf fetched over $700,000.

"Couldn't leave that on the table," Brian Best says quietly. "You'd do anything for your family." So he launched the Best Acre Farms campaign on The goal was $200,000.

Keep the goal realistic

"Beware the snake oil," warns Bonnie Stewart, a PhD candidate at the University of Prince Edward Island, specializing in social media. "It can be seen as the great white hope of the future, replacing public policy and funding, but there are specific patterns to things that succeed in social media."

First, Stewart says, if you are going to try crowdfunding, keep the goal realistic. "That school bus monitor campaign was the second highest Indiegogo campaign of the year."

PhD candidate Bonnie Stewart says crowdfunding isn't for everyone, and you have to 'Beware the snake oil.' (CBC)

Second, she says you need a specific problem to solve or product to sell "and a clear point at which that is done." There was no end in sight to the problems of the Best family farm.

Still, the National Farmers Union got behind the campaign and put out a release saying the Bests were "good farmers," and noting that the federal emphasis on competitiveness in agriculture "works to eliminate family farms."

Stewart, who grew up on PEI, tracked the campaign on line. "They got sympathy, people wanted to have the conversation," she says. "But everyone loves a winner."

The online crowd, Stewart says, has good instincts. "They recognize saving this family farm is not going to save THE family farm."

Worth the fight?

David Best knew even less than his son about crowdfunding. "A giant zero," he says.

The Bests farm 1,250 acres making them a medium-sized operation. No potato farm of that size has it easy these days.

But David Best was not prepared to go quietly. "Some people are going to throw their hands up and say 'I've taken all I can stand.' Some more people are going to fight a little bit, and some people are going to fight a lot."

The Bests saw crowdfunding as an online platform and that it was "well worth the cause to fight."

Money trickled in over the summer, but it was only a trickle.

The Best campaign had a strong emotional pitch but lacked the moral outrage that propelled the bullied bus monitor campaign.

"This is a compelling story," says Bonnie Stewart. "It is not necessarily suitable for crowdfunding, but I don't' think we want to move to a society where everything has to have an easy marketable answer and this is where issues of policy and governance still need to be on the table."

By the end of the summer the Best Acre Farms campaign brought in $8,850. Indiegogo takes nine per cent of any campaign that does not realize its goal, leaving the Bests with $8230.50 and one step closer to foreclosure.

This winter David Best got the same price for his potatoes as he did in the early 1970s.

He looks out at the empty fields and says quietly "I always figured honest hard work would do the trick. Doesn't seem to have."


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