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Even crowdfunding can’t save this family farm

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CBC News  |  Karen Wells  |  Sept 20, 2013

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

PEI potato farmers crowdfunding 300x188 - Even crowdfunding can't save this family farm"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.

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."

Related:  How Crowdfunding is Essential for Innovation and Job Creation

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."

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."

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