The future of farming in B.C. is not looking promising and local food could become as scarce as hen’s teeth.
It’s Saturday morning in Vancouver’s East Side and there is a bustling scene as crowds begin to form at the parking lot of the Trout Lake Community Center. No one in this neighbourhood is at a loss as to why there are over 40 tents being set up to display an abundance of food and crafts. This is the East Vancouver Farmers’ Market, and it has been a celebrated weekly event since it was established in 1995.
This year, attendance is higher than ever, with sales up 10 per cent from last year, according to Roberta LaQuaglia, the Operations Manager. From 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., urbanites can be seen chatting with their local growers about the weather and what the coming season has to offer.
As a young farmer who hopes one day to operate my own farm, visiting the East Vancouver Farmers’ Market gives me confidence that British Columbians want and need more local farmers to grow their food. However, as I take the first steps towards a career in farming, I am confronted with seemingly endless barriers hindering new farmers from entering the business.
It may very well be one of the most expensive lines of work to get into with, no doubt, one of the smallest returns. I wonder whether farmers’ market customers and other local food advocates are aware of how hard it is to farm in B.C. these days, and I’m not referring to the backbreaking work of actually growing the food. It seems the urban embodiment of food security is being championed while the actual security of rural food producers is languishing.
Food security through the years
Conceptually, food security has been on our collective social conscience since the 1950s, but its focus has shifted every decade or so to encapsulate the specific concerns of the day, from world famine in the 1970s to poverty and access to food in the 1980s. More recently, the focus has shifted to agriculture and a population’s need to ensure a thriving local farming community in order to achieve food security. The local food movement has been gaining momentum since the 1990s and continues to grow with the increasing demand for locally grown food.
In many ways, B.C. has been at the forefront of food security initiatives in Canada with, for example, the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in the 1970s, one of the most successful farmland preservation programs of its kind in North America. In addition, several communities in B.C., including Vancouver, have adopted municipal Food Charters to outline their vision of a healthy food system. Each one of these visions stipulates a thriving agricultural community as a requisite for achieving a healthy food system.
The reality in B.C., however, is that only 5 per cent of the land base is suitable for farming, and less than 1 per cent of that land is considered Class 1 to Class 3 land -- farmland that has moderate to no significant limitations to producing a range of crops. The rest of B.C.’s land base is considered Class 4 to Class 7, meaning it has severe limitations restricting most forms of agriculture.
Complicating the matter further is the fact that most of the land that is considered prime farmland is concentrated in three places: the Lower Mainland, the Okanagan Valley and Southern Vancouver Island, also known as the hotbeds of real estate to urban dwellers and developers.
Unfortunately for a young farmer like myself, nothing short of half a million dollars will suffice to purchase a few acres of that prime farmland. (I might, however, one day be able to afford an “investment property” between Horsefly and Likely in northern B.C. for a mere $215,000.) Despite the economic downturn, B.C. has experienced increases in farmland values of an average of one per cent per month over the past 18 months. Now, that’s not as bad as the 14.5 per cent semi-annual increase in farmland values of late 2007, but it still makes for some of the most expensive farmland in the country.
Government support for farming at all-time low
Historically, farming has always been a heavily subsidized industry, with governments providing the financial assistance necessary to maintain a measure of stability in an inherently volatile business. Currently, however, government support for farming is at an all-time low in B.C. Where the national average of agricultural GDP reinvested into agriculture is 16.4 per cent, the B.C. government only reinvests 4 per cent, the lowest in Canada.
As for the Agricultural Land Reserve, its 36-year history has not been without problems. In 2002, changes to the mandate of the Agricultural Land Commission, the committee overseeing ALR land exclusions, sanctioned increased regional influence in decisions that were originally arbitrated at the provincial-level. Predictably, with shortsighted regional interests now involved in decision-making, farmland taken out of the ALR has increased since 2002. (Land inclusions are also occurring but, interestingly, the ALR is slowly moving northward.)
The result of diluting the strength of the ALR has meant that it has now come to be more of an urban land reserve; thus, the price of farmland now reflects what the value of the land would be if it were subdivided and developed. The combination of expensive farmland and severe lack of governmental support is driving away what would be the next generation of food producers in B.C.
The future for new farmers
So, what options are available to a young person like myself, who has the ambition to farm but not necessarily the pocketbook? Like many trades, a good place to start is to do an apprenticeship. Stewards of Irreplaceable Land (S.O.I.L.), a Vancouver Island based apprenticeship program, sets up potential farmers with organic farms across Canada. Apprenticeships not only provide hands-on learning, they also connect new farmers with a network of experienced farmers who can pass on invaluable knowledge, the kind of knowledge that is disappearing as the farming population declines.
As for farming independently, the most accessible option for new farmers is to lease land. Though many farmers do this successfully, it can be wrought with frustration when land that has been worked and built up over years is taken away at the whim of a landlord. Land lease arrangements are inescapably flawed; lack of ownership in farming means lack of control over the key resource necessary to farm, and to a group known for being fiercely independent, this can mean the difference between farming and finding another way to make a living.
Today’s generation of new farmers may instead be forced to give up some of that independence and link up with other farmers. With this in mind, The Land Conservancy (TLC) and Farm Folk/City Folk (FF/CF), two B.C.-based non-profit organizations committed to farmland preservation, have teamed up to form the Community Farms Program (CFP). The program secures farmland to be held “in trust” for community use by issuing 99-year leases to community groups or cooperatives. The CFP invites farmers to farm the land using sustainable agricultural practices and offers the next best thing to land ownership: long-term land tenure.
A joint venture such as a Community Farm requires a common vision for land use, and though it would not work for every farmer, it may just be the closest I could ever get to owning my own farm.
Back at the East Vancouver Farmers’ Market, LaQuaglia has a busy season ahead of her. While continuously trying to attract more customers, she also has to work to retain vendors. “Everyone wants a market in their town, [so that means] everyone’s fighting over the same vendors.”
With the average age of B.C. farmers at 57 and climbing, LaQuaglia’s predicament will only get worse unless the barriers to entry for new farmers are checked. The campaign to combat food security cannot stop at the city limits. To ensure a thriving local food supply, local food supporters will need to be just as invested in farm security.
Vanessa Samur is a young farmer currently working at Ragley Farm in East Sooke, B.C.
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