Island of Plenty. Planners, politicians, and growers all wonder: are our food systems half-empty or half-full?

YOU’VE LIKELY HEARD by now that Vancouver Island only has a three-day supply of food. Keep that number in mind—and your cupboards stocked—in case there’s an emergency and the ferries stop running. It’s why we talk so much about food security.

But do you remember where you first heard that figure? Like most “common-sense” theories, the source is not so commonly agreed upon.

If you go digging, you will find news sources citing other news sources, which link to academic studies that cite other academic studies. It reads like matryoshka dolls of nested food-security data.

The fact is that no one actually knows what the Island’s food supply is. We don’t have all the data. The information we do have can be looked at from different angles: Island population (799,400); total farmland (51,829 hectares); number of farms (2,786); animals (587,261 hens and chickens); field vegetables (762 hectares); gross farm receipts ($200 million). But no one perspective gives the full view, while some food producers—such as those in the cities—aren’t captured at all in the statistics. It’s also complicated by the fact that Statistics Canada tacks Powell River and the Central Coast onto Vancouver Island.

“We don’t actually know,” says Jeff Weightman, a planner with the Capital Regional District who works on the CRD’s food and agriculture strategy. “The three days was an estimate. And that’s fresh food. That’s not all food.”

Collecting data is challenging, he continues, and simply asking farmers for more information has its own obstacles. “They’re often protective of their numbers. They don’t want you poking around in the valuations and the amount of food they’re producing and where they’re sending it. They’d prefer to keep that tight to their chest.”

When you combine this lack of data with the high cost of land and the absence of processing capacity on Vancouver Island—the ability to turn our fresh food into more valuable products, or even to certify the organic stuff before we buy it—it’s hard to tell if things are getting any better when it comes to local food security.

WHAT WE’VE LOST

Certainly, self-sufficiency isn’t impossible. While the population has grown, the picture was different just 70 years ago—and, of course, for centuries before, when the original food system was intact.

“The data is clear that Vancouver Island and the islands like Salt Spring did at one point produce about 90 percent of their own food,” says Jeremy Caradonna, a UVic environmental studies professor and former owner of Share Organics, who writes about sustainability and the organic transition. “We know that that number has declined precipitously because of globalization, because of cheap and subsidized fossil fuels, economies of scale, and these things that allow for food to be shipped in where it’s cheaper to get lamb from New Zealand than it is from Salt Spring Island.”

We can track local farming all we want, but Caradonna says what we really need to know is how much of what we eat comes from here. Caradonna has seen numbers as low as four percent and as high as 15. “But they don’t cite any concrete data,” he cautions, “because no one actually does that kind of work.”

Between the 1960s and the ‘90s, many Island farms were abandoned or developed. While that loss surely impacted our food security, Caradonna has seen an encouraging trend of agricultural land being reclaimed in the last 20 years. “The local food movement has been successful here on the Island,” he says, “but we’re still nowhere close to where we were 75 years ago. There continue to be incredibly difficult barriers to overcome—the most important of which is the price of land.”

GOOD FOOD 2025

The Capital Region Food and Agriculture Roundtable (or CRFAIR) has spearheaded a Good Food 2025 strategy that hopes we can all eat a quarter of our food from local sources by 2025. Its report lists current local food consumption on Vancouver Island at less than 10 percent.

The Good Food Network was born out of the 2025 initiative, and the Good Food Resolution now has around 600 signatories. The network includes many local food organizations and covers three main strategy areas: the local food economy, food literacy, and food access and health. The 2025 strategy looks at the whole food system—more than just what we grow on the Agricultural Land Reserve—and includes subgroups working in areas such as food waste, youth engagement, and pollinators. One subgroup is the food metrics working group, which is hoping to start filling in some of those data gaps.

CRFAIR’s executive director (and local food legend) Linda Geggie works with the Good Food Network and co-chairs the food metrics working group. The first step examined other regions in B.C. and beyond, measuring local food production and what “indicators”—signs of progress—they use. This research will help them figure out what they need to track to measure progress over time. “One of the things that we’re finding out is there are huge gaps in data,” says Geggie. “Lots of these things are not tracked or understood very well.”

CRFAIR is working with Victoria’s Urban Food Table, a collection of food organizations and individuals that advises the City of Victoria, to undertake a survey of food production on private land within the city and with Farm to School B.C. to gauge how much food schools are producing.

For its part, the CRD has developed a regional food and agriculture strategy, including the creation of a regional task force. While the CRD’s mandate doesn’t include food security, public consultations for the regional growth strategy revealed that food was the number one issue. The strategy includes 10 recommendations on such areas as water use, drainage, food waste, public education, and wildlife issues, which cost individual farmers thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars annually.

“The set of recommendations lined up in the strategy, if they can be addressed, would significantly increase the agricultural output and the happiness of farmers,” says the CRD’s Jeff Weightman.

THE URBAN PERSPECTIVE

Away from the rich soils of the up-Island valleys or pricy acreages of the Saanich Peninsula, the news from the cities seems positive.

“The municipalities are doing a kickass job of urban food policy,” says Weightman of those in the capital region. “I don’t know what else I would recommend to the City of Victoria aside from funding the stuff they actually say they’re going to do.”

He mentions Saanich, Esquimalt and Sooke as other standouts. “Sooke is one I never thought of when I first started working in food and agriculture, but there’s an incredibly strong food and agriculture community out that way and they’re wanting to be involved.”

Geggie has also noticed local governments jumping in, and that’s a key indicator to her. Almost every municipality in the region and many on the Island currently have a food strategy of some kind.

“Food production and distribution have sat in the private sector for so long,” says Geggie. People are realizing how local groups and government should take action before we lose even more capacity and control over our regional food system. “Local government is stepping up and saying, ‘No, no, this is a planning issue, just like transportation, just like housing, and we need to be involved if not leading in this area.’”

The District of North Saanich is one of those leaders, especially with its 2017 purchase of the Sandown Raceway to use as a community farm with the potential for a processing facility. The council also voted to have 50 percent of the tax revenues from the adjacent development go towards regional food and agriculture in perpetuity.

Beyond backyard and community gardens, Chris Hildreth has been working since 2014 to develop a working model to supply restaurants and cafes with fresh and sustainably grown food farmed in underused urban spaces. His Topsoil business occupies a 20,000-square-foot lot at Dockside Green in Vic West, where Hildreth and his team grow arugula, kale, chard, mixed greens, summer squash, radish and turnips for a growing list of nearby restaurants and catering companies including Fiamo, Canoe Club, Zambri’s, and the adjacent Caffe Fantastico bar-deli. They also run an on-site market on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. One of Topsoil’s main features is its flexibility. Instead of spending years building up—you guessed it—topsoil, Hildreth gardens out of geotextile containers that can be easily moved and set up almost anywhere.

The 30-year-old UVic grad is trying to reduce the amount of food that comes over on the ferries. But he knows it’s a lofty goal. Topsoil sold around 7,000 pounds of produce last summer—the same amount a company like Sysco sells in a single morning. “It’s a real David and Goliath kind of thing,” says Hildreth.

His big “Aha!” moment came when Hildreth realized that he’s not competing against the quality of the product from large distributors, but the convenience for chefs. “The chefs can phone them any day, any time, and say, ‘Hey, I need 30 pounds of lettuce.’ They go to their shelf, which is where it’s been sitting for two days, and they put it in. With me, that’s just not the case.”

Hildreth thinks his type of operation could work in many other Island communities. A key to increasing local food production, he says, is devising efficient business models so young people can get involved without getting burned out or going bankrupt. Another idea to motivate young people to farm, says Hildreth, would be for government to use agriculture as a way for new graduates to work off student loans.

“There is a large group of young people who want to do something and feel good about it and be able to live,” Hildreth says. “That’s why I’ve gone through this grind of trying to figure out how to make it financially viable.”

Since land prices in the cities can also be prohibitively expensive, partnerships with municipalities, developers or businesses are a great option, but they may lack the long-term commitment needed to invest in farming. Hildreth has developed a flexible solution, but he still needs somewhere to put it. UVic’s James Caradonna says that while he supports urban agricultural operations such as Mason Street Farm and Topsoil, they don’t pay market value for their farm space, so it’s not a model that can work for everyone.

illustrated boats and vegetables travel back and forth over water
Illustrations: Samantha Wey

THERE AND BACK AGAIN

For Vancouver Island grocers, the biggest challenge is the logistics of getting food to the stores. “We cannot depend on the ferries and the trucks,” says Sarah Wagstaff, the marketing and community relations liaison at Whole Foods. “It’s just silly, and then it creates all these workarounds and biases too. You just feel defeated. ‘Oh well, the ferry might not show up, so I don’t know if I’m going to get that order on time. It’s not a priority.’” It’s also frustrating for small grocers who are under more pressure to move product.

Wagstaff hasn’t noticed a big change in how things are functioning since Amazon bought Whole Foods in the fall of 2017, except for a large drop in prices for some staple items and more affordable organic produce and high-quality meat and seafood.

She would love to work with an Island-based distributor. The only one went out of business in 2016, just as the store was opening. Wagstaff will be moving into a new role soon, and she wants to focus on filling this gap. “I think if I have the opportunity to focus on that as a project that would be extremely satisfying—to find and support a local distributor and promote them and work with them and our vendors.”

There is currently only one large processing facility on the Island, owned by Islands West. It buys produce in bulk, chops it up, and sells it to grocery stores under its own label. According to Wagstaff, much of the Island-grown produce is shipped to Vancouver to be certified or turned into the “local” products we later pick out on grocery store shelves.

“That nutritious, fresh, local food is travelling so far, and every moment that it’s out of the ground or picked or whatever, it’s not getting to the consumer, and then it’s losing its nutritional value,” says Wagstaff. “But I don’t think people realize that. It’s not very environmentally sustainable, and it’s not sustainable as far as food security.”

Whole Foods is the largest organic grocery retailer in the world and is third-party audited by organics inspectors. Any producer they buy from must meet strict standards. Although Whole Foods tries to get more local producers into the store, the lack of certification and processing infrastructure makes it hard for Vancouver Island companies to meet the company’s standards. However, it does provide low-interest financing to help companies expand and measure up, such as Comox’s Tree Island Yogurt.

Wagstaff says that local government could create more opportunities for processing facilities and simplify administrative tie-ups like insurance and other parts of the organic certification process, all of which local producers struggle to navigate.

CRFAIR has been doing outreach as part of their Closing the Supply Gap initiative, which aims to help local farmers produce more while expanding local markets. “We’ve been doing a bunch of farmer focus groups to find out where are farmers at in in this right now,” says Geggie. “Are they interested in this market? What are the barriers? What do we need to support them?”

Geggie points out that one of the new provincial government’s key food goals is to get more local food in hospitals, long-term care centres, and other government facilities, which is reiterated in the Ministry of Agriculture’s current service plan. But in a region with only a few large-scale farms and a lack of processing, Geggie asks: where is that food coming from? “Okay, that’s a great initiative. But how are we going to do that? Do we have enough farmers producing what is needed? No.”

According to Geggie, local retailers like Whole Foods are helpfully collaborating on this issue. “Most people buy food at the grocery store,” she says. “If we are going to have an increase to 25 percent of the food that we eat, that’s probably where. Rather than just saying, ‘Oh, we’ll meet with you and tell you what we need,’ they’re now saying, ‘How are we going to help create this system?’”

The lack of processing ability limits Island growth and outside investment. “Hedge funders in Vancouver investing in food are investing outside of Canada,” says Jeff Weightman, citing locations like California and Colorado. “That’s where the processing facilities are where they’re actually turning cabbage and squash into all that stuff into something that’s more palatable than roasting a piece of squash or cabbage and trying to get it down. I’m sure there’s a huge market for Vancouver Island sauerkraut somewhere, but no one’s actually got the storage, processing, and distribution to put it together.”

But there are a few plans underway. According to an article in the recent issue of Capital, published by the Times Colonist, local farmer Ty James of West Coast Microgreens has financing and plans to build a facility in Saanich that could flash freeze, dehydrate, or liquidize leftover produce, keeping it out of the compost. In the article, James claims the plant would be “the first building block in what he calls ‘a business park for agriculture.’” Interested farmers would enter into a profit-sharing agreement with James’s company. The B.C. government also recently put $14 million into a Canada-BC Agri-Innovation Program that includes investment in the processing and value-added sectors.

Weightman mentions that there are models for both private and public ownership of processing facilities. If an individual farmer did take it on, there would be the question of whether they would put themselves in front of others or not.

However, so far he’s only noticed a collaborative attitude among south Island farms, citing larger producers who no longer bring their wares to the smaller city markets to make more room for smaller operations.

“They don’t think it’s fair for them to compete with small up-and-coming farms, which I have a great deal of respect for. You don’t see that in a lot of other business sectors,” he says. But this approach extends beyond the smaller groups to the larger farms, which keep discussions open and even coordinate crop planting. “There is such a symbiotic relationship. I’m blown away with every story I hear of them working together.”

To see processing capacity open up on the Peninsula would make a huge difference for local companies. “If I’m the CEO of BC Ferries or I’m in charge of the hospital’s institutional purchasing or UVic, I feel more confident committing to a new agreement that says I’ll purchase 25 percent of my food locally if I can see that infrastructure development happen,” says Caradonna. “Without it, I think there’s a lack of confidence because you’re not just going to be buying tomatoes directly from SunTrio when you’re Jubilee Hospital.”

If we do build these food hubs, Caradonna warns that it still won’t be a quick fix for local food consumption. Better processing and cold storage facilities can’t guarantee that Island-grown food will stay on local plates. “I mean, how do you force a farmer to not sell their produce off-Island?” he says. “That’s a tricky question.”

A regional food hub would be great, but smaller, urban operations also need support to succeed. With his business growing, Hildreth is experiencing these gaps for himself and is looking for refrigeration options nearby. He’s watched much of this spring’s arugula crop go to flower after only one cut because his partner restaurants weren’t busy enough yet to buy it and he didn’t have cold storage. “We’re doing 200 pounds per week, but we have enough probably to be doing about 400 pounds per week,” says Hildreth of how infrastructure limits his production. “It’s a good chunk of change.”

GETTING ACCESS

Caradonna worries about the price of land on the Island, especially in the CRD. He mentions models like Haliburton Community Organic Farm, where municipally owned land is rented out inexpensively to commercial farmers, as a possible solution. “I think it’s a great program, but not everyone can have that benefit.” He also mentions the Young Agrarians’ land-matching program that the province has supported as another positive. “Those are really interesting programs, but they are symptoms of a deeper issue.”

Complex issues such as farmland pricing and access to land show how the different parts of society and government function around food issues. Geggie uses the current work on a regional land trust as an example.

“There’s been a lot of interest and energy in looking at the loss of farmland and access to farmland for new growers as the older generation retires, which is about 50 percent of them in the next decade,” she says. “We have new people coming into farming—how are they going to be able to afford to get into farming? Because the land values are so high. There’s this whole idea of a farmland trust and then what are the roles around that? The role of the community is to say: ‘This is important. We need to invest in this.’” Many in the community have done this by contributing land to put into trust.

“Then local governments looking at: ‘What’s our role in this? We have a lot of public land, actually some of it that’s actually zoned in the ALR.’” She says Saanich has been proactive in leading discussions around the trust and developing plans for long-term leases to farmers and community food initiatives. Then there is the question of what role should the CRD play. “It could act as the coordinating body for the whole region around this rather than each municipality taking its own approach.”

But an increase in local farmland won’t help if we don’t have farmers, and for the first time in 2016, Statistics Canada started tracking farmers’ succession plans: who will take over when the current farmer retires. Only 115 of the 2,786 farms on Vancouver Island have one in place.

Caradonna cites a lack of local training as another barrier to finding new farmers. “I have my course on the organics industry, but there’s no Faculty of Agriculture at UVic, so people aren’t being taught in sustainable food production systems on the Island,” he says. “I would love to see UVic have a Faculty of Agriculture.”

There is certainly interest. “Half of my students are interested in farming—half. If I had a class of 20 or 25, half of the students will raise their hands and say they’re interested in going into agriculture and a number of them are interested in urban ag. For me, the interest is there, but I’m not really there to train people how to farm, right? I’m teaching them about the industry.” As a start, Hildreth just completed running an inaugural two-week course about urban farming through UVic, at which Caradonna was a guest lecturer.

At the same time, locations like Haliburton are struggling to get their EcoFarm School program off the ground on their own. Bridging that gap needs to happen. While there may be farms doing training around Victoria, it doesn’t extend north as much. “If you’re a kid from Duncan or Nanaimo or something and you’re interested in sustainable agriculture, it’s hard to figure out where you’re supposed to get your training,” says Caradonna.

WHOLE FOOD SYSTEM

It’s dangerously easy for those of us south of the Malahat to ignore what’s going on “up Island,” but when it comes to the food supply, we’re all in this together.

CRFAIR acts as the south Island Food Security Hub, which coordinates with other food-security initiatives on Vancouver Island with program funding from Island Health. Geggie says this coordination is critical for sharing resources but also because the CRD offers a large market for up-Island producers that have more farmland that’s easier to access. “We’re trying to support our farmers in this region, but for us, local food is Island food—and Islands food,” she says, emphasizing the plural.

Places such as the Comox Valley in K’ómoks territory have seen an increase in farm employees and income partly because of the relative affordability of farmland. At the provincial level, Courtenay-Comox is represented by NDP MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard, who chairs the recently re-struck select standing committee on agriculture. The committee’s first order of business is to look at local meat production in the province. “We know that’s a challenge in smaller, rural areas where there isn’t an access to abattoirs and the rules are difficult to work around,” she says.

Leonard’s passions as a politician are food, water, and shelter. When she arrived in the 1990s, she knew she was moving to a region with a rich agricultural history spanning back to First Nations camas harvesting. “Comox gets called the land of plenty,” she says. “You’ve got that sense of being in a rich place.” While it’s important to keep the whole Island in mind, she says we need to be aware of the regional differences in farmers’ needs, especially with climate differences.

Growing up in a family of Polish extraction who farmed in Manitoba, food was a constant discussion topic. “Food security is a really big issue for me,” she says. “Moving to an Island was an emotionally challenging thing for me to do because there was a sense of isolation. The idea that we don’t have enough food to sustain ourselves puts a bit of tension in life.” She relieves some of that stress by focusing on policies that will grow local agriculture.

Any focus on the whole Island food system must include its many complex facets, such as its traditionally abundant ocean and intertidal zone. Food literacy, says Geggie, also helps people to understand food as more than what we grow on ALR land or find in the grocery store. When we’re talking about food in schools, kids need to learn about Indigenous food systems, food forests, and even farms on school grounds instead of just traditional farms or community gardens.

A wider focus includes thinking about aquaculture. “There are lots of things happening in the fish industry that are critical right now for the future of our food supplies and for the planet,” she says. “We’re balancing those things and there are a lot of decisions being made by other levels of government—federal fisheries in particular—that will have long-term impacts.”

Caradonna agrees and would like to see more support for community supported fishing projects like the Michelle Rose in Cowichan Bay (which we featured in our Spring/Summer 2017 issue).

“It’s trying to shift a view to thinking about this broad web of food,” says Geggie. “Culture is such an important part of that, continuing to look at what our Island culture is and how important food is in that and then really treating it like it’s important and thinking about it not only for now, but into the future.” These conversations must consider the original food system of the region—food sources that people still rely on that but can no longer access because of legislation, regulation, and contamination.

Part of this food culture will need to include growing more staple crops. “Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially this year, is running a farm, a small-scale farm like this, growing lettuce is easy. But it’s not really going to sustain us,” says Chris Hildreth. “How do you make that scalable?” He tried to do a wider range of products when he first started Topsoil, but couldn’t deliver the quantity and consistency that restaurants need. “When they’re getting 50-pound bags of potatoes every single week for $2 a bag, why would they take one little box of potatoes that took four months to grow?”

Caradonna also worries about the lack of dietary fundamentals produced on Vancouver Island. “I volunteer at Spring Ridge Commons, and my concern is that we’re going to be up to our ears in goumi berries, but we don’t have any staples to actually feed ourselves,” he says. “I’m always saying this: we need to be producing staples.”

Caradonna says the business case isn’t there yet for local producers to grow these crops, so it may require high-level policy support. “How does your half-acre make money? Well, your half-acre makes money by selling salad mix,” he says. “These are complicated questions people don’t want to get into because they would rather produce gorgeous vegetables that belong in a museum and that end up being a side dish to people’s meals.”

DOES IT STILL MATTER?

Despite possible local-food hype fatigue, last summer’s wildfires should be a wake-up call for communities to become more resilient.

“I think that’s a real demonstration of why local food is so important,” says Courtenay-Comox MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard. “And not just for wildfires. It could be for earthquakes. Something could happen to our transportation. We rely on the ferry to move our goods on and off the Island. We can’t ignore it.”

Local food advocates can cite stats until they’re blue in the face, says Jeff Weightman of the CRD, but many opinions won’t change until something goes seriously wrong. “I don’t think we’ll get there unless there’s a trigger. And unfortunately that trigger’s not going to be very pleasant and it’s going to create a lot of hardship,” he says. “But it could be a trigger that future generations learn from.”

Still, other food-security organizers remain upbeat. After a quarter-century working in local food systems, Linda Geggie of CRFAIR still marvels at how thoughtful and passionate people are about their food—and how they now are taking more collective and coordinated action. People understand the impact of our global food system and realize that we can all do better. The time is ripe for real change.

“Incrementally, many small changes are adding up right now,” she says. “It takes a lot of talking and cheerleading to be moving forward, but people are doing it. Lots of challenges ahead, but I’m optimistic.”

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