In Foodlands We Trust

New Farmland and Foodland Initiatives are Changing how the South Island Farms

By Emma Sloan

South Vancouver Island needs to change how it farms—and the Capital Region Food and Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR) is one of the organizations striving to make it happen. Why? Because, according to the 2018-2019 annual report by Farm Credit Canada, there are over 700 farms in the capital region and less than half are growing food. How can that be? Well, the reasons are numerous, but a main one is cost. According to the statistics listed on CRFAIR’s website sampled from the same report, farmland in our region is being priced a staggering $100,000 to $200,000 an acre.

The desirability of Vancouver Island as a place to live and a shortage of industrial land are two factors behind these high real estate prices. These prices put pressure on farmland retaining its agricultural use, since people attempt to purchase it for non-farm use. The agricultural land reserve—a provincial zone in which agriculture is encouraged and non-agricultural usage is restricted—protects some of these areas. But the ALR makes up just 5 percent of B.C.’s total land base and does not necessarily keep farmland at an attainable price. With farmland being used for other purposes, an aging and retiring cohort of farmers, and an inability for new entrants to access any available land, our region is seeing a perfect storm of issues that need to be addressed to create and maintain long-term agricultural systems on Vancouver Island. The protection of land for food growing is imperative, but we need to help farmers work it as well.

Alongside its other programs to address the viability of farming, CRFAIR has rolled out the Farmland and Foodland Initiatives: a variety of strategies to support access to land that includes land purchase, private land lease, community-supported farmland trusts, and a local government Food and Farmland Trust. Together, these programs could both free up more local land for production and get those interested in growing onto that land.
CRFAIR has worked with a wide range of community and agriculture stakeholders to forward these proposals, and it has a strong record to build on. An informal network of organizations that promote healthy and sustainable food systems, CRFAIR began in the early 1990s and continues to support a myriad of local food organizations, such as the Food Share Network, Farm to School BC, Farmer2Farmer, and the umbrella Good Food Network. Since 2019, CRFAIR has worked with this network to establish the Good Food Strategy, which works with collaborative action groups in three areas: food literacy, food access and equity, and the local food economy. Linda Geggie, CRFAIR executive director, says that locals have a strong interest in our region producing its own food, as opposed to relying on shipping the majority of produce in from global markets. To meet this demand, the network’s strategy intends to increase the amount of local food available in the
marketplace from less than 10 percent currently to 25 percent by 2025. These new initiatives are a way of making that happen.

Photo: Lauren Sortome

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Geggie contends that the next few decades will see the largest shift in ownership in South Island food-producing lands since European settlement. According to the 2011 census, the average age of farmers in our area is 57 and more than half will retire in the next decade. As farmers retire, only a handful of current family farms will see operations move to the next generation.

So who can afford to take on these other farms? Geggie characterizes those that will step up to fill the gaps as “mid-life changers”—middle-aged people who have decided they want to shift to more meaningful work, some who come with business experience and some with capital—and a younger demographic that is interested in farming but often does not have the resources to “get in.”

The challenge is that the economics of farming currently do not support the major investment needed for these farms and their infrastructure. “It is an uphill battle, but there are many who are interested, especially young women,” says Geggie. Her theory is backed by Canada’s 2016 agriculture census. While it also showed the continued trend in a scarcity of young farmers, it included a spike in female-owned farmland—an average of 71 percent of farms being operated exclusively by women under 50.

Since the largest barriers for these new farmers is access to land and having enough money to invest in it, CRFAIR’s Farmland and Foodland Initiatives program is split into four main categories to help them get there: land purchase, private land leasing, community food and farmland trusts, and a proposed local government-supported Food and Farmlands Trust for the region.

Each strategy has its own angle and unique benefits. Land purchase allows for owners to build value in capital investments and have the autonomy to develop the land as they see fit, rather than have to work within a lease’s agreement. For land leasing, privately held lands can be leased out to farmers with help from organizations like Young Agrarians, which tries to match those with extra land with people who are looking to get into agriculture.
“People want to have farm-fresh produce here in the region,” says Geggie. “We’re seeing a real interest—97 percent of what is sold is sold at farm gates and through direct sales to consumers. Most people in the region, however, buy their food at the grocery store. If we want to have local food at the retail level, we need more productive farms, where farmers are prepared to grow for a different market. We need to fix a
major supply gap: although there is a marked increase in demand by the consumer, there is an insufficient accessible local food supply.
Most local farms are under 10 acres and don’t have the proper food certifications, like Canada Good Agriculture Practices, to sell to those
retail markets.” By expanding the amount of land dedicated to farming, opening it up to new farming entrepreneurs, and helping them get
certified, Geggie hopes that the initiatives can work towards closing this gap.

Satnam Dheensaw of the family-owned Gobind Farms, located on Veyaness Road near Saanichton, agrees that the supply gap needs to
be addressed, and land matching through the Farmland and Foodland Initiatives could be a method of doing so. “We also need more support
for local retailers. Since we live on an island, Island stores need to support Island farms first,” he says. “Islanders, and Canadians in general,
don’t want to eat American pears, for example – they want to shop local—but if retailers drop their produce prices to the cheapest, then they
will. Everyone’s shopping by the lowest price.”

BANKING ON TRUST

According to Geggie, the community and local government trust models show a lot of promise because they take land out of the speculative
real estate market. With the first, a community organization is set up to receive and manage land that is purchased or donated. A good example of this is the Salt Spring Island Farmland Trust, which protects land and leases it for farming to strengthen that island’s food security and sustainability.
In the local government model, land appropriate for producing food that is currently owned by local governments would be put into
a government-run food and farmland trust. Those local governments could then work with a non-profit land manager, like CRFAIR, for
example, to lease the lands to farmers or community organizations that want to produce food.

Two such set-ups already exist in our region—Saanich’s Haliburton Farm and the Sandown Raceway lands in North Saanich, which that
district recently converted into a publically owned farm. To support a more systematic and efficient program for the region, the proposed
Food and Farmland Trust is currently being explored and developed by the Capital Regional District, which undertook a feasibility study for it over the last year.
“While we are starting with local government–owned lands, so there is no initial land purchase cost to the program, there is also the opportunity to add additional lands, through fundraising, donations, or properties bequeathed to the community for agricultural purposes,”
says Geggie. So far, Colwood, Saanich, Central Saanich, the Highlands, North Saanich, Sidney, Sooke, View Royal, and Victoria have indicated their support. Metchosin has deferred its decision. Other municipalities have not supported it yet because they either don’t have land to include or need more information about how the trust would be implemented and how much it would cost. The CRD will continue to develop the business case and model, as long as it continues to have support from its member municipalities.

“Although they want to learn more about what it will look like and how it would roll out, the majority of the CRD’s municipalities are in
favour of exploring further,” Geggie says. Haliburton Community Organic Farm in Cordova Bay—which contains farms, a forested habitat, and a wetlands restoration area—demonstrates the benefits of a land trust and having access to fresh food for the nearby community. Publicly owned and within the ALR, the land was rescued from development by Saanich, which purchased the property and repurposed it as a community farm. There are currently six separate businesses operating under the Haliburton umbrella, all of which orbit around the themes of education, biodiversity, and providing nutritious produce for everyone. Haliburton sells at the Moss Street Marketyear-round, the Victoria Public Market for most of the year, and the Oaklands Sunset Market from June to August.

Katie Underwood works for Elemental Farm at Haliburton and agrees that land trusts and the rest of CRFAIR’s projects are necessities.
“Just talking about the initiatives has raised a lot of excitement for people who are currently at Haliburton, especially since farmers at
Haliburton have to leave after eight years,” says Underwood. She explains that the ability to find land in the CRD from the Farmland and
Foodland Initiatives would help farmers avoid moving elsewhere to keep farming, as, under the farm’s current rules, lots belonging to Haliburton are leased to farmers before they are encouraged to find more permanent locations elsewhere. “It allows people to see a future where they can continue to farm here and not have to leave. It would be really tremendous to keep these farmers farming locally.”
Underwood thinks nearby land trusts would also help farmers like her stay in contact with the tight-knit community—and their customers.

“Economically, it’s really helpful for the farms who can stay in the region because of their marketing strategies and building a brand for
themselves,” she says. “It’s tough to leave one market and have to build your brand and farm from scratch in a different region.”
Geggie echoes Underwood’s optimism about the initiatives. “While private land–based farming will continue, there is a lot of risk
that we will lose the farms to other uses. Having dedicated land where food-growing entrepreneurs can incubate and grow their
businesses has the potential for so many important economic opportunities,” says Geggie. “By supporting farming and growing food we
also support employment, regional tourism, and general value-added food products to the industry and restaurants. There are so many
things that rely on the foundation of having a strong farming sector. If we lose our ability to farm because farmers don’t have access to land,
then there is a huge opportunity lost for our region and that also puts us all at a lot of risk.” Initiatives like these have thrived in British
Columbia before. A prime example is the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust, which has been active for 25 years. It preserves land and
provides wildlife habitat in a 3,500-acre region, pleasing farmers and conservationists alike. Another, the Foodlands Cooperative of BC, is a community service cooperative founded in 2017 with the mission to secure in trust and protect food-providing lands across B.C. Currently, the cooperative holds Lohbrunner Farm in Langford and Ceres Circle Farm in Kelowna.

IS IT ENOUGH?

Some may worry that land trusts could create an unfair advantage between those who get access and those who have had to buy their own
farm. It is important, Geggie says, that farmers pay market rate for their lease. “We will need to decide how much investment we want to create,” says Geggie. “Would the lands have fencing, a water service, or even cold storage that the farmers could share? There’s the concern that a farmer would walk into a subsidized environment and reap benefits that other farmers wouldn’t receive, so we need to map that out.”
Due to the potential drawbacks that CRFAIR’s strategies contain—such as limited security for farmers investing in these leased lands, set-up
time, potential lack of stability due to scarce or uncertain resources, and being slow to execute—some farmers, such as Rob Galey of Galey Farms, believe that investing in awareness and communication of the Island’s need for new farmers is the most effective method to bolster the local agricultural industry.
“The problem with agriculture in Canada now is the labour conscience—farms can’t find workers, so they can’t grow. That’s, in my opinion, the number one issue. All the people who used to come to farms for summer jobs now stay for one day and then quit. It seems like people aren’t looking for that kind of lifestyle anymore.” These feelings are mirrored in U.S. Department of Agriculture census data and can be linked to a combination of lack of interest, high student debts, and the average cost of farm real estate.
In an April 2019 Times Colonist article, Metchosin Mayor John Ranns stated that the Food and Farmland Trust may not be the best path forward for the CRD. “Once again, we’ve got the presumption here that this is the only way to achieve food security,” he is quoted as saying
to CRD directors. An organic farmer himself, Ranns shared Galey’s opinion that finding affordable labour is one of the local agriculture
industry’s biggest barriers. While he reportedly supported protecting farmland and making it available for lease, he also worried the trust
would create an unequal playing field among local farmers.
Geggie doesn’t disagree. “Providing access to land is only one strategy that we need to look at,”she says. “There are a host of other challenges
to the sector, including access to skilled labour, the cost of inputs and increasing regulation, and the impact of wildlife. All of these things need attention to build the strength and viability of the sector.”

For its part, the provincial Agriculture Ministry is aware of CRFAIR’s work to assist farmers. While not involved in the Farmland and Foodland Initiatives, it has provided funding to CRFAIR for a feasibility study and business plan related to a regional food processing and
innovation centre—processing and distribution being another challenge for the sector. According to Blake Bilmer, a ministry junior affairs officer, these studies will help assess market opportunities for farmers and recommend sustainable business models. “The ministry is looking forward to working with CRFAIR in the coming months and to seeing the results of their feasibility study and business plan,” says Bilmer.

To support the trust and CRFAIR’s other initiatives—as well as area farms—Geggie encourages capital region citizens to speak to their local governments and decision-makers, advocate for widespread farmland protection, prioritize buying local, and learn more about how they can get involved with the local agricultural community.

by Emma Sloan