Farming The Future

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Rock music playing in his dusty and battered Ford half-ton, David Chambers drives up the foot of Mount Doug, passing Madrona Farm’s rows of budding, blossoming, and bounteous vegetables.

Once his family’s property, Chambers and his wife Nathalie now lease the 11-hectare farm, a place he calls one of the best in the world to grow food. At their four-day-a-week farmstand, they sell up to 725 kilograms of produce on a summer day, grown in the rich earth of the Blenkinsop Valley.

“It’s not a bad office,” Chambers, 34, says with a big smile.

When Madrona, (the U.S. word for arbutus) was at risk of being divvied up and sold by Chambers’ father and two uncles, the Land Conservancy stepped in and raised almost $2 million to buy the land, which sits in B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve. He’s the third generation to grow crops there, a grocery list of year-round produce sold to restaurants, at the farmgate, and via box programs, with leftovers given to foodbanks.

Farm worker Brendan Harry, 24, first came to Madrona as a volunteer and was immediately converted after his unpaid visit. “I did a lot of weeding in the sunshine. It’s an amazing place,” says Harry, born and raised in Toronto. “There were blue skies with an eagle soaring overhead. It’s an idyllic farm environment.”

Ah yes, farming — romanticized and eulogized, applauded and respected. Between the 100 Mile Diet craze and the growing distaste for factory farm produce, Victorians are among some of Canada’s most loyal consumers of locally grown produce. Growers can’t keep up with the demand. “We sell everything we grow. We’re trying to find what the ceiling is,” says 30-year-old Heather Walker who, with her spouse Brock McLeod, owns Makaria Farm south of Duncan and grows organic vegetables and strawberries.

Hungry market aside, farming’s attractions are many. “I’ve been pushing the farming thing pretty hard, getting people to do small farming,” says Bob Mitchell, who, in 1984 took over Sea Bluff Farm in Metchosin, which his father established almost 60 years ago. Not only are farmers healthier, thanks to the hard, physical work that grows the good food they eat, they also help build community and are hooked into nature. “But don’t expect to make a lot of money. You have to want to grow things,” says Mitchell, who is president of the Island Farmers’ Alliance.

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If six hours spent weeding strawberries or doing routine, physical labour day in and day out hold little appeal, nip in the bud the urge to be a farmer, advises Walker. Before farming, she worked for the Public Affairs Bureau, the B.C. government’s information and PR department, for three years.

On the farm, a 60-hour workweek is not uncommon. And for the first years, at least, forget about the salary that pays for winter vacations and the latest electronics.
McLeod, 31, who was a teacher and trade policy advisor for the province, misses that public sector income. The hardworking couple have to sell a lot of strawberries for $5 a pint and zucchini at $1 a pound through their farm stand, box program, and farmers’ markets to pay their $3,000-plus monthly mortgage.

The debt affects what they can do at the farm, Walker admits. There’s little spare money for capital improvements. If disease or bad weather strike, it could be financially ruinous. And until they grow their savings, the childless couple live in a one-room structure they built to later serve as their market stall.

Tom Henry, a Metchosin farmer and founding editor of the magazine Small Farm Canada, warns of the “$12,000 ghetto” faced by fresh farmers. He explains: in the first year, an intensively farmed, half-hectare plot pulls in $8,000 profit via a box program and market stands. By the second year, it goes up to about $12,000 and often stalls there. It’s a maximum income that Henry characterizes as “living under the Johnson Street bridge money.” After year three, the farmer realizes this isn’t the life he bargained for. “They give up, go to school, and become a software engineer,” says Henry. Or else one spouse gets another job.

It was Walker and McLeod’s well-paying, secure jobs, along with some family help, that financed their purchase of four hectares of ALR land three years ago. They paid $418,000 for the flat, open pasture, half now cultivated and assessed at almost $600,000. “The only reason we could afford land was we both had government incomes. We looked good on paper,” Walker says.

Into their third year at Makaria, they work as a team, mandatory in agriculture. Exchanging the bureaucratic office environment for being their own bosses was part of the enticement. “I know it sounds really cheesy, but we wanted to do work with meaning and purpose,” she says 

“We wanted to work for ourselves. We’re both entrepreneurs at heart. It’s quite satisfying to see, at the end of a day, you’ve done something you can lay claim to.” Entrepreneurs with dirt under their nails, Walker and McLeod represent the 21st-century’s version of back-to-the-landers — well educated, well meaning, and tech savvy. Some of the first things the couple did were create a website and print business cards. And before they plant anything, McLeod calculates whether it’s profitable based on the value per square foot.

Looking back on their decision to supplant job security with food security, Walker has some advice. “Don’t buy land. Before you quit your day job, qualify for as much credit as you can.” Use the credit safety net to get a lease, say for five years, to test yourself, your market, and what you produce, she advises. Because prices are so high, land isn’t selling so there’s plenty available for lease. She knows of at least three farms in the Duncan area alone where owners have retired but their children have opted not to get their hands dirty. In a decade, Walker expects Makaria Farm to be worth $1 million.

Sea Bluff Farm’s Mitchell knows the story well. He owns four hectares, but rents 3.5 hectares of his sister’s land and another 1.6 hectares. Copious amounts of high-quality vegetables and herbs are grown on portions of the land. About half is sold to about 20 high-end Victoria restaurants, while the other half goes to keen customers through a box program or at farmers’ markets.

A retired industrial electrician, Mitchell, 72, maintains that the biggest problem facing farmers is “hopelessly overpriced” land. “The capital cost of land is making farming uneconomical,” he says. Compounding the problem is that, in April, the federal government toughened rules for insured mortgages. All borrowers must meet the standards for a five-year, fixed-rate mortgage regardless of what term they choose.

Mitchell was lucky because he inherited land that his father, a retired RCMP officer, bought in the early 1950s. Over half a century, its value has risen dramatically. He points to the cattle ranching industry in the B.C. Interior. Most of the iconic ranches are owned by very wealthy Americans or Europeans, big-scale “hobby farmers” who can afford to lose money, he says.

But last year, farmland values in B.C. did not rise. According to Farm Credit Canada’s Spring 2010 Farmland Values Report, in the first half of 2009, B.C. farmland values fell by .7 per cent, while in the second half, they remained steady. For Canada as a whole, farmland increased 3.6 per cent in value during the last six months of 2009.

B.C.’s decline was attributed to the economic crises in the forestry and oil industries, which historically have been sources of income for investment in B.C. agriculture, says the report. Caution has become the mantra for purchasers, while vendors, used to years of rising prices, haven’t been willing to drop their asking prices.

Adding to farming’s challenges is B.C.’s underfunded Ministry of Agriculture that, each year, seems to lose more services. The province spends the least, propo
rtionately, of all provinces on agriculture, Mitchell says. The ministry’s decision in April denying assistance for B.C. apple growers indicates lack of support, as does the disappearance of provincial experimental farms and professional agrologists, Mitchell says.

Another April announcement, about flooding highly productive Peace River Valley farmland to build the Site C dam, further drives home the point that Vancouver Island’s farmland has to be kept intact.

To do his bit, Mitchell incorporated Sea Bluff Farm. He remains owner and has no intention of selling, but he’s hired James and Brittany Powell to manage the farm. James, 28, a political science graduate, wants to make a career out of farming on the Island. “Culturally, there’s more opportunity here. There’s a large general acceptance of local food,” says James.

Brittany, 24, who commuted for the past year to study nutrition in Vancouver, and farm employee Adam Saab, 28, both grew up in the Okanagan. They landed at Sea Bluff at the invitation of Mitchell’s nephew, their friend.

Seemingly cut from the same cloth, James and Saab (both ran as federal Green Party candidates) embody a generational shift from the nine-to-five mentality to a more seasonally adjusted work schedule. Their vegetable crops are grown on a rotational basis, seeding is continuous, done with a manually powered push seeder. Weeding is done by hand. Two small tractors are used to prepare the fields.

“I love plants and growing them, being outside,” James Powell says. Living at the farm, he has the freedom to walk out his back door and look at his work and the beauty of the land.

When Saab lived in Toronto, he bought his lifestyle, be it restaurant meals or entertainment. Now his lifestyle is his occupation. Granted, he also does carpentry work to add to his farmer’s income. “You have to enjoy it. It’s not a job that just pays the bills. A lot of it is about the do-it-yourself lifestyle,” he says.

Saab and Brendan Harry, the Madrona Farm employee who also works for the Green Party and the Ancient Forest Alliance, are sons of physicians. Their fathers did not prescribe farming. Yet Saab intends to stay put. “This is work I can respect,” he says. Harry is considering a move to Nova Scotia where farmland costs less.
Henry is also linked to Sea Bluff Farm, albeit in a meatier way. He owns 12 hectares and leases another 24 hectares in what he calls Sea Bluff’s “lamb and pork” arm, raising hogs, sheep, chickens, and wheat for local bakeries. And since 2004, he’s edited Small Farm Canada, whose circulation has increased from 3,000 to 18,000 today.

Half of Canada’s farms are considered small farms, defined by the federal government as producing up to $50,000 worth of agricultural products. There are numerous small operations on Vancouver Island, Henry says. They fit the profile of being near an urban area (a ready market close by), often where one of the farm owners goes to earn a supplemental income. The number of small farms in the Victoria area is anyone’s guess. The B.C. Ministry of Agriculture does not have current, local statistics nor does Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The 2010-11 Farmfresh guide lists 62 in the Victoria area and Cowichan Valley, but those are members of a farm association. Undoubtedly, the list is incomplete.

The prosperity of those small farms is tied to subsidies and what we pay for food, Henry believes. You don’t hear dairy, egg, and poultry farmers lamenting over their income. That’s because the quota system and subsidies help them very nicely.

If Canadians paid the true cost of what it costs to produce food, we’d be paying roughly 50 per cent more for our edibles. Or else our taxes would rise to cover another farm subsidy for growers like Powell, putting them on a footing with dairy, egg, and poultry producers. Okanagan apple growers are getting only 27 cents per kilogram for their apples and it costs at least double to produce them. If nothing is done, apple growers will sell their land for yet another Okanagan subdivision or vineyard, and we’ll be eating apple imports from industrial farms.

As the editor of a farming magazine, Henry is aware that industrial farms won’t disappear. “It’s an incredibly successful system for making food,” he says. Yet in a world where customers want big box stores, industrial farms, and funky boutiques, the organic farms and small-scale growers may not disappear, but they will never rule the agricultural economy.

As an example, Henry raises about 150 pigs each year. If he sold them to one supermarket chain, “they’d blast through that stuff in a week.” When a major Island grocery chain wanted to buy Island-grown lamb, even when all of the farms on the Island united, they didn’t come close to meeting the demand.
“The worst thing would be if everyone went looking for local food. It takes a long time to grow a food system,” Henry says.

Back at Madrona Farm, without the worry of meeting a mortgage payment of $3,000 per month, David and Nathalie Chambers are growing more than chemical-free food. David, a snowboarder and mountain climber who spent six months walking around Japan, and Nathalie, who’s making a documentary about biological diversity, represent a new breed of farmers. Tied to the land but not owners of it, they hope the Land Conservancy’s template for farmland preservation, carved out with more than 5,000 public donations, can be used widely to give more farmers a chance to earn a decent living while producing a wanted product. “It is recession-proof and we’re waiting for Wall Street to take up farming,” Nathalie says.

Langford Dons Overalls

Beyond the big boxes and Bear Mountain, Langford, once dubbed Dogpatch, is picking up the hoe once more. In March, the municipality announced its first acquisition under its year-old agricultural strategy, a novel plan to acquire land for food production.

The owners of a 14-hectare property known as McCormick Meadows will hand over to Langford 3.4 hectares of the land, all of it Agricultural Land Reserve farmland. In return, they will be allowed to build 100 single-family homes, 61 townhouses, and 338 apartments on the remaining three quarters of the Latoria Road property.
“This is really an innovative way to go, saving farmland in an urban area,” says Langford’s city planner Matthew Baldwin. Agrologists at B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve have given the project — the first of its kind in B.C. — a green thumbs up.

But some, like Bob Mitchell, owner of Metchosin’s Sea Bluff Farm, call it greenwashing. It’s to make up for past exclusions of farmland in the growing municipality, even with the realization that the Island should produce more of its own food, says Mitchell.

Recognizing that, at most, 10 per cent of the food consumed on Vancouver Island is produced here, Baldwin outlined several options for Langford’s newly acquired farmland. It could be converted into community allotment gardens where individuals can grow their own produce; tenders could be put out to find farmers who would lease the land and grow produce as a business enterprise; a community trust could manage farm operations for Langford; or the least favoured option, to leave the land as is.

David Chambers likes the idea of making land available to farmers. The Land Conservancy paid about $2 million to buy the 11-hectare Madrona Farm in Saanich’s Blenkinsop Valley from the Chambers family. David Chambers now has a long-term lease to farm the land, paying roughly $550 per month for the land and house, as well as having to pay property taxes and for all farm improvements. The scheme, which he envisions working in Langford, suits Chambers.
“Because the farmer doesn’t have to pay a mortgage, they can invest money for their retirement. When they retire, they leave an instant operation. Without a mortgage, they’ve been able to put money into buildings and improvements,” he says.

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farmland will revert to Langford’s kitty as the municipality deals with at least 10 applications this year asking for full or partial removal of ALR land, much of it along Happy Valley Road, where Langford has already laid sewers up to the Metchosin border. Once the Agricultural Land Commission says that land can be excluded from the ALR, developers will seek to rezone it, which is when Langford will lay out its demands to ensure some land stays farmable, not pavable.

In Langford, 83 separate parcels of land, totalling 118 hectares, remain in the ALR, most of it in south Langford. About half of them are smaller than two hectares while the others are less than five hectares. On most of that land, it’s a house that grows. There are only three commercial agricultural operations and several hobby farms, typically used to generate tax breaks for the property owners.

Langford council is aware that most of the land isn’t being used to grow food but that’s because it’s unsuitable for agriculture, Baldwin says. Most of it is rocky terrain, originally put into the ALR in the 1970s without full identification.