Soil and Trouble: Vancouver Island Agriculture


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Saanich Organics | BCBusiness
Image by: Nik West
The trio of farmers behind Saanich Organics (from left: Robin Tunnicliffe, Heather Stretch and Rachel Fisher) works small parcels of the southern Island's pricey land to grow their sought-after produce.

As land values and demographics threaten the future of small-scale agriculture on Vancouver Island, a new generation of farmers is finding innovative ways to put down roots.

A half-dozen workers with tanned faces and callused hands sort beets, carrots and basketball-sized lettuce heads on a June morning on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula. It’s Monday, distribution day for Saanich Organics, a cooperative formed by three independent farmers to market their produce. Co-op member Robin Tunnicliffe fills out orders and sorts boxes, which she then helps load onto a truck for weekly delivery to Victoria-area homes and restaurants. For Tunnicliffe, farming is more than a job; it’s a social and political mission she shares with her co-op partners, Heather Stretch and Rachel Fisher, to help meet regional food needs and preserve area farmland. 

The Saanich Peninsula, with its mild winters and warm, dry summers, feels more Mediterranean than Pacific rainforest. It is prime growing country. A burgeoning culinary tourism sector, community-minded chefs dedicated to featuring the regional bounty on their menus and an affluent population willing to stuff their reusable grocery bags at one of the more than 20 weekly farmers’ markets on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, make it an even more appealing place to farm. 

But what makes the area so appealing has also made it increasingly expensive. Between 2000 and 2008, the cost of a single-family dwelling more than doubled in Greater Victoria, and Island farmland has followed suit: aspiring farmers can now expect to pay as much as $100,000 an acre. And even though a skilled and dedicated market gardener can yield anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 an acre in a good year, unless you’re in line to inherit the farm from mom and dad, the idea of servicing a mortgage from raising chickens and growing veggies is sheer fantasy. 

“Land ownership is not a realistic option for me right now,” says Tunnicliffe, 37, who through her own company Feisty Field Organic Farm leases two plots of land, one conveniently at Northbrook Farm, which Heather Stretch owns with her husband, uncle and aunt. 


Vancouver Island property

High property prices have forced farmers to devise creative ways to get their fingers in the soil without necessarily having their name on a land title. Three per cent of B.C.’s land is considered arable, with 4.7 million hectares contained within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). In 2009, province-wide, farms generated $2.4 billion in revenue, employing 36,600 people. Vancouver Island’s agricultural output is marked by diversity – from eggplant to emus, and poultry to pears – grossing approximately $170 million annually, with a workforce of around 4,800. Pockets of farmland are cached along a narrow rain-shadowed coastal margin, concentrated in the north around the Comox Valley and south to the Cowichan Valley and the sunny Saanich Peninsula.

University of Victoria economist G. Cornelis van Kooten sympathizes with the landless who want to farm. In 2009, van Kooten teamed up with two grad students to examine the economics of farming the Saanich Peninsula’s fertile rolling hills. He discovered a daunting scenario for agricultural upstarts. On the upside, contrary to popular perception, these days the ALR is not being depleted for development as quickly as in the past. Since 1974, 12,273 hectares have been removed from ALR on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands; the pool of protected farmland now sits at around 104,000 hectares, and deletions are rare. In van Kooten’s opinion, island farmland is relatively secure – for now. 

However, the way B.C. Assessment evaluates farm property doesn’t exactly encourage efficient use of this rare resource, says van Kooten. When landowners qualify for farm status under B.C. Assessment rules, their land is valued at far below market rates, which translates into thousands of dollars in annual property tax savings. For example, in 2010, two properties in the Saanich area with market values of $674,000 and $1,029,000 received vastly reduced farm value assessments of $22,316 and $55,829, respectively. So farm status is like money in the bank for the landowner. The problem is that B.C. Assessment sets an embarrassingly low threshold for acquiring farm status. A property that’s between 0.8 hectares and four hectares need only generate $2,500 in annual farm revenue to qualify. In some cases the threshold can be met by auctioning off a single horse. Or a property owner might not ever pick up hoe, rake or hay bale and simply rent out a chunk of land to tenant farmers to achieve the same advantageous land assessment. According to van Kooten, this model tends to favour the moneyed professional or hobby farmer, people who are more interested in monitoring their stock portfolios than farming for a living. 

“You ain’t going to be able to pay for land in Saanich by farming unless you have another job. So you’re getting these 50-somethings who want to help society, grow some food and get back to basics, but when the crunch comes a lot of them find it’s too tough,” van Kooten says. Indeed, roughly half of the ALR land on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands is not currently being farmed at all.


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