Luring Vancouver's young urbanites to B.C.'s organic farms is easy – making it economic for them to stay is another matter.
Eric Simons, 32, and Philippa Mennell, 31, don’t exactly embody the stereotype of the rural vegetable farmer. Five years ago they were Vancouver urbanites: Simons, who holds a bachelor of fine arts from SFU, was working on political campaigns with the NDP; Mennell, a graduate of Emily Carr University of Art and Design, was heading toward a career in industrial design. Both wanted a break from the city and shared an interest – if not experience – in gardening.
Having enjoyed brief working-holiday experiences volunteering on organic farms in the past, the couple sought a more intensive introduction to farming. Signing up with SOIL (Stewards Of Irreplaceable Land), a Canadian non-profit that connects aspiring farmers with organic farms willing to train apprentices, Simons and Mennell anticipated a four-month adventure in the country.
They accepted a placement with Ragley Farms, a 31-acre heritage farm in East Sooke on Vancouver Island, packed their bags and prepared to hoe in. The pay was minimal – SOIL participants generally receive room and board and possibly a small stipend – and the living situation was what Simons generously terms “rustic”: they shared a small renovated room in the barn above the cows, with access to a communal bathroom (shared with other live-in apprentices as well as visitors to the on-site farm market) and a communal kitchen.
Yet despite the cramped quarters and back-breaking work, Simons and Mennell were reluctant to leave at the end of their apprenticeship. They accepted a co-management position on the farm in order to better learn the business of farming, and four months turned into a year and a half. 2010 saw them move to the Okanagan to set up shop for themselves as Bountifield’s Farm in Cawston, where they worked one-third of an acre on orchard land owned by Mennell’s family and grossed $10,000 in sales their first year. In 2011, the couple expanded operations, leasing 1.5 acres, diversifying their crops and doubling their sales.
The meagre return is not unusual. The average farm operator in B.C. realizes less than $20,000 annually from farm revenue. Approximately one-half of farms in B.C. report annual sales of less than $10,000; only one-quarter report sales of $50,000 or more.
From May to October it’s “more than full-time,” says Mennell, with long days in the field or selling at the farmers’ market; in winter, side jobs help to pay the bills. Competition is stiff among small farms in the Okanagan, says Simons, and the difficulty of finding affordable land and long-term leases is a serious obstacle to startups.
Yet the couple wasn’t deterred: “It was really the lifestyle that was appealing about this,” explains Simons. “There are much easier ways of making more money if we’d stayed in Vancouver and kept doing what we were doing, but we were curious about the different lifestyle.”
Aspiring young farmers like Simons and Mennell represent hope for the crisis facing B.C. agriculture, an industry in dire need of a new generation willing to work the land. According to the 2006 census, 45 per cent of B.C. farmers were over the age of 55, up from 38 per cent in 2001. Only six per cent were under 35.
Yet that’s not to say there’s a shortage of young people in the province willing to step up to the plate, as evidenced by the popularity of a couple of UBC programs designed to provide them with the necessary resources and know-how.
In 2010 the faculty of land and food systems at UBC introduced an undergraduate program in applied biology, teaching the foundations of sustainable primary production. Though established in response to a perceived educational gap for would-be farmers, demand turned out to be greater than anticipated, and by fall of 2011 enrolment had already reached 260.
The UBC Farm’s eight-month practicum is a more hands-on program but also relatively young (founded in 2008 as the “Sowing Seeds for the Future” apprenticeship), with 20 to 30 applicants vying for just 10 spots each year.
Generally in their late 20s or early 30s, participants of the two programs don’t tend to have farming or food-growing backgrounds, says associate professor Andrew Riseman. “Typically, they are urban residents who have intellectually or emotionally connected to food and want to get back into primary production.”