Sarah Wilson and her dog, Karma, at Pendleton Farm near Courtenay, which she  started leasing in 2019
Credit: Ali Roddam

Sarah Wilson and her dog, Karma, at Pendleton Farm near Courtenay, which she started leasing in 2019

The next generation of growers is coming from the unlikeliest of places

When Sarah Wilson was a kid in Rivers Inlet, the only thing her mom could grow was moss. Mountains and ocean squeeze the remote Central Coast community, where rain falls by the foot, the sun rarely appears, the soil is malnourished, and fruits and vegetables arrive every few weeks by barge.

Yet for Wilson, something about scarcity nurtured a desire to grow. After high school she moved to Victoria, took a horticulture certificate at Camosun College, learned to farm and worked growing vegetables for seven years, first in Metchosin and then the Comox Valley.

“I love everything about farming,” Wilson says. “The fresh vegetables, each step of the growing, the physical side of it, how there is always something to learn, the ability to see the results of your time and labour. Everything short of some of the smells.”

In 2019, Wilson decided to overlook the chicken manure and start her own farm. With no family history in agriculture, she’s the face of the next generation of B.C. farmers.

Farm succession used to be as predictable as the seasons. Kids would grow up in the family business, always knowing one day they’d take it over, including the land. Over the past century, that model has withered. Urban migration, falling farm incomes, industrialization of operations and other factors have reduced the stock of farm kids interested in agriculture.

Farm employment fell from a third of Canadian jobs in 1921 to less than 2 percent in 2018. B.C. lost 2,000 farms from 2011 to 2016, Statistics Canada reports. With fewer children taking over for their parents, the remaining farmers are getting older, too. The average age of a B.C. farmer is nearly 56.

That’s a problem. “It’s about survival,” says Heather O’Hara, executive director of the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets, which represents 145 markets across the province. “If we lose our ability to grow food locally and only rely on imported, that’s a huge risk.”

Just this year, climate change, border issues and disease outbreaks threatened stores’ ability to keep shelves stocked, O’Hara notes.

Farming is also a key sector of the B.C. economy, generating nearly $8.5 billion in spending in 2019, according to the provincial Agriculture Ministry. People like Wilson see opportunity where others see weeds. Two-thirds of new entrants to farming have no family history in agriculture, and they face more challenges than in many startup businesses.

“It’s no easy job,” O’Hara says. “Farmers need to be a climatologist, a meteorologist, a veterinarian, a seed expert, a soil expert, a carpenter, an engineer, a mechanic. There’s no clear path to that depth of knowledge.”

Plus, there’s the cost of land. Since 2007, the sale price of a Canadian farm has climbed by about 150 percent, according to agricultural lender Farm Credit Canada. In 2019, an average acre of Vancouver Island farmland surged 13 percent in value, to $57,500, as hobby farmers and speculative investors drove up prices. The only such land in Canada that’s pricier is in the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan.

“The No. 1 barrier to new farmers is access to land,” says Sara Dent, executive director and co-founder of Young Agrarians, a program that helps new farmers get established. “But there are technical issues, too, like how do you run a farm business successfully if farming is not in your blood?”

Dent co-founded Young Agrarians in 2012 as a nonprofit. They tackled the second problem first, offering business training and mentorship to rookie farmers, young and old. In 2016, after seeing the success of a land-sharing program in Quebec, Dent launched a B.C. pilot where Young Agrarians played matchmaker, introducing farmers seeking land to landowners with vacant or underused fields. The provincial government funded Young Agrarians’ B.C. Land Matching Program in 2018. Now provincewide, BCLMP made its 100th match late last year.

One of them was Wilson, who knew she didn’t have the capital to buy land. On the other side were Ankia and Stefan Kriegler, the owners of a 10-acre farm just north of Courtenay on Vancouver Island.

“We’re city people,” Ankia says. “We could never farm on our own. Our intention was to find someone and give them a chance to farm. It’s a way for us to give back to the community.”

A Young Agrarians land matcher came to the first few meetings between Wilson and the Krieglers with lists of what to discuss and sample legal documents. In 2019, both parties signed a three-year lease for 1.5 acres that Wilson now calls Pendleton Farm.

“Young Agrarians recognized the succession problem and developed an innovative solution to it,” says James Vercammen, professor of food resource economics with UBC’s faculty of land and food systems. 

But land matching isn’t a panacea, he notes. Lack of processing capacity, competition with lower-cost jurisdictions and the grocers’ preference for semi-truck-sized supply chains are all obstacles. Only ownership gives farmers the certainty to make big infrastructure investments, Vercammen says.

If banks don’t like the risk of uncertain farm outputs, other investors see potential. From a handful of funds worldwide focused on agriculture in 2008, there are now some 300, data provider Preqin estimates.

And Young Agrarians is finding ways to help aging farmers pass down their life’s work outside of the family. It’s part of the group’s mission to revitalize rural economies and fertilize farming in B.C. “If we want future farms, we need to recruit new farmers,” Dent says. “To do that, we need to nurture farm startups.” 

Plot of Gold

8% – Average increase in B.C. farmland values in 2020, outpacing all other provinces and well ahead of the 5.4% national average

$100,800/$1,800 – 2020 value of an acre of farmland in the South Coast and Peace-Northern, the most and least expensive regions

$3.7 billion – Gross receipts from B.C. farms in 2016

17,528 – Farms throughout the province that year, down 11.3% from 2011

40%+ – Share of those farms that were small ( in receipts)

Actively farmed Metro Vancouver land owned by non-farmers, 2015:

50% – Individual non-farmers

35% – Businesses

5% – Nonprofits and government

Sources: Farm Credit Canada, B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, Statistics Canada, Vancity, Metro Vancouver