Tough Times in B.C. Agriculture

As farmland dwindles in B.C.’s most fertile regions, ?questions are being raised as to whether agriculture ?even makes economic sense anymore?.

Last of the line: Abbotsford blueberry farmer Mike Makara will say goodbye to three generations of farming when he retires.

As farmland dwindles in B.C.’s most fertile regions, 
questions are being raised as to whether agriculture 
even makes economic sense anymore

Mike Makara pilots his pickup truck over the back roads of Abbotsford, pointing out acreages where dairy farmers have left for greener pastures. “Everywhere you see a silo,” he says, “that used to be a dairy farm.” One after another, the properties roll by. The farmers, he explains, couldn’t afford to sit on property worth close to $100,000 an acre. Most of them sold, bought properties twice the size in the Interior or Alberta and pocketed enough change to finance a comfortable retirement.

Dairy farmers were the lucky ones, Makara says; for pig farmers it’s a whole different story. “Pig farmers are under extreme distress,” he says, shaking his head. The reason: there’s no government-controlled quota system guaranteeing pig farmers prices and a market.

Today the fields in Abbotsford are planted in blueberries. Row after row, the neatly pruned shrubs seem to extend to all corners of the Fraser flood plain beneath the low-hanging clouds on this grey spring day. Many of the fields were planted a few years ago when a consumer craving for the berry pushed wholesale prices to about $1.65 a pound, compared to historical averages of around $0.65. Today a farmer is likely to garner around $0.35 a pound – if he considers it worth his while to harvest the berries.

“Here’s a new farm that was just established three years ago, at the very peak,” Makara says, pointing to a straggly field of barely sprouted shrubs. “This dairy farmer sold that land and the guy planted blue­berries. Now it’s not well maintained because nobody has money. And the worst of it is, the poor guys who bought property at 80, 90 thousand an acre and planted blueberries – you’re not even breaking even on expenses, never mind mortgage payments, until five, six years after you’ve planted.”

Makara is one of the lucky ones. A third-generation blueberry farmer, he sold most of his 120 hectares to a Nova Scotia frozen-food processor in 1989. Today he tends his remaining 10 hectares of blue­berries, and because his mature crop has been well tended – and because the mortgage was paid off long ago – his farm is profitable. Last year the eight hectares he harvested netted $15,000.


Losing land: Delta farmer Jack Bates says it’s tough breaking even as he watches more and more local land lost to development

At age 60, Makara rests secure in the knowledge that his land will provide a comfortable retirement; he turned down an offer of $3 million three years ago, and although the bloom is off the blueberry craze, he knows he’ll have no trouble commanding seven figures for the farm any time he wants to sell. But with him, the blueberry dynasty that began with his grandfather, who emigrated to the Fraser Valley from Poland in the 1930s, will die. Makara’s son was lured from the farm by a six-figure salary with ThyssenKrupp AG, a multinational elevator company.

All across the Lower Mainland it’s the same story: farmers trying to squeeze a profit from islands of fertile land in a sea of urban development are fighting a losing battle. Farmland is shrinking and farmers are an increasingly rare breed. In fact, all across B.C. agriculture is on life support, propped up by the provincial Agricultural Land Commission, which is mandated to stem the erosion of farmland, and by federal and provincial subsidies and marketing boards.

B.C.’s Agricultural Land Commission was legislated into existence in 1973 with a mandate to hold the line on shrinkage of the province’s farmland – and to its credit, it has succeeded: since then, the total area of farmland across the province has held steady at approximately 4.7 million hectares, or about three per cent of the province’s land mass. But a closer look at the numbers reveals an inexorable shift away from the fertile Fraser Valley and temperate regions of the south, and toward the less-populous north. Since 1973 the south coast region, including the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, has lost 14,329 hectares of farmland. The Okanagan, Kootenay and Interior regions have lost 44,075 hectares. Meanwhile, the northern half of the province has gained 81,425 hectares.

The numbers leave no doubt: left to market forces, agriculture in B.C. would disappear in a heartbeat. In 2008 the average farm in B.C. recorded net income of just $26,213. And almost half of that, $11,583, came not from the sale of crops and food products but from government programs and insurance payments. With the average B.C. farmer cultivating 40 hectares, those kinds of returns don’t provide much incentive to shoulder economic risk and toil long hours at the mercy of unpredictable weather and markets. 

Agriculture economist Wendy Holm travels the public-speaking circuit and likes to show audiences a graph illustrating the inescapable economics of farming in B.C. and Canada (see “B.C. Farms Threatened,” opposite). The consultant and award-winning columnist for such farm publications as the Grower and Western Producer refers to the graph as “the jaws of the crocodile”: on the upper half of the page, ever-climbing lines snake from left to right, representing debt and the cost of operations; on the bottom is a gradually falling line representing net income.

“It’s the scariest picture I’ve seen in 35 years,” Holm says. The culprit, she believes, is a steady erosion of government support, beginning in the 1980s. The solution, she believes, is a formal government policy defining food as a basic human right and guaranteeing Canadians access to an affordable, local supply of food. With that principle enshrined in policy, she believes, adequate support programs would follow. The declining support, Holm believes, can be attributed to Canada’s overenthusiastic response to global trade agreements: “Canada cut its subsidies faster and sharper than anybody else with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, and there are some pretty bad stories there. And we didn’t replace them.”

Agriculture isn’t just another industry that should be left to the implacable forces of supply and demand, Holm says. “It can’t just be left to the market; if it’s left to the market, it’ll be gone.”

Jack Bates hasn’t seen the charts and graphs and doesn’t lie awake nights worrying about a national food policy. All he knows is that it has become nearly impossible to make a living farming in the Lower Mainland. Like Mike Makara, Bates is a third-generation Lower Mainland farmer. He owns about 70 hectares in Delta and rents another 90, and his farming operations have lost money for the past two years. Even so, he considers himself lucky because his properties are diversified, split between dairy, vegetables and berries. “With a stable market with our milk, it certainly helps stabilize our farm and give us some steady cash flow,” he says. “But at the end of the day, the other commodities have to support themselves. You can’t subsidize them forever.”

Bates is acutely aware of the pressures of urbanization and of the loss of productive farmland. “There’s certainly pressure,” he says. “There are people who can afford to come out here and buy 50 acres for $70,000 or $80,000 or $100,000 an acre and then build a house on it. They might get someone to farm it, or they might put horses on it or whatever.”

But dividing up land for urban hobby farmers is a minor irritant compared to the irrevocable loss of land to development. “When the horse farm goes, you can still farm it,” Bates muses. “The old saying is that blacktop is the last crop; once it’s paved over, nobody’s farming it.”

Bates points to the numerous zoning battles that have seen Delta lose close to 400 hectares of farmland to development in recent years: the Tsawwassen First Nation treaty, which took 182 hectares out of the Agricultural Land Reserve; 70 hectares lost to a rail yard expansion adjacent to the Delta port; 90 hectares lost to the South Fraser Perimeter Road; 56 hectares ceded to expansion and development of the Tsawwassen Golf and Country Club.

It’s a familiar refrain across the Lower Mainland: the 215-hectare Southlands property in Tsawwassen ceded to developers; 51 hectares of prime riverfront land in Vancouver dedicated to the East Fraserlands development; the 55-hectare Garden City Lands recently bought by the City of Richmond.

Whether our shrinking farm base is an economic catastrophe depends on which side of the fence you’re on. To an agrarian activist such as Holm, it’s a question of national identity; she talks about things like “food sovereignty” and “the right of a nation to chart its own course with respect to food.” To all those dairy farmers who cashed in their valuable Fraser Valley real estate, it’s simply a matter of going where the money is.