Young Urbanites Put Down Roots in Organic Farming

Luring Vancouver's young urbanites to B.C.'s organic farms is easy – making ?it economic for them to stay ?is another matter.

Farm Animals | BCBusiness
Agriculture is seeing some atypical farmers join the ranks, including young former urbanites.

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.”


Image: Adam Blasberg
(From left) Niki Strutynski, Simone MacIsaac and
Sarah McMillan eked out a profit last year on sales
of $80,000 to farmers’ markets and local

Making a foray in farming

Sarah McMillan, one of the UBC Farm practicum program’s inaugural students, is a perfect example. “The way I started into farming was an evolution,” she says. “Studying nutrition and quality of food, realizing that to get hold of quality food you have to grow it yourself and then realizing I wanted to do that as a business.”

When McMillan, now 36, co-founded Rootdown Organic Farm in 2009 on just one acre with her then-partner, they qualified for the Community Futures Self-Employment Program, a government initiative sponsoring rural entrepreneurship in B.C. For 11 months they were paired with what she describes as a “mentor/caseworker,” received the highest level of EI funding possible, attended monthly seminars on various aspects of running a business and submitted monthly status reports. They learned a lot, says McMillan, “and it was a huge help in that we basically lived off of that, and any profit we made from the farm we saved and then reinvested into it the following year.” 

Farm Facts

• B.C. is home to 
20,000 farms.

• The agriculture industry employed 31,800 British Columbians in 2010 – that’s about 1.5 per cent of the workforce and nearly 4,000 fewer people than in 2006.

• Agricultural sales in 
B.C. totalled $2.4 
billion in 2010.

• Primary agriculture (crops and livestock) represented just 0.59 per cent of B.C.’s GDP in 2010, about two-thirds of what it contributed in 2002 (0.83 per cent).

• Just over half the farmland in B.C. is owned by those who farm it; about one-third is leased from government and most of the remainder is leased from private landowners. 

• Among farm operators, men outnumber 
women 2:1.

• About 12 per cent 
of full-time farm operators in 2006 held a university degree.

• B.C. is Canada’s 
top producer of blueberries, raspberries, cranberries and sweet cherries.

While programs like these feed the talent pipeline, another factor is working against new entrants to farming in B.C.: the soaring cost of land. While the total amount of documented farmland in B.C. increased marginally from 2.4 to 2.8 million hectares between 1991 and 2006, the total value of the province’s agricultural property (land and improvements) nearly tripled during the same time period. Skyrocketing land prices mean a growing disparity between a property’s productive capacity – the amount of revenue it is capable of producing from the soil – and its market value. 

McMillan considers herself lucky to have had such success in finding land to farm. In 2009, she and her partner had a deal with neighbours in Pemberton to lease one acre at no cost, and in 2010 stumbled onto an opportunity to buy 20 acres across the road – which they could afford only thanks to an inheritance, notes McMillan. Of those 20 acres, seven have the potential to be farmed, and three are currently in production.

McMillan now runs the farm with fellow UBC Farm practicum graduates Simone MacIsaac, 33, and Niki Strutynski, 32. Having cleared the hurdle of securing land, labour is now the main limitation to business growth for Rootdown, which grossed $80,000 in sales last year. “The market is definitely there. People are interested in more than we can produce, but we can’t physically do any more than we can do,” says McMillan, noting that Rootdown hosted several volunteer workers in 2011 to help lighten the load. 

Rootdown turned a profit in 2010, but like the majority of farmers in B.C., the three women supplement their income with off-farm work. And although McMillan estimates that 60 per cent of the farm’s profits come from farmers’ markets, the manpower required to staff market stalls makes it their least efficient source of income. Rootdown supplies about 10 restaurants, including Whistler’s Araxi, Four Seasons Hotel and Nita Lake Lodge, accounting for another 30 per cent of profits. Thanks to regular orders in bulk quantities, restaurants and hotels can be a small farm’s greatest security and most efficient source of income.

Building a relationship with a local farmer is as beneficial to the restaurant as to the farmer, according to James Walt, executive chef of Araxi: “The quality is there and it’s right in our backyard.” He contends that paying a potential 10 cents more a pound for organic, locally grown produce is a fair tradeoff for the superior quality, the ability to satisfy customers’ demands to know the origins of their food and the added benefit of keeping money within the community. 


Image: Adam Blasberg
Even during winter months Rootdown Organic Farm
supplies local markets and restaurants with
fresh produce.

Finding organic, locally grown produce

Those products are a lot easier to come by these days, says Walt, who has seen the number and capacity of small farms in the region grow significantly over the past decade. When he began sourcing for Araxi at local farmers’ markets 10 or 12 years ago, asking for 100 pounds a week of a single product was a tall order for many small operations. “But a lot of farms have really stepped up. We have about five farms that basically just grow stuff for us now.” 

Diversification of crops is another major trend, says Walt – Araxi’s mixed greens consist of about 20 ingredients now (all from Rootdown) instead of four, and he can get five or six different varieties of beets instead of just one. “There’s really not a lot of products we can’t get our hands on,” he adds.

Quang Dang, executive chef of West restaurant in Vancouver, works with more than a dozen small farms, ranging from Salt Spring Island to Kelowna, and though he believes the number of products he’s sourcing from B.C. hasn’t changed much over the past few years, “I talk about it more,” he says. “It’s a topic of discussion now more than it has been.”

Small farmers are more than willing to adapt and to supply what’s in demand, but the onus is on consumers to keep them in business, says Dang. While he’s seen plenty of new farms enter the market in recent years, he points out that the loss of others to more lucrative land use is concerning. “It’s definitely a tough fight in B.C.,” he says. “In the Okanagan there’s not as much money in tree fruits nowadays, so farmers are cutting down their orchards and replacing them with grape vines or cash crops like saplings for reforestation because there’s more money there.”

Pemberton mayor Jordan Sturdy admits the game has changed significantly since he started North Arm Farm in the mid-1990s. In addition to the price of land, input costs are rising too: seeds, nutrients, energy, labour. Then there’s the continual reinvestment in the land that’s needed to ensure its long-term productivity. And while Sturdy has noticed an increase in public appreciation for the value of local food over the past decade, the customer still has to understand that B.C. is an expensive place to practice agriculture. Compared to prices of imported products in the grocery store, “we’re not cheap,” says Sturdy. “I see agriculture as being a very difficult industry to enter into at this time. Given the capital costs and the risk involved, and the high level of expertise required to do a good job, I would think few people would choose it as an occupation.” 

McMillan remains committed to her chosen career: “I think there’s a growing demand and I think it’s going to keep growing, but it’s still a really hard way to make a living. We’re successful in that we are continually selling out our product, but we’re still working ourselves to the bone and barely paying our bills in our third year.” 

Yet while it may be tough to get started, Sturdy doesn’t doubt the potential for long-term success in the industry, and he hopes to pass on his 60-acre, $2-million farm to his two daughters. “That’s always been my goal: to have a manageable, profitable, sustainable business that my children will think is a reasonable option for them.” And with increasing interest in local food and a growing population, Sturdy is optimistic that it will be.