Soil and Trouble: Vancouver Island Agriculture

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.

Saanich Organics | BCBusiness
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.?

Image: Nik West
Saanich Organics earns $200,000 a year from
restaurant sales and a box delivery program. From
left: Chrystal Bryson, Heather Stretch, Rachel Fisher
and her son Elias, and Ilya Amrhein.

Vancouver Island farmers’ economic challenges

A study by the Nanaimo-based Vancouver Island Economic Alliance identified further challenges facing Vancouver Island farmers. Their farms average 19 hectares, compared to a provincial average of 143 hectares, making it difficult to achieve the efficiencies and economies of scale that could turn a hobby farm into a full-time going concern. With ferry travel factored into the equation, transportation costs are higher than those faced by mainland farmers. Furthermore, Island farmers – more of whom are older than 55 than under 25 – are getting long in the tooth, representing a looming problem with farm succession. In simple terms, there aren’t enough young people who can afford to buy the land and take up the plough. ?

When Jordan Marr, a 2006 graduate of UBC’s faculty of land and food systems, decided he wanted to farm on Vancouver Island, he was in for a sober reality check. In 2008 Marr put his experiences down on paper, winning an award from the Certified Organic Associations of B.C.’s Fresh Voices contest. In his essay he argued, “Any society concerned with the sustainability of its agricultural production must look to its young people and ask them, ‘Are you going to farm?'” If the answer is no, he wrote, society must find a way to remedy the problem. ?

“I was much more naive then about agriculture than I am now,” says Marr, 30, who, after a few years apprenticing on farms in Nova Scotia and Vancouver Island, landed in Peachland in the Okanagan Valley. There, he found a landlord willing to hire him and his girlfriend to work on the farm and lease them a third-of-an-acre market garden plot, from which they hope to generate $15,000 this year. ?

Marr may have been a greenhorn when he wrote his essay, but the question he raised about getting young people to farm is no less relevant. Even wannabe farmers with 30-plus years of savings to draw from struggle with the economics of agriculture.?

Marla Limousin and George Ehrler sank their roots deep into the Comox Valley’s fertile soil when they bought the six-acre Natures Way Farm, an organic blueberry and greens operation a few minutes’ drive from downtown Courtenay, in 2004. At the outset they were just as earnest and naive as Marr, but with one difference: they had resources to match their ambition. As successful early-50s professionals – Limousin is a landscape architect and Ehrler is an engineer – they fit neatly within that hobby-farmer demographic described by van Kooten. However, what they got into with Natures Way was much more than a hobby.?

“At the time I was looking into a condo at Mt. Washington and then we heard about this farm,” says Ehrler from his second-floor office, which he shares with Limousin, overlooking rows of blueberry plants blossoming with white flowers. “I’m an engineer. I build things; I don’t grow things.”?

Limousin’s experience amounted to some gardening on Saltspring Island and determinedly cultivating vegetables in a cold frame while living and working in the Arctic. She wanted to farm; Ehrler wanted to make fruit wine. So, while juggling their professional careers, they dove into the blueberry and vegetable business, managing five seasonal full-time employees and as many as 20 berry pickers during harvest season. But they also dove in with a firm belief that farms can be much more than what is grown. ?

To this end, they have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into upgrading irrigation and fencing, as well as building up their Blue Moon Estate Winery and Tria Culinary Studios, a kitchen and dining room for hosting special events and wine tastings. It’s year four for the winery, and the first that Ehrler expects to see positive cash flow. As for the farm in general, he says they had “a 10-year plan to be profitable but it’s now more like an 11-year plan.” And, as it turns out, they continue to juggle careers.?

“We still need another income. We have two young boys who are involved in lots of things,” Ehrler says.?

There’s no doubt Ehrler and Limousin are excited about farming. However, even they blanch at the cost of farmland. As the couple considered expanding Natures Way, they eyed an adjacent seven-acre parcel. But at an asking price of around $400,000, when they factored in the cost of clearing trees, fencing and bringing the land into production, the investment proved too rich for their blood. ?

That’s why Michael Ableman, a farmer, author, and speaker with agricultural experience on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, supports farmers rethinking the concept of land ownership and tenure. ?

“We need to get beyond that ownership idea, that notion that you have to hold title. I’m talking about leases that are not five years but more like 25 years. Real estate is expensive so that’s where we need to put our energy,” Ableman says, over the phone from Saltspring Island.?

Ableman worked for 25 years at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California, as farm manager and executive director of the farm’s Center For Urban Agriculture, founded to fight off encroaching development. Ten years ago he moved with his family to Saltspring, where he bought 120-acre Foxglove Farm with the financial backing of another family. ?

The challenge of farming successfully

Foxglove proves that there’s money in a well-managed farm with some extras, such as three guest rental cabins and a meeting space. A workforce of eight tends 50 acres, which include 10 acres of grains and legumes and 30 acres of hay and pasture, as well as orchards of peach, plum, quince, fig, chestnut and other fruits, and a market garden of blueberries, raspberries, asparagus and a wide variety of other produce. From the intensive market-garden side of the farm, Ableman says he extracts between $30,000 and $50,000 in revenue per acre each year, which nets out to a profit of roughly half that amount per acre.?

According to Ableman, farming successfully on these popular islands requires smart thinking, efficiency and nimbleness. Compared to the sprawling industrial agri-corporations of California’s Central Valley that export organic produce throughout North America, southwestern B.C.’s farms are small, making it impossible to match the economies of scale achieved by their southern competitors. Input costs are also higher. For example, Ableman says he can buy a roll of irrigation drip tape (perforated plastic hose used in efficient drip irrigation systems) in the U.S. for exactly half the price he pays here. But beyond the cold hard economics of it, Ableman says, there’s a lack of maturity and sophistication in Island agriculture that holds some farmers back. ?

“I think a lot of people in B.C. are still operating at a garden level, so we have a long way to go,” Ableman says. “The parcels here are smaller, but I don’t think it’s a matter of scale. It’s more the skill level and seriousness with which we approach farming. There is still this illusion that you have to starve your family to feed your community.”?

As far as he’s concerned, in B.C. it’s not a question of there being enough farmland. Rather, it’s about getting more farmers on the land – be it leased land, as with Jordan Marr and Robin Tunnicliffe, or something like Alderlea Farm in the Cowichan Valley, where members of the public pay an upfront fee for a share in the harvest, providing farmers some much-needed early-season cash flow and consumers with fresh produce and the satisfaction of buying locally. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the landowner is an affluent gentleman farmer who prefers golfing over gardening, as long as real farmers – people who are growing produce or raising livestock – have an opportunity to work their land. ?

Back on the Saanich Peninsula, the delivery truck has been loaded. Now Robin Tunnicliffe has time to pause with a cup of coffee, her hands lined with the fine earth of southern Vancouver Island. Saanich Organics has found a way to make it work in the world of small-scale agriculture, turning its three market gardens into a thriving marketing cooperative. In 2002 the co-op had zero restaurant clients and a box-delivery program that served just 20 to 30 families a week; today it has anywhere from 60 to 100 families paying roughly $30 a week for a box of produce. The co-op now also makes weekly deliveries to Victoria-area restaurants such as the Canoe Brewpub, Camille’s, Spinnaker’s Gastro Brewpub and other members of the Island Chef’s Collaborative, whose stated goal is to “promote a sustainable local food system.” Together the box delivery and restaurant sales generate $200,000 in revenue each year, and that doesn’t include what the women sell individually at the Moss Street and James Bay farmers’ markets. ?

It may be that B.C. lags behind California in farming sophistication, as Michael Ableman suggests, but Tunnicliffe says she has no desire to use the Golden State, with its industrial farms and faceless army of illegal, marginalized workers, as a benchmark. Still, she thinks more could be done to harness B.C.’s growing potential. Echoing van Kooten, Tunnicliffe argues that current property assessment rules discourage the kind of intensive farming that would make the most out of the province’s arable land. ?

“Landlords should be required to sign long-term, multi-year leases with farmers before getting their BC Assessment tax breaks,” says Tunnicliffe, who’s currently pursuing a UVic master’s thesis on small-farm viability. She’s also hoping, on the political level, for a moratorium on ALR deletions, and for government support to help farmers invest in the kind of infrastructure – farm machinery, irrigation, fencing – that would enable them to become more viable.?

On the whole, though, farmers are a fairly independent lot, preferring a government that stays out of the way. Two recent irritants include B.C.’s 2007 Meat Inspection Regulation, which requires meat to be slaughtered and processed at provincially or federally licensed abattoirs, effectively shutting down farm-gate meat sales and adding prohibitive expenses for animal farmers, and a 2007 California law mandating new farm practices for leafy greens, aimed at preventing catastrophic e-coli outbreaks. Both measures make small-scale farmers like Tunnicliffe, Stretch and Fisher nervous. Though human health concerns ostensibly underpin the policies, Stretch says they are being driven by an agri-business industry that’s more than happy to put the squeeze on small operators.?

Still, for all those challenges, Stretch says that sometimes she feels her farm and farm practices are over-studied and over-scrutinized by academics and bureaucrats alike.?

“I shouldn’t say this, but I’ve joked with a friend about printing up some t-shirts that say, “Shut Up And Farm,” she says with a laugh, kicking the soil at her feet before opening the greenhouse door and heading back to work.