What's happening to Vancouver Island's local food supply?
Rising land prices are keeping young people out of farming. Local groups, farmers and entrepreneurs are trying to change that
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Rising land prices are keeping young people out of farming. Local groups, farmers and entrepreneurs are trying to change that
There’s a deal underway in the parking lot at the Root Cellar grocery store on McKenzie Avenue. Daisy Orser, who co-founded the independent food retailer with husband Adam in 2008, strolls out with cash in hand to pay Amarjit for a single box of figs. So casual is this relationship between retailer and backyard fig farmer that Orser doesn’t even remember Amarjit’s last name, which is both key to the charm of this neighbourhood grocery and also a testament to the dedication it takes to nurture a local supply chain—one that throughout the year includes nearly 200 farmers and food processors from across the Capital Regional District and as far away as Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni, where the hot sunny summers are ideal for ripening long English cucumbers.
During peak harvest season in August, 65% of the 150 different items on display in the Root Cellar’s produce aisles are Island grown.
“It would be so much easier to sit at my computer and put in an order in with Sysco,” Orser says candidly over the phone from her home office, the family dog barking in the background.
But making massive monthly orders with a national food wholesaler is not why the Orsers got into the notoriously low-margin grocery biz. If so, there would be little to distinguish the Root Cellar from any other grocer. But the Orsers wanted to support local farmers, while balancing the Canadian food consumer’s expectation to be able “to buy everything all the time,” Orser says.
Though food is their product, Orser says they’re equally in the business of relationship building, which gets as granular as buying a box of figs in the parking lot, and as ambitious as crop planning with dozens of small local farmers to ensure the market isn’t swamped with microgreens in the early summer. Add up the hours and on paper, Orser admits it would hardly look like a good business model.
“It’s a labour of love,” she says.
Call it food sustainability, Root Cellar style. Last March, when things went dark with the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers got panicky about food security and excited about backyard gardening.
For the first time in generations, average Canadians got a taste of scarcity, and it wasn’t just toilet paper that was disappearing from the shelves. Flour vanished as home bakers obsessed over sourdough starter, and grocery store aisles appeared lean in ways that were disconcerting to consumers accustomed to abundance 365 days per year. It was short-lived; the hoarding subsided and food supply chains turned out to be more resilient to the pandemic disruption than they first appeared. However, the experience got more people talking about food security and sustainability beyond the Saturday morning chats between farmers’ market vendors, and idle green thumbs suddenly got busy. In April 2020, the Root Cellar experienced a 75% jump in sales of seeds, starters, and bulbs.
Seeds became, to gardeners, what toilet paper was to COVID-nervous homemakers.
“We couldn’t keep up. We kept running out of inventory,” Orser says.
Aaron Saks, president of Delta-based West Coast Seeds, says sales, including e-commerce and wholesale, are three times what they were pre-pandemic.
While COVID caused more people to start cultivating their backyards and hustling down to the local farmers market with their wicker baskets, the numbers still paint a contrasting picture: Vancouver Island has drifted far from food sustainability and security. Not long ago, the Island was surprisingly food self-sufficient—by some estimates, as recently as the 1950s, Island farmers supplied 85% of our food needs, though that percentage has been disputed. What’s not in dispute is that nowadays, more than 90% of our food comes from somewhere else. In 2006, Vancouver Islanders ate their way through nearly $5.4 billion worth of groceries and yet the Island’s gross farm receipts barely topped $160 million—just 3% of food expenditures.
The Island’s productive farmlands are not growing food for the Island; increasingly, they’re meeting a growing need for land. A report prepared for the CRD in 2019 suggested that half the productive farmland in the region is feeding a boom in land speculation, with prices shooting up faster than a corn crop in springtime: 25% over just two years, and that’s before the COVID-induced boom. With an aging farming community, interested young farmers are locked out of that prime land, and there’s a blooming realization that something needs to be done now to avoid ending up with a fertile Island going fallow or worse—gone forever, covered in condos.
On a blustery late March morning Edgar Smith and his two brothers, Phillip and Doug, are mending fences and wrenching machinery in preparation for opening the barn door and putting 300 cattle out to pasture at Beaver Meadows Farm on the Comox Peninsula. Nearby, Coho fry flash in the clear waters of a stream that meanders through the farm toward its confluence with Little River.
Beaver Meadows is one of 2,800 farms on Vancouver Island. Not unlike other jurisdictions, the traditional Island farmer is aging out and nearing retirement, like the Smith brothers who are the third generation of their family to farm Beaver Meadows. In 2016, the average Canadian farmer was 55 years old, and only 9% were under 35. Furthermore, one in two farmers report that off-farm employment is their main source of income. In 1931, one in three Canadians lived on a farm; today it’s less than 2%. Recruiting young people to pick up the hoe and start tilling the ground is made even more difficult by the price of farmland, which has soared in Canada by 132% since 2007. In 2019 alone, Vancouver Island agricultural land prices jumped 13%, the highest year-over-year per-acre price increase in BC. It takes creativity and tenacity to farm anywhere, let alone on Vancouver Island.
The Smith brothers learned this lesson decades ago. They grew up on the 600-acre cattle farm that their grandparents started working in the 1930s between the two World Wars. For the first half-century of its existence, Beaver Meadows was a conventional farm, a product of the so-called “green revolution” that in the 1950s and 1960s introduced a chemical pesticide, hormone, and machinery-intensive approach to agriculture that promised to boost farm yields and profits. But it came at a considerable economic and human cost. The family farm became tethered to agri-business suppliers and costs beyond their control, and the health impacts of handling chemicals without protective equipment was slowly coming to light. Still, life was good at Beaver Meadows until the 1980s when their father passed away from pancreatic cancer linked to prolonged exposure to pesticides. That personal loss, coupled with the collapse of important federal and provincial farm supports following the signing of NAFTA, prompted a paradigm shift at Beaver Meadows.
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“We suddenly found ourselves farming in one of the most expensive places to farm in Canada. We had to find a more efficient way,” Smith says about a journey he and his brothers embarked on to reimagine their cattle farm in a way that would be better for human and planetary health.
It led the Smiths down a path toward a system of farming that eschews pesticides and capital-intensive monoculture farming in favour of putting biodiversity, soil health, water cycle enhancement, and climate change resilience at the core of crop and animal planning. In today’s terms it’s called “regenerative agriculture,” and in many ways the hard lessons learned by the Smith family define the approach of a new breed of young entrepreneur getting back to the land, idealists driven by a desire to not only pay the bills but also enhance local food security and sustainability, and help address the negative social and environmental aspects of the industrial food systems. Chris Hildreth, founder of the urban farm TOPSOIL, is out to prove that good, socially conscious farmers don’t necessarily make bad businesspeople. For Hildreth, the silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is a sharpened public focus on food, where it comes from, and how it’s grown.
As a UVic student who was double majoring in environmental studies, Hildreth says debates with fellow students over beers about climate change and greenhouse gases often arrived at a common denominator.
“One thing that always came up was food production,” Hildreth says.
Food production—including livestock and fish farms, supply chains, crop production, and land use—accounts for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“I got tired of talking, so I decided to do something about it.”
In 2015, he started in a small but audacious way, launching TOPSOIL as a sort of urban guerilla farming experiment on 400 square feet of a Victoria commercial property owners’ rooftop. Everything was grown in pots, negating the need for fertile land. His mission was to prove that it’s possible to viably farm on underutilized urban space, deliver fresh produce to local restaurants and retailers, and take a tiny bite out of pesticide-intensive agri-business that ships food around the world at great environmental and human cost.
When Hildreth harvested his first rooftop crop, there was no line item in the City of Victoria’s Official Community Plan that permitted commercial urban farming. The following year he made the leap to a 10,000-square-foot chunk of unused Dockside Green property. TOPSOIL has since grown to a 20,000-square-foot urban farm next to the Galloping Goose Trail. Between April and November, TOPSOIL delivers radishes, kale, lettuce, chard, and other produce by electric car and e-bike to local restaurants like the Fernwood Inn and Caffe Fantastico, and occasionally retailers like the Root Cellar. TOPSOIL also sells directly to consumers from its farmgate market at the Dockside farm, which Hildreth launched in 2020 as another sales outlet for both his produce and that of other small-scale farmers whose markets were impacted by COVID-19.
“It took us three years to become profitable and I bootstrapped the whole thing,” Hildreth told Capital Daily as he was preparing the farm for an early April opening.
Now that he has “proof of concept,” Hildreth is aiming to scale TOPSOIL with what he’s calling Farm-in-a-Box: everything that a prospective urban farmer needs to replicate TOPSOIL’s model in their own community, contained within a 20-foot shipping container.
“We’re going to be looking for outside investment to help us scale,” Hildreth says. The pandemic and its supply-chain disruptions has seen a lot of people turning to local sources of food and goods. “COVID has given us a huge boost, but we could feel even before that local food was gaining traction.”
He admits that his real strengths are marketing, planning, and tweaking systems for efficiencies. Indeed, like many modern farmers, Hildreth sounds more whip-smart MBA than green thumb farmer in overalls.
But his model is dependent on having free—or nearly free—access to prohibitively expensive urban real estate. TOPSOIL’s sustainable urban agriculture dovetails perfectly with Dockside Green’s mission. For the LEED Platinum-certified development, having a market full of fresh produce from April to November a short stroll away from their condos is an attractive selling feature.
Root Cellar owner Daisy Orser refers to Hildreth as one of “the new school of farmers,” millennials motivated by idealism and a sense of purpose beyond simply the bottom line. Boutique businesses like the Root Cellar aren’t the only grocers that are cultivating relationships with farmers like Hildreth and feeling the consumer push. Thrifty Foods, part of the Sobey’s Inc. empire which does $25 billion a year in sales, has a buy local first policy, says Ralf Mundel, Thrifty’s VP of Operations. He describes their sourcing strategy as a series of concentric circles, starting at hyper local and moving out geographically from there. The company has a dedicated local developer whose job it is to source local and help farmers meet Thrifty’s standards.
“Small producers are often overworked and don’t have extra time. One of the biggest challenges they face is often on the food safety requirements side of things,” Mundel told Capital Daily about the company’s efforts to work with growers similar in scale to TOPSOIL.
Access to more traditional farmland, meanwhile, is a key focus for Young Agrarians, a non-profit dedicated to stemming the tide of greying farmers and getting more young blood onto the farm.
Warm spring days have arrived at Cobble Hill, a sunny fertile slice of southern Vancouver Island that falls within one of Thrifty’s concentric sourcing circles. Azja Jones Martin is busy turning soil in her backyard and watering seedlings in the greenhouse. These days she’s mostly a hobby farmer. In 2014, Jones Martin founded Little Mountain Farm on a one-acre Cordova Bay Road property at the foot of Mount Douglas.
Four years later, while still running the vegetable farm, she joined the non-profit Young Agrarians to head up the BC Land Matching Program for Vancouver Island. The initiative matches philanthropic landowners looking for ways to support local agriculture with young farmers lacking the resource to buy fertile real estate. It’s not about the money; lease terms are nominal at best, ranging between $200 and $1,000 per year per acre. However, landowners can qualify for farm status property tax breaks and have the “feel good factor of being part of supporting local agriculture,” Jones Martin says. Since joining Young Agrarians, she has seeded more than 35 landowner-farmer matchups.
Not unlike TOPSOIL’s Chris Hildreth, Jones Martin was a city kid with no connection to farming, but as a university student in Vancouver she took an academic interest in the global food system. Post university, she decided to get her fingers dirty, labouring as a paid farmhand and WOOFing (Working On Organic Farms.) She then channelled these experiences into Little Mountain Farm.
“There’s this image of the farmer as hardworking and dirt poor that I think is unfair. I made a good living and I was able to take winters off and fly somewhere warm,” Jones Martin says, recalling her time at the helm of Little Mountain Farm.
It sounds idyllic, but Jones Martin admits she “burned out on farming” while juggling her duties at Young Agrarians, which she says became her focus; helping young farmers find land and get their shovels in the dirt. In 2018, Montrealer Christine Sayegh, who was then working for a farming non-profit on Vancouver’s North Shore, took over this prime piece of Cordova Bay urban farmland and, a year later, rebranded as Belle-Isle Farm.
“I wanted to farm in Victoria and also grow a supportive network of fellow queer farmers,” Sayegh told Capital Daily on a break from transplanting seedlings.
Last growing season, Sayegh delivered weekly boxes of produce to 65 members of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture is a program that allows consumers to support farmers by paying up front for veggies). She hopes to grow to 85 CSA customers this year, which will add to her other primary source of farm income, a stand at the weekly Esquimalt Farmers Market. Like TOPSPOIL’s Chris Hildreth, if she had to pay market rates for South Island agricultural land the farming dream would likely remain just that—a dream.
“I’d love to be able to own land but the reality is this farm wouldn’t be feasible without this agreement,” Sayegh says, about the favourable lease terms she has with her landlord. “Right now, I’m just focused on making this farm work.”
Making farms work—and making farming accessible to people like Sayegh—has been given high priority by political leaders on the South Island. The Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiative Roundtable (CRFAIR) is spearheading the creation of a trust that proposes using public funds to acquire and set aside agricultural land in the Capital Region District and support farmer education. Ultimately, it’s trying to help remedy the fact that more than half of the roughly 700 farms in the CRD are currently out of production.
Linda Geggie, executive director of CRFAIR, says the trust concept builds on the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), a provincial government land designation that emerged in 1973 in response to growing alarm over the loss of prime farmland to urbanization and other uses.
“The ALR is good for protecting land for food production, but it doesn’t do much to promote growing and cultivation, besides small tax incentives,” says Geggie, who has been working on food security since the early 1990s.
The trust, on the other hand, would function as an incubator and accelerator for farmers that provides opportunities for affordable and secure access to farmland.
These are early days for the trust concept, Geggie says, and its shape will ultimately be determined by the participating municipalities. But the District of North Saanich has already forged ahead with its vision for food sustainability after acquiring 83 hectares of ALR land on Glamorgan Road.
For 50 years this property thundered with galloping horses at the Sandown Racetrack, a horse racing venue that closed for good in the early 2000s. These days, the putter of a small tractor, the chatter of farmworkers, the clink of spades sinking into the soil, and the song of birds fills the air. Last fall, North Saanich inked a 10-year deal with not-for-profit The Circular Farm and Food Society to operate the farm and manage programming. The district is kicking in three years of funding, starting with $135,000 in 2020, followed by $125,000 each for 2021 and 2022. This spring, the fertile property was rebranded and launched as the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture and was busy sifting through applicants for its first intake of Farmpreneurs. The selected cohort will get south-facing half-acre to 2-acre plots; shared tools, storage, and other amenities; support from experienced farm mentors; and marketing support.
There were no such things as farm incubators and mentorship programs when the Smith brothers lost their dad to cancer four decades ago. It caused them to put Beaver Meadows Farm under the microscope. Having played as kids in the forest and fields of the property since long before most Canadians had considered food security, they had the benefit of intimate knowledge of place when they transitioned to what Edgar Smith called the “natural systems-based” farming, the holistic approach to raising livestock or growing plants known as regenerative agriculture. Smith says it took three years to free the farm from the soaring expense of imported grain, pesticides and other farm inputs, over which time the farm’s costs dropped 35%. In the ensuing years, the farm on which he lived and learned for many years attained official Heritage Dairy Farm status, as well as Salmon Safe, SPCA, and Canada Organic certification. Smith, who has a poetic sensibility, calls it an “easier way” to farm.
“The hard part is shifting your thinking and approach to farming,” Smith says.
And to consuming, says Daisy Orser at the Root Cellar. Order by order, customer by customer, and farmer by farmer, there’s a growing movement to shift the needle back toward a more secure Vancouver Island farm and food system. Even if it means occasionally strolling out to the parking lot with cash in hand to score a box of figs from a backyard gardener.
Correction made April 19 at 11:45 am: Linda Geggie’s surname was misspelled.