Monday, October 12, 2009

Future of Farmers in Richmond

A great article from the Richmond Review:

Zachrey Helmberger used to live in an earth ship. His New Mexico home was created from natural and recycled materials, its walls made of tires rammed with earth.

He lived in a subdivision of earth ships all off the grid. No gas lines, sewer lines or water lines, but he still needed a car to pick up groceries given the dry climate.

Helmberger wanted to grow his own food.

Nearly two years ago, his wife accepted a job in Richmond, and the couple made their way to Lulu Island. Since then, the 44-year-old has made it his mission to become an urban farmer. He sees it as a calling, a way to help give Richmond food sovereignty, connect with the soil and feed himself at the same time.

“The work is really hard and pay is poor but I feel called to do it. I feel there is a higher power that is compelling me to be a farmer,” he said.

Helmberger is bucking the trend when the number of farmers in Canada has been steadily decreasing while the age of those still in the fields is increasing. Between 2001 and 2006, the Canadian farm population dropped 6.2 per cent to 684,260, and 40 per cent of farmers were aged 55 or older.

Helmberger’s only problem is he has no land to inherit. A partnership or lease arrangement is the only way he’ll be able to start on his dream, he said. There are others like him—a younger generation wanting to head to the fields and get their hands dirty in urban agriculture.

But the question facing them is how to afford it.

Kids find own careers

Helen Jang co-owns Tai On Farm on No. 5 Road. At 60, she admits retirement isn’t a long way off, but no one in the family wants to take over the farm.

“All the young people went on with their own careers,” she said. “They’ve seen how tough it is to make a dollar in farming.”

The two-acre farm and produce stand was bought by her parents in 1970 and later passed on to their kids. Jang said farming is a good life—fresh air, growing food from scratch—but the younger generation, including her three adult children, simply aren’t interested in taking it over.

“For the small farms like us, there’s not really a career in it. You’re not going to get rich on it,” she said. “Ours is very labour intensive.”

If her land sells, she doesn’t believe it will ever be a place for consumers to buy local produce again.

At a regional agriculture forum last year, many others voiced concern that young people don’t see farming as a way to earn a living.

“We have to do something very serious about making farming a profitable activity on the land so that the land will be farmed and farmed for food,” said Johnny Carline, chief administrative officer of Metro Vancouver. “I don’t know what the answer will be. I suspect it will be a lot more complicated than simply providing subsidies for farmers.”

Other speakers said land speculation continues to drive up prices of agricultural land, and new farmers are more likely to go into debt than turn a profit.

Quebec found a small solution by offering young farmers $30,000 to spend on anything a new farmer needs. It doesn’t have to be paid back.

University of B.C. Farm manager Mark Bomford emphasized the importance of focusing on the future of the farmer—rather than just the land.

“Farmers may be at a threat greater than the farms themselves,” said Bomford.

Business is expensive

Farmer Bruce May, whose extended family owns large tracts of farmland in East Richmond, sees things differently.

Several months ago, May brought along a few dozen young farmers to a city council meeting to boost a proposal to build a cranberry processing plant on farmland near Highway 91. May made his point to council: young people are interested in farming, and they want to keep it viable.

May believes those young farmers will all own their own farmland in the future—many will inherit their soil. But for those who don’t, farming is still a viable career, he said.

“The same thing applies if you want to buy a McDonald’s or a Tim Hortons. Whatever you want to do, the entry into business is an expensive thing,” he said. “You don’t start by having a big operation, you go and rent some farmland, and there’s lots of young guys that have managed to do that.”

May insists it’s a career where money can be made, provided farmers have support from local government.

“What they need is a council with foresight to make sure we keep it viable, because agriculture changes on a regular basis, and we’ve got to change with it. There’s lots of people more excited than ever about it.”

A growing vision

A longtime Richmond councillor and agriculture advocate said the debate around the future of farming—and farmers—is growing.

“My e-mail goes constantly on this issue now because there’s a great demand for people to grow their own food in the cities,” he said. “People in the urban area are becoming very aware of the miles their food is hauled and the fact we’re running out of fossil fuels and we should be buying local.”

Despite attempts by the previous city council to remove the Garden City lands from the Agricultural Land Reserve, the city’s Agricultural Viability Strategy of 2003 supports maintaining the “stability and integrity” of the ALR boundary. It also pledges to provide farmers with “the necessary support, services and infrastructure that are required for agricultural viability.”

Steves said the city can help through what he calls municipally supported agriculture: the city owns the land, and leases small acreages to farmers. Through a deal with Kwantlen Polytechnic University, that could happen soon with the city’s 50 acres of land at the south end of Gilbert Road.

“On an acre, with bio-intensive agriculture selling to a farmers market, you can actually make a living at it, or pretty close to it. We’ve found a lot more people interested in that kind of agriculture instead of having big tractors and equipment farming 100 acres,” said Steves.

A return of an Agricultural Land Commission program would also help new farmers, said Steves. He said the commission used to buy land from farmers who didn’t have heirs to pass it on to. It would then sell the land to a new farmer or lease it out, effectively eliminating real estate speculation.

A shift in outlook

It’s possible to make a living growing food, said Arzeena Hamir, co-ordinator of the Richmond Food Security Society. But a society that’s come to expect food to be cheap needs to change.

“We need to be paying more for that food but in turn, expecting more from our farmers. I think we need to expect them to grow food sustainably, in a manner that is environmentally safe and also pay farm workers a fair wage.”

This means less reliance on chemicals and more on well-managed farms and well-paid labour, she said. In turn, food will cost more, but it will be more nutritious and provide a livable income for farmers.

No one said the shift would be easy.

Hamir believes government can play a role, namely to not permit any more land removal from the Agricultural Land Reserve.

“We need every square inch of land to feed our growing population as it is,” she said.

She believes the city can help by providing access to land for young farmers and encouraging unused farmland to be put into production.

Said Hamir: “Perhaps when farmers are making more money growing food, they won’t be so inclined to get their nest egg from selling their land, which seems to be what’s happening now.”