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.”

4 comments:

  1. Right on, Arzeena! Great article.

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  2. I REALLY like the Agricultural Land Commission idea mentioned by Harold Steves! What's the history on that? Was that a provincial thing or a metro thing?

    Small acreage, bio-intensive, farming is "human appropriate" in scale. With a handful of human powered tools, some experience, and marketing skills, one person or a small team of people should be able to make a reasonably comfortable living (and not spend hours and hours fixing tractor$, hauling in fuel$ and replacement part$). Also, what is nice about human scale "next-door" farming is the food is fresher, has travelled less miles, and if the food can be grown in a way that reveres all of God's creatures in the soil, on the land, in the water and the air, it glorifies God.

    Looking at the financial picture a little more closely, Assuming I had inexpensive access to farmland, the main issue would probably be housing. Unless I can increase my profit by an order of magnitude, I would be a homeless farmer. Thankfully, my wife who is, by the grace of God, still employed and making decent money, has made it possible for me to spend a complete growing season working on a farm.

    I also think there is an element of timing involved in being a more profitable urban farmer. Despite how many people feel about it, oil and gas is still pretty darn cheap. And when you can devise a food production system fully exploits this fact, you get cheap food (and REALLY BIG farms). Throw in herbicides, pesticides, GMOs and some cheap migrant labor, and you get really cheap food (migrant laborers have some shocking stories to tell, btw).

    Until oil production reaches it global peak and fuel prices climb significantly, food prices will continue to be artificially low. But this is a good challenge for incoming farmers. I think the most sensible way to increase the farm income (in this kind of business climate) is to "add-value" to what the farm produces. Instead of selling pumpkins, sell pumpkin pie. One could also create and sell cookbooks with recipes optimized for what the Fraser valley produces.

    As if growing food, without going insane fighting weeds and pests isn't already complex enough, adding another level of complexity with food processing will require partnership with people who are skilled in that area. Now is the time to make those connections.

    As diesel and gasoline prices inevitably rise and there's still no major breakthrough in fusion or other alternative energy sources, grocery store shelves will empty and whatever they do have to sell will be too expensive for most consumers. This is where the local, sustainable farmers really start to shine! Seasonal, Organic and Local food (SOL food) will suddenly be sexy and inexpensive and appreciative customers will flock to you! I just pray that this transition is slow and orderly and there won't be panic stricken people mobbing the fields for food like some post apocalyptic movie or something! ;-)

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  3. Hi Devon, thank you for stopping by at my blog and for saying hi.
    Definitely, I'm not familiar with farming myself but it's true that farmers make so little profit - it's really just the middle man (grocery stores mostly) that makes the most. And farming is a difficult life especially if the weather is not cooperating. I wish there was a farmer's market right downtown Toronto so I could support local farmers directly.

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