Growing New Farmers

Young Agrarians
Young Agrarians

This week’s topic is Growing New Farmers. This coincides with our Kid’s Day at the Market this Sunday. Children will be hosting their own booths and selling items they have made, baked, or grown. This experience may sow the seeds for some of the next generation of farmers and other entrepreneurs. There is a renewed interest in farming as a profession and as a lifestyle with individuals questioning the sustainability of this world of mass consumption and incredible waste.

The pathways for new farmers are many, and opportunities to learn the necessary skills are abundant. There are so many organizations and learning institutions that are involved in agriculture, some will likely be omitted here.

One of the early groups that was intent on passing along important farming skills and building community-minded youth was the 4-H. “Clubs were originally known as Boys and Girls clubs until they were renamed 4-H clubs in 1952 to more clearly represent the four H’s – head, heart, hands and health.”[1] British Columbia 4-H is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2014, and currently has 142 clubs, with 2,240 members, and 638 leaders.

A new group that has emerged is the Young Agrarians. “Young Agrarians are the movers and shakers of a new agrarian movement: young agriculturalists, farmers, urban farmers, market and community gardeners, community groups and academics, organizations and the public who want to ecologically rebuild, promote and inspire the agriculture of our country.”[2] They are at the forefront of moving agriculture into more sustainable practices, and engaging people in the reshaping of our food system.

There are several other organizations that offer courses in urban agriculture, container gardening, and food preservation. These groups are building skills for those that don’t have the time or money to pursue an education in the field. There are several post-secondary institutions that have a variety of sustainable agriculture programs.

UBC Farm offers an eight month Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture. “The UBC Farm Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture curriculum is organized as a part-time, eight-month program balanced through the season with 70% seasonal field production and direct marketing activities and 30% classroom, farm field trips, faculty and guest speakers, student seminars and workshops.”[3] The course is offered at The Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, a 24 hectare research centre at the UBC Farm.

Kwantlen University also offers a sustainable agriculture course at their Richmond Farm School. The farm school offers a ten-month program where students learn about the full spectrum of the local food system. “The purpose of the Farm School is to prepare people from all walks of life to engage in human scale, urban-focused agriculture enterprises including production, processing, adding value, distribution, marketing and sales.”[4]  The exciting part of this program is that it includes an opportunity for graduates to lease city-owned incubator farms in Richmond where shared resources make entry into the profession more affordable.

These are just a few of the many opportunities for people who are thinking of getting into farming. With the prohibitive cost of land, we need to find new ways of putting idle land in our region into production.






Supporting the Family Farm

When you talk to shoppers about the reasons they choose to purchase their food from farmer’s markets the reasons are numerous. There is the freshness of the product, the relationship they have with the vendor, and the trust they have in the quality of the product. There is also the good feeling a person gets when they know are supporting a small business, particularly a family owned and operated business.

Family farming is associated with family values, hard work and a spirit of entrepreneurship. While much of North American farming is associated with big business and large corporations, BC’s farmers are predominately small-scale, family owned businesses. For most farmers it is more than a profession, it is a way of life. And that way of life is under constant threat.Forstbauer Family Natural Food Farm

There is often a gap between the perception of the economics of farming and the reality faced by those families. Nearly half of BC farms rely on off-farm income and the average age of farmers is over 55 years old. Succession planning, how to pass along the family farm when there are several children involved, and how to ensure that new farmers are able to access land are a few of the challenges that we are now facing.

Public opinion polls by Ipsos Reid have consistently shown a high level of support for farmers in BC. Nearly all British Columbians (96%) say they trust farmers to act in the best interests of consumers.[1] The vast majority of responses also indicate a willingness to pay more for fresh food, more for food that has less chemicals, and more for food that is grown locally. Despite the positive perceptions, the polls also indicate that fewer of 4 of 10 believe that BC farms are getting their fair share of the money, or doing alright financially. Finally, less than 1% of BC residents shop at farmer’s markets.

From a sustainability perspective, it’s important that consumers support those families that take on the risk of planting crops or raising livestock each year. With global climate change and extreme weather events occurring more frequently, we may not be able to rely on outside sources for our food. With changes to the ALR and its governance on the horizon, consumers need to let our politicians know that they value not only the land, but the farmers that work that land.

Wendy Holm is an agrologist and former Vancity board member who has written extensively about BC farming and our ALR. Among other farm-focused publications, Wendy was a regular contributor to Country Life in BC for several years and she continues to write a blog. Her opinion piece in today’s Vancouver Sun, If we want to eat, we need to support our farmers, provides a call to action for the upcoming meeting of BC’s elected municipal officials in Whistler.

If you are reading this you’re probably already doing your part by shopping at a farmer’s market. Spread the word to friends, neighbours and relatives about the benefit of supporting our family farmers. And celebrate Farmers Appreciation Week this coming week and throughout the year.