Young farmers, often with university degrees, find alternative models to gain access to land
Young British Columbia farmers who don’t own land and don’t have enough money to buy a farm are finding creative ways to get their hands on the acreage they need.
That’s the most recent finding of a new report by Hannah Wittman, a professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia and Jessica Dennis, a LFS master’s student.
Their report examines community farms and agricultural land trusts in the province, as well as identifies the needs and challenges for new farmers.
“If you don’t come from a traditional farming background or inherit land, the barriers you face to farm can be quite significant,” says Wittman.
It should be no surprise the biggest need – and challenge – for beginning farmers, many of whom are cash-strapped university graduates, is money. A quick online search for farmland in B.C., for example, lists 27.6 acres for $1.52 million in Langley.
So what do you do if you have a green thumb, but no deep pockets? Enter “alternative models of land access,” a farming formula gaining ground in the province.
“Through documenting and characterizing these alternative access models, we’ve found that there are actually quite a few options out there,” says Wittman. “We have a growing inventory of examples that new or prospective farmers can use to build their own strategy to access land.”
Some of the options documented by the researchers are:
A municipality or organization grants new farmers the option to use their land for a set number of years, up to seven in total. “The structured lease allows you to grow into your farming practice with a buffer of having an organization around you,” explains Wittman. Equipment and growing and marketing knowledge is shared among other new farmers on the land.
As the name suggests, this option links new farmers with retiring landowners. The retiring landowner serves as a mentor as the new farmer learns to manage the land, eventually transferring ownership through an individual or cooperative financing arrangement. “This is beneficial for new farmers who do not come from farming families,” said Dennis.
Several types of co-operative farming exist. In one case, multiple people work as a single co-operative business on the land. In another, several independent businesses co-operatively share an individual farm. One of the farms included in Wittman’s and Dennis’ research hosted an herb business, a bee business, goats and eggs, and fruit and vegetables all operating on one piece of land.
Farmland trusts hold land that is taken out of the market permanently. Land is donated or purchased through community-based fundraising and held in trust, usually by a non-profit organization or a municipality. This protects the land from real estate speculation. Farmers are able to access the land through a long-term affordable lease for food production.
But farmland trusts are easier said than done, and are still rare in the agricultural sector. Groups still need to finance the acquisition of the land through investors and community fundraising. In addition, they need the support of a non-governmental organization or city that wants to preserve the land they buy for farming. Dennis says the feasibility of farmland trusts “depends on political will and community support.”
Stormy weather ahead for farmers?
Wittman and Dennis’ report is part of a larger community-based research project they coordinate with the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm and FarmFolk/CityFolk, a local NGO that supports local growers and producers. The project, a public sector finalist in the 2014 Real Estate Foundation of BC Land Awards, has documented some 60 farms across B.C. that rely on some alternative land access model.
Farmland access is becoming more of an issue due to recent changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve, a zoning designation that is applied to 4.7 million hectares of public and private land in the province. The changes have raised concerns about the future of the B.C. farming industry. Unlike farmland trusts, land in the ALR can still be sold and used for residential purposes.
The changes have also opened up farm and ranch land, as well as traditional hunting and gathering lands used by Indigenous communities in Northern B.C., for commercial development, including liquid and natural gas exploitation.
According to Wittman and Dennis, the competing pressures for land use threatens food security.
“If we don’t preserve our foodlands, we have no food,” says Wittman. “Regional food security is a growing concern in the face of climate change and in the face of increasing problems with food production in the United States.”
Helping new or prospective farmers is vital to maintain and improve B.C.’s local food system, the researchers say. Otherwise, the food we eat will have to come from somewhere else.