LOCAL FLAVOUR: Capital Region councils consider support for Farmlands Trust

Linda Geggie is the executive director with the CR FAIR

LOCAL FLAVOUR: Capital Region councils consider support for Farmlands Trust

Is local food worth it? This will be a topic of debate at local municipal tables this May with a proposal for establishing a local government supported Food and Farmlands Trust on the table. There is strong evidence through the recent consultation on Saanich Agriculture Food Security Plan that residents are concerned and want to take the steps necessary to support a local food system. A 2014 survey by McAllister Opinion Research, found 92 per cent of B.C. residents believe local food production and the reduction of dependency on food imports is very important. The question is: what are we willing to do to ensure we have local food produced in our region into the future?

This month an important request is going to municipal councils from the CRD that will test the level of support for a regionally managed Food and Farmland Trust. The proposal currently under consideration involves identifying appropriate agricultural lands owned by local governments. These lands would be centrally managed with leases offered to farmers (or non-profit agencies supporting farming and food growing activities). This proposal is just one of the strategies being advanced to address a major barrier to food security in our region -the rising cost of farmland- that is now seemingly out of reach for the next generation of farmers.

LOCAL FLAVOUR: Farm Whisperer tackles tough subject of farm succession

A recent report by Farm Credit Canada noted that Vancouver Island’s farmland has had the largest regional average increase in value, 23.6 per cent from 2016 to 2017. Scanning real estate listings this week I found a number of farms for sale on the Peninsula that sat in all different zones. Some are in the Agriculture Land Reserve, some zoned agricultural and others residential. Not one listing (with land and residence) was under $1.7 million. The properties ranged from six to 20 acres and topped out at just under $3 million.

Grappling with the fact that over half of our local farmers will retire in the next decade and a desire to encourage a new crop of farmers, Larry Kimmet of BC Farms and Food presented to the Peninsula and Area Agriculture Commission at their April meeting about the situation facing new farmers. He put forward that there is a real and imminent danger that new farmers will not be able to enter the profession due to the cost of farmland.

Kimmet illustrated the challenge using the example of a current listing for a 17-acre farm on the Peninsula. It has good southern exposure, a large barn, residence and the basic infrastructure that a farm would need to go into production. He determined that a farmer would need a down payment of over $600,000 and need to service a mortgage at over $11,000 a month. Even as we are seeing new, more profitable agriculture models gaining steam in the region, farm businesses can rarely provide adequate short- and medium-term returns to justify this up-front investment.

The Capital Region Food and Agriculture Strategy points to farmland access as one of the key challenges to the viability of our regional food system. The CRD Food and Agriculture Task Force has been busy over the past two years looking at solutions. They recently completed a study with the assistance of Uplands Consulting, the Regional Food Lands Improvement Feasibility Study and Business Case. The study recommends taking forward the Food and Farmland Trust as the most impactful option among land access strategies. It also pointed to other added benefits of the option in terms of protecting green space, stormwater management, climate change mitigation, and promoting community health and wellbeing.

The CRD board approved sending a request for input into the proposal, for establishing a regional Food and Farmland Trust, to all municipalities. The majority of CRD directors are in support of this direction. However, some concerns were raised around the proposal. A few directors pointed to government “staying out of farming and let the market decide” and that providing access to land creates unfair competition to existing local farmers. Suggestions for alternatives included focusing efforts on persuading land leasing from private landowners who currently own or are buying farmland.

At the meeting, CRD Director Lisa Helps, pointed out that the government is not getting into farming, but acting in a land holding capacity, in the same way they have done for housing and parks, when market forces are not in line with community, social and environmental needs and values.

Robin Tunnicliffe of Saanich Organics says that the argument of unfair competition is not coming from the farmers with whom she has spoken. “That’s balderdash” she says, “How can a new farmer starting from scratch on land they don’t own, where they can’t live and that has limited improvements compete with an existing farm? It is going to take years for them to build their farm business, and we are not talking about 100 new farms coming on line all at once, this land will be a training ground to get farmers on the land sharing some of the risks involved in starting out.” Terry Michell of Michell Brothers Farms agreed, saying “I don’t have any concerns about competition.” Both farmers felt that creating land access for the next generation of farmers through strategies like the Food and Farmland Trust is an important priority for the region.

As for the strategy of redirecting farmers to lease private lands, this has shown limited success in the region. Leases that could provide long-term security must be registered on a Land Title. This results in most landowners only willing to lease year to year, putting farmers in a precarious situation and limiting interest in making necessary farm improvements like drainage, fencing or buildings that support profitability. A Landowner Survey conducted by Ipsos Reid in 2013 determined that farmland owners with less than 25 per cent of their property being farmed generally demonstrate little interest in leasing their land to make it more productive because they are enjoying the property for purely residential purposes.

A number of municipalities have already written letters of support to the CRD; including the District of North Saanich, Central Saanich and Saanich. The Food and Farmland Trust would essentially see specific municipal lands designated as part of the trust for a minimum of 10 years. The model proposed would have a not for profit partner centrally manage all of the lands. As such, there would be costs associated with the service to cover a coordinator to develop and manage the leases and agreements and monitor land use. It could also include providing basic infrastructure service (e.g. water, fencing, drainage) up to a certain level of investment as per the CRD and/or municipality’s level of comfort. With the farm leases and other potential revenues to support the program factored in, the net cost of this service is expected to range from $127,500 per year (low) to $143,500 (high). At a funding level of $127,500 per year, a small household levy or free for service could be applied in the range of $0.70 to $1.91 per household, depending on the number of municipalities participating in the trust.

What do you think? Should viable agricultural land currently owned by local governments be made available to support farming and food harvesting in the region? The proposal is currently under the microscope and will require your council’s support to move forward. If these issues are important to you please contact your mayor and council. If you want to learn more about the proposal you can visit the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable website www.crfair.ca/foodandfarmlandtrust.

Linda Geggie is the executive director with the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable and can be reached at lgeggie@crfair.ca.

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