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.
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 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.
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.
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 email@example.com.