Farmers under siege by developers

Growing south Island population puts pressure on farmland

Farmers Michael Nyberg

Farmers and potential farmers face plenty of barriers to running a food production operation — not the least of which is inflated land prices they say is caused by real estate speculation.

A presentation on farm succession planning during the March 7 Farmer2Farmer conference at the Saanich Fairground, turned into a lively debate on the challenges facing anyone who wants to work the land.

Led by Bob Mitchell of Sea Bluff Farm in Metchosin and Rhona McAdam and Michael Nyberg of Haliburton Farm in Cordova Bay, the session began with a discussion on how farms can be passed on to family members or to newcomers who want to be farmers. The talk, however, quickly turned into a debate over what the barriers are to that and the pressures facing farmers on southern Vancouver Island.

Mitchell said his answer to keeping his land a farm, was to form a corporation — with a board of directors and the basic principle on how the farm is run.

“Corporations don’t die,” he said. “People tend to die and corporations tend to go on forever.”

Even so, some younger farmers say they have experienced many barriers to getting into the field, not the least of which is high leases for land. Nyberg, who has been farming for only two years, said if he didn’t have the opportunity to have land at the publicly-run Haliburton Farm, he might not have found the land he needed.

“The land in this area is worth too much to farm on,” quipped Mitchell, noting there’s a lot of competition for the land from the real estate market.

An audience member said farmers sometimes carry large mortgages as a result of initial high land prices — meaning if they lease out portions of their land to other farmers, they expect a return.

“We cannot afford to pay existing land owners the real estate value of the land that we would like to farm on,” said a young farmer in the audience. “This is a major barrier. We need a better valuation of land with an eye to valuing what the farmers produce.”

“Nobody can afford to buy farmland here, period,” added Mitchell.

Costs, noted the panel, are driven higher as developers speculate on the value of farmland. Even when farmers retire, they often hope to see that kind of return if they decide to sell their land. Nyberg said to allow people to be able to afford to farm, there needs to be a shift in people’s values and a turning away from pricing farmland out of reach.

“Young people want the experience, the access to land and can be creative farmers,” he said.

While he noted there are risks to farming — just as in any business — there are other barriers that make it more difficult. In addition to  skewed land prices, infrastructure such as slaughterhouses and test facilities are lacking.

Saanich farmer and food security consultant Carolyn Herriot said this lack of farm infrastructure, coupled with a growing population, means producers of all stripes face a  lot of pressure from developers.

“There is no real plan from any level of government when it comes to food security or even local food production,” she said. “It all seems to be left up to the people.”

She encourages as many people as possible taking to the land for farming, reaping the benefits of local food and even agricultural tourism.

“We can grow our way around the recession,” Herriot said. “But we have little time left to flutter about on this issue.”

She said all levels of government need to plan better to ensure there’s enough food — in an emergency or even on a day-to-day basis. That plan, she continued, also has to be adopted by each community — to value farmers and what they produce and to commit to keeping land as home to agriculture.

One attendee said municipalities often pay to buy parkland — so why not farms. North Saanich Mayor Alice Finall, who was at the session, said she has suggested the Capital Regional District have an agricultural land acquisition division.

“People need to start exerting more pressure for this sort of thing,” Finall said.