Metchosin farmer Robin Tunnicliffe had been working as a tenant farmer for 15 years in Saanich while she looked for land to buy. But with prices continually climbing, she couldn’t afford to do so.
“I’ve never really thought it was going to be possible for me to put down roots,” she said.
She got lucky. Bob Mitchell, who ran Sea Bluff Farm in Metchosin, was looking to line up a successor. He reached out to Tunnicliffe after he read her book on sustainable farming. She first came on to help Mitchell a decade ago and has since taken over operations.
That’s a rare occurrence.
Tunnicliffe, 48, said most farmers her age can’t afford high land prices and if farmers looking to retire don’t have children who want to take over or some other arrangement, there’s a real risk the land may go unfarmed.
From 2011 to 2016, the total number of B.C. producers fell from approximately 29,000 to 26,000 and the average age of primary operators rose to 56 years, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.
The effects of that trend are already starting to materialize, Tunnicliffe said.
“It’s a huge risk for food security, even worse than climate change. And it’s already starting to happen.”
The upfront cost of securing land and equipment means a lot of young farmers can’t break into the industry, she said.
Mitchell recognized the growing problem and thus created a loan program, where for the past five years, people who trained on Sea Bluff Farm could get a loan of $10,000 interest-free to help with equipment and land purchases.
Katie Underwood had been working as a farmhand on several different farms and was looking to start her own project, without much luck.
“It was really tough mentally for me, because I felt like I’d cultivated a relationship being (on the Island) for 10 years – but then thinking that I can either stay in the community that I love or do the vocation that I love. It seemed like it was really impossible to be doing both of them,” said Underwood, who took advantage of a Mitchell loan and now runs Peas N’ Carrots Farm in Saanich.
That money came around the time when she had been able to find a plot of land to lease through the help of Young Agrarians – a non-profit that helps run a land matching program in the province, connecting people with property to young farmers who could lease the land.
“Even if it’s a small-scale organic farm, it does require a lot of upfront capital costs. A lot of the upfront initial costs for me, you don’t see because they just get sunk into the ground,” Underwood said.
Suddenly with land, a lease and a loan secured, she was able to make her first year of operations a success, because she knew she had the capital to make certain investments, such as installing a proper washing station for her crops. The station was cost-intensive and with a five-year lease on the land, she may have put it off without having the loan available. With it in place, Underwood is hopeful for a successful growing season.
The province has its own matchmaking program, which has helped boost the number of B.C. producers under 35 from 205 to 1,825, according to a Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries spokesperson, who added, “this will help us ensure our farmland is being farmed and secure the industry and land for future generations.”
But while Underwood is well set up now, she’s not guaranteed a chance to renew her lease. She hopes she will be able to stay or failing that, find another plot of land. In the past few years, she’s known five farmers who have lost their leased land and thus, their farm.
“It’s a conflict all the time. I think about in three years time when I’m finished my lease here, ‘What am I going to do and what, what skills do I need to develop outside of farming to allow me to move on if farming just can’t happen for me?’ So it’s really scary.
“All I want to do is grow food.”