By Linda Geggie
For the Saanich News
I recently received a disappointing letter from two aspiring farmers, Ronique and Derek Walsh, that really demonstrates a serious challenge faced here in Saanich. Ronique and Derek are looking for land to farm.
“We have been trying to find land to lease for a market garden somewhere in Saanich for about three years now and have had absolutely no luck at all,” the couple writes. “We live near farmland in the Blenkinsop Valley and have tried just about everything that we can think of to locate some unused land. We have put letters in mailboxes and have knocked on doors asking people if they would be interested in leasing us some land to grow vegetables.”
The couple explains they have even gone to the extent to do title searches to locate owners of vacant property, but not one person has contacted them back. In an effort to convince landowners to allow the couple to lease their land they have tried to explain the benefits.
“We let them know about food security issues, and if there was ever to be a disaster in our area there is only about a three-day supply of food in the stores. We let them know about the huge ecological impact that is caused by transporting food from faraway places and we let them know that growing food in our community helps to support the local economy. But most people just seem to be happy to grow hay for animals or let their fields get overgrown with brambles and scotch broom. It’s so sad to see all that land going to waste.”
The District of Saanich is aware, through work to consult residents in developing community and local area plans, and through the creation of the new Agriculture and Food Security Plan that ensures we have local food, that farming is a high priority for residents. A growing concern is how to ensure farming continues into the future in Saanich.
The new Statistics Canada data released this May shows that between 2011 to 2016, the proportion of farm operators aged 55 years and older in British Columbia rose to 58.5 per cent, with the average age for the farmer sitting at just over 56. As the majority of our farmers will retire in the next decade, we may see the largest shift in farm ownership in recent history.
Ronique and Derek want access to that land to grow food for you, but the price of farmland is out of reach. New farmers are hindered as land prices continue to rise, intensified by development pressure and the increase in non-farm use of agriculture land. Are current landowners not interested in having their land farmed? It would seem so, based on what Derek and Ronique are finding out.
We need to be creative in finding solutions to this challenge. Fortunately our current council is thinking ahead. Just this winter Saanich council endorsed the consideration of developing a farmland trust as an innovative way to provide access to land. A farmland trust could support land that is publicly owned be leased to farmers.
A visit to Haliburton Community Farm will show you what a farm that operates like this looks like in action. It provides ways for farmers to access land, provide mentorship, as well as support co-operative marketing efforts on land owned by the District of Saanich. Unfortunately, there is a long wait list and we need many more sites that could support these types of farms. There is also added community benefit realized at Haliburton with wetland restoration efforts and the community education opportunities that this site provides. My son says that his visits to learn and work at Haliburton are the highlight of his science classes at Claremont secondary school.
Ronique and Derek write, “Perhaps someone that reads your article might have some unused land they would be willing to let us lease for a market garden. I do believe that many people that own land are unaware of the valuable resource that they have which when used to grow food can contribute greatly to the community.”
So I put it out to you, can we get these farmers on the land? Let’s get growing Saanich.
Linda Geggie is the executive director with the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable and can bereached at firstname.lastname@example.org.