British Columbia

Young B.C. farmers face uncertain future in keeping food local

A new generation of B.C. farmers is passionate about sustainable food. But sky-high land prices mean their dream of feeding their communities with food grown locally is up in the air.

Soaring land prices are pushing farmers out and forcing a new generation to think outside the box

Gemma McNeill, a farmer and co-owner of Zaklan Heritage Farm, says B.C. land needs to be seen as a place to grow, not just build.  (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Picked ripe from the vine, a juicy yellow sungold tomato is almost as sweet as candy.

At Zaklan Heritage Farm in Surrey, these and dozens of other types of veggies grow in a small oasis — just over half a hectare — directly across the street from the suburbs.

Farmers Doug Zaklan and Gemma McNeill are living their dream: every harvest on the land that has belonged to Zaklan's family since 1924 feeds their community and reminds them of how tasty veggies can be. 

But they're facing an uncertain future. 

Soaring land prices in B.C. have pushed small-scale farmers out and development has eaten up valuable farmland. 

"There's always a real estate agent knocking at the door and there's always a question of taxes and all sorts of issues," Zaklan said.

"It's really hard to farm here because you never know how long it will be able to be here. Every year, I think it's the last year."

Zaklan's farm is featured in a new documentary, Tomorrow's Harvest. It tells the story of six young B.C. farmers who are passionate about sustainable agriculture but worry whether making a living farming in the long term is realistic.

Doug Zaklan says land insecurity means he worries each harvest will be his last. His farm in Surrey, just over half a hectare, is surrounded by suburbs. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Soaring land prices

Until the 1930s, a third of Canadians were farming. According to Statistics Canada, the number of farms is decreasing and the size of the remaining farms is increasing.

Most farmers in B.C. are 55 or older and in the last two decades, there's been a 70 per cent decline in farmers under 35 entering the industry.

Land access is the biggest challenge, according to Young Agrarians, a grassroots organizations for new and young farmers.

Tomatoes grow in a greenhouse at Zaklan Heritage Farm in Surrey, B.C. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In southern B.C., the cost of land can exceed what one would make farming that land. If the land costs more than $80,000 an acre, it's not possible to pay it off through farming, according to Sara Dent, co-founder and director of Young Agrarians.

In the Metro Vancouver area, an acre of land can cost a millions dollars, she added. 

This has forced some young farmers to get creative.

Watch the documentary

Dan Edmond and Piotr Majkowski started Fractal Farm in Richmond with the help of Kwantlen Polytechnic University's farm incubator program, which gave them access to land and equipment at a relatively low cost.

The couple sells veggies at markets and through a community-supported agriculture distribution program in Vancouver. 

The hardest part is the difficulty securing affordable land for the long term, they say. For now, they're pursuing long-term land leasing opportunities.

"We might need to get together with some other farmers. We might need to look at building a community or a co-op or something," Majkowski said. 

Dan Edmond, centre, and two of his colleagues at Fractal Farm in Richmond, B.C. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The farmers say if British Columbians want to know where their food comes from and continue to have access to locally-grown produce, they need to make it clear.

This means supporting local farmers and farmers markets, Majkowski said, and protecting existing farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve. 

For McNeill, it means seeing land as a place to grow, not just build. 

If people can't afford to farm, communities will have to rely on food brought in from places where labour, quality and environmental factors are not within our control, she said, making locally-sourced produce a thing of the past.

"We live on some of the most beautiful and productive agricultural lands in the world and we are at a kind of turning point where we could make some really important policy decisions that would make it viable for future generations to farm," she said.

"That's pretty crucial for us as a society as a whole to have a more sustainable and enjoyable lifestyle. And I think those decisions are within reach."

Tomorrow's Harvest, a new CBC documentary, is available online on GEM and premiers on CBC TV on Saturday at 9 p.m. PT.

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