Vancouver Island project aims to train the next generation of farmers
Stephanie Jacobs spends her Saturdays knee-deep in dirt and manure, planting medicinal herbs on a quarter-acre lot that was once a racetrack parking lot. It’s the closest thing she’s come to owning her own farm, something she’s dreamed of since she was a child.
“Farming is my passion in life,” she said. “It connects me to the ecosystem in a larger way.”
After searching for farmland near her home on Vancouver Island for two years, she had given up – land prices were way too high. Also, even if she had been successful in her search, she wasn’t quite sure she would be able to endure the long, physically demanding days for such meager profits.
Then she heard about Sandown.
The Sandown Center for Regenerative Agriculture is an 83-acre farm in North Saanich on Vancouver Island. It is located on a former racetrack, nestled in the shadow of Victoria Airport and downhill from an Amazon warehouse.
The center opened in January 2021. It is a non-profit organization that focuses on regenerative agriculture – an environmentally friendly approach that incorporates livestock, eliminates tillage and uses crops that are good for the soil to sequester carbon and increase biodiversity.
But Sandown also wants to nurture the next generation of farmers through what they call their farmpreneur program – an initiative that provides farmers with affordable land and the knowledge, support and community they need to become financially viable. . The program helps them get started by leasing plots to them for a fraction of what it would cost to buy or lease land for a farm.
The economic challenges posed by agriculture extend beyond Vancouver Island. According to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, 47% of agricultural producers cannot find enough workers, resulting in lost sales of $2.9 billion. This labor shortage is only getting worse. In 2017, a quarter of farmers were due to retire by 2025. At the same time, 200,000 fewer young people were entering the industry.
“We are facing a shortage of farms and farmers mainly because new farmers cannot buy land,” Ms Jacobs said. “It’s just out of reach financially. Sandown’s program provides farmers with the opportunity to access affordable land to start farming. »
Once in the program, agricultural entrepreneurs receive assistance in marketing their products and researching the best way to grow the crops. They are also connected to other agricultural entrepreneurs and encouraged to foster a sense of community and camaraderie.
“We asked ourselves, ‘How can we incubate new farmers and help them learn?’ said Lindsey Boyle, board member and co-founder of Sandown. “Not only about how to farm regeneratively – which is a climate solution and a way to produce better food – but how do we help farmers learn in a way that will make them want to stay?”
This means giving farmers advice on how to make their operation financially viable. Selling produce is seldom enough, says Boyle, especially when competing with cheap imported produce, and especially given the huge up-front investment in farming. For example, Ms. Jacobs has planted perennials like raspberries in her yard, the equivalent of a quarter of a football field. It will not reap the benefits of this investment for at least five years.
Ms. Boyle therefore argues that today’s farmers need to think about multiple sources of income. A short term example would be marketing farms as a wedding venue until they can make more money from farming. Other options are teaching agriculture students and providing services such as soil health consultations to the general public. Ms Boyle would also like to see an agri-tourism sector encouraged on the island.
“We call it farmpreneur because we want to correct this narrative that farming is a ton of work and you’re barely making it,” Ms Boyle said. “We really need to ensure that people are well prepared and supported to successfully run a business, which in many cases is more than just selling the food you grow.”
But other options start at the root. Sandown is investigating ways in which regenerative agriculture could be more financially viable in the long term.
Matthew Kyriakides is a land resources manager at Sandown and a PhD student at the University of Victoria. Over the next few years, he will work with 20 plots of degraded land and use various techniques – some traditional and some regenerative – to see if he can make the land healthy.
He hopes the regeneration techniques will prove more effective and more financially viable.
While traditional techniques will be simple – a single crop, placed on tilled land and controlled by pesticides – diversified techniques will use a combination of techniques. In some the land will not be tilled, and in others Mr Kyriakides uses cover crops – specific crops grown for soil protection and enrichment – and animals, such as sheep, to control against weeds and pests.
“I hope I can find a win-win with this,” Mr Kyriakides said. “And I’m pretty confident that a diverse system will be the way forward.”
However, Ms Boyle believes farmers won’t be truly successful financially until a larger structural issue is addressed: supply chains.
Boyle says the upfront costs of farming are huge and without a market that offers stable and guaranteed prices for local produce, most would-be farmers simply won’t be able to justify the risk.
“We need a business model that will connect farmers to people who need a secure supply of produce,” Ms Boyle said. “We need them to pay over time, to build relationships where these producers can be sure there will be a market for what they are doing.”
Ms Boyle believes this will allow local and regenerative producers to grow, making farming more sustainable, both environmentally and financially.
“We need to support financially to achieve these larger volumes,” Ms. Boyle said. “We need to provide that financial incentive so people don’t see this as a small market niche.”
When Ms. Jacobs thinks about the future, she also envisions an updated, more community-oriented agricultural industry that will support her, her family and their way of life well into the future.
“I dream of being able to let my children run around in the field and eat raspberries until their bellies are full,” Ms Jacobs said. “And then still have enough to be able to give to others.”
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