Is there hope for growing local food?

For our farming neighbours the onset of a new growing season is serious business

As the weather warms up and many of us start thinking about getting our gardens planted, for our farming neighbours the onset of a new growing season is serious business. Tracy Stobbe at the school of business at Trinity Western University has studied agriculture in British Columbia extensively, completing her Ph.D. on agricultural economics and the ALR (agricultural land reserve) in 2008.

I asked her about whether the ALR is succeeding in its purposes at present and whether it is surviving the many economic pressures it faces.

She wrote: “The ALR has one core purpose — to be a preservation system to ensure that farmland still exists for future use.

“So by that measure, we can judge its success by how much farmland remains that would likely have switched uses otherwise.

“Metro Vancouver certainly has much more farmland remaining than it would without the ALR, so the system is at least partially a success.

“However, in order for farming to remain viable in the region, other factors like land affordability and farm incomes must be considered, and here the situation is much less positive.  The status of a piece of land as being in the ALR should ideally affect the market price of the land substantially so that the land remains affordable to new farmers.

“But my research shows that though the price of land in the ALR in 2006 was 18 per cent lower than comparable land outside the ALR, the difference is generally not large enough to attract new farmers because the price is still far too high.

“The discount does, however, attract those looking to buy land for large rural estates and hobby farms.

“In fact, 48 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s farms can be classified as hobby farms (defined as farms earning less than $10,000/year).  To make farmland affordable, there is no quick and easy solution.

“Our government could take a draconian approach and legislate that only registered farmers be allowed to own farmland as has been taken by some European countries such as the Netherlands.  But I don’t think our society would support that move.

“The problem would be somewhat alleviated if it were virtually impossible for land to be removed from that ALR — thus slashing the incentive for speculators to hold farmland in the hope that they can develop it one day.

“The growing movement toward local food and supporting local farmers by buying directly from them at farmer’s markets and via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes helps.

“The hope is that as more people become aware of the issues and demand local food at their grocery stores, local farmers will be able to earn enough to attract new entrants, keep our farmland productive and maintain a viable farm economy.”

David Clements is a professor of biology and environmental studies at Trinity Western University.