The Future of Vancouver’s Farmland

October 1, 2012

          

           Lydia Ryall of Cropthorne Farm shows off a basket of beautiful produce. Photo by Carlo Ricci

 

Rachel Ryall works her way down the row, pulling carrots out of the thick clay dirt of south Ladner, discarding those that are too twisted, banding together four or five at a time. Nearby, sister Lydia is picking purple and green basil. At day’s end the two have nearly filled their cooling shed with enough produce for the coming week’s farmers’ markets. They’re not the only ones labouring, of course. On one side of their plot is the glittering palace of a Delta View Farms tomato greenhouse. On the other, only a few kilometres to the south, the cranes of the Deltaport terminal, the second largest in North America, relieve freighters of rice from Japan, coffee from Ghana, dates from Egypt, and olive oil from Greece.

This is Vancouver’s food system. Hand-harvesters contributing to the galloping success of local farmers’ markets, where committed customers pay $4 for a head of specialty garlic. An industrial grower producing tomatoes (not a crop that normally does well in Vancouver) on the massive scale that keeps prices low, its product bound for a wholesaler. And third, the vast global network of industrialized food producers/distributors that provides most of what we eat, in spite of the rich farmland around us.

The Ryalls are newcomers to this scene and, contrary to the prevailing image, thriving. They’re building a large new barn for cold storage, and planning to expand from their current three-and-a-half acres. “It’s not like we’re raking in the money, but it’s definitely at the point where it is sustaining,” says Lydia, 27, her delicate pixie looks at odds with her dirt-blackened hands and wrists temporarily marked by what look like burns—a rash caused by photosynthesizing compounds in parsnips.

Vancouver has the most farmland and farmers in North America—in Greater Vancouver, farmers’ ranks have swollen over the last five years; and now, at 2,821, they’re comparable in number to those in the entire Greater Toronto Area, which is two-and-a-half times larger than Metro Vancouver. Almost half of our local farms are smaller than four acres but are wildly productive. Lydia Ryall estimates Cropthorne produced $40,000 per acre last year—a far cry from the $200 an acre her prairie friends (classmates who studied agriculture with her in Lethbridge in the mid 2000s) are seeing for their vast tracts of wheat. Nor is her case unusual. Vancouver-region farms are some of the most lucrative in the country. So close to the city, they’ve capitalized on nearby markets willing to pay more for local and organic. Ryall admits a farm like hers—four years old and one of a new generation that sprang into being with the growth of not just farmers’ markets but new distribution systems where customers commit to buying a certain amount of a crop for a season—couldn’t have survived financially a decade ago. (The Ryalls have just bought a 50-acre farm with their parents.)

To maximize returns, other operators have taken a European agritourism approach. Eighty kilometres east of the Ryalls, along Highway 10 and the South Fraser Highway—that defining patchwork of farms, new housing, garden shops, industrial operations, construction-supply lots, vacant land, gas stations, and forests—is the Maan Farm. Started in 1977 as a simple truck farm that sold much of its produce to local processors, it has grown into a destination. A new barn-like building sells not just corn, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and eggplants but a selection of high-end food products, too. It has a petting zoo (the idea of mother Davinder) and two corn mazes. The Maans are starting to produce fruit wines. And son Amir, 19, has plans for much, much more. With two years of agriculture from the University of the Fraser Valley under his belt, he’s off to the Netherlands this fall to study techniques for greenhouse crops. In his John Deere baseball hat and UFV T-shirt, flipping burgers for customers, he can hardly wait to try more. “I want to move more towards organic. It’s such a draw for the public.”

As distinctive and productive as Vancouver’s farms are, they’re also under greater threat than any others in the country, because of the fierce competition for land in this region. The competition comes, for starters, from housing subdivisions, with speculation on farmland driving prices as high as $100,000 an acre in some places. This leads to constant friction between farmers and new homeowners unimpressed by the smell of pigs and mushrooms. Equally threatening is the demand to convert agricultural land to industrial use. For Lydia Ryall, the sight of those port cranes is discouraging—but not for the reasons that might be assumed. She has no problem with bananas coming in from Guatemala. Why should she? No one here can grow them anyway. It’s the port’s recent expansion into farmland that worries her. The port caused an uproar several years ago when it removed land from the ALR in east Richmond; now it’s making a similar move in Delta, where dozens of arable hectares are being paved over for the South Fraser Perimeter Road. Port Metro Vancouver has optioned the property next to Cropthorne, and several others along the Deltaport Road, in service to the belief—popular with a group ranging from provincial and federal politicians to commercial brokers—that if Vancouver is going to establish itself as an international shipping gateway, it needs industrial land along port-access roads a lot more than it needs farms.

The region’s food future is going to depend on who wins these land battles; advocates must come up with a plan people can understand and buy into, a plan that governments can back. That hasn’t happened yet. Different manifesto writers are pushing different solutions. Some try religiously to live by 100-mile rules; counter-theorists argue that the 10,000-mile diet is an efficient way to provide the globe’s seven billion with food. Let those who are good at growing wheat grow the wheat and ship it everywhere, argue writers like Pierre Desrochers, author of The Locavore’s Dilemma.

Meanwhile, a middle group tries to find balance. Lenore Newman is one of B.C.’s recent conscripts to the food wars. A Canada Research Chair in food policy appointed by the federal government, she has what she admits is the ne plus ultra of research jobs: defining Canadian cuisine, along with other local research. Newman is no hard-liner, she happily admits as she nibbles on a peanut doughnut at Duffin’s Donuts. The daughter of a Sunshine Coast fisherman who sold his catch at the dock, Newman has no fantasies of surviving off her own rooftop goats and carrot patch. Instead of an insistence on all local food, she would like to see this region (along with other rich regions in Canada) develop what she calls “foods of locality”—products identified with the area, the way a certain kind of cheese represents Parma and that bubbly wine stands for a northern province of France. She adds that purists need to acknowledge B.C. just can’t grow some things. Masa Shiroki at the Artisan Sake Maker on Granville Island, for instance, looked around for local rice to brew. The UFV’s agriculture department tried hard to figure out if rice could be grown here. The conclusion: nope. “At that point, you realize you’re just better off bringing it in from some place where it does do really well.” Newman’s vision: “The model I see is regions trading with each other. In the winter, we can’t provision ourselves at a reasonable cost.”

Kent Mullinix is closer to the local end of the spectrum. Head of the new sustainable-agriculture program at Kwantlen University College, he wants to see the current industrial food-production system completely changed. He admits that that also means changing the economy as we know it—a somewhat daunting task. “The existing industrial system is so entrenched and it’s so reflective of our overall economic system,” says Mullinix, who acknowledges that he has no large-scale working model to champion. But he believes that, ultimately, the collapse of the oil-based industrial agriculture system will force change. “And I know that the key to sustainability is the regionalization of our economies. You maximize your own bio-region, then you trade with adjacent bio-regions, like the Okanagan. That way you get not a global food system, but a global network of local food systems.”

Both Mullinix and Aleck Ostry, a UVic researcher, are digging up evidence that people in B.C. actually eat very little of the food produced in this province, even though there’s plenty of it. A 2007 B.C. government study on food self-reliance made the case that B.C. farmers produce 47 percent of our food. But that’s deceptive. Mullinix points out the government study looked at dollar value of crops produced and dollar value of food consumed, then subtracted. As it turns out, B.C. produces a lot of high-value food products—salmon; 12 percent of North America’s cranberries; 95 percent of Canada’s blueberries; Lapin cherries sold in France for up to $18 a pound—then imports a lot of cheap food from elsewhere. Along the way, it has narrowed the number of crops it produces, to focus on exports. Mullinix believes that B.C. residents only get about 10 percent of all their food from B.C. farms, because of that system. Ostry estimates that 80 percent of the province’s fruits and vegetables come from California. That leaves B.C. vulnerable if anything happens—droughts, climate-change disruptions, high oil prices—to any of the regions that B.C. imports from. To him, and to others trying to find that balance between all-local and all-global, there are a couple of key solutions. One is to ensure that farmland is preserved, a challenging but not impossible task for a place that has experimented with new forms of urbanism. The other is to encourage diversity. “In 10 years, our sources in California will be absolute garbage,” he says. “We have to figure out ways to support our small, marginal farmers.”

Lydia Ryall, says support for young farmers like herself would be welcome. She’d also like to see farmland protected. And she says there needs to be a way to provide land for the few who are interested in taking on the back-breaking work of a small farm. But it makes her wary when people see her and her sister as Joan of Arcs of the food wars.

“It’s crazy. People say, ‘You’re part of the revolution,’ ” says Ryall. But she doesn’t see her farm as a model for remaking the global food network. Not with the high cost of labour and the brutal truth that only a tiny group of young people are willing to do the kind of grinding hand labour that small-scale farming entails. “We do it for selfish reasons. We like it. But a lot of people don’t. So I don’t know what the future looks like.” VM

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