July 15, 2008
A new model is sprouting up throughout British Columbia that is looking at farming in a whole new way.
There is clearly a growing interest to support more localized food systems, however, the bigger picture of how such systems can be physically, economically and politically sustained is a far more complicated matter.
As long as farmland continues to be built upon the same market-based systems of economics that govern all else, the preservation of and access to farmland in close proximity to urban centres will only become increasingly harder to maintain. In most parts of the country, agricultural land has become almost worthless for the production of food, and we now watch cities sprawl into the fertile soil.
So what's the solution?
One solution is a project currently being expanded upon by The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC) and Vancouver-based FarmFolk/CityFolk. The program is called the Community Farms Program, and while specific to British Columbia, it is a model that could be applied anywhere in North America.
"Community farms" represent a more holistic model of food production than the more conventional approaches. They produce additional outputs to food and fibre, such as ecological services, bioenergy, landscape preservation, employment, cultural heritage, food quality and safety, and animal welfare.
A farm that becomes a part of the Community Farms Program is collectively owned in public trust. Long-term leases are assigned for local food production, and farmers are housed on the land. Agricultural activities are small-scale and intensive, and are carried out by a group of people working collaboratively or co-operatively.
The aim of the program is to expand local food production in B.C. by helping new farmers access affordable land while researching best practices of existing collectively-owned farms.
In March 2008, I sat in on a workshop hosted by Ramona Scott of TLC and Heather Pritchard of FarmFolk/CityFolk. Sitting in on the workshop were mostly young and enthusiastic future farmers; people seeking farmland but discouraged at how difficult farmland is to afford.
Pritchard believes that the Community Farms Program is an example of what can happen when a community invests in a local foodshed. Her biggest concern is that agricultural land is at the mercy of the same economic forces driving housing, commercial and recreational values placed on land. "The world is changing as we know it, and people are much more interested in supporting local agriculture," says Pritchard. "But farmland is really not affordable for farmers, so we need that land to be taken out of speculation." she adds.
There are many examples of how farmland can be preserved and some working examples are: Fraser Common Farm Co-op in Aldergrove, Glen Valley Organic Farm Co-op in Abbotsford, Haliburton Farm in Victoria and Horse Lake Community Farm Co-op outside of 100-Mile House.
The Horse Lake Community Farm is one of the newer community farms in the province. A community of farmers have been living on the land for decades, however, their future was always uncertain because they never held ownership of the land. Instead, the land was leased.
It was only a few years ago when the owner of the land decided to sell, but with such an inadequate income found in the business of farming, the farmers were unable to afford the high price of the land.
The farmers approached Ramona Scott of TLC and she helped negotiate a reasonable price with the landowner. A co-operative was formed and residents of the community of 100-Mile House were then offered shares in the land. Each share was valued at $5,000 and the community is now on its way to owning the farm. "This December will be their last mortgage payment and then the Co-op will have secured the land," says Scott. "They will then transfer the title to TLC and they'll have a 99-year lease on the property." Now that's long-term preservation of local food!
As a community-owned farm, Horse Lake has become a model of sustainability. Members have a say in how the farm will evolve, what is grown on the land, and other food-related businesses are now able to become part of the co-operative. Instead of continuing to support a segregated industrial food system that is clearly failing to serve people well, this new model of farmland ownership is a promising sign. The community of 100-Mile House can now be assured that future generations will have access to healthy and fertile soil alongside the knowledge and tools that experienced farmers can pass on to younger ones.
Scott and Pritchard are ambitious. They would like to see a rapid expansion of a network of similar community farms throughout the province. "We're going to work on this for five years and then we're going to retire," says Pritchard. "In five years we want to see fifty of these [community] farms in B.C., and we believe we can do that."
Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/071008.htm).
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