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Young B.C. farmers in short supply

Farm community | Officials look to attract new farmers with skills training and mentorship

ALDERGROVE, B.C. — British Columbia has the lowest percentage of farmers younger than 35 in Canada and the highest average age of farm operators at 56, according to Statistics Canada’s 2011 Census of Agriculture.

A report prepared this year for South Coast Community Futures and the B.C. agriculture ministry made nine recommendations aimed at attracting young entrepreneurs and sustaining primary and secondary agricultural operations.

They include more government support, skills training, farm internships, incubator farms and mentorship.

Mark Robbins, a retired regional agrologist, prepared the report, A Path to New Farm Business Success, with his daughter, Jill Robbins, vice-president of B.C. Young Farmers.

The Robbins, who produce pasture raised poultry near Aldergrove, say family farms are not seeing as many of their members continue to farm as in the past, so a new source of operators needs to be tapped.

“We have to start getting young farmers from elsewhere,” she said.

Jill said there is a growing movement of young urban residents interested in finding sustainable and economical ways to grow food, citing the Young Agrarians as an example.

“We want to know how to support them,” she said.

The Robbins say farming will be a steep learning curve for newcomers, so skills training and knowledge transfer between generations have to happen first.

“Most need about two to three years on their own plot, with support,” said Mark.

The report recommends that the agriculture ministry and the B.C. Agriculture Council create start-up programs for new farmers, including a farm mentor, access to land and small operating loans.

At the Robbins’ farm, a young market gardener is growing vegetables to sell from the family’s farm store.

“Most farmers have a quarter or half acre they could do without,” said Jill.

“It allows someone to get a start and see if they can make a business out of it.”

Farmland prices are high in the Fraser Valley, at $50,000 to $100,000 an acre, but specialty operations catering to niche markets like the Robbins’ can generate $30,000 an acre on seven acres.

“I look at farming as a business and it’s a good business,” Mark said.

“It works for intensive operations. We’re not growing grain here.”

Jill, who lives in Mission, B.C., with her husband and works part time in mediation, would like to run the family’s operation or buy land nearby, but said young farmers face many barriers.

“As it stands right now, it could not sustain two families. It needs to grow,” she said.

In her interviews with aspiring growers, she found most are looking for mentorship, access to land through leasing options and financing.

“They are businesspeople,” she said.

“They want to give it a real shot, to make a profit and to work hard and put in the time and effort to get there.”

The Fraser Valley’s good soil and water, when combined with a mild climate and close proximity to markets and services, offer ideal conditions for farming, she said.

Jill said diverse, small and large operations are workable in the Fraser Valley, noting how her farm uses a commercial poultry operator just minutes from the farm to process 3,600 chickens and 1,200 turkeys.

“We need a little of both for a healthy mix.”

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