Like many millennials graduating from post secondary school, Christine Quist is unsure where her career will take her.
On one hand, the 28-year-old, who recently completed the sustainable crop production program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s school of horticulture in Langley, could grow and sell her own nursery crops, become a manager of a production facility, or even delve into pest management.
Yet no matter which path she chooses, a rising tide of economic, social, environmental, and political challenges will meet her, making farming or horticulture for any 20-something in Metro Vancouver nearly impossible.
In fact, according to Stats Canada, only 14.7 per cent of self-employed farmers in B.C. are under the age of 35. B.C. has the oldest farmers in the country, with an average age of 55.7 years.
So while Quist would love to start her own business in the fertile Fraser Valley, instead, she and her husband, Scott, are heading back to their native Vancouver Island to find land that’s a little less pricey.
“The obstacles are tremendous,” Quist said. “You can’t just start a farm, you also have to think of, ‘How am I going to make money until I can get enough money accumulated?’ Now Scott and I are looking at what do we want to be growing? What’s the market for? You have to set up a business, and then you have to farm. You have to have a really solid business plan in order to succeed. You can’t just farm, because who is going to buy your product? Where is it going to go? There’s so many things to think about.”
Unlike some of her classmates, Quist is part of the 98 per cent of farmers in B.C. who have grown up in a farming family. Her great grandfather moved from Denmark to Chemainus on Vancouver Island and has passed down his dairy and meat processing farm.
But for her friend, Fanny St. Hilaire, 27, who just completed her first year in Kwantlen’s horticulture school, the same support system is not there. St. Hilaire grew up on less than an acre near 100 Mile House.
“My boyfriend came from a farming family, whereas I did not,” she said. “And even just trying to wrap my head around it — the amount of things that I don’t even know that would be so basic for someone who grew up on a farm. You know, it is difficult. And networking … if I didn’t know certain people that I know right now, I definitely would be a little bit lost as to how to start networking and how to start this process of eventually running a farm.”
One of the single biggest challenges facing future farmers is capital.
The cost of land and infrastructure to get started, versus the rate of pay in the industry, makes it hard to gain the experience they need, while saving up money for land.
“You have to have money to buy the land, and then it has to be good land, it has to be all these things,” Quist said. “It can’t just be marginal. It has to be the best land for growing and for what you want to grow. And then there’s any buildings you need to put on it, any tools, machines, equipment that you need, too. It’s a lot to go in. I think that’s why a lot of people start small.”
Quist and St. Hilaire have looked at places such as Quesnel, Armstrong, the Kootenays or Shuswap as possible areas to relocate, but the further north they go, the worse the growing conditions.
“Where I came from in the Interior, and I don’t know how great the land is for growing, we have a lot of ranchers,” St. Hilaire said. “But even if you go, we have winter that can be up to six months. So what are you going to do in your winter season? What are you going to grow, and how much is it going to cost you to do greenhouse growing in that kind of climate? Because heating costs are going to be outrageous, and then no one’s going to buy your produce if you have to charge through the roof for it. And you’re living in a small town, how big’s your market?”
Beyond the inflated cost of land, young agrarians are discovering there is less and less of it available.
The loss of Agricultural Land Reserve areas, and urban sprawl are pushing farmers farther afield. According to Stats Canada, 90 per cent of farmers live in rural areas, and only 10 per cent live in the population centres.
“I also think transportation has a lot to do with that because as urban centres are growing, spreading into that rural land, the farmers are getting pushed out further,” Quist said.
“And now the proximity to market is further. So now you have increased fuel costs, maybe higher marketing costs, too, because now you’re having to bring your product in. You have to find a new way to connect to your customers from further away.”
Another, perhaps lesser known challenge, is battling the image of who horticulturalists and farmers are.
“I find with our network of friends here in horticulture, and back home, that growing your own food is like, ‘Oh you grow your own food?’ It’s really cool — that’s the coolest thing you can do. But I find that once I step out of that circle, the image is quite different,” Quist said. “One of the major obstacles of the horticulture, or agriculture industry, in general, is even getting people interested in it. I think that the industry has a dirty image. It’s hardworking, it’s low pay, it doesn’t get social recognition. It’s like ‘Oh, you’re a farmer?’ It’s almost like a second option.”
Quist wishes there was more “celebrity flare” to help advertise the industry, and that perhaps cooking shows on TV could demonstrate a better connection between the celebrity chefs and where the food they are preparing is coming from.
“It is starting, there are some,” St. Hilaire said. “But unless you already have an interest in the industry and are seeking out horticulture or agriculture magazines … you’re really not hearing about it. We definitely need more of a positive image out there. Maybe in smaller communities you do more, but down here (in the Lower Mainland) I find not so much.”
With all of these challenges facing them, it’s a wonder any young person would choose agriculture as their career.
But for Quist and St. Hilaire, it’s passion and a sense of duty that keep them going.
“It’s a necessity, and I think it is the most important thing that you can be doing is feeding yourself and then feeding other people,” Quist said.
“We should be incorporating the food system into the everyday comings and goings of the community.” Quist believes there is a lack of consumer awareness, as many foods, like conventional corn, are subsidized and do not reflect their true cost. “It really matters where you put your money,” she said.
“Buying local never meant more to me than it does now. You’re not just buying a product, you’re supporting your farmer.”
“I think putting the demand on having local products is huge,” St. Hilaire added.
“And you are starting to see it increase. I do see more advertising in stores for, ‘We carry local B.C. produce.’ “That’s always nice to see. “I once had somebody tell me — we had a really wet year in Alberta — and I said, ‘Oh it’s really going to hurt the farmers. And somebody goes, ‘Oh the farmers are always complaining.’ And my first thought was, ‘But they feed us.’ It’s really important that our farmers have good years and yes, they’re making good profit, but if they have a bad year, we all feel it. We feel it through the prices that we’re paying in our produce, in the availability of what we have. It’s kind of this thing that we take for granted. It’s a real gap between people and where their food comes from.”
In an effort to help people get started in the agriculture industry, groups like the Young Agrarians and the Fraser Valley Permaculture Guild are creating supportive networking programs.
The Young Agrarians, for example, have a program to connect farmers to people who have land, and to help out with the leases, licenses and contracts needed.
Quist says it can be intimidating for a farmer to put work into someone’s land, just to have their rent increased.
And likewise, for homeowners to have farming tenants come on their land, put some work into it, and walk away.
“It’s good protection for both parties,” she said. “If you want to become an accountant, you have to do this, this, this, and you’re an accountant. If you want to become a farmer, how do I? It’s not really laid out. So it’s a neat way to get the steps rolling, and a cool resource to have.”
Institutions like KPU are also expanding their programs, to help educate new agrarians on how to face these challenges.
Kwantlen’s horticulture school now boasts 17 programs, including four diplomas, and has more than 200 students enrolled at any given time.
“Farming hinges upon dairy cows in the pasture or pigs or chicken or turkeys or field production. Horticulture is in many ways a different beast,” said KPU horticulture chair Gary Jones.
“It’s a lot more intensive, there are way fewer government subsidies, the marketing is controlled, if at all, in different ways. It’s basically a free market. So it’s a lot more open to entrepreneurship. People with crazy ideas, that ‘Hey, we can do this.’ I see the future of horticulture, in particular, as being a lot more varied than it has been traditionally … I see horticulture being a lot more integrated into where people are living. So, the urban agriculture ideas that we think are brand new in North America, but actually, if you go to Africa or Europe, they’ve been around for centuries. It’s just part of what cities are about. A lot more integration, a lot more technology in many cases, and a lot more back to basics in other cases.”
As the industry continues to evolve, Jones also sees new opportunities for his students.
“I often think in our industry there’s a lot more opportunities than challenges, really. And for some students, some of the graduates, the difficulty is choosing the right job,” Jones said.
“They don’t want to make the wrong choice. Last spring, in the sustainable production program, we had two students who both had seven or eight job offers each. And we’re not talking $12 an hour, minimum wage. We’re talking assistant grower positions, food inspection agency, contract positions, good starting positions. So to have that choice straight out of school is wonderful.
“But equally, you don’t want to get it wrong.”
Part of their education outlook has been to expose younger audiences to the importance of growing food.
In recent years, KPU has partnered with schools in Langley, including HD Stafford Middle School, where they recently planted a community garden.
“The last two or three years the interest levels in schools — and more importantly in Grade 11, Grade 12 students — in seeing food production, food issues as a potential valuable career opportunity, it’s really increased,” Jones said.
“And we do a lot of tours here for schools. We’ve been doing some workshops here, hands-on activities for Grade 11, Grade 12 students. Come spend half a day here, we’ll show you what it means to grow things. So I think there’s very much an increasing awareness among the youth of food resiliency, food availability.”