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Next-Gen Farmers

The demand for local food has spurred growth in startup farms

There’s neverfeature-farm (preview) been a better time to be an organic farmer in Canada. Also, there’s never been a worse time, says Corky Evans, B.C.’s former minister of agriculture. Evans is also a farmer and a director of Heritage Credit Union ($148 million in assets) in B.C.’s Slocan Valley.

Indeed, the stratospheric rise in demand for locally sourced food (farm gate sales in B.C. alone tallied $2.8 billion in 2012), coupled with the double-digit increase in prices for imported food, have been a boon for the Canadian organic farming industry. But for prospective farmers who aren’t set to inherit the family farm, it can take years to scrimp and save for that key resource at the heart of it all: farmland.

Forty-five years ago, the five acres of land on which Evans lives and farms in Winlaw, a community in the West Kootenay region of B.C., was worth $10,000. “Now, a person who wanted to buy it would probably have to pay $400,000,” he estimates. “There is no way that food would produce the cash that you’d need to pay the acquisition cost for the land.”

A recent report entitled Food, Farms, Fish and Finance found that “of the many structural, economic and practical challenges facing new and young farmers, securing access to affordable and productive farmland is the most overwhelming.” And understandably so: the cost of an average farm shot up 76 per cent between 2010 and the end of 2014, according to Farm Credit Canada, a Crown corporation that helps farmers purchase property. And costs vary widely: Remax’s 2014 farm real estate report indicates that farmland costs range from $800 per acre in northern B.C. to $10,000 per acre in rural Ontario and Nova Scotia, to more than $50,000 per acre near Vancouver and Toronto.

Despite this, fledgling farmers across Canada are cultivating creative solutions, including being incubated on startup farms, and pooling their money to rent underused land.

So you want to be a farmer

Startup farms are providing land to farmers-in-training. “The challenge is to not borrow money to buy a property or borrow money to buy equipment before you know what you need …” says Christie Young, founder and executive director of FarmStart, a Guelph, Ontario–based non-profit dedicated to training future farmers. “And you will only know what you need through experience.”

farmersquoteSince its inception in 2005, FarmStart has trained dozens of people interested in working the land, including many new Canadians from places like China, Mauritius, Pakistan, and the Philippines, where climate and farming practices can differ greatly from those here. Workshops and in-field training help these aspiring farmers learn how to run a successful business, exposing them to both the knowledge needed to produce viable crops, plus marketing and finance skills.

Though other farm apprenticeship programs exist in Canada, what makes FarmStart unique is its incubator or “startup farm” program that allows people to get years of field-based training. “Our incubator farms are places where someone can start their farm business without having to buy a farm — that’s a huge purchase that should be one’s decision of a lifetime,” says Young. “To try to make that kind of decision, and to pull enough money together needed, and to know what you’re actually looking for right at the outset is virtually impossible.”

As such, FarmStart’s incubator farms provide land, infrastructure, some equipment, mentorship, and coaching to help new farmers get their business off the ground. In many ways, the program fills a gap created by the broad decline in the number of family farm operations, where the children would typically get years of operational exposure, and would benefit from a significant knowledge transfer from their parents. The current prevalence of large-scale industrial farming operations means that those opportunities for knowledge transfer are significantly reduced, which is what makes programs like FarmStart so important.

Moreover, unlike conventional trades programs that have defined apprenticeship periods, the length of the literal “row to hoe” is unique for each new farmer. Depending on an individual’s background, level of experience, and business objectives, a new farmer’s training time with FarmStart can vary from one to five years.

Land to sow and grow

Still, even setting aside the cost issues, simply finding suitable farmland can be a significant challenge in some areas, due to increasing land consolidation. In Ontario, obtaining a piece of farm land smaller than 40 acres is very difficult.

“The challenge in Ontario is a farmer can’t buy the scale of land that we are providing to them,” says Young. “We let them start with one to two acres, but they can eventually scale to four to five acres. There are lots of farmers that are making a living on an acre up to five acres. You don’t actually need that much land.”

FarmStart is one of only three facilities of its kind in Canada, but Young says lots of different arrangements are possible. But like any relationship, making a good match between the farmer and farmer-to-be is important. Several services have sprung up to meet this goal. For example, currently has 300 postings of land available for farming across Canada, but that’s nowhere near enough to fill demand: there are 900 postings from farmers looking for land.

Lease and learn

For many farmers, like Daniel Brisebois of Quebec’s Tourne-Sol Co-operative Farm, renting land is a better option than risking everything while still building the business. He and four McGill grad friends, who share an academic background in agriculture and a passion for social justice and the environment, started their organic vegetable farm business as a workers’ co-op in 2004.

It’s hard not to romanticize farm life while listening to Brisebois talk about Tourne-Sol, located outside Montreal, Quebec. There are three things needed to build a successful farm co-op, he advises: “People with good growing skills, people with good business skills, and then people who are willing to work together.”

For a new generation of social entrepreneurs interested in agriculture, running a values-driven, successful, profitable, and sustainable enterprise like Tourne-Sol is the dream. In this case, the dream was made possible through a special relationship with a cash crop–farming family who wanted to see more local food produced, and to help future generations of farmers. “They wanted to show their children there are ways you can get into farming on a smaller scale, not just a cash crop operation,” Brisebois says.

Three things needed to build a successful farm co-op: “People with good growing skills, people with good business skills, and then people who are willing to work together.” – Daniel Brisebois

Tourne-Sol has been built on 17 of the organic grain farm’s 1,500 acres of land. The Tourne-Sol farmers have a six-year rolling lease agreement with the owners that has ensured a place where they could hone their skills, grow their business, and put down roots for the last 12 years.

“We have a really fantastic relationship with the family. They are supportive [and] they like what we do, so that’s even more important than the actual lease,” says Brisebois.

In addition to the land, a $40,000 grant through the innovative Quebec government program (Financial Support Program for Aspiring Farmers) helped the farmers cover some of their initial equipment and other startup costs. The fund currently offers support up to $50,000 to help individuals with degrees in agriculture to establish a farm.

For Brisebois’s group, once the startup hurdles were met, a delicate balance was found: the costs of running the established farm are covered from a weekly veggie box subscription program and farmers market sales. Brisebois estimates these sales will feed 500 to 600 families per week this summer. Additionally, Tourne-Sol has become a more diverse enterprise as the farmers learned about the needs and interests of their local community: seed sales have become a core part of the business; other ventures, including garlic and garden transplant sales, have taken off.

Rooted in the community

More than a decade later, the Tourne-Sol farmers have only recently begun negotiations to buy a 12-acre parcel of land from their landlords. “Up until now we’ve always made a point of not carrying much of a debt load as we’ve been building the business. Now that we’re looking at the next 10 years, and we’re here for the medium and long term, we’re ready to take on some debt,” says Brisebois.

Though he didn’t want to disclose financing details while the new land purchase is still in negotiation, Brisebois did reveal that the group has made a point of working with their local branch of Caisse Desjardins for years. “We are a co-op and they’re a co-op so I feel like it’s keeping money in the community. I know they have community-based initiatives, so I appreciate that.”

An additional benefit of putting off the debt and splitting the work five ways through the co-op has been the enjoyment of a much more sustainable lifestyle than many debt-strapped new farmers face.

“The thing that is most awesome about our co-op is that we have a pretty good quality of life. There are a lot of people who farm who might be working 60 to 80 hours a week through the growing season and we’re kind of in the 40 to 50 hours a week, and we manage to take vacation. During the summer, each couple in the co-op will leave for a week at least and this is something that a lot of farms just don’t do.”

Credit unions as advocates

Sunset clouds over a farm in Southern York County, Pennsylvania.Back in B.C., Evans believes credit unions could be a voice for farms across Canada, like Tourne-Sol. For Evans, financing is just a part of the answer. Advocacy, relationships, and capacity-building are just as essential.

Starting at the macro level, Evans suggests credit unions could help push for changes to public policy and lead a movement to get more farmers onto land. “Credit unions are hugely respected institutional voices in Canada. And federally and provincially the civil service is used to meeting with them and working out solutions. Credit unions could be the voice to change public policy without spending a dime because they’re credible .…”

Advocating for financial incentives such as Nova Scotia’s equity tax credit that helps individuals invest in coops or small businesses, including startup farms, is perhaps one place to start. On a more practical, day-today level, getting more credit unions involved in capacity building helping new farmers build business skills is also needed, Evans notes.

“The people who tend to want to farm, including myself, are not really that good at selling stuff — we’re good at growing stuff. Being aligned with an institution that had skill at managing money, marketing, raising capital would be a wonderful thing to get advice, to get direction, to get support.”

A growing movement of likeminded local food enthusiast investors are responding to this call through the support of initiatives such as Slow Money. Still in its infancy in Canada (a local group is starting up in Nova Scotia), Slow Money is both a non-profit organization and a movement to “connect investors to the places where they live, creating healthy relationships, and new sources of capital for small food enterprises.”

At its most basic, Slow Money provides capital to new farmers who may have great growing skills and a business plan, but little experience and limited financial resources. Slow money lenders (which include agriculture credit associations) extend the repayment term significantly, to allow new farmers to find their footing. Community investment cooperatives like the Knives and Forks Community Investment Co-op (backed by Vancity) are another example of Slow Money principles in action.

And it’s a great example of how credit unions can boost the growing local food movement, and inspire and support more young people in feeding our population. ◊