“Farming is a profession of hope.” Brian Brett
Over the last few weeks Young Agrarians and West Kootenay Permaculture Co-op have been working hard preparing for upcoming land-themed events in the Koots. (Learn about the events here.)
Everyone involved is earnest about seeing that the events really serve the needs of local farmers, aspiring farmers, and eaters of all ages.
Last Friday, WKPC coordinator Shauna Teare sent an email our way that helped put this work into perspective. Attached were reflections from Kootenay agrarian elder Corky Evans on ensuring land access for coming generations of farmers. The piece, which I think of as a bit of a manifesto, but which Corky would probably prefer me to call a collection of thoughts, puts the land access challenge facing young (Kootenay) farmers in compelling terms. It also spells out a common sense approach to working towards a more equitable land access paradigm.
Corky comes at the issue from a singular perspective. He is a longtime, small-scale farmer – a farming elder who has been growing food organically for decades. He is also an ex-politician – a former Nelson-Creston NDP MLA who served as Minister of Agriculture and Food. The roles he has played as a food systems builder are many and diverse – he is involved in the Kootenay co-operative movement and active in the credit union community. Perhaps most importantly, he is someone who constantly cranes his neck to look beyond the horizon and into the future with an eye for the health of people and the planet.
When I pestered Corky to share his writing with the YA network, he was generous as always. His go-ahead did come with an ask that we make clear that he is not a guru or “any kind of expert on anything.” Though we might beg to differ, we’ll instead just post his words…
Land Access for a New Generation
The Opportunity and the Problem:
For the first time since, at least, WW II the market for good, local food in the Kootenays exceeds supply by a factor of millions of dollars. This phenomenon is paralleled by an upswing in the numbers of young people who desire to produce food as a business. Unfortunately, land prices have escalated to the point that the people who desire to produce the food that the marketplace desires cannot afford to purchase land on which to farm.
An Anecdotal Example:
The land I live on in Winlaw cost $10,000 in 1972. It was cleared land with a house. It is now appraised at $400,000 as cleared land with a house, or 40 times as much as I paid. In 1972 an unskilled labourer in the Kootenays (as I was then) made (aprox.) $600 a month. In order for a young person today to have a proportionally equal chance I had to acquire and pay off the same piece of land they would have to earn 40 times $600, or $24,000 a month.
Does it Matter?
Traditionally, each generation likes to believe that their kids generation has at least as good a chance in life as their parents generation had. Obviously, this is not the case where we live in terms of access to land.
Economically, if we have the opportunity to avoid millions of dollars in “economic leakage” from our area (by producing an increased proportion of our purchased food) it is to our benefit to do so.
Socially, if we become a region where only people with equity earned elsewhere can settle we will rapidly change almost everything about our demographics and social systems and mores.
A Concomitant Problem:
During the years of increasing land values a generation has settled on the land that is now aging and retiring and in need of finding ways to leave the land for a less strenuous lifestyle or to stay in their homes and, at the same time, reduce the labour required to maintain their investment.
Land Access Solutions Abound:
We, in the Kootenays, are not the first ones to face these opportunities and troubles. Creative ways to capitalize land transfer, to work out leasing arrangements conducive to all parties and to sustaining systems of land management, and various kinds of land trusts or co-operative ownership have evolved all over the world, many of them in Canada.
Economic Expertise Exists Among us:
1. Community Futures organizations, skilled in assisting people to learn business skills, assess risk and make business plans, exist in most Kootenay towns.
2. Credit Unions, owned by our citizens and skilled in managing risk, lending and equity management exist in most Kootenay towns. Unlike many area of Canada, these institutions are still run by the citizens of the community in which they do business.
3. The Columbia Basin Trust has managed its asset base and its investment interests for twenty years. Its staff is skilled in the placement of equity and investment and its Board has a mandate for social and land based investment.
4. Farm organizations are active in every valley. Some are commodity based, some specialize in organics, some are primarily marketing tools, some are organized by and for young people.
5. We have two community colleges and the Rural Development Institute to call upon to produce research to quantify need or opportunity.
6. We have retail outlets specializing in local food sales to assist us to define business opportunity.
What Would it Take?
Someone or some organization would have to be moved to initiate a cross-community dialog.
Data would have to be collected to prove or disprove the assertions.
A critical mass of interested young people would have to organize itself to represent the interests of their generation, and ask for assistance.
A year of talk would have to take place to identify options, consider risks, and make recommendations.
A Pilot Project would be required to find and assist some trial land tenures or transfers.
Based on what is learned from the Pilots, policy would have to be developed to allow the process to become “normalized.”
How long would all of that take? I am guessing 5 years if we started now.
Starting now seems wise to us. Young Agrarians and the West Kootenay Permaculture Co-op are teaming up with FarmFolk CityFolk and UBC Land and Food Systems to host a Kootenay consultation on the possibility of provincial and/or regional foodland trusts. If you would be interested in attending, please email email@example.com.