Valley agriculture sector needs support to thrive

As many of our local farmers near retirement, the question is who will take over their farms?

Farmers are generally much older than the rest of the population, with the average age across Canada being 60 years. And the majority of them don’t have successors in place.

Some of these farmers will pass the business on through the family, but for others the situation is far more complex, as their children may have little interest in following in their parents’ footsteps.

At the same time, a growing number of young people are interested in getting into the business, but don’t have the money to acquire agricultural land or the expertise to run a farm.

The price of farmland has skyrocketed across Canada in recent years, increasing an average of 12% a year since 2008.

The issue of farm business succession should be a major concern not only to farmers but to all of us concerned about local food security.

We only produce 20% of our local food supply in the Cowichan region, importing much of the other 80% from industrial farms in California, Mexico and China.

If we hope to develop a more resilient food system that can better withstand the supply disruptions caused by climate change, then we will need to get more people farming.

In recent years we have seen progress, although it has been much slower than many of us would like.

The Cowichan Valley Regional District has identified farmer succession planning as a critical issue in the Area Agricultural Plan, a document released in 2009 that outlines a wide range of actions to increase local food security.

It proposes to help young people interested in farming by creating new programs that would develop and promote farm co-operatives, leasing of farmland, information exchange and mentoring.

Our largest municipality in the region has taken steps in the right direction as well.

North Cowichan recently adopted a new Climate Action and Energy Plan that commits to a number of initiatives to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.

These include building an agricultural development centre on municipally owned land that would act as an incubator farm and help young people get into the business, offering them access to training, land, capital and markets, knowledge of equipment operation and maintenance.

Efforts are already underway to implement both of these of these planning documents, but much work remains if we are to solve this growing problem.

Let’s hope 2014 sees major progress in this area, where new training programs are put in place to assist young farmers, municipal land is made available to those interested getting into the business, and shovels hit the dirt to build a new incubator farm.

Because our farmers aren’t getting any younger, and far too many young people continue to face bleak employment prospects.

Rob Douglas is Constituency President of the Cowichan Valley NDP. He writes monthly for the Cowichan News Leader Pictorial and can be reached at douglas.robert.g@gmail.com. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the NDP.

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