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Landlocked: As Island farmers adapt to climate change, lack of land a persistent problem

Farmers use everything from grafting to greenhouses to protect crops from extreme weather, but one problem that’s harder to solve is the shortage of affordable land

Shawn Dirksen is using two plants to make a better one on his 10-acre farm in Central Saanich.

The owner of Northstar Organics is grafting eggplant ­seedlings to hearty tomato root stocks in hopes of helping the eggplants resist soil-borne diseases and producing a better and slightly quicker yield.

It’s a technique that’s been around on a large scale since the 1920s, when tomato grafting with melons and eggplants was pioneered in Japan to increase food production on a limited land base.

In the decades that followed, it spread throughout Asia and into Europe and North America.

For Dirksen and lead farm manager Denes Lukacs, grafting is one way to boost yields and productivity and diversify on a small organic farm trying to get the most out of its greenhouses and land.

Northstar is also grafting slicing tomatoes on disease-resistant root stock and is considering using the technique on cucumbers to boost yields.

The heartier root stocks are not as susceptible to various shocks or stresses like temperature changes as easily as a regular eggplant or a tomato root stock, they say. Ultimately, Dirksen said the new plants make better use of water amid a time of changing climate.

And there’s no difference in the taste of the eggplants, as the root system is only the delivery mechanism for water and nutrients.

“Having a more vigorous root system that’s able to utilize the water more efficiently and the nutrients you put on more efficiently are all helpful for the farm,” said Dirksen.

Dirksen, who grew upon a farm in St. Catherine’s Ont., bought the 10-acre property on Bear Hill Road in 2016 and went through a three-year process of organic certification. Northstar is one of 530 certified-organic farms in B.C., 70 of which are on Vancouver Island.

Northstar now has seven greenhouses, six acres of field crops and two acres of blueberries and raspberries. It’s producing 45 different types of produce, including salad greens, peppers, kale, broccoli, asparagus, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, rutabagas and herbs.

Northstar Organics supplies restaurants and eateries around the capital region like Cafe Brio and Nourish and retail outlets like the Market Garden in Vic West and Lifestyles Markets.

It also sells at dozens of local markets — including ones on Moss Street in Fairfield and in Esquimalt — as well as other farm-gate retailers, and provides a food-box pickup program on site and a coupon program supported by the province where families can buy nutritious food.

For Dirksen, it’s a vocation that’s in the blood. Both his grandfather and father operated a similar-sized farm on the Niagara escapement, growing orchard fruit and market vegetables.

But he was encouraged not to farm because it’s a risky business, with a livelihood dependent on the whims of nature, movement of markets and ever-increasing operating costs.

He earned a biochemistry degree instead and worked in labs across Canada, but the call of the land was strong. Dirksen had a small farm and greenhouse on Lasqueti Island for a time, then leased a one-acre plot at Halliburton Farm in Saanich, where a property bought by Saanich was transformed into a training ground for farmers and a community organic farm.

Halliburton was the perfect training ground in organic farming for Dirksen — and many others since it opened in 2001.

So when the opportunity to buy the 10 acres in Central Saanich arose in 2016, Dirksen was ready to take the plunge on his own on a larger scale.

He bought the land for about $80,000 an acre, using an inheritance to make a down payment and approaching Farm Credit Canada for a mortgage and loans to build infrastructure such as greenhouses and a washhouse.

He acquired the land from Eric Schultz, an agricultural engineer who had planted the blueberries and created drainage

In transitioning to organic status, Dirksen partitioned the property into 12 parcels.

“The cornerstone of organic growing is crop rotation,” said Dirksen. “We’re giving years in between the various crops. We don’t want to plant the kale in the same place year after year because it can cause disease and nutrient problems.

Crop rotation is the best and most important tool every farmer should use, Dirksen said: It’s free, just takes planning and is “incredibly effective.”

“When we talk about climate effects and vulnerability, part of that is having crops that are just more susceptible if they’re not healthy. I think crop rotation is good at so many levels for that because it breaks a lot of disease and insect cycles.”

Dodging some climate bullets

Northstar’s greenhouses include heated and lighted systems used to start plants and grow others for multiple crops, while covered unheated greenhouses are used to “harden” seedlings for outside plantings.

Dirksen said using greenhouses allows market farms to dodge some climate bullets.

“Obviously it takes a lot more input,” he said. “You have to supply heat, electricity, it’s labour-intensive, but it does allow us to weather through things much more easily. If we have those extreme colds, it’s not going to wipe us out. It’s not like an outdoor crop where if we have a flood event or a wind event, inside the crop will be OK.”

Although greenhouses are capital-intensive, Dirksen says everyone should start with a greenhouse because it’s the “one guaranteed income that they’re going to have.”

“The lack of wind and temperature control and the density of the harvest mean we can harvest much more per square metre from here than we ever would from any field crop,” he said. “Everything else can be really difficult.”

With more than 40 crops, Northstar can potentially lose at least one every year, through a weather event or disease. “If we only grew that one crop, it would be a game-changing year and a really big problem, [so] being diversified and having some crops protected against the elements makes it really helpful,” said Dirksen.

Lukacs pointed to wild swings in weather over the past few years, with overheated summers and cold snaps in the winter, including a few consecutive days at -12 C in January.

Northstar’s blueberry bushes suffered no significant damage during the cold snap, but elsewhere in the province, berry and grape crops saw complete losses of buds and root stocks.

As for heat waves, Lukacs said the farm has installed shade cloths over the greenhouse and a misting system that cools the air and adds humidity.

Balancing protections for heat and cold amid climate change is a “tough one,” said Dirksen, adding it’s something every farmer is having to grapple with.

Dirksen said despite the challenges, at Northstar — which has up to 10 employees depending on the season — there’s a collaborative effort to do things more efficiently.

That means keeping a constant eye on markets and what people want in their fresh food and efficient use of the land.

“I think because of that, we’ve been able to increase the gross sales from the farm every single year.”

The future of farming

At 55, Dirksen represents the average age of farmers in Canada in 2021 —56, according to Statistics Canada.

Only 8.6% of farmers are 35 and younger, as the country’s farming population sharply declines, reaching a historic low in 2021.

In 1931, one in three Canadians lived and worked on farms, but that number is now just 1.3%, according to StatsCan. The number of farmers in Canada in 2021 was 504,507, with 262,455 farm owners.

Mary-Alice Johnson, 80, wants to help reverse the trend.

She runs a 15-acre certified organic farm off Otter Point Road in Sooke with four acres in cultivation growing a variety of vegetables, fruits, berries, herbs, flowers, as well as a seed company.

She’s a leading farm involved with SOIL — Stewards of Irreplaceable Lands — an organization that links farmers like her who are willing to train apprentices who want to work and learn on an organic farm using sustainable practices.

The idea is to give prospective young farmers an immersive experience in every aspect of running a farm, so one day they might operate their own or manage one for someone else.

Johnson has six greenhouses and field crops and says apprentices learn to oversee crops from seeding to harvest, and take part in selling produce at farmers’ markets, through a box program and to local restaurants. They also learn about seed production and marketing through both on and offline platforms.

Johnson has had more than 100 apprentices work at her farm over the years, and has seen many move on to operate plots of their own in the CRD.

The farm provides housing, meals, a stipend and bonuses to stay each season, which Johnson said equates to minimum wage.

“If I were to pay a general labourer to pick rocks all day, they wouldn’t be learning anything. But as an apprentice, there’s a variety of things to learn — everything from accounting and farm tax status to planting, harvesting and marketing the products and seed collections,” she said.

Johnson said young farmers are willing to work the land, but the biggest stumbling blocks are high land prices and low availability.

Organizations like the Young Agrarians have stepped in to help, offering a land-matching program in B.C. that connects farmers who want to start out or expand their operations with landowners who have under-utilized land or no means to farm it.

The land-matching program has so far made nearly 300 matches between landowners and farmers on more than 11,800 acres, from small-scale market gardens to large ranches.

Young Agrarians said the program helps to increase local food production and addresses the high cost of land, a significant barrier for anyone seeking to enter the province’s agriculture industry.

The organization helps to make the connections, matching expectations from landowners with business plans from potential farmers, then helps broker land-use agreements.

Katie Underwood connected with a landowner through Young Agrarians and is now farming a half-acre market garden on Prospect Lake Road in Saanich.

Her community-supported farm company, Peas and Carrots, grows 30 kinds of organic vegetables from spring to fall. The farm supports itself, earning about $45,000 in revenue last season from on-farm and market sales, but Underwood also has a part-time job to pay the bills the rest of the year because she lives in one of the country’s most expensive cities.

Underwood said she is like many other young farmers who are trying to scale up operations, but find getting access to larger pieces of land and longer leases difficult to come by.

She said there are several small incubator farms in the South Island that often grow out of space. Land matches are beneficial in that unused land is producing food and income, but they also have short contracts and arrangements can end based on changing family dynamics or simply a change of heart by the landowner, she said.

Last year, Underwood helped to form the South Island Farmers Institute, which brings local farmers together to network on land and farming issues. The institute recently held a farmer-to-farmer conference that drew 300 people to the Saanich Fairgrounds for sessions and workshops, as well as field days at local farms.

Land is the stumbling block

Shellie MacDonald, president of the South Island Farmers Institute and a director at Halliburton Community Farm in Saanich, said the cost of land and lack of availability is holding young farmers back.

Farm Credit Canada pegs the cost per acre of farmland on the South Island at about $100,000, though McDonald said the average price per acre is more like $260,000 because farmland listings usually include homes and other infrastructure.

“The biggest barrier to farming is land, the price of it and the lack of it,” said MacDonald. “It’s just so rare and then who can afford it?”

She is currently working with four young farmers hoping to lease extra land to scale up their operations, but it’s been difficult to find.

MacDonald said the South Island Farmers Institute is in conversation with larger established farms to see if they would be interested in smaller incubator farmers leasing parcels for collaborative farming.

She said land-matching has been successful in pairing owners and farmers, but there are drawbacks because the leasing agreements are usually year to year and farmers are reluctant to invest money in greenhouses and watering systems on land they don’t own.

MacDonald said the Capital Regional District needs to get involved in providing land for aspiring farmers the way it did for parkland, amassing 33,000 acres since 1966.

Last November, the CRD paid $11 million to acquire the 27-acre former Royal Oak Golf Course, much of which is in the Agricultural Land Reserve. It says it will collaborate with First Nations while developing a long-term management plan for the land, and engage with the public to determine what it should be used for.

MacDonald said using a portion of the former golf course land for farming would make sense. She pointed to the Halliburton Farm model as a perfect example of a community farm that provides land and training for young farmers (there are currently four farmers on leases there), but said it’s just not enough.

“We can train great farmers there and get them going, but without any available land for them to [scale up], they go off to other places like Abbotsford or Oregon or wherever where they can get land.”

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