Cooperative Farming

Young farmers help preserve the future of farming in the Comox Valley

“Collaboration is good for farmers. It’s my philosophy that we never need to compete at all.  Everyone needs to eat so the demand for our products is always there, <a href=

” says Moss Dance (seated), with fellow Merville Organics members, from left: Arzeena Hamir, Russell Heitzmann, Robin Sturley, Kira Kotilla and Neil Turner. Photo by Boomer Jerritt” src=”×401.jpg” width=”602″ height=”401″ /> “Collaboration is good for farmers. It’s my philosophy that we never need to compete at all. Everyone needs to eat so the demand for our products is always there,” says Moss Dance (seated), with fellow Merville Organics members, from left: Arzeena Hamir, Russell Heitzmann, Robin Sturley, Kira Kotilla and Neil Turner. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Farming is hard work. The hours are long, the work is physical, and the risk is great. Farming is full of the unexpected and things beyond one’s control. It’s no wonder that only 1.8 per cent of our population chooses to take up farming. Yet 100 per cent of us eat.

Thankfully, farming is also full of wonderful things—especially for those who love the outdoors, working with their hands, creating, and working hard. Another thing to be thankful for is that there is a modest number of courageous young people who are either ‘farm curious’ or have taken the plunge and invested their young years in the hopes of a future in farming.

Moss Dance is one of these unique individuals. Dance is only 36 and is the sole owner of Ripple Farm, a transitional to organic farm located in Merville.

“I have very mixed feelings about being a landowner,” says Dance, talking as she carefully weeds her carrot patch. “On one hand, I see that systems of land ownership are corrupt and based on the theft of indigenous lands. On the other hand, I have the privilege and family support to own this land, and it offers me a lot of security, as a farmer, to be a landowner. And while I’m hanging on by the skin of my teeth to this land, most of the time, it still feels like an awesome opportunity to be able to plant an apple tree and know I’ll be here when the first fruits appear.

“I know it’s fairly unusual for someone of my generation to choose farming as a career,” adds Dance. “I didn’t see people choosing farming when I was young, and I still don’t quite know how I actually got to this point. I grew up in the suburbs, but I always loved farms as a kid. To be honest, I do this work because I want to be outside. I want to be making things and working with my body. Also, I feel like it’s a positive, productive response to issues of climate change and corporate dominance of our food systems. It’s a small response, not perfect, but something I can do.”

Dance was officially introduced to farming when she worked for eight months as a farming apprentice in Sooke. “From that experience I learned that farming was something I liked to do—that it was something I could do as a career.”

Though Dance was filled with a passion for farming, she still found the transition into farming to be a difficult one. “I often cried in frustration as I watched my ‘bonsai vegetables’ grow. Last year I finally figured out I have a major phosphorous deficiency—a problem easily solved with the correct organic soil amendments.”

Dance admits that farming is hard, but she also believes that we need to do what we can to attract more young people to the craft of farming as a profession. “It’s no secret that farming is a tough profession. The challenge for the Comox Valley, and most other communities across Canada, is to attract and retain younger farmers. Most of the fresh produce consumed by our community comes from California, where droughts are devastating farms. When scarcity drives up food prices in the grocery store there will be a higher demand for year-round, locally produced food.” According to Dance, if we don’t get young people to take up farming, we may have serious issues with food security in the future.

We need to encourage a new generation of farmers because most of our existing farmers are getting ready to retire. For example, Statistics Canada states that the average age of the 650 farmers in the Comox Valley in 2014 is estimated to be 59. Also according to Statistics Canada, as of 2011, only 25 farmers in the Comox Valley were 35 or younger.

“The average age of farmers in the region is increasing, and many landowners are looking to sell their land or pass it down to family,” says Dance. “But fewer and fewer family members are interested in taking over the family farm.”

And that’s the crux of the problem. The number of family farms is shrinking. There just aren’t many young people who have grown up on a farm, and many of those who have grown up on farms don’t want to continue the legacy. But we still need people to farm our fields and to grow our food.

The problem is exacerbated because when a young person is interested in farming they face many challenges to getting started. “Getting into farming is risky business and very difficult for most young people,” Dance says. “This generation has less wealth, but land prices have gone up. In addition, new farmers have to face issues such as start-up costs, land access issues, lack of equipment or infrastructure, and that’s before they even get to the learning curve of running a business, fending off pests and deciphering soil tests.”

Speaking of soil, we have a lot of beautiful land in the Comox Valley that is just waiting to be farmed. According to Statistics Canada, though the total area of farmed land in our Valley is just over 14,000 hectares, much of the arable land in the Valley isn’t being used to grow food for human consumption.

According to the Comox Valley Regional District, a little more than 4,000 hectares of land is currently used for crops—that’s only 18.5 per cent of the total area of land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). Furthermore, only 248 hectares of that land is committed to growing fruits and vegetables. Hay and pasture account for the rest. “There is a lot of land that is good arable land not being used,” Dance notes. “There are landowners looking for people to farm their land, and young people looking for land to farm. It’s a matter of linking the two.”

In 2013 Dance became the Vancouver Island coordinator for an organization called Young Agrarians that, among other things, works to link up young and new farmers with experienced farmers, so information and wisdom can be shared. Toward this goal, the organization sets up land-linking events, where landowners and potential farmers can meet and discuss land lease possibilities.

“Young Agrarians started in 2012 as a BC wide network to grow the next generation of farmers. It’s linked to an umbrella organization, Farm Folk City Folk, which operates out of Vancouver,” explains Dance. “The goal of Young Agrarians is to network, educate, and support young and new farmers in BC. Basically, it helps young people to learn about and to be successful as farmers. It’s a journey to find your way into farming if you feel called to it. We are trying to make it easier for people to find a way in.”

Besides meeting established farmers, Young Agrarians believes that it’s just as important for the young farmers to meet one another. “The value of bringing farmers together is huge. So we organize on the ground events so farmers can get to know each other. Our last event was a farmer mixer where we brought young and new farmers together for a day of workshops and networking. It’s a place where they can geek out about farming,” Dance says, laughing.
“You know… they can talk about that new chicken tractor or their recent soil test!

“We even do an event called ‘weed dating’ where young farmers stand on opposite sides of a plot and just chat while they weed. Every few minutes a bell rings and the sides move away from each other. It’s a great way to get to know other farmers while the work gets done.”

Dance is also working to bring farmers and community members together through the Merville Organics CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box program, a local and farm-based distribution system for organic produce. It’s a collaboration of five farms, all run by young farmers, three of whom were mentored through the Young Agrarians program. The co-op consists of Dance at Ripple Farm, Arzeena Hamir at Amara Farm, Robin Sturley at Green Arrow Farm, Calliope Gazetas and Russell Heitzmann at Umbella Farm, and Kira and Ingemar Kotilla at Kloverdalen Farm.

Dance is pleased to be part of the co-op. This is her third year operating a CSA box program, but it’s her first year working within a co-op of five farms. “Collaboration is good for farmers. It’s my philosophy that we never need to compete at all. Everyone needs to eat—so the demand for our products is always there.”

Collaboration is good for the community too, as we all benefit when we become closer to the food we eat. “It’s about increasing community access to high-quality, locally grown produce. It’s also about farmer-eater relationships. CSA members pledge to support local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production. When farmers and consumers collaborate through a CSA box program it’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” explains Dance.

“The farmers benefit because they have guaranteed work as we’ve been paid up front for the boxes. This makes it possible for us to give farmers cash advances to get things going. And the consumers, well, it’s the ultimate purchase that gives you a little halo—it gives you local economy super star status as you are committing your money and energy to a local farm. The CSA box program helps us to become more connected to the food we eat, to the land that it grows from, and to each other.”

CSA members purchase shares in the spring for a share of the anticipated harvest. Once harvesting begins, from July to September, members receive weekly shares of fresh, in-season produce from the farms. Payment is given in advance in late winter/early spring to provide necessary start-up funds for the farms. Boxes are delivered once a week to either a central location in the Comox Valley, or to one of the farms, where members can pick them up.

So far the co-op is a rousing success. “We already have 60 members so we are full for the summer of 2015,” Dance says. “Every organic farm needs a community of dedicated eaters and supporters. Starting a co-op is like creating a culture. Or maybe it’s like growing a garden. It’s been a time of expansion and excitement as we plan out our crops, purchase seeds and inputs, develop record-keeping systems and watch the CSA share sign-ups roll in.”

For those who were not able to become part of the Merville Organics CSA box program this year, you can find their organic vegetables at the Comox Valley Farmer’s Market year round. A waiting list for the CSA box program is also available on their website.

For Dance, the future of farming is dependent on organizations such as Young Agrarians and collaborative ventures such as the CSA box program. “The future of food production in the Comox Valley depends on taking pro-active measures to attract, retain and support new growers and producers,” she says.

It also depends on cooperation between farmers and the community. “My favorite part of ‘co-operatizing’ is the way I see this new entity supporting the new farmers in our midst,” Dance adds. “We are so proud and excited for our interns who are starting their own farm, and excited to welcome new farmers to the Comox Valley. The way the co-op structure enables us to share resources, knowledge and support is our antidote to all the bad news in the world.”

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