Options for Accessing Precious BC Farmland

Young Agrarians potluck, Richmond BC

Only a small percentage of BC’s land base is considered suitable for agriculture, and much of it is concentrated in the same areas that are most desired for recreational use and urban development. However, according to the 2011 Census of Agriculture, total farm area in British Columbia decreased by almost 8% to 6.5 million acres between 2006 and 2011; the average area per farm also decreased over that same period.

Not surprisingly, during that period the price of farmland in BC steadily increased, only stabilizing slightly in the last year. The Vancouver Sun reported on a RE/MAX study last month, which shows that farmland in the Fraser Valley is once again the most expensive in the country, typically selling for $40,000 to $60,000 an acre.

This scenario, where land (and housing) prices are higher in BC than anywhere else in Canada, has naturally created challenges for new farmers seeking to access land and capital in the province. Young Agrarians’ Land Access Guide 2.0, funded in part by the Real Estate Foundation, offers some practical advice geared specifically to younger people who are interested in pursuing farming as a profession.

Many factors have contributed to the dramatic rise in BC farmland values over the past several years, including (arguably) investors speculating whether or not their plot of land will be taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) for development at some point. In its 2012-13 Annual Report, Farm Credit Canada suggests that farm asset values across the country have gone up as a result of “rising land values driven by a strong agriculture economy, growing world food demand and higher commodity prices.”

“Tenure” is a term derived from the Latin word tenere (“to hold”), referring to an arrangement around who “holds” or occupies a piece of land. There are several types of tenure that new farmers can and should consider, which don’t involve the outright purchase of land.

  • Leasing involves an interest in the land that gives the farmer occupation and usage rights for a set period of time, in exchange for rent paid to the landowner.
  • Licensing gives the farmer permission to do a specific task on or with someone else’s property for a specific period of time (e.g., a license to graze sheep on a piece of land).
  • A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is an agreement between two or more parties that obliges each party to do (or not to do) specified things. Typically, MOUs act as a temporary agreement between a farmer and landowner when the future ownership of the land is uncertain.

There are also a variety of arrangements that don’t require farmers to own the title to the land they farm. Incubator farms, for example, generally offer secure tenure for 1-5 years, and are designed to graduate farmers onto their own farms with the skills they need to succeed. They often require little investment from the farmer. However, they can require a prohibitive amount of volunteer time to participate in overall site operations, and group dynamics may be an issue for some.

Community farming is another model that can help young farmers gain access to land through shared farming – along with shared costs – on shared land. Generally offering longer-term leases or tenure than incubator farms, the community farm model is becoming increasingly widespread in BC.

Those interested in farming in urban areas face some unique challenges, including limitations in tenure, water access, and livestock, among others. Despite the challenges, urban farmers are finding innovative ways to grow food in the city, including leasing land in exchange for a harvest share, or partnering with municipalities to grow crops on city-owned land.

Accessing land for farming can be an arduous process, and certainly is made more challenging by rising land prices and development pressures on agriculturally viable lands. New and collaborative models and leasing arrangements offer opportunities for new and young farmers to begin their farm businesses in British Columbia without the high costs of buying land or needing to move away in search of cheaper land.