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Are we really supporting local farmers?

Provincial gov't support dropped from $104 million in 1992 to $45 million in 2004, farmers forced to diversify

Purportedly we desire to support local farmers. The insurgence of farmers markets, direct farm marketing, and CSAs indicate that at least a certain group within society is willing to spend their earnings on high quality, local produce. Overall, however, are we supporting our local farmers to the degree that will see the conservation of our valuable farmland? I would argue we are not and haven't been since the early '90s.

A study of trade deregulation and its impact on land management was conducted by Evan Fraser, a Guelph University professor. His study showed that the instigation of free trade beginning in the early '90s prompted the vegetable processing industry in south-western B.C. to relocate to other regions of North America. High capital, land costs, and a limited economy of scale made other areas more appealing to processors than B.C.

At the same time, federal government support for farmers went from $80 million in 1985 to $30 million in 1998. Provincial support went from $104 million in 1992 to $45 million in 2004.

Farmers were forced to diversify their operations. More areas were returned to forage grass, and acreages of perennial berries, including cranberries and blueberries, increased. As processors left the area, acreages of grain increased. Diversification has seen an increase in organic production (e.g., Fraserland Farms) and direct farm marketing (e.g., Westham Island Herb Farm, Emma Lea Farms, and the Westham Island Winery).

Since the early '90s, more fields have been fallowed in wildlife-friendly grasslands, with growers being paid cost-shares for such activities through the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust.

While diversification has saved a lot of farms, the loss of processors has impacted overall farm viability. Not all farms were able to diversify, leaving them with limited options for growing crops.

Is there a need to support and maintain local farms? Yes.

Farming plays a positive role in our communities.

It maintains large tracts of open space and if managed so, it can contribute to wildlife conservation; by supporting local farms we sustain all of the environmental goods and services associated with farmland.

Arguably, maintaining our soil resources is analogous with maintaining our long-term capacity to produce food. At the moment, there is no food crisis in B.C. and we all enjoy food security (though, if you are one of 90,000 people in B.C. who relied on a food bank in 2009, you may tend to disagree). Currently California produces 50 per cent of America's fruit, vegetables, and nuts, as well as much of the produce we consume (California accounted for 50 per cent of B.C.'s trade deficit in vegetables in 1999).

It would only take several consecutive years of drought in California to destabilize the North American food system.

Food would be less abundant, but demand would remain static, thereby driving the price of food up, increasing the number of people who could not afford it.

If we choose to support our local farmers, what will that look like? Will B.C. demand the return of rigorous trade barriers so our growers are not forced to compete on the global market? Will consumers step to the plate and pay more for local food? Is the average consumer even able to pay more for local food? Do we need to publicly support the resurgence of a local vegetable processing industry so that we may enjoy local produce throughout the year?

Whatever the action we take, it must be inclusive of young farmers who are interested in entering the sector. Join us for A Day at the Farm (Saturday, Sept.

10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Westham Island Herb Farm) and learn more about local agriculture.