By 9 a.m. a table full of greens is laid out before Charles Claus. One of the few fresh produce sellers found at the Skeena Valley Farmers’ Market, this is how he begins every Saturday morning from May to October.
“I picked those last night,” he said, pointing to his swiss chard at the July 14 market. Claus is not only a local farmer but also a member of the Greater Terrace Food Association, a group that is looking at ways to increase local food production.
On that day, his selection of beets, snap peas, swiss chard and four kinds of lettuce had all been scooped up before closing time at 1 p.m.
Out of the 70 to 75 booths present every week, usually only 10 per cent sell produce during the summer and 20 per cent during the fall, according to Norm Frank, the market’s president.
Even with this lack of fresh produce, the crowds attend. In fact, the market provides $2.1 million to the local economy annually, according to the same study by UNBC and the B.C. Farmers’ Market Association.
At the July 28 market, over 2700 people passed through the event for a day’s outing, according to a survey by the B.C. Farmers’ Market Association and UNBC. That day, too, was no exception for how quickly the farmers sold out in the four hours of operation.
“Most of the farmers now, they don’t go home with much (food left) and it’s more and more that way,” Frank said.
Frank said that demand exists for local food even if growing that food can’t be done at the same cost of the competition available at supermarkets.
Consumers won’t mind paying a 10 to 15 per cent premium for locally grown food, he said. “There’s never been a problem about price that I know of.”
“The demand for local foods has been increasing all over the world as has the popularity of farmer’s markets,” said Lynda Gagne. She is an assistant professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria and she’s volunteering with the city and regional district to attempt to increase local food production in the greater Terrace area.
If the city’s effort to up agricultural production were a success, the market has already revised its policy to give preference to new vendors that are selling locally grown food.
Yet, despite the steady demand for local food, farming has actually declined in the area. From 2006 to 2011, the total number of farms decreased by six per cent in the North Coast region, according to Statistics Canada, from 134 to 126. The North Coast region includes the Kitimat-Stikine and Skeena-Queen Charlotte districts (north to Stikine Provincial Park, west to the coast including Haida Gwaii, east to New Hazelton and south to Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park).
But more than two-thirds of those 126
active farms can be
classified as hobby farms, with revenues of less than $10,000, most of which likely don’t produce anything beyond feeding themselves.
As of 2011, there were only 38 farms with revenues between $10,000 and $99,999.
The physical conditions of the region, however, are well suited to agriculture. “The greater Terrace area has many natural assets for agriculture, including fertile soils, flat land, a mild climate, and a long growing season which averages 152 frost-free days each year,” according to the regional district’s historical documents.
Given conditions fit for farming, a strong demand and an introductory venue, it’s the production of local food that still needs addressing.
But the problem with production in Terrace is that there is simply no one to farm.
“One of the missing keys is young entrepreneurial farmers who are willing to learn to grow in this area,” said Claus.
There are some people growing here but their kids aren’t picking it up, he added. “If you look at the average age of farmers … here they are all over 65.”
But attracting young people to farm is not easy.
“A young person fresh out of high school can get a job working at (Rio Tinto) Alcan and make $30 an hour,” Frank said. “We can’t expect them to work on a farm for probably less.”
But, even if a large supply of young people willing to start farms in the region were readily available, the financial challenges to starting a farm may be the ultimate barrier.
In addition to the cost of land, the cost of machinery and labour are considerably high – high enough to stop an eager young farmer.
Jaclyn Gagnon owns Hidden Acres on the south shore of the Skeena in Thornhill. Her property has 60 acres of fertile but unused farmland. She said she would love to grow food on a large-scale but the numbers don’t add up.
“It’s just not feasible.”
Those working toward increased food production aren’t convinced that it can’t happen.
“Clearly, with food prices increasing and greater Terrace enjoying good soil and water availability, we are well-suited for a significant expansion of agriculture,” Lynda Gagne said. She added that she expects demand for local products to go up, not only because of health and taste preferences, but because of costs. “Increasing energy and transportation costs and concern over the impact of greenhouse gases on climate change all work in favour of the localization of food production,” she said. Gagne added that because Terrace is fairly remote, an increase in agriculture could be supported by local demand alone.
And the solutions to increasing production aren’t out of reach. Leasing land, Gagne said, is becoming a popular option all over B.C. For people who want to farm but can’t afford to buy land. Interns, too, are becoming available through agricultural programs that could solve the problem of a lack of labour.
Clause said he expects the high number of farmers retiring in the near future will leave behind equipment for re-sale.
The farmers’ market is an already established venue to take on any increase in agriculture. But the question remains about how to sell food after local production outgrows the limits of a weekly, seasonal market. Eventually, the goal would be to sell local products in the established retail supermarkets.
Darren Davies from Save On Foods in Terrace said the company is more than willing to stock its shelves with local products. However, most chain supermarkets, including Save On, have a minimum level of stock required which is why existing small-scale farms have not made their way in the door.
But to get the product from gate to plate, a cooperative system would be the answer to getting large quantities of agriculture selling, once those quantities grow beyond the capacity of the farmers’ market. Shared distribution and storage is one way to relieve individual farmers of the steep costs of large amounts of production.
“In terms of organizing ourselves to expand our local food production, in my view we will need to develop a cooperative and community-supported production and distribution system, with the farmers’ market being a key element, but not the only element,” said Gagne.
“My hope is that the public can catch a vision for locally produced food,” said Claus.