Beyond the market? Community Farms in BC

Research Brief Publication Date: July 20, 2021
Last Updated: September 03, 2021
Researchers:

Hannah Wittman, Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, University of British Columbia 
Jessica Dennis, Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, University of British Columbia
Heather Pritchard, Community Farms Program, FarmFolkCityFolk
 

Project Funders and Partners:

Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia

About This Brief

This research brief was prepared by the BC Food Web team, based on an article published in the Journal of Rural Studies.

Introduction

British Columbia’s (BC) current agricultural practices and policies have fostered farmland consolidation and agricultural industrialization. These policies have also led to a noticeable decrease in the number of farmers capable of maintaining land and a decrease in the control of communities over farming initiatives. As a result, there has been a push among BC farmers and communities towards the adoption of community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiatives. These initiatives focus on giving communities the ability to be involved with the farming industry at large by actively contributing time or money towards a farmer’s land. They also form part of a growing pushback to refocus on sustainable production, local economies, food security, and climate mitigation.

This study seeks to highlight methods of engaging in CSA and supporting food sovereignty (the control over one’s access to food production and farming), while also examining the potential benefits, costs, and barriers for BC farmers adopting such agricultural models.

Research Process

Researchers conducted a literature review whereby they summarized the latest research and statistical data available on farmland protection policies and new CSA programs in BC. The researchers also engaged in a three-year Participatory Action Research (PAR) project with a CSA initiative, the Community Farms Program, to assess challenges and benefits.

Results

Review of new CSA programs and farmland protection policies: 

The CSA movement is led by an array of non-governmental organizations that seek to offer better access to land and effective resource management. One specific example is the Young Agrarians in BC who are striving to solve issues of land access by developing a land matching program that assists aspiring farmers in finding affordable farmland. Initiatives such as these can prevent increasing costs through speculation and loss of farmland to commercialization. However, these CSA programs are hindered by an ever increasing demand for land and corresponding rising costs. The Agricultural Land Reserve, for example, faces many contestations over access to oil, gas, and other natural resources. Private companies put in bids for land, which new farmers could never compete with. Researchers also found that the increasing age of the average farmer is a barrier to CSA initiatives. Without new farmers ready to take on reform, success could be difficult. 

Participatory Action Research Project with the Community Farms Program: 

Benefits:
The researchers conducted a research project with the Community Farms Program (CFP) by characterizing and interviewing 55 community farms across British Columbia. The Community Farms Program began in 2006 as a collaborative project between The Land Conservancy of BC and Farm Folk City Folk. The 55 farms selected show the full array of alternative land access initiatives that the program supports. All farms that participated in interviews emphasized sustainability and land stewardship as central tenets to their operations, they also marketed their products locally, and some even ran community focused events around food system education or farming practicums. They all relied on some form of unpaid labour, whether that be through volunteers or students. Overall, the farms were focused on fostering local communities and markets. 

Challenges:
However, researchers identified many persistent and key challenges to community-based land ownership within the Community Farms Program. Many interviewees emphatically expressed that private individuals or companies continued to buy farmlands, harming local production and driving up costs. In addition, many practical issues with scaling up community-based agriculture were identified, namely the viability of obtaining funds (governmentally or privately) for this sort of land reform, and the persistence of land ownership being a central desire of prospective farmers. Prospective farmers also cited anxiety around having a lack of security in the community-based model, with the ever-present threat of eviction or having their lease agreement denied for renewal. However, the predominant issue cited by interviewees about the community land ownership model was the difficulties of interpersonal relationships. Agriculture very often requires hard decisions to be made fast and effectively; this can present a major challenge in a co-op system where many people have a voice in the decision making. 

Implications

The researchers found that across British Columbia alternatives to traditional agriculture are growing, with a focus on sustainability and local community. Community-based reformers are striving to recruit and support new farmers who are looking to be land stewards that not only produce food, but enable engagement with issues of food security, ecology, and local economy. Essential steps for this movement include successful recruitment of young, aspiring farmers, prevention of further land speculation and land cost increases, connecting urban consumers to farmlands, and appropriate funding. Successfully shifting to a community-based agricultural model will also require a large-scale cultural shift in mindset from championing private property ownership to celebrating the benefits of community-based ownership. In order for this movement to continue gaining traction, an increase in community awareness and policy changes are essential.

About This Research

This brief is based on the following journal article: 

Wittman, H., Dennis, J., & Pritchard, H. (2017). Beyond the market? New agrarianism and cooperative farmland access in North America. Journal of Rural Studies, 53, 303–316. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2017.03.007 

Key Findings

  • Community-supported agricultural initiatives are growing across North America. 
  • Community farms are a source of food literacy education for consumers, facilitate access to farmland for new farm entrants, and foster food sovereignty. 
  • Barriers include rising land costs, recruitment of new farmers, and operational and governance challenges in community-managed farms. 
  • Increasing community awareness and engaging in alternative land tenure arrangements, beyond private property can facilitate growth in community-supported agriculture.

Project Funders and Partners

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