Growing on the land

  • Dec. 1, 2011 12:00 p.m.

By Judie Steeves

It was probably when they learned that they weren’t permitted to grow vegetables on their apartment balcony—only flowers—that they realized they were not destined to be apartment dwellers.

But, if you’d talked to them at the end of 2007—exhausted from their first experience growing vegetables in their ‘spare’ time and trying to sell them—they’d have said they were done farming.

Today, Matt and Molly Thurston have taken the plunge and purchased their own farm, supported by their two full-time jobs and with the mentorship of Bob and Sharon McCoubrey, whose organic orchard in Winfield they bought and cropped this year and moved onto this fall.

It’s been a hectic year for the pair, but a rewarding one, says Molly.

She grew up in Kelowna and says both her mom and her grandma were great gardeners, so she was always interested in plants and the outdoors.

Her first paying job was working at the Sperlings’ Pioneer Country Market at the age of 15, and it was her introduction to agriculture as a career. However, after graduation she took human kinetics at Simon Fraser University until Velma Sperling suggested she take an agriculture program instead.

Ironically, her roommate’s father taught in the agriculture faculty at the University of Saskatchewan, so she applied there, the University of Guelph and UBC, ending up studying for her degree in agriculture at Guelph.

It was there she met her husband Matt, and the pair returned to the Okanagan after graduation to spend the summer and get married.

In January  2005 they WOOFed (World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) for three months in England, dairy farming in Cornwall, small crofts on the Isle of Eigg​ and working on a sheep farm in Wales.

 

“Each were really different organic farms and totally different experiences,” she recalled.

When they returned home, she volunteered with the new Central Okanagan Community Gardens society.

Her involvement with the society led her to meet board member Bob McCoubrey, and she spent that first summer co-ordinating the community gardens.

The second garden was just getting up and going—today there are nine— illustrating the public’s interest in connecting with both their food and the land.

Later that year the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-op offered Molly a job as a field person, so the couple decided to stay in the Okanagan.

Matt works in Kelowna with Farm Credit Canada.

It was in 2007 they first moved to the McCoubrey farm, living in a little house and running the orchard as well as planting vegetables on another part of the farm.

Although the fruit side of their operation went well, they found they had little experience with vegetables and it did not go so well.

The effort exhausted them and they didn’t farm in 2008, recalls Molly.

However, by 2009 they realized they both missed the hands-on farming, so they rented a couple of acres for a small market garden and re-planted their front yard in Old Glenmore to vegetables. They took flyers around to neighbours and offered a Monday night market for produce from the garden.

It turned into a satisfying experience, with neighbours walking or cycling over, meeting and talking, exchanging recipes and getting to know each other.

“Kids would come and hang out and we’d let them pick a tomato and eat it, or take some vegetables home; friends would come and help us out and it was really neat,” said Molly.

Then last summer the McCoubreys asked if they were interested in the farm, and despite their feeling of frustration in 2007, they jumped at it.

They took over the farm at the beginning of this year—making use of the mentorship opportunity offered by McCoubrey with his experience—and moved into the gracious 99-year-old home this September.

“It’s a huge passion for us. It’s very satisfying to produce quality fruit and fun to experience the farm life,” Molly said.

This farm is immediately adjacent to where McCoubrey was born, a farm he took over from his father in 1973. He bought this farm the next year.

Ironically, he says apple prices today aren’t much higher than they were nearly 40 years ago, yet growers are growing them much more intensely, using softer chemicals and paying for inputs at higher costs today.

“They’re only a commodity. You’re at the mercy of the markets, both within North America and globally,” he noted.

The B.C. apple crop is only about 10 per cent of the total North American crop, so it’s a drop in the bucket. Add to that the value of land in the Okanagan and farmers just coming into the industry must have another job to be able to afford to pay for a farm, he says.

“It’s a lifestyle decision,” Molly agrees, noting she and her husband will both have to keep their full-time jobs to pay the mortgage.

After a lifetime farming, McCoubrey is more blunt: “If the government cares about agriculture it must control land speculation or offer incentives to help young farmers get into the industry to farm the land.

“There’s speculative value and there’s productive value.”

That speculation that farmland may be turned from growing food to growing condos has fueled rising land costs in the Okanagan, making it almost impossible for young farmers like the Thurstons to get into the business.

According to long-time Kelowna orchardist Richard Bullock, who was recently appointed to head up the Agricultural Land Commission in B.C., those speculators just got a message from the provincial government with a number of amendments to the ALC Act, which was passed in 1973 to create the Agricultural Land Reserve.

“That statement by the agriculture minister that the ALC is here to stay was telling people they’d better listen and forget the debate about how long it will last,” Bullock said.

He’s betting several of those amendments will blunt the attitude by some people that it’s worthwhile investing in farmland because eventually they’ll be able to get it removed from the ALR.

That would allow the price to soar as it’s subdivided for development with housing or commercial property.

However, he admits there’s more to be done to get the next generation onto farms, especially in the Central Okanagan where land prices are far above what can be made growing a crop.

“We have to find a way, to get creative, to get farmland into the hands of those wanting to farm,” Bullock acknowledged.

“They’ve been creative in lots of ways in other parts of the world.”

He questions whether it’s necessary for the farmer to own the land in order to farm it, or whether long-term leases wouldn’t be a better option to allow young farmers to farm.

“It’s a shame to see so much land in the Okanagan sitting idle,” he adds.

It’s an issue that he feels local government plays a role in, and he notes that the attitude in Kelowna about the value of keeping farmland active has reversed in recent years.

“Kudos to Kelowna in terms of its positive attitude toward agriculture,” he said.

“They (council members) pay attention to their agriculture advisory committee. In too many municipalities they’ll just ship referrals directly to the ALC to deal with instead,” he said.

Acceptance by the community is important to the success of agriculture, particularly when there’s constant pressure from land prices outside of agricultural parcels.

There are currently 32 orchards listed for sale in the Central Okanagan, half the farm properties listed, yet only three sold this year and eight the year before.

While the number of farm listings hasn’t dropped much, the number of farm properties sold certainly has in the past decade.

Realtor Pat Duggan, who specializes in farm real estate and was a farmer before going into the business, agrees sales have really slowed in the past couple of years.

“Land values are too high for young farmers. Farm prices haven’t dropped like residential prices have.

“And, farmers are handcuffed to the land if they can’t sell the farm. In the apple business particularly, they’re not making any money, yet they can’t get out of the business.”

Realtor Heather Sinclair Smith, who is a sales rep for B.C. Farm and Ranch, confirms low returns and high land costs have resulted in a decrease in farm sales.

“Prices are really high and the cash-flow returns are just not there. The ALR is unfair to farmers, and it’s huge for new farmers to get into it from nothing,” she explained.

She says it takes from two to five years to sell agricultural land, noting that business is the slowest it’s been in years.

With the average age of an orchardist in the Okanagan in his mid-50s, it’s a frustrating sunset to a farm career, with children unwilling to take over a business that is not profitable enough and new farmers unable to afford to buy into the business because of inflated land prices.

“The farms around Kelowna make it a wonderful place to be in,” noted Bullock.

But young farm couples like the Thurstons are the exception rather than the rule.

With Matt’s farm administration and financial background and Molly’s in horticulture (she’s just completing her master’s at UBCO on soil bacteria), they are a good fit with today’s modern farming methods.

McCoubrey notes that they both came into it as problem-solvers too—a vital quality for farmers.

B. C. Fruit Growers’ Association president Joe Sardinha says while he supports the ALR, it is totally unfair that the government supports the ALR without supporting farmers.

“If you want to protect agricultural land, you have to support agriculture,” he argued, pointing out that B.C’s agriculture ministry budget is the lowest, per capita, in the country.

The public also has a role to play, McCoubrey believes: “Buying local, whole foods is the best thing the public could do to keep farms operating—and be willing to pay for that food.”

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