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Does "local" matter? It does to Canada's farmers

Photo from Flickr.

Another summer was unofficially ushered in this past weekend with the opening of the Kitsilano and Trout Lake Farmers’ Markets. Supporters of local food braved ominous-looking skies to get their pick of this year’s freshest veggies. Their reasons for “buying local” vary: they like to know who is producing their food and how, are concerned about environmental issues related to food production, want to support the local economy, etc. Many just enjoy the bustling, festive atmosphere of an outdoor market. Few, if any, are contemplating how their choices will impact the Canadian economy for generations to come.

But their decision to buy local food may do just that. Vancouver is home to around 30 “urban farms” – small businesses that grow food for sale within city limits. A census of urban farms by Mark Schutzbank found that in 2011, Vancouver’s ten urban farms sold $170,000 worth of produce. Two years later, more than three times that number of farming businesses are operating around the city.

Also in 2011, Statistics Canada found that there were 205,730 farms across the country, 10.3% fewer than there had been five years earlier.

Why is the number of urban farms in Vancouver growing at the same time that Canadian farmers are closing the barn doors for good?

One reason is that Canadian farmers are getting older and younger generations are opting for other livelihoods. The average age of a Canadian farmer is 54. The lack of young farmers has Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the federal government department responsible for supporting the agricultural sector, somewhat on edge.

Enter: A generation of urban farmers – twenty- and thirty-somethings with few, if any, rural roots, very limited access to land or capital and the drive to grow anything, anywhere. A few have leases on small plots of land; many make use of multiple backyard plots through arrangements with supportive landowners who reap a share of the harvest. These young farmers are learning the hard way and each season they learn more, grow more and sell more.

The importance of supporting and training young farmers is evident to organizations like FarmFolk CityFolk, which offers micro-loans and connects young urban farmers with the experienced counterparts elsewhere in the Lower Mainland. Young Agrarians helps urban farmers to network and share information and the Vancouver Urban Farming Society offers urban farm tours, workshops and annual Forums. CityFarmer has been encouraging urban dwellers to of all kinds to grow food for 35 years. 

Cities have become incubators for the farmers of tomorrow. Urban farming demands little capital investment and offers the security of additional non-farm income opportunities and social support. As their skills, experience and finances grow, their operations can expand incrementally.

Next time you pick up a head of lettuce at your local Farmers’ Market, remember: You’re holding the future in your hands.

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