There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the barriers and difficulties facing young people getting into farming. Land access, capital costs and the difficulty of setting up a business are frequently cited as reasons why so few people are choosing this as a career. So when I stumbled across four young farmers who were making a go of it, I set off to visit them and find out their story.
Nestled in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, ‘The Birds and the Beans’ are Jay, Natasha, Foster and Kelsey. After studying food and agriculture related degrees together at UBC, they started talking about setting up a farm together in the fall of 2012. “We all had an interest in growing food, and all had various experiences working on other farms and different kind of operations, so it was just kind of, we’re going to go and try this for ourselves,” Jay told me. A professor from UBC put them in touch with someone in the Comox Valley who was interested in leasing land to some young farmers. Due to circumstances outside their control, they didn’t end up on that land, but by then the spark had been lit in their brains, and their hunt for farmland continued.
Last May they started leasing a 3 acre field on a 500 acre pasture reared beef and cranberry farm, with a controllable drainage ditch running around the field, and irrigation and fencing already set up. As well as leasing the land, they also live together in a rented a house on the property. Their first year had its fair share of challenges, but they made it through, and were awarded the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce award for Agricultural Business of the Year. When I visited them, they were busy with seeding, assembling their second hand greenhouse, and making the crop plan for their second year of farming.
Farming is not the most common choice of career for young people, so I asked what appealed to them about it. “In high school I realised that food and food production was the perfect intersection of my interests in environmental and human and social needs. I just love it, so much. It’s the one thing that you can do for hours and hours and hours and work hard and feel really great about it,” Foster answered.
As well as a common interest in being outdoors and not sitting behind a desk, they also mentioned some other interesting aspects. “I can come home at the end of the day or the week and say ‘I fed so and so many people so and so many things’ and can feel good about that,” Natasha continued, while Jay pointed out another view; “There’s a lot of creativity inherent in farming. Or there can be; there needs to be. That’s exciting.”
The four chose to form a partnership when they set up the farm. “We researched the options,” Jay told me. “It’s the easiest way to register a business between four individuals. You’re basically an individual doing business with another person. There are templates out there for partnership agreements, so it was good to have a framework to build on.”
When I asked what the positives were of working in partnership, there was a lot of talk of different strengths and interests, as Foster described, saying; “We’re a complex Venn diagram with four circles that overlap to some degree.” As well as the benefits of sharing the responsibilities and risks, Natasha talked about how it can help to have different perspectives on situations. “I think there was a point last year where I realised that if I’m stuck on something, I should just say it. I’m not able to do this or I’m having a hard time doing this. I would like help. Which seems like such a common sense thing to do, but it took a little while to realise that. That often something that you’re stuck on isn’t going to be a big deal for somebody else.”
And the difficulties? “Relationships are work, even if they’re awesome,” Natasha pointed out. “And having that between 4 people can be difficult at times, and awesome at times. It’s not a low, it’s a challenge.”
The vision of the Birds and the Beans is ‘Feeding people fully’. They primarily grow vegetables, but have a strong interest in growing staple crops as well. “We tried it out last year with moderate success and are doing it again this year.” Foster told me. “To me that’s a big niche in our food production that I feel really excited about trying to meet“. This season they’re hoping to trial different wheat varieties, aiming to narrow down what grows well in the damp coastal climate. “There’s not a lot of information around on what works in our climate, and often with different crops you’re talking a twofold increase in productivity between a variety that’s suited and a variety that isn’t suited.” Foster explained. “That’s the difference between saying something works and something doesn’t work, getting the wrong variety. I’d really like to be able to say to people ‘these are the varieties that you need to be growing if you want to feed yourself’”.
Last year, in this part of the farm (which Natasha joking referred to as the ‘R&D section’) they grew wheat, barley, oats, quinoa, dried peas, dried beans, buckwheat, lentils, amaranth, flint corn, popcorn and flour corn. They’re passionate about what they grow, and about educating people about some of their more unusual produce, as demonstrated by the spontaneous lesson I was given in identifying, and the uses of, different types of corn.
They’re also enthusiastic about incorporating animals in their farm. After raising around 450 meat chickens last year, they aren’t sure if they’ll do it again. “I think everybody feels a little uncomfortable charging such a high price,” Natasha told me. “We finally have a market and people who are coming back and asking for chicken, and willing to pay the price. But it’s not a very inclusive price. And I know that everybody has kind of expressed feelings of not happiness in that.” This season they’ve chosen to focus on eggs, and have built an ‘eggmobile’ chicken coop for their 100 laying hens that will be moveable, following the beef cattle as they’re rotated around on the farm.
So how has the response from the local community been? “It’s been great,” Foster told me. “It was really funny when we showed up at the market for the first time and everyone was eyeing us suspiciously, like ‘where are you guys from…?’ And people tentatively bought a couple of things. But very quickly we felt like we had a lot of fans. We’re four young people who’ve gone into partnership. People like that narrative”.
Keen to hear their perspective on the options for young farmers, we also talked about the barriers of getting into farming. “Land access is the hot word right now,” Foster began. “But more of an issue is accessible land in which you can create an arrangement that is conducive to operating a profitable business. That’s really challenging.”
There was a definite agreement that buying land is unaffordable to most. But also that it shouldn’t stop young people getting into farming. “Leasing it makes a lot more sense as an initial approach to being a farmer because it’s way less risky,” Jay pointed out. “If you’re leasing, and it’s not working you walk away after the lease or renegotiate it.” Natasha agreed, saying, “I guess I’m coming at it from the perspective of taking a farming business a year at a time. If you’re looking for something where you know you want to work there for 10 years or however long, that might be a little bit more difficult to find. But as a starting farmer, I don’t know where I want to be in 5 years, going a year at a time is where the four of us are at.”
Another potential barrier is the start up capital required. Machinery, fencing, equipment, seeds and livestock all adds up, but growing vegetables doesn’t have to require a massive investment at the start. “Our start up was so low. We didn’t buy anything except for seeds. And just worked hard,” Foster explained. “Personally, vegetable farming isn’t my passion, but it’s the easiest entry point for sure. We couldn’t have a successful first year doing anything that required more capital.”
This year they’ve taken the plunge, and invested in some larger items, including a second hand greenhouse, which they painstakingly assembled without any instructions and then constructed roll-up sides for. They’ve also bought an old tractor, and a friend has lent them a hundred year old thresher to help develop the staple crop side of their business.
Another thing that might put people off starting their own farm is the business side of things. But there is help out there, according to Foster; “In terms of insurance, liability, indemnity; all that stuff is confusing, especially when it comes to farming. But there are people to call; people who’ve done it”. And Natasha explained another benefit of their partnership; “That’s where having four people is really helpful. You can all do a little bit of reading and not feel like you have to get sucked down a big black hole of whatever, and can come back and be like ‘I don’t get this, do you get this’”.
The first year has clearly had its fair share of challenges for the Birds and the Beans, as their tales of sprouting quinoa and lodging wheat show. I asked about their highlights. “Eating our homegrown popcorn,” piped up Natasha, a big grin on her face. “And going to our first market, it was like ‘ok this is real’. I was pretty stoked and couldn’t stop smiling that day.”
And what about the next year? “I’m excited for our first eggs in September,” Jay told me. Foster added, “I’m just excited to do what we did last year, but better. And I’m excited to get back out into the field in the sunshine.”
It’s true that there are a lot of barriers facing young people seeking a future in farming. But as the Birds and the Beans show, there are also opportunities for people who are willing to take a chance and give it a go.
For more info and advice about getting into farming, including land access information, check out the Young Agrarians in Canada (http://youngagrarians.org) and The Greenhorns in the USA (http://www.thegreenhorns.net)
–Steph Wetherell. Follow her blog here