Beyond the Market’s New Farm Initiative

When you think of farming in BC, what comes to mind? Maybe you have visions of apples and wine in the Okanagan, blueberries and poultry in the Fraser Valley, or even artisanal cheese and market gardens on Vancouver Island. More often than not, the north and central interior of the province is not part of the public vision. This southern-centered vision of agriculture is drastically different from that of British Columbia’s pioneering age, when droves of settlers came north to towns like Prince George, Vanderhoof, Smithers and McBride to take advantage of vast farmland in fertile river valleys in order to feed British Columbia’s booming pioneer population. The town of Fort Fraser is the first site in British Columbia to be cultivated by non-First Nations people. For centuries First Nations have and continue to hunt, gather and cultivate foods in the area.

Historical photos courtesy of UNBC archives show rich framland in Fort Fraser BC, circa 1914

Historical photos courtesy of UNBC archives show rich farmland in Fort Fraser BC, circa 1914

Today, one hundred years after the completion of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and the rapid expansion of farm settlements in BC, the province is entering another boom age. A new flood of mining, forestry, energy and other natural resources projects are in the works, many of them concentrated in the province’s central interior and north coast. Under normal circumstances, these projects would provide a great opportunity for the local agriculture sector to access growing new markets of hungry working populations. Unfortunately, circumstances are not so normal.

Decades of change have left the region’s agriculture a shadow of its former self. Rising costs of fuel, transportation, labour and other critical farm inputs, along with changing technologies, the loss of the independent food retailers and distributors, and a lack of consumer and government support have all rendered success in a small or medium sized farm enterprise an extremely difficult achievement. In a region that encompasses eighteen percent of the province’s Agricultural Land Reserve, the number of farms has declined drastically, as much as twenty-one percent since 2006 in the northwest.

A Prince George potato farmer for over 70 years, John Ryser once won the potato section of the BC Provincial Seed Fair for thirteen years in a row.

A Prince George potato farmer for over 70 years, John Ryser once won the potato section of the BC Provincial Seed Fair for thirteen years in a row.

A challenge this large (economically, socially, environmentally and geographically!) requires many solutions. Hence, little more than two years ago, local municipalities, community volunteers and a handful of farmers decided that coordinated action was needed to restore health and viability to farming in the BC Highway 16 region before the opportunity would be lost forever.

A formal result of this effort was the creation of the Beyond the Market project – a regional economic development initiative designed to provide support for moving food forward in the north. Since its inception, the project has managed to ignite important conversations about the future of farming, connecting agriculturalists across community boundaries to come up with solutions to the challenge.

Beyond the Market has since launched a wide array of support services for farmers, regularly traveling the 1000km stretch of Highway 16 between Valemount and Terrace to deliver face-to-face services such as training, workshops, networking opportunities, community discussions, information resources, toolkits, templates, and individualized business counseling directly to farmers looking to increase the viability of their farm business and communities in the vast and isolated northern BC geography.  The Beyond the Market website, in addition to providing documentation of the many project activities underway, provides a solution to an essential need of many local farmers – a simple (and free) way to establish an online presence and connect with the world.

Future Farm Connect event in Terrace, BC

Future Farm Connect event in Terrace, BC

Two years in, the Beyond the Market project has established contact with over five hundred past, present and future farmers and has hosted dozens of events in more than ten different communities in the BC Highway 16 region. Some of the most recently held events, the Future Farm Connect series, offered farmers new and experienced alike a chance to meet over a meal and discuss a wealth of existing and emerging farm practices in the north. These events assembled a solid foundation of local knowledge and highlighted many emerging information needs of new farmers, in addition to providing an immeasurable number of introductions and networking connections between individuals in the farming communities.

Much of the discussion of farming practices at these events has been recorded and transcribed. Filtering this information into something that is engaging and useful for farmers has been no small task, but a simple free online tool has allowed us to generate  a valuable visual image that represents the words most common in these discussions: the larger the word, the more often it was used.

Visual representation of the discussion generated by nearly 200 past, present and future farmers as part of the Future Farm Connect event series

Visual representation of the discussion generated by nearly 200 past, present and future farmers as part of the Future Farm Connect event series

The Beyond the Market project is certainly not the end-all, be-all solution to our complex agricultural challenges, but the farmer-focused traveling road show approach championed by the project has provided a forum for more grassroots-led participation in the region than ever before. The latest project offering, which focuses on business start-up for new farmers, was originally scoped to accommodate twelve new farm clients over an eighteen month period. Only six months in, the number of new farm clients working with the project has reached thirty and continues to grow.

Future Farm Connect event in Vanderhoof, BC

Future Farm Connect event in Vanderhoof, BC

The need for this type of project in the region is demonstrated, but the precedent is slim and resources sometime slimmer. We are eternally grateful to the funders who have provided the capital needed to run the various project initiatives, and even more grateful for the region’s farmers and their supporters who are able to see past some of the huge barriers and look towards the possibilities for agriculture in the future, providing the participatory support needed for success.

For more information about the Beyond the Market project and its various initiatives visit beyondthemarket.ca or find us on Facebook.

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About: The New Farm Development Initiative seeks to increase the number of successful new farm entrants in the BC Highway 16 region by building and enhancing agricultural training opportunities, raising awareness of the opportunities and challenges for northern agriculture, and increasing access to the farm land and capital for new farm entrants. The initiative is coordinated by Community Futures Fraser Fort George and made possible by funding from the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George, the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako, the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine, the Omineca Beetle Action Coalition, the Real Estate Foundation of BC, and the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC through the programs it delivers on behalf of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the BC Ministry of Agriculture

Contact: Jillian Merrick, Program Coordinator, 250-562-9622 ext. 155, jillianm@cfdc.bc.ca

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