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Students garden on a Fresh Roots plot in Vancouver.

From the city comes a new generation of young farmers

Dave Semmelink is part of a new wave of young people choosing farming as a livelihood

By Jess Mackie , in City Environment Feature story , on November 20, 2017

Farming is rooted deep in Dave Semmelink’s heritage. His father and grandfather were both farmers in South Africa and Semmelink always wanted to cultivate his own piece of land.

But he wasn’t convinced farming could be a viable career for him in B.C. He entered forestry at the University of British Columbia, betting his chances of employment would be greater in that field. Then a friend told him about the university’s six-month farm practicum.

“The practicum showed me that I can actually do this, and can make decent money if I work hard, if I network well,” said Semmelink. With the help of his practicum mentors, he signed onto his first farming lease before he even graduated from UBC.

Semmelink, now 29, is part of a new wave of young people choosing farming as a livelihood. The percentage of young farmers under the age of 35 rose to  6.9 per cent in 2016 from 5.4 per cent in 2011, according to the 2016 Census of Agriculture. It was first time since 1991 that the number of young farmers increased in an industry comprised mostly of baby boomers. This modest uptick is a boon for the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, which presides over the oldest population of farmers in Canada.

Infographic: the state of Canadian farming

Supporting young farmers

Expensive land and limited access to capital pose barriers to aspiring young farmers. Despite challenges, an impassioned local food movement is motivating more young people without any farming background to pursue farming.

“The urban agriculture movement in B.C. cultivates an idea that is hard to come across in cities — that farming can be a viable livelihood,” said Evan Bowness, PhD candidate in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC.

In order to sustain the growth of the sector, the provincial government is finding new ways to support beginning farmers, most of whom are young, said Emma Holmes, the new entrant agrologist at the ministry.

“They are realizing that this is a growing force, and are interested in … supporting those new entrants in a bigger way,” said Holmes. This includes funding existing organizations, like BC Young Farmers and Young Agrarians, which help young people connect with mentors and land opportunities.

Caroline Chiu, front row left, and students of the Kwantlen farm school at the Vancouver Urban Farming Forum.

Honing farm skills in the city

Urban educational programs, like the UBC farm practicum, are capitalizing on the locavore movement, imparting agricultural knowhow that was previously confined to rural communities.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University also offers two farm school programs in Richmond and Tsawwassen that focus on the research, education, and community sides of sustainable agriculture.

“We believe that we need to train the next generation of farmers,” said Caroline Chiu, farm school coordinator at Kwantlen. “Farm school is the kind of program that works, because we really focus on practical learning.”

“Urban farming as an incubator”

Farming within city limits is an avenue for young people to dabble in agriculture.

“A lot of young people are in cities,” said Will Valley, academic director of the land, food, and community series at UBC. “I would like to see urban farming as an incubator for getting young people interested, and testing out the sense of ‘Do I want to get into farming?’”

Urban farms across Vancouver provide volunteer and internship opportunities. One group, Farmers on 57th,  supplies students with individual garden plots to test their farming skills for an entire growing season.

The growing season has ended at Farmers on 57th, an urban farm in South Cambie.

Another urban farm, Fresh Roots, offers a youth program called SOYL, which hires secondary students to care for a half-acre garden in the city, encouraging them to grow, sell, and cook healthy and sustainable food for their community.

“It’s really fun to be involved in the miracle of growing things,” said Marc Schutzbank, the director of Fresh Roots, which partners with local schools to grow educational farms. “Helping youth get excited and feel that magic is just a really important part of what we’re doing.”

“Our goal is not to grow all the food that we can here in the city, we can’t do that,” added Schutzbank. “But what we can do is help get people interested about our food systems” and connect them to rural farmers, “who are the real backbone of our food system.”

Semmelink is now a rural farmer who owns and operates a mixed livestock operation on the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. His initial fears about entering farming have been quelled by the community support he receives both from food enthusiasts on the Island and from B.C. farmers throughout the region.

“I hope more people get into it,” said Semmelink about farming. “It’s a great way to live.”