Courtenay, B. C.
Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley wants farmers.
The local economic development office concluded after extensive analysis the key to the region’s prosperity is attracting more producers and processors.
It is even attending trade shows across the West armed with soil maps and other information urging farmers to move here and set up operations.
“We want the ones (farmers) who are here to stay, we want them to expand into niche products… and we want new people to come in and feel comfortable that they have the support mechanisms… to make things happen for themselves,” John Watson, executive director of Comox Economic Development, tells the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation annual meeting. “And we’re starting to see results. We’re getting a lot of attention from a lot of different people.”
Some of that attention includes the media. Earlier this year Country Guide named the Comox Valley as one of eight “hot spots” in Canada “where agriculture is really happening.” The Winnipeg Free Press and the Globe and Mail have also profiled the region.
To a native Manitoban, it’s all a bit surreal. Who doesn’t want more farmers? The number of farms in Manitoba peaked in 1941 at 58,024 and has been declining ever since. Politicians and farm leaders bemoan that fact, but nobody is trying to slow the trend never mind reverse it. The decline is seen as inevitable – the byproduct of increased efficiency.
Sound a bit quaint or naive? It won’t after you’ve toured the region north of Nanaimo and south of Campbell River.
Three advantages stand out: the availability of good land, a climate suitable for diversified production, including 40 to 60 inches of rain annually and lots of people who must be fed.
There are about 65,000 people living in the city of Comox, the town of Courtenay and the village of Cumberland. But Vancouver Island will soon have a population of one million; local farmers now produce only 15 per cent of the island’s food needs.
The Comox Valley, probably better known for its Canadian Forces base, wild salmon, logging, scenic sea and mountain landscapes and retirees, has 100,000 acres of arable farmland, only a third of which is being farmed. Sure there’s lots of rain, but most of it falls between the end of October and end of March. In the winter one can golf in the morning (if it’s not raining too much) and ski in the afternoon.
According to the development office, the land is reasonably priced compared to other farming areas in B. C., but it’s still likely to give a Manitoba producer sticker shock.
It’s hard to generalize about land values, says local consulting agrologist Gary Ralston. Some larger parcels go for as little as $10,000 an acre, but others with buildings and improvements sell for a lot more.
“There’s simply no other place in British Columbia with this concentration of quality of land and a growing market so we have what I call the fundamentals to make this thing work,” says Watson.
Although land prices are high in comparison to the Prairie’s, potential returns are higher too. More than 180 different crops are currently grown here, including organic alfalfa sprouts, wasabi, cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and grapes, some of which are made into wine.
There’s livestock too, ranging from dairy and beef cattle, to free-range chickens, goats, hogs and even bison.
The Comox Valley is not the place for high-volume, low-margin production – the stuff of Prairie farming. Many of the successful 450 farmers here now market directly to consumers from the farm gate or farmers’ market.
“I think one of the most important things is our farmers’ market,” says Watson. “It speaks to a culture that is incredibly important in marketing. Without the farmers’ market here, without the small farms that are selling from the farm gate, we really don’t have an agricultural industry that would be successful.”
There’s a lot of talk these days about the 100-Mile Diet and sourcing food locally. Farmers here are actively pursuing that model.
“People think way more now, not only about what they’re eating, but people think now more about where their food is grown and how it’s grown,” says Stan Hagen, B. C.’s minister of agriculture and lands. “That has become very important to people.”
Comox Economic Development initially thought it could turn the Comox Valley into a “New Provence” – invoking the charm and ambience of southern France renowned for its fine wine and cuisine, scenery and lifestyle, but has since broadened its vision.
“It helped us move to that next level of collectively saying ‘we can do something different and be something spectacular here in agriculture,’” says Watson.
“You can come here and be successful… if you do things differently and you take a little bit of a unique approach to the management of your farm.”
Following the example of Sir Clifford Sifton who helped fill the Canadian Prairies – “the last, best west” – with farmers 100 years ago, Comox Economic Development sets up booths at events like Brandon’s Royal Winter Fair, extolling the opportunities for adventuresome farmers in the new “last, best west.” [email protected]