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The Future of Vancouver's Farmland

We love to chat every weekend with our favourite small-scale farmers, but can we afford to encourage the artisanal approach—and should we?
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We love to chat every weekend with
our favourite small-scale farmers,
but can we afford to encourage the
artisanal approach—and should we?

          

           Lydia Ryall of Cropthorne Farm shows off a basket of beautiful produce. Photo by Carlo Ricci

 

Rachel Ryall works her way down the row, pulling carrots out of the thick clay dirt of south Ladner, discarding those that are too twisted, banding together four or five at a time. Nearby, sister Lydia is picking purple and green basil. At day’s end the two have nearly filled their cooling shed with enough produce for the coming week’s farmers’ markets. They’re not the only ones labouring, of course. On one side of their plot is the glittering palace of a Delta View Farms tomato greenhouse. On the other, only a few kilometres to the south, the cranes of the Deltaport terminal, the second largest in North America, relieve freighters of rice from Japan, coffee from Ghana, dates from Egypt, and olive oil from Greece.

This is Vancouver’s food system. Hand-harvesters contributing to the galloping success of local farmers’ markets, where committed customers pay $4 for a head of specialty garlic. An industrial grower producing tomatoes (not a crop that normally does well in Vancouver) on the massive scale that keeps prices low, its product bound for a wholesaler. And third, the vast global network of industrialized food producers/distributors that provides most of what we eat, in spite of the rich farmland around us.

The Ryalls are newcomers to this scene and, contrary to the prevailing image, thriving. They’re building a large new barn for cold storage, and planning to expand from their current three-and-a-half acres. “It’s not like we’re raking in the money, but it’s definitely at the point where it is sustaining,” says Lydia, 27, her delicate pixie looks at odds with her dirt-blackened hands and wrists temporarily marked by what look like burns—a rash caused by photosynthesizing compounds in parsnips.

Vancouver has the most farmland and farmers in North America—in Greater Vancouver, farmers’ ranks have swollen over the last five years; and now, at 2,821, they’re comparable in number to those in the entire Greater Toronto Area, which is two-and-a-half times larger than Metro Vancouver. Almost half of our local farms are smaller than four acres but are wildly productive. Lydia Ryall estimates Cropthorne produced $40,000 per acre last year—a far cry from the $200 an acre her prairie friends (classmates who studied agriculture with her in Lethbridge in the mid 2000s) are seeing for their vast tracts of wheat. Nor is her case unusual. Vancouver-region farms are some of the most lucrative in the country. So close to the city, they’ve capitalized on nearby markets willing to pay more for local and organic. Ryall admits a farm like hers—four years old and one of a new generation that sprang into being with the growth of not just farmers’ markets but new distribution systems where customers commit to buying a certain amount of a crop for a season—couldn’t have survived financially a decade ago. (The Ryalls have just bought a 50-acre farm with their parents.)

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