Growth potential flagged for diminishing ag sector

John Gleeson/Staff Writer / Staff writer
January 4, 2013 01:00 AM

Farming will have to become a major growth industry for the Sunshine Coast to reach the food production target set by local government, an agriculture expert said recently at the Sunshine Coast Regional District.

Farming will have to become a major growth industry for the Sunshine Coast to reach the food production target set by local government, an agriculture expert said recently.

"To reach 20 per cent food self-sufficiency, there will be a real need to increase production levels sixfold," agrologist Ione Smith told the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) planning and development committee on Dec. 20.

Presenting a background report on the Sunshine Coast agricultural area plan, Smith said the average household on the Coast spends about $8,000 annually on groceries and less than three per cent of what they buy is produced locally.

"So there's a huge market opportunity for farmers to expand and grab a bigger piece of that annual grocery bill," Smith said.

The SCRD's We Envision plan has set the target of 20 per cent food self-sufficiency by 2036. Statistics from the background report, however, show agricultural activity has been declining on the Coast in recent years:

From 1996 to 2011, the total farmed area dropped from 1,630 hectares to 620 hectares, a 62 per cent decrease. During the same period, the average farm size on the Coast dropped by more than half, from 6.1 hectares to 2.8 hectares.

The 2011 census identified 89 farms, down from 96 in 2001.

While revenue on a per-hectare basis increased about 10 per cent between 2001 and 2011, on a per-farm basis it fell by almost eight per cent.

"The vast majority of farmers are growing primarily for their own consumption, and 66 per cent of those also grow for sale. But a third of the people farming are not selling anything. When you look at bona fide farmers who sell, we're looking at 20 or less," Smith said. "Most farms are operating at an economic loss. They're not doing it to make money."

At the same time, the revenue per hectare "suggests that what is being produced and being sold has pretty high value and that the land that is being used for agriculture is being used very intensively," she said.

Among the challenges facing farmers are high land costs, absence of local processing and distribution systems, regulatory hurdles, and lack of economy of scale.

"The high land costs, because of the proximity to Vancouver and because it's a nice place to live, means it's hard for farmers to buy land to start farming," Smith said.

On the plus side, well under 20 per cent of the available farmland is currently being used for farming, and consumer awareness of the importance of locally grown food is relatively high on the Coast.

As well, "there's a huge agri-tourism potential here on the Coast - this came up time and time again," Smith said.

To realize some of the potential for value-added products, the report suggests cold storage facilities, a food hub or commercial kitchen (an idea being investigated for startup in Roberts Creek), a medium-scale abattoir, and an egg grading station, since farmers currently have to ship their eggs off-Coast to be graded for sale.

Dairy, poultry and fruits topped the want list for non-farmers surveyed for the report, and a lack of berry farms - blueberry and strawberry, in particular - was identified relative to demand.

The report, co-authored by agrologist Andrea Lawseth, incorporated the results of on-line and mail-out surveys, focus group sessions, an open house and two workshops on the agricultural area plan conducted during the fall.

Halfmoon Bay director Garry Nohr thanked Smith for providing the regional district with a baseline to work with and for "clearing up a lot of myths."

Future stages -including policy development, implementation and monitoring of the plan - will be considered as part of the 2013 budget. Staff said the SCRD would be eligible for $31,000 in matching senior government funding for the next stage.

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