Young farmers find a home through land-matching program

Krista Robson, shown here with her two kids Sawyer and Madyson, has leased farmland in Harrop thanks to the Young Agrarians land matching program. Photo: Ursula Heller
Barry Gray and Ursula Heller have leased part of their Harrop farmland to two young farmers. Photo: Ursula Heller
Daniel Holdsworth and Brittany Barteski have leased farmland in Harrop thanks to the Young Agrarians land matching program. Photo: Ursula Heller
Hailey Troock is the representative for Young Agrarians in the Kootenays. Photo submitted

Third in a series about food security in the West Kootenay

One day last year, Barry Gray’s and Ursula Heller’s land spoke to them.

“It was sitting there, looking at us, and saying it wanted to be farmed,” Gray told the Star. “It was saying: there’s a need for food, a very deep need for food grown locally.”

The couple has owned five acres of farmland in Harrop for 32 years. They are retired now and not gardening and farming as much as they used to.

So they contacted Hailey Troock at Young Agrarians, a provincial organization that matches young would-be farmers with landowners not using their land.

Troock, the organization’s Kootenay representative, introduced them to Krista Robson, who had a detailed business plan for growing edible perennials, a variety of nut trees and berry bushes, and medicinal herbs. She had studied permaculture and worked in mental health and had ambitious ideas about combining the disciplines through farming medicinal plants.

But she had no land.

“I toured the land and met with Barry and Ursula over some tea outside in the backyard,” says Robson.

“I pitched my idea to them and they were very onboard. They’re are very community-oriented people and into a holistic sort of lifestyle and regenerative farming and food security, so it really was just on par with my vision.”

Troock helped them draw up a lease agreement.

Robson, who is a single parent of two kids and has a part-time job in Nelson, spent much of last year breaking ground, planting, and doing infrastructure work in Harrop. This year there is growth all around her, including a vegetable garden and nut tree seedlings.

Young farmers are ‘values-driven’

Many young people want to farm but land prices are out of their reach. At the same time, established farmers are heading for retirement.

Enter the BC Land Matching Program delivered by Young Agrarians, funded by the province and the Columbia Basin Trust. In the past two years they have matched about 80 new farmers with landowners in B.C. The group arranges lease or rental agreements, not land sales.

Why do so many young people want to enter this famously unlucrative career?

“It is very values-driven,” Troock says. “Many of them are interested in getting out of cities. There are some climate change motivations there. They understand growing their own food is one thing that would empower them.

“They want to be part of the solution, find their place somewhere, build up essential skills in a changing world.”

In the past year, she said, the number of land seekers applying to Young Agrarians has increased by about 300 per cent, while the number of applicant landowners has remained steady.

The program is looking for realistic land seekers who know what they’re getting into.

“We ask them what their supplementary income is, because it takes a few years,” Troock says.

That practical approach is reflected in the lease agreement Troock wrote for the Harrop farmers.

“It’s very professional,” Gray says.

Troock says she wants people to go in with their eyes open to the legal, practical and personal issues they may face.

“Our job is to dive deep with people to find out their challenges,” she says, “then discuss those challenges, [and talk about] how to get a farm business going.”

Gray’s and Heller’s lease agreement with Robson provides legal protections for both sides, including a trial period and an exit process should that be needed.

“Working with Hailey feels very safe,” Heller says. “We feel that we are protected and [the lessees] are protected.”

‘We knew this was the spot’

After an initial year of success with Robson, Heller and Gray decided they have more land they’d like to lease out, so they contacted Troock again this year.

Now they have a second farmer tenant whose five-year business plan is part of a new lease agreement.

Daniel Holdsworth and his partner Brittany Barteski have spent the past few years doing farming-related work exchanges while travelling, as well as taking permaculture training in the Caribbean.

“When we connected with Hailey [online from Ontario] this was the first piece of land that caught our eye,” says Holdsworth. “We knew as soon as we saw it, this was the spot.”

So they visited, and that impression was confirmed.

“Harrop, what a beautiful small community,” he says, “and the property is gorgeous with an established 15-tree orchard of apple, pear and plum. Taking the tour with Barry and Ursula, we loved the landscape, the peace and quiet of the community and the property.”

In addition to the land lease, the owners have contracted with Holdsworth and Barteski to help maintain their orchard.

The new farmers’ vision for their half-acre includes “market vegetables, herbs and cut flowers, and we want to sell that direct to consumers, to market stands, through [a home delivery] model. Supply food to our community.”

Gray and Heller like having the young adults and their children around.

“Krista has two little children,” says Heller. “We hear them, we see them around, and in the summer we play with them. They come and play in the sandbox that we have for our grandkids, and it is turning into something kind of communal, which we so love.”


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