As the promise of British Columbia’s liquefied natural gas bubble has begun to deflate, the conversation on how to grow good jobs in BC’s economy has been overlooking a key ingredient: food.
A recent report by researcher Brent Mansfield issues a wake up call for the province’s current and long-term food security. Underscoring the risks of relying on fresh produce imports from chronically drought-stricken California, the report warns that British Columbians will likely face sticker shock from increased food prices. Mansfield suggests that enhancing the province’s capacity to produce and consume local food could not only help ensure affordable food access, but also support job creation in agri-food sub-sectors such as food processing and farming.
But growth in this sector faces an important barrier: a worrisome shortage of new farmers. Despite widespread public support for the human health and ecological benefits of a regionalized food system, the number of young people entering agriculture hasn’t kept up with the growing number of farmers who are reaching retirement age. More than half of the province’s farmers are over the age of 55.
Simultaneously, many BC farmers report struggling each season to find enough workers during peak harvesting periods. Further complicating matters: while BC’s agricultural economy presents an opportunity to increase the number of jobs in the province, will the quality of the jobs be any good?
Currently, agricultural jobs don’t look terribly appealing. The total average net farm income in the province has been stagnant. A significant number of farm operators in BC report negative income, and most rely on off-farm jobs to keep their farms afloat. Our research indicates that while some young aspiring farmers are pursuing agriculture in BC out of a commitment to ecological values and social well being, issues like lack of farmland access create significant barriers.
Hired farm workers tend to have it even worse. Farm workers often face low wages, long hours, and dangerous, unhealthy working conditions. For instance, a 2008 report by sociologists Gerardo Otero and Kerry Preibisch found that 14% of surveyed immigrant and migrant farm workers in BC had no access to toilets in their field or farm worksite.
But we contend there is nothing inevitable about policies that create widespread precariousness and lack of economic viability in farm employment. On the contrary, promoting good agricultural jobs in BC is an opportunity to revive community-driven economies in rural areas, contend with structural inequalities for low-income newcomers and migrants, and address youth unemployment. If we are serious about shifting towards a green jobs economy, we need a strong policy environment to support farmland conservation, ecologically sound modes of food production and distribution, as well as Indigenous food systems.
Our new report, Growing Good Agricultural Jobs in BC, considers a suite of policy tools to promote farming jobs that are dignified and economically viable for all. In particular, we highlight opportunities to improve beginner producers’ access to farmland. We suggest policies to curb non-farm use and farmland speculation in the Agricultural Land Reserve, and to support municipal incubator farms on public land and farmland trusts. BC could draw upon models from the US, where some incubator farms have been tailored for migrant farm workers as a venue for anti-poverty work, sustaining cultural food practices, and community building.
Even the best of policies aren’t much use unless they are enforced. BC needs to dedicate more resources toward enforcing existing workplace health and safety policies. This includes proactive, random spot-checks on housing and worksites for migrants hired through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. We also recommend abolishing the piece-rate wage for hand-harvesters; everyone deserves at least the minimum wage. Crucially, all people who produce the food that nourishes us must be able to participate meaningfully in workplace decisions and livelihood self-determination. Establishing access to citizenship for migrant farm workers is one way of ensuring their voices are part of the conversation on how to grow a better food system.
In considering ways to improve livelihoods for both farmers and farm workers in BC, we recognize the potential for a tension. Minimizing the cost of labour remains one of the primary ways farmers seek to eke out a profit while keeping food prices low. When we think about the economy as a zero-sum pie, it isn’t always easy to reconcile divergent interests over the slivers. Ultimately, we need to build a bigger pie through food policies that promote more progressive forms of income distribution, land access and economic viability in the food sector. For example, having large public institutions such as schools and hospitals purchase from BC farms with fair labour practices could increase the demand and income for local food producers.
In the spirit of taking steps toward an economic system that better meets everyone’s needs, advancing good jobs for both farmers and farm workers represents an important slice of the solution.
Anelyse Weiler is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Toronto. J. Dennis is a Master’s candidate in Integrated Studies in Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia. Hannah Wittman is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems as well as the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC, and is a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ BC Office. Their new report is available here: http://farmlandaccess.ubcfarm.ubc.ca/research/