Solid Real Estate Investment. BC Ranch & Farmland Real Estate Value Expected to Rise with World Demands

Outlook on the future of farmland. As the population and food consumption rises farmland value is expected to follow suit.

So you want to buy a farm. Think again, Old MacDonald.

Contrary to the childhood songs, you'll need more than a barnyard menagerie to make a living in B.C.'s agriculture industry. Farming today takes both dollars and sense.

And as always, it takes real estate. (Sorry, rooftop gardeners and backyard chicken farmers. If you want to make a living as a farmer, you're going to need at least a few acres of that precious and prized commodity, ALR farmland.)

The Fraser Valley is home to some of the richest, A1-zoned farmland in Canada. The valley is also one of the country's fastest-growing metropolitan areas.

That tension is managed through the Agricultural Land Reserve, which prevents urban development in rural areas. Still, data from the last census shows that between 2006 and 2011 in B.C., farm area dropped by eight per cent.

Demand, on the other hand, did not. While still significantly cheaper than residential land, farmland prices have doubled since the mid-1990s - from about $25,000 for one acre of prime Abbotsford farmland a dozen years ago to $50,000 today.

Foreign investment is becoming more common. So are corporate farms. The owners of B.C. farmland vary widely and include Chinese investors and NHL hockey team owners.

Municipalities continue to fight, with differing degrees of success, against the transformation of productive farmland into country estates.

"It's all driven by the price of the land," University of the Fraser Valley agriculture professor Tom Baumann told the Sunday Province.

But let's leave land for a moment. You'll need more than dirt to realize your agrarian aspirations.

A used tractor will set you back more than a new car, not to mention any equipment you'll need for planting and harvesting. Seed, spray, fertilizer - nothing comes cheap.

Costs are even higher if you want livestock. Both the dairy and poultry industries are supply-managed, meaning you'll need to buy quota to sell whatever your animals produce.

Quota, if you can get it, is limited and expensive. In July, there were 77 dairy farmers in B.C. seeking to buy quota, but only two farmers selling it back to the marketing board for distribution.

The average B.C. dairy farm milks about 125 cows, requiring more than $5 million worth of quota, or about $41,500 per cow.

But there is some good news for those who dream of wide open spaces but don't have deep pockets.

Thanks to the local food movement, interest and access to co-operative farming is increasing.

And even supply-managed sectors provide ways for new startups with "graduated entry" programs granting free quota to new farmers who meet certain criteria, or in the case of the poultry industry, win the "chicken lottery."

Census data shows the number of farms in B.C. is holding steady, bucking the national trend, and everyone the Sunday Province spoke to for this story was optimistic about the future of farming.

Here's why: We all have to eat.

Each harvest time, UFV agriculture prof Tom Baumann meets a new crop of students.

Some are farmers already, born into farming families and preparing to take over farms worth millions.

Others will never be able to afford that dream, but will be involved in shaping the industry in other ways. As development continues to push ever harder at the margins, innovation is critical.

The B.C. farm landscape is one in transition, said Baumann.

"Will there still be big farms in the Fraser Valley in 100 years? I don't know. I think more farms are going to move to the Interior and Vancouver Island, where there is cheaper land for crops, and we're going to see more innovation, very high-tech farming happening [in the valley]."

Baumann expects battles over farm smells, noise and environmental impact to heat up on the rural-urban divide.

At the UBC Dairy Centre in Agassiz, for example, scientists are looking at new ways to deal with the manure produced by the Fraser Valley's millions of cows, pigs and chickens.

The finite nature of the land has other implications as well. It creates competition, not just from developers but among farmers themselves.

Agriculture real-estate specialist Gord Houweling said he's seeing fewer large tracts of land coming for sale in the Fraser Valley, with most parcels averaging about 20 to 30 acres in size. Some farmers are beginning to buy cheaper, less-productive land in the Interior to feed livestock in the Fraser Valley.

The crops being grown here are also changing. Census data shows a 77-per-cent increase in B.C. land planted with blue berries since 2006.

"I have many clients who come from different parts of the world," said Houweling, who works with B.C. Farm & Ranch Realty.

"They tell me land prices in Canada are low. The world reached seven billion people a few months ago. We have a bread basket here. I think sometimes we don't even realize it."

Tamara Bonnemaison hated farming as a kid. Growing up on an organic farm in the Interior, she "swore" she would never farm.

But a decade later, married with kids, that's all she wanted to do.

"It seemed ideal," she told the Sunday Province.

And so began her search for affordable farm-land. A two-year lease on a small piece of land in the Interior ended when the owners decided to build a house on it. A second lease on another property ended after one year when the owners moved back.

"It was frustrating," she said. Then she heard about an "eco-village" in Yarrow, a Chilliwack community on the way to Cultus Lake.

"I was picturing mud huts and no electricity," she said.

Far from it, the Yarrow Ecovillage turned out to be a co-housing development with special "eco-village zoning" on the edge of a 20-acre ALR-zoned organic farm.

Now Bonnemaison owns her home and rents four acres (at $500/acre per year) from the farm co-operative. She shares a tractor with the eco-village's other farmers, participates in the farm's CSA harvest box program and sells produce at the Kerrisdale Farmers Market.

And yet, "it's unrealistic to think this could be a livelihood," she said. Like 53 per cent of B.C. farmers, Bonnemaison's spouse works off-farm.

Chris Bodnar is also farming without sinking himself millions in debt.

Bodnar leases an eight-acre farm through the Glen Valley Organic Farm Co-op, which is supported, in part, by shareholders who buy a share for $5,000 and receive good karma from helping to preserve the land.

Bodnar's lifestyle may not be feeding the masses, but he's making money producing local food for local markets.

"If you want land, you go out there and figure out a way to make enough money to buy it," he said. "If you want to farm, you figure out a way to farm."

VANDERHOOF

What: 300-acre dairy farm in Vanderhoof 3,000 sq. ft., five-bedroom house Barns to hold 90 mature cows and young stock

How Much: $2.2 million; Price does not include cows/quota

ABBOTSFORD

What: 60-acre poultry farm in Abbotsford 4-bedroom house 4 poultry barns

How Much: List price $3.6 million (just sold!). Price does not include birds/quota

SURREY

What: Four-acre blueberry farm Three-bedroom house, plus 5,000 sq. ft. building with three-bedroom suite Three acres of 10-year-old Duke and Bluecrop bushes producing 30,000 lbs. in 2011

How Much: $1.29 million

ABBOTSFORD

What: 9.5-acre former dairy farm in Abbotsford Three-year-old house with three bedrooms, three bathrooms Barns, garage and workshop

How Much: $1.34 million

CHILLIWACK

What: 14-acre "rural refuge" executive estate in Chilliwack Huge 4,500 sq. ft. four-bedroom, five-bathroom house, plus four-car garage And a 32' x 40' shop with heating, hot water & alarm

How Much: $1.69 million

YARROW

What: Yarrow Ecovillage Seven units left for sale in a 28-unit co-housing development Lease land from the development's 20-acre organic farm for $500 per acre per year

How Much: $240,000 - $400,000

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Russell Armstrong

Russell Armstrong

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CENTURY 21 Executives Realty Ltd.
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