Alberta matchmaking program could help young farmers find land, not love

Ella Chesterman, wearing black, plans to share part of her land in Leduc County, Alta., with these organic farmers in 2022. (Submitted by Ella Chesterman - image credit)
Ella Chesterman, wearing black, plans to share part of her land in Leduc County, Alta., with these organic farmers in 2022. (Submitted by Ella Chesterman - image credit)

A networking organization for young farmers is trying to connect them with people who have land to spare in Alberta.

Young Agrarians, an organization that helps new farmers share knowledge, plans to replicate its successful B.C. land-sharing program in Alberta, matching veteran farmers with upstarts who cannot afford land of their own.

Partnering with local counties near Edmonton, the group has been holding workshops on land-linking, and it published a land access guide earlier this year.

The most recent workshops drew dozens of aspiring farmers who live in cities, veteran farmers and new Canadians with farming experience in their home countries.

The organization is trying to close the gap between land-seekers and landholders, making it easier for both groups to find each other and make mutually beneficial land agreements, whether they are leasing arrangements, co-operatives or community farms.

"It's kind of like dating," said Melisa Zapisocky, who was hired as Young Agrarians' Alberta land access co-ordinator this fall.

Though Young Agrarians is keen to play matchmaker, they will leave arranging agreements and contracts to lawyers and other professionals.

Older farmers, pricey land

Zapisocky said recent statistics illustrate a "great land shift" is underway in Canada.

According to the 2016 Statistics Canada Census of Agriculture, the average age of Canadian farmers was 55 and most did not have a succession plan.

Some young or aspiring farmers are eager to enter the industry, but cannot afford land, which has become more expensive. Statistics Canada data shows the value of land in Alberta increased 27 per cent from 2011 to 2016.

"So we have these three pieces, of aging farmers, fewer people farming because farms have gotten bigger and the new generation of people that are really excited and interested in farming," Zapisocky said.

Trevor Wilson/CBC
Trevor Wilson/CBC

Young farmers wanted

Land-sharing agreements could benefit Violet Bretin, who has a 75-acre farm in Leduc County.

She and her late husband, Vern, started running Bio-Way Gardens in 1983, growing vegetables, fruit and flowers, which they sold at local farmers' markets.

Bretin, a spry 91-year-old, is not finished with farming — she plans to plant strawberries, peas, carrots, cabbage, beets, beans, corn and cucumbers next year, as well as tend to her gardens. But she wants to share two-acre parcels of land with young people.

Such arrangements would allow her to keep living in the home she loves and see more of her land and equipment put to good use.

"I have so much that we have built up over the years that would be useful to someone, and I don't know what else I would do with it," she said.

'A great opportunity'

Bretin's neighbour, Ella Chesterman, is already dabbling with land-sharing on her eight-acre farm. She recently shared a quarter of her land with a couple that had been working in the hospitality industry.

The couple contributed their labour, Chesterman offered land and equipment and they split the profits from vegetable sales 50-50.

"It was a great opportunity for us both," she said.

Trevor Wilson/CBC
Trevor Wilson/CBC

The couple gained experience and Chesterman, who has bad knees, did not have to farm that portion of land herself.

Though the couple is moving to France to farm there, Chesterman has other young farmers lined up to take their place next spring.

She predicts similar land-linking arrangements will become more common in Alberta.

"I think there's a huge demand for it," she said.

Young Agrarians' land-matching program is still in the planning stages in Alberta, but its program in B.C. has yielded 179 matches on more than 8,800 acres of land.

"We know there's interest in Alberta, so the time is right to start looking at how we learn from the work we've done in B.C.," Zapisocky said.