The Cowichan Valley is replete with idyllic scenes of cattle, sheep and goats grazing contentedly in lush, green pastures. Acres of tall corn, grapes, berries and a wide variety of vegetables thrive in the Warm Land.
But the picture-perfect landscape doesn’t begin to tell the whole story of agriculture in the Cowichan Valley.
Agriculture is big business in the region.
“There are about 700 farms on 18,000 hectares of productive land in the Cowichan Valley, making it one of the prime agricultural regions on Vancouver Island,” points out Jon Lefebure, mayor of the Municipality of North Cowichan and chair of the Cowichan Valley Regional District.
“Given that scale of farming, agriculture is a significant part of our economy, generating jobs, farm produce and related business activity.”
Amy Melmock, manager of Economic Development Cowichan, concurs with Lefebure, suggesting the spin-off benefits of agriculture are a tremendous asset to Cowichan.
“The next generation of investors is attracted to regions that have a vibrant agricultural and culinary culture, and to regions that demonstrate a commitment to food security,” says Melmock.
“Resident farmers also invest in the community through the purchase of supplies and equipment. Farmers markets add to the vibrancy of our downtowns and rural communities and create important community gathering places.”
The B.C. Ministry of Agriculture estimates that for every one dollar in farm receipts, two dollars are spent in local communities throughout British Columbia.
The diversity of agriculture in the Valley is exceptional and contributes to the area’s growing popularity as a place to visit and reside, says a Ministry spokesperson.
“People in our region value the agricultural ‘character’ of the Cowichan Valley and they recognize that protecting farmland, ensuring food security and celebrating the farming way of life is important,” says Melmock, noting the Valley has a mixture of supply-managed farms in dairy, egg and poultry, as well as small holdings that produce specialty, value added crops like organic produce.
“We’re also seeing the emergence of companies like Westholme Tea and the ongoing development of the wine industry here,” says Melmock.
“Food processing will gain an increased profile in the region,” predicts Melmock. “We’re already seeing the emergence of successful companies like Arbutus Foods, Purica and Libre Naturals in the region and opportunities exist for future development that could be linked to local agricultural inputs.
“Culinary tourism will continue to have a positive impact on our food sector. We’re already becoming known for the increasing quality of our wine and specialty foods,” adds Melmock.
“It will be important to link these opportunities to the growth of a year-round tourism sector that can support steady employment opportunities.”
Despite the romantic aura of the old Green Acres television show, farming can be a tough row to hoe in terms of ensuring a sustainable business model.
“Rising land costs, competition for land from residential and commercial interests and the incursion of wildlife onto productive farm lands and dairy silage areas are concerning,” Melmock says.
“The agricultural community faces a number of challenges,” agrees Lefebure. “Exacerbated by climate change, winter and spring flooding issues, as typified by Bonsall Creek, are increasing. Longer, drier summers result in a shortage of water in the extended summer season.
“And local food has to compete with cheap imported food. We need better facilities for farmers to store and sell their produce.”
The CVRD is doing its part to promote a healthy agriculture sector in the Valley. Economic Development Cowichan brought together producers, farming organizations and various levels of government to talk about shared issues at a roundtable discussion held at Fairburn Farm in May. Another session is planned for November at the Cowichan Exhibition Grounds.
North Cowichan’s Agriculture Advisory Committee meets regularly to deal with issues affecting farmers and to advise council. The municipality has reduced taxes on agricultural land and puts the tax that is collected into an agricultural reserve fund for projects that support agriculture.
“Farmers face challenges beyond what most of us are subject to,” opines Lefebure. We can support them and our future by taking every opportunity to buy local produce.
“There is a shift toward small and medium-sized producers who are finding success in niche markets ranging from organic products to exotic livestock.
“One day, I expect that imported food will not be so cheap and our local farmers will be turning hayfields into market gardens to feed us all.”