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new farmers

Ecological Farming with Interns and Volunteers

in Current Issue/Organic Community/Spring 2017

Michael Ekers and Charles Levkoe

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in Ecological Farming in Ontario, Volume 36, Issue 5. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC.

There are increasing numbers of interns, apprentices, and volunteers working on small- and medium sized ecological farms across Ontario, but also across North America and Europe. More and more, farmers are looking to young people seeking farm experiences as a way to train the next generation of farmers and meet the labour demands of their operations. As readers will surely know, interns often exchange their labour for room and board, a stipend and importantly, training in organic, agro-ecological, and/or organic production methods. This is a relatively new and potentially defining trend within the ecological farming sector with considerable significance for farm operators and interns alike.

Over the last two years we have been leading a research project examining the growth and implications of farm internships and the experiences of these types of farm workers. Incredibly generous farmers, interns, and non-profit members have made our research possible by completing our surveys and taking time out of their busy days to patiently and thoughtfully answer our questions. This first, in a series of short articles, reports on some of our initial findings. We will explore further results and observations in subsequent pieces.

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Many of the farmers and agroecology advocates that we initially met with noted the lack of data and information on farm internships and volunteer work, which we describe as new forms of non-waged work. In response, we conducted two Ontario-wide surveys in 2014 and 2015 of farms making use of interns and volunteers. The goal of the survey was to determine the scale of internships and volunteer positions on farms and the types of farms making use of non-waged workers. It also sought to explore the benefits and challenges of working with interns and volunteers. There were several key trends that emerged from the 200 responses to the survey.

The farms making use of non-waged workers tend to be relatively small to medium sized with an average of 69 acres under cultivation. In terms of production methods, about 60% of the farms in our sample were non-certified, but practicing ecologically-oriented methods, including agroecological, biodynamic, permaculture, and organic farming. 21.7% had a recognized certification, with the majority being certified organic. 14.5% identified as practicing other kinds of agriculture, while just under 4% employed conventional methods. 87% of the farms we surveyed market their products directly to consumers through a CSA or a farmer’s market while 39% of farms sold to retailers and only 9% sold to a wholesale buyer.

On the types of farms we just discussed that responded to our survey, there was an average of 4.2 non-waged workers on farms compared to an average of 1 minimum waged-worker per farm. Our results suggest that 65% of the workers on the farms we surveyed were non-waged, while the provincial average for the entire agriculture sector is 4%. While it is difficult to gauge exactly how many farms are using non-waged workers our research suggests that there are at least several hundred farms in Ontario that are sharing their knowledge and skills and meeting their labour demands through the recruitment of interns and volunteers.

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One of the key findings of our survey was the thin profit margin associated with ecological forms of agriculture production. We suggest that the use of interns and volunteers must be understood within this economic reality. Respondent farms reported an average annual gross farm revenue of $94,786. Perhaps more illustrative of the strained financial situation of the farms we surveyed is the personal net on-farm income that farmers drew from their revenues. On average respondents reported a personal on-farm income of only $13,629.

The challenging financial situation means that many farms felt dependent on their non-waged workers to meet the farm’s labour demands. Almost 60% of farm owners and operators felt that they were dependent on interns and volunteers. However, our analysis suggests that the dependency of farms was not related to a farms’ reported revenue. Famers with high revenues were as equally dependent on non-waged workers as lower grossing farms. However, one factor that determined whether a farm was dependent on non-wage workers was levels of off-farm income. The average off-farm income for dependent farms was $20,554 lower than non-dependent farms.

Farmers’ dependency on non-waged workers is a significant issue for the ecologically oriented farming sector given the increasing public and legal scrutiny on various internship programs across North America. Additionally, many survey respondents flagged the risk of being dependent on non-waged workers that despite the best of intensions generally lack experience with farm work and may not be as committed or dependable as paid workers.

A pressing issue that comes out of these findings is around the sustainability of non-wage workers as a model for farmer training and on-farm labour. We need to ask the question: Is it possible to scale-up and expand forms of ecological farming though non-waged workers? Is this a trend that is fair for all? There are no easy answers to these questions but in our next installments we will explore some of the tensions and possibilities in the comingling of farm labour and educational training on farms.

If you would like more information on the project, to comment on these issues or contact us please visit our website: foodandlabour.ca.


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces.

 Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Photos: Charles Levkoe

Horse Power

in Livestock/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2017

Naomi Martz

Sometimes the best tool for a job isn’t a tool at all

Despite what some may think, farming with horses is not always about wanting to go back to the “good old days”. For me, it comes from a pretty extensive list of things that are important to me as a young person starting a farm business: less time spent fixing engines and running power tools, more time listening, less fossil fuel use, more conscious fine-tuning of the work/play/sleep/love/grow balance that sounds great in theory. With all that in mind, choosing to start farming with live horsepower has very much been a decision based in the present.

At this point, I would consider myself to be “barely a beginner” at draft horse work, so if you are looking here for expert advice I strongly suggest seeking out experienced teamsters who are willing to share their craft. Publications by Lynn Miller, Stephen Leslie, and the Small Farmer’s Journal can also provide a jumping off point for further resources. But I can share what adding two 2,000 lb coworkers brought to my first year running a farm.

Having completed an apprenticeship with Ice Cap Organics where the Zayacs gave me the inspiration and confidence to start my own vegetable-growing endeavour, I spent the 2015 season at Orchard Hill Farm, a horse-powered CSA farm in south-western Ontario in the hopes of putting to rest my curiosity for draft animal power. While there, somehow the Laings managed to instil me with enough confidence to return home to BC, find some land to lease, and buy a pair of draft horses the following spring.

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This season, Four Beat Farm grew produce for a 20 week, 30-member vegetable CSA as well the local farmers’ market. I rent a small house and 10 acres of farmable land as part of a larger property, with 4 acres in cultivation at the moment (1.5 in vegetables, 2.5 in cover crop to expand next year’s vegetable production), and the remaining 6 acres are used for horse pasture with intentions of haying and diversifying in the future. Currently theoperation is in transition to organic and biodynamic practices are employed as well. There are countless neighbours, family members, and friends who provide infinite moral and practical support, but on paper and in the field Four Beat Farm is currently a one-person, two-horse operation, with a dog who works bear patrol.

Tom and Judy, two Belgian drafts in their mid-teens, were purchased based on their kind demeanour, having done farm work and wagon rides before, and their ability to stand still. If the latter seems silly, imagine being a work crew of one with a tractor that cannot reliably be taken out of gear or turned off when something needs to be tweaked or loaded in the field. Other than the initial ploughing that was hired out in the spring around the time the horses were purchased (ploughing is heavy work and can easily lead to soreness for out of shape horses and a frustrated novice teamster), the vegetable farming has been horse-powered this year.

This has included lots of discing and harrowing to prepare for vegetables and manage cover crop, using a straddle single-row cultivator for weed control (all crops except salad beds and one row of hot crops are direct seeded or transplanted in single rows with 3’ between to allow space for the horses to walk), planting and hilling potatoes, spreading compost, and hauling in crates of produce as well as moving other heavy objects, such as bags of soil amendments, around the farm.

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While a task like hilling an eighth of an acre of potatoes is not unreasonable to do by hand, establishing horse-powered systems that can be scaled up in the future, not to mention improving my own teamster abilities, was a key priority for this season. Taking the eight minutes to harness and hook up the team rather than doing a repetitive task by hand whenever feasible meant not just a lot of time savings overall, but also that this autumn I felt physically better than ever after a season of farming. This seems like a key component of sustainable agriculture that us youthful small-scale farmers prefer to overlook when handling heavy storage crops in the cold rain.

There are many articles written and discussions to be had about the role of draft horse power on a working, profitable farm. Horses can eat from, work on, and fertilize the fields. Horses are light on the land, and they can be worked in single- or multi-horse hitches depending on the task at hand. With the right knowledge and equipment, horses can also grow and harvest their own hay and grain, and breeding can lead to new engines being born and trained on the farm as the older ones slow down.

I agree with all of these and dare to add a few of my own. For one, farming with horses lends itself well to the pursuit of thrift and of mechanical simplicity. My equipment repertoire currently includes some long-forgotten tractor discs and harrows, a roller-packer, a work sled built in an evening from scrap lumber, a small borrowed trailer, a forecart which has a ball hitch attachment to pull the trailer or discs with horses, and a row cultivator. Other than the forecart and cultivator, which worked out to about $1000 and paid for itself in time savings within about six weeks, the rest of the implements ranged from free to one hundred dollars.

When things break or need restoring sometimes I make time to work on them myself; sometimes I drag them to a neighbour’s shop if they can make time to fuss around with my antiques, knowing someone else will do twice the job in half the time and I enjoy visiting with neighbours. Developing the skill set to speak the language of engine repair, not to mention actually repair engines, would not be impossible but would be a big learning curve in comparison. If I were a person who enjoys and excels at running heavy machinery and tinkering with tractors, or if I did not actually like horses, my farm would probably look quite different than it does at the moment.

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As a final note, horses appreciate the importance of a morning routine, of stopping for a midday break in the shade, of that extra ten seconds of grooming before suit- ing up for the day, and this is reflected in their work quality and productivity. I daresay I am similar but am equally prone to working myself into the ground when left to my own devices. Farming can be overwhelming on the quietest of days, but 4,000 lb of friendly, hay-burning accountability helps to keep me physically, emotionally, and financially grounded and present.

It goes without saying that there are unique challenges. Sometimes my horses have had several days off and have lots of energy and need to pull something heavy for a half hour to let off steam before they are ready to carefully cultivate baby beets. Sometimes even when they are doing a spectacular job a bear pops out of the woods and causes a hoof to sidestep, which can mean a few broccoli plants get stepped on. Sometimes I am amazed by how often I need to buy hay or set up a new pasture fence, and I have to remind myself that relying on a renewable fuel source that can be bought from neighbouring farmers and turned into next year’s compost pile is worth more than just the cost of hay on a budget sheet.

So that is a bit of what happened in this first year of horse-powered vegetable farming in southwestern BC. Lucky for me, as the list of things I know I don’t know just continues to grow, there is plenty of work to enjoy for a long while yet.


Originally from Vancouver, Naomi Martz is thrilled to have stumbled across a career that incorporates her love of math, mornings, and good food. She sees farming as an excuse to tromp around in the rain, a means of satisfying her appetite for carrots and community, and a way to live well in a changing world.

Ask An Expert: Transitioning to Organic

in 2016/Ask an Expert/Fall 2016/Organic Standards
Kale with Water droplet

Rochelle Eisen, B.Sc.(Agr), P.Ag

We asked farmers transitioning to organic for burning questions they’ve been dying to ask. From paperwork to fence posts, standards junkie Rochelle Eisen has the answers they — and you — have been seeking!

Q: How much detail does my record keeping require for the inspector (crop seeding, planting, rotations, dates, etc…)?
A: The more detail the better as the inspector will try to establish if you had enough seed/transplants for the amount of the crop produced. Also, rotation plans, green manure seeding dates, and input use records are necessary to establish if good organic ag practices are in place. Sales records, crop seeding dates, and harvest dates are helpful with yield estimations, especially if plantings are staggered. Such detailed records help you to become a better farmer, as you have the necessary details at your ngertips to help you plan and identify your successes.

Q: If I need advice with paperwork can I ask my inspector?
A: Verification officers (VOs) cannot assist with paperwork except to explain the requirement/standard, as it would be considered consulting and giving you an advantage over other operators. Some certifiers offer workshops and others have someone who can answer your questions. Otherwise, provincial specialists are sometimes helpful. In the end it might be best to hire a consultant. Certifiers sometimes keep list of available consultants.

Q: Do I have to use all certified organic seed (and what if there is no organic option)?
A: Yes, organic seed is required. When you can’t find the variety you are looking for in the quantity and quality you need, you can use non-organic untreated seed. BUT (there always has to be a but, n’est ce pas?) you can’t play that card year in, year out for the same variety. Most certifiers will expect to you to explain what your plan is to help develop an organic source over the coming years, and this question will be asked annually. And just to round out this answer… as the most logical next question is “what does a commercial availability seed search look like?’ The answer is, most certifiers expect growers to contact three credible organic sources to establish the lack of supply. Such searches are to be repeated annually.

Q: Can I use saved seed, such as the garlic I saved from last year’s harvest?
A: Assuming the operation is organic or even in transition, the answer is an emphatic yes, as the seed was raised organically. This has to be tempered by the question: is it wise? It all depends on if you have clean and true to type seed. For example, garlic is one of those crops prone to seed borne diseases such as white rot. Saving your own seed if there is any level of infection may be your own undoing.

And as mentioned, transitional seed is acceptable too, as it was raised organically—it just comes from land that hasn’t met the 36 months from last prohibit substance requirement and can’t be sold as organic. See SIC Q113 for further insight:

“Does the requirement to use organic seed, tubers etc. (5.3) preclude the use of seed grown on transitional landwithin the same operation? (113) Answer: Seed grown on transitional land is acceptable as it meets the require- ment of 5.3 and as it has not been grown using prohibited substances or techniques.”

Q: I have had much discussion with other farmers, certified organic and those considering certification alike, about use and re-use of treated posts. Is a treated post that is already on your farm allowed to stay on your farm only if it remains in place, or is it acceptable to move and reuse posts within the farm as we change or rebuild fencing?
A: Good news—existing inventories can be used anywhere within your farm (see subclause 5.2.3 b of CAN/ CGSB-32.310). Be sure your certifier is aware of this existing inventory so there are no surprises when the VO does their site visit, or when your certifier reviews your Organic Plan and the VO report.

Q: What’s the difference between green manure, manure and compost?
A: Manure is animal waste. Green manures are plough down cover crops grown purposefully to build soil health. Compost can be made from animal or plant material and any combination thereof. Refer to the ‘compost’ definition (3.15 in CAN/CGSB 32.310) and the ‘compost feedstocks’, ‘compost from off-farm sources’ and the ‘compost produced on the farm’ listings in PSL Table 4.2 for complete details. Manure management requirements are outlined in 5.5 of CAN/CGSB 32.310.

Q: What’s the amount of time required between com- post application and harvest?
A: From a standards perspective, compost can be applied any time of the year, but compost containing animal waste or other risky feedstock that may contain human pathogens has to be effectively composted first. Otherwise, the material must be applied to the land 90 days before harvest when the crop doesn’t touch the soil. That would be the case with tree and cane fruits. 120 days is required pre harvest for any crops that commonly touch the soil (potatoes, lettuce, strawberries, etc…). Think about it this way—120 days is required unless the crop is obviously off the ground.

Q: What is required for mulching materials?
A: Plant materials from organic sources must be used as mulch but if organic sources are not available, then crop materials, such as straw and hay, that haven’t been treated with any prohibited substances for at least 60 days pre-harvest can be used as mulching material.

Q: Can I get animals I already own certified? (i.e. dairy cows)
A: Dairy herds and individual herd animals can be transitioned, but it takes 12 months of organic management before the milk collected can qualify as organic. None of the animals transitioned can ever qualify as organic meat animals. To qualify as organic meat, animals must have been born by an organic dam or the transitioning dam must be under organic management by the onset of the third gestation period.

Q: What’s the most appropriate way to label my transitional organic products?
A: Transitioning farms or “farms in conversion to organic” selling all their products within BC may identify their products as “transitional” or “in conversion to organics” or other similar language on all marketing materials including websites signs and labels. But they cannot refer to their operation or transitional products as “organic”, “organically grown”, “organically raised”, or “organically produced”. For products being shipped out of province the only acceptable phrases are “in transition” or “ transitional” or “in conversion”. The word “organic” cannot be included in any of these claims.

Q: What type of signage may farms in transition use?
A: A farming operation in transition or conversion is not “organic” and must not mislead consumers with false organic claims. For example, a transitioning farm, certified by a COABC regional CB, may not call itself “Joe’s Organic farm” or use the word “organic” “organically grown”, “organically raised”, “organically produced” or similar words, including abbreviations of, symbols for and phonetic renderings of those words, in any signage. The British Columbia Certified Organic Program allows “in transition/conversion to organic” claims on signs, labels, and other marketing tools to be used by transitioning operations. However, for operations shipping out of the province, this phrasing is not acceptable to the Canadian Organic Regime. Transitioning operations may not use either the provincial or national organic logos. Check with your CB if they have a transitional logo you can use.

Q: How should I market transitional organic products?
A: Label your products as transitional or in conversion and be sure to tell your story/journey to your customers. Some of the distributors, especially those who specialize in organics, may also be interested in your product if it fills a gap. Don’t hesitate to approach.

For more Organic Standards FAQs, visit COABC’s Grow Organic Toolkit.


Rochelle Eisen is a standards junkie who has been working in organics for close to 30 years, as well as with other certification systems. Like Einstein, she believes “What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right” and that assurance programs are a means to level the ecological playing field.

 

Young Agrarians Land Matching

in 2016/Fall 2016/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship
Farmer in field at certified organic farm, black and white

Darcy Smith

The Shifting Paradigm of Land Access in Southern BC

At Blue Heron Organic Farm on Vancouver Island, Kris Chand and his wife Maria had been farming organically for several decades. The couple was starting to think about retiring; at the same time, they saw a rising demand for organic food. Happy with the size of their own farm business but wanting to provide opportunities to young farmers and establish a succession plan, they turned to a solution that increasing numbers of farmers and land owners are adopting (1) — they leased out an unused field after attending a Young Agrarians Land Linking Workshop.

Kris had always wanted the piece of land next to their farm that they’d originally bought as a buffer to be managed organically. “By leasing it, we could ensure that the land next door to us would be consistent with our philosophy. It is something that is important to us, that we as a society increase sustainable agriculture, particularly that which practices the organic way of doing things,” Kris says. “Young agrarians have one heck of a time getting access to land. We wanted to make it possible for somebody.”

Certified Organic Fields at Halt & Harrow Farm

He’s right – the number one struggle identified by new and young farmers in southern BC is the prohibitively high cost of land. Land and housing prices are some of the highest in Canada and areas with good access to markets, such as the Lower Mainland, far exceed what a new farmer can make off the land base. Many of the younger generation, just entering the job or housing market, can scarcely afford condos, much less an acreage that will support a thriving farm business.

Yet the desire to farm, to find a piece of land and put down roots and build a successful business, keeps growing. Leasing land gives new and young farmers the opportunity to get their farm businesses off the ground without the high cost of buying land or the necessity of moving away from friends, family, and markets to find cheaper land. The majority of farmers in BC are age 55 and up, and less than 5% are 35 and younger. (2) 66% of farmers plan to retire in the next 10 years, and almost half of retiring farmers don’t have a succession plan. (3) Leasing land provides an option for farmers like Kris, who want to ensure their land continues to be farmed into the future.

Leasing land is a real, viable solution — however, it comes with its own set of unique challenges. Namely, how do farmers and land owners find each other, and how do they establish a successful land match that is beneficial in the long run for both parties and the land?

Tractor in field at Salt & Harrow Farm

Enter the Young Agrarians Land Matching Program. The program, first of its kind in BC, is adapted from Quebec’s successful Banque de Terres (Land Bank), which has been matching farmers to land for several years (most recently finding homes for a farmer growing hops andanother who makes maple syrup). Young Agrarians has teamed up with the City of Surrey to roll out the Land Matching pilot in the Lower Mainland and develop an online U-Map registry for land seekers and land owners.

In this hands-on, personalized model, a Land Matcher screens farmers and potential land opportunities, ensuring that farmers are business ready and the land is suited for agriculture. Then, much like a dating service, the Land Matcher connects farmers and land owners who have similar visions and needs. If there’s a spark, the Land Matcher facilitates a “dating” process, where the farmer and land owner get to know each other and start to map out their land agreement. From there, the farmer and land owner draw up a legal arrangement with the Land Matcher’s help, which is then reviewed by a lawyer.

For program participants, much of the especially finicky legwork has already been established, including navigating the regulatory, zoning, and other farm specific issues surrounding leasing land. Farmers and land owners make use of resources such as guides and checklists to support them through the land matching process, as well as lease templates, saving valuable time trying to figure out if, for example, a leasing farmer will be able to live on the property, how much of an investment it will be to farm there, and whose responsibility it is to manage what components of the property. This helps reduce stumbling blocks for farmers and land owners who simply don’t have hours to spend researching the ins and outs of setting up a stable land agreement.

Certified Organic Vegetable CSA at Salt & Harrow

While the program is in its pilot year and providing services in the Lower Mainland, the ultimate goal is to provide an on-going matchmaking service across Southern BC – and successfully create land matches that lead to hundreds more acres of sustainably farmed land.

Kris would love to see that happen. He successfully found a young farmer to lease his land when he connected with Sara Dent, Young Agrarians Co-Founder and BC Coordinator, who put Kris in touch with Seann Dory. The new farm business, Salt & Harrow Farm, is now mid-way through its first season, selling a dazzling array of gourmet veggies through a CSA and at markets across Vancouver Island and Vancouver. To those in his situation, Kris says “I would encourage other farmers, especially in the organic sector, who are about to retire or have existing farmland that they can’t manage, to think in terms of the barriers that motivated young agrarians have – and try to make it possible for them to do it.”

Got Land?

Farmers: Looking for land? Ready to start a farm business?
Land Owners: Have land? Want someone to farm it?
We’re looking for you! Young Agrarians is piloting a Land Matching service for 2016-2017 in the Fraser Valley – Lower Mainland and is reaching out to farmers and land owners to find viable farmland opportunities and facilitate the connection and agreement process with business-ready farmers.

If you’re interested or would like more information, please contact Darcy Smith at land@youngagrarians.org


The Young Agrarians Land Matching Program is a collaboration with Quebec’s Banque de Terres (Land Bank) and a partnership with the City of Surrey. Funding is provided by Vancity and the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia. Young Agrarians is a partnership with FarmFolk CityFolk.

Darcy Smith is the Young Agrarians Land Matcher for the Lower Mainland. A farm enthusiast and backyard gardener, she wears many hats in the farming community – in addition to her work on land matching with Young Agrarians, she is COABC’s communications officer and editor of this publication.

All photos: Salt & Harrow Farm

References:
(1) Statistics Canada. Census of Agriculture. 2011. Figure 11: Land tenure as a proportion of total farm area, Canada, 1976 to 2011.
(2) Statistics Canada. Census of Agriculture. 2011. Table 004-0017 – Census of Agriculture, number of farm operators by sex, age and paid non-farm work, Canada and provinces, every 5 years, CANSIM.
(3) CFIB, Business Succession Planning Survey, Agri-busi- ness results, Mar. – May 2011, 602 survey responses.

Farming on the Edge at WoodGrain Farm

in Fall 2016/Farmer Focus/Grow Organic/Organic Stories
WWOOFers at Woodgrain

Jonathan Knight

If you walk out the back door of the little blue farmhouse at WoodGrain Farm, past the acre of market gardens and the old log outbuildings and barns, and back through the forest high along the banks of the Skeena River, there is wilderness. This is real wilderness, where one could follow ancient footpaths of the Gitxsan people and century-old telegraph trails hundreds of kilometers into the heart of the Sacred Headwaters, from where the three great salmon rivers of northern BC, the Skeena, Stikine, and Nass, flow.

I’ve always been drawn to places on the edge, interested in the transition between where one place ends and the next begins, whether a seashore or a mountainside. This valley is very much where the last patchwork of rural habitation meets the wide open wilderness of the northwest.

I wasn’t always planning on being a farmer, but knew I would one day end up on a homestead in a wild place. Yet I was aware that once you choose to live deliberately on a piece of land, you don’t do much else, and I had other lives to live first. During time spent living and travelling around Europe and India in my early twenties, I explored my relationship with food, particularly drawn to old methods of craft food production, culminating in an apprenticeship in organic bread making.

Spring Garden at Woodgrain Farm
Spring Garden at Woodgrain. Credit: Jonathan Knight

I’ve always been drawn to places on the edge. This valley is where the last patchwork of rural habitation meets the wide open wilderness of the northwest.”

The apprenticeship was followed by a couple of years cycling and WWOOFing across Canada, after which I returned to BC and opened the popular True Grain Bread in Cowichan Bay. In the second year the bakery installed a stone mill, which shortened the links between the farmer and the baker, opening up a treasure trove of heirloom grains and the opportunity to work with local farmers to get grain growing on Vancouver Island. As passionate as I am about craft bread making, I still felt the strong pull backwards, towards the very basics—the grain, or seed, and the soil. In 2008 the bakery was transitioned to its present owners, and I set off with my then-partner on another bicycle odyssey of rural Canada.

If you trace the line on the map, Highway 16 heads northwest out of Prince George where it leaves the interior plateau and passes into the broad, pastoral Bulkley Valley. Past Smithers, the Bulkley flows into the Skeena, and the highway makes an abrupt left to follow the river’s course southwest to Terrace and the coast. At this confluence of the rivers, the northernmost point on the Yellowhead, lie the villages and settlements that comprise the Hazeltons. Instead of following the highway downstream, turning right to follow the Skeena due north for 20km will bring you to the Kispiox Valley, the most northern reach of the Agricultural Land Reserve west of the Rockies and, at one point, home to the second oldest Farmers’ Institute in BC.

When we first pedalled through these parts, we were struck by the mountains and open spaces of the Bulkley Valley, and by the vibrant youthful community around Smithers. We returned that fall with the intent of looking for land, and people kept telling us “you have to check out the Kispiox Valley” in a way that sounded almost mystical. In a practical sense, the Kispiox enjoys a temperate coastal influence from the Skeena, which makes it noticeably warmer than Smithers just an hour to the east, but with not nearly the precipitation of Terrace two hours to the west. It felt like the right balance for making the most of the shorter but more intense northern growing season.

Red Fife Wheat at Woodgrain Farm
Red Fife Wheat. Credit: Jonathan Knight

It also fit another important criteria. I didn’t want to end up living just somewhere along a highway, where there is the tendency to drive into town whenever you need something or are feeling social. The Kispiox Valley is definitely a place unto itself, with a strong character and community. Beyond the Gitxsan village at the Kispiox River’s confluence with the Skeena, the valley is home to about 200 folks of mostly rancher/logger or back-to-the-lander origin, with a thriving community hall and annual rodeo and music festival.

The valley was first farmsteaded about a hundred years ago, and this farm was one of the original staked. It had been sitting gracefully fallow for about 30 years when we found it, and began the work of slowly bringing it back to life. A fair number of valley folk today have roots on this farm, and the support we’ve had from our neighbours since the beginning has been immeasurable. Wilfred, an old-time neighbour who tilled our first garden space for us, remembers running and hiding under the bed when the valley’s first tractor was being unloaded on the farm. That rusty W4 is here still.

When I’m asked for advice by prospective new farmers, it is not to rush into too much, too soon. That first year, we helped get a fledgling Hazelton Farmers’ Market going, planted a modest market garden on freshly tilled old pasture (with no rototiller), bought the sweetest Jersey cow named Elsie, sheep for the pasture, pigs for the tillage, and a hundred laying hens. Never mind that the buildings were all in need of serious repair, the house was decrepit, there wasn’t an intact line of fence on the place, we had no haying equipment, and I was also committed to help get a small social enterprise bakery in town off the ground. Whether the decisions we made to jump in with both feet had much of a bearing on it or not, the outcome was that by the second year I was alone on the farm.

WoodGrain Farm at sunset
WoodGrain Farm. Credit: Jolene Swain

Well, not quite alone. There were always the WWOOFers. My experiences WWOOFing have been invaluable in a lot of what I have learned how to do (and not to do!), and I am privileged to be able to offer that in return. No matter how hectic things can feel at times, I try and always keep in mind that the experience this person is having here may just well be changing their lives. It had changed mine.

More permanent help soon arrived. Andi and Ryan came fresh off a SOIL apprenticeship and partnered for a season of market gardening, where we quickly out-produced the demand in Hazelton and started to regularly attend the Bulkley Valley Farmers’ Market down the road in Smithers. Next came Angelique and Lynden, first as WWOOFers and then for two seasons as market gardeners. They, with their new daughter born on the farm, are moving on this spring. But, as with Andi and Ryan and their new twins, to another place just around the corner. The valley’s population has grown by seven.

Jonathan and his hand built grain mill
Jonathan and his hand built grain mill. Credit: Marjorie Harris

Going into this seventh season of farming, the balance between farming as a business and homesteading as a life choice feels more settled. Growing systems are figured out, perennial weeds are getting worn down, fences are keeping animals put, buildings are staying up, the farm is established at the markets, and farm earnings are forecastable. It’s now easier to make deliberate choices, about where to focus and what to cut back on. Hay needs to be brought in for the winter, but otherwise the balance can be tipped from side to side. Grow more for the markets, or work on improving self-sufficiency on the farm. Farm to earn money, or farm to reduce the money needed to be earned. Feed and nurture your community, or feed and nurture your soul.

When I manage to stand back far enough to get a good vantage point of the farm as a whole, it is neither here nor there. Not what is was in the past, and not what it will become in the future. I have incredible admiration for the work that was done by the original homesteaders, clearing the land and building the hand-hewn log house with an axe, but I wouldn’t wish to be in their shoes for a moment. My respect is not diminished for the later generation who raised cattle here because they might have sprayed Tordon, those were different times. The thistles survived it nevertheless. Nowadays, the soils are healthy and being improved with each season. The fertility of the fields is passed through the animals to the market garden. Innovations like drip irrigation, electric fences and hay balers are the envy of those who have farmed here before us.

The farm provides our vegetables and fruit, grains and bread, dairy and cheese, meat and eggs, and our livelihoods. But others will come and go, and hopefully settle close by, and this place will continue to evolve with the people who live here. The farm will remain on the edge, of what it has been and what it might become.


Jonathan Knight organically farms WoodGrain Farm with his partner Jolene Swain.

*The photo of WoodGrain farm that appeared on the cover of the Fall 2016 BC Organic Grower was taken by Jolene Swain and attributed in error to Jonathan Knight.

The Potential for Organics in the North Peace Region

in 2016/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Indigenous Food Systems/Organic Stories/Summer 2016
Leslie Jardine on her organic farm in the Peace Region

Sage Birley

Three years ago I returned to my family’s organic farm to help my father. I had just completed three years of schooling in Vancouver and as a young activist I was dealing with my first severe cycle of burnout. Oddly enough, it was that burnout that led me back to the farm. After learning about environmental destruction and the concerning state of the world while struggling to do anything that created any meaningful change, I began to see organic farming as one of the best examples of environmental sustainability and stewardship.

I have had the privilege of interviewing and learning from a variety of organic producers in the Peace Region. I’ve toured their farms and picked their brains learning more with every conversation. One of the most important questions I ask farmers is always “why organics?” A recent conversation with current President of the Peace River Organic Producers Association (PROPA) struck a particular chord. Jerry Kitt is a mixed operation organic farmer producing primarily meats near Goodfare, Alberta. He has been a member of PROPA since its second year in 1990, and he explained to me that, with a background in ecology and zoology, he had always believed in organics.

“Once you start going back and working with natural systems, things just flourish; I think that is what people are realizing,” he said. “You have to be connected to your soil, to the plants that grow on it, and the people that buy that product, what ever it is, because those people are in need of that connection, too. You just have to feel good about the food that you produce and you eat.” Over the years, Kitt has gained a wealth of knowledge and a sense of community from being a part of PROPA: “Knowing you are part of a bigger picture, seeing land that is being farmed in a sustainable manner while watching families continue to grow on the farm creates a really positive vibe.”

You have to be connected to your soil, to the plants, and the people that buy that product, because those people are in need of that connection too.”

Kitt has been selling organic meats at local farmers’ markets for around 24 years. He stressed that customers did far more than just support his business “I think of the people that used to come visit me 20 years ago and buy organic food. They carried their little kids up to my booth and I’d show them pictures of the farm and now 20 years later they are all adults and they are coming with their children. I feel really good about that. I’m helping that family grow, nourishing them the best I could and they come back beautiful people and continue to support what I do.”

He added, “Organic farming has made my whole life really worthwhile. If I was on my deathbed and I looked back at what I’ve done, I would feel good about what I did, all the families that I fed and that have grown up healthy and wiser. For me, organic farming was the wisest choice that I ever made in my life.”

Leslie Jardine on her organic farm in  the Peace Region

New Organic Farmers in the Peace Region

The recent downturn in the fossil fuels industry has been extremely difficult for many people throughout the BC and Alberta Peace. Meanwhile, food prices continue to rise and farmers continue to age out, threatening food security further. In considering the opportunity he saw for young people in organics Kitt stated, “I think that it offers long term security, it offers a sustainable source of income, and organic farming creates community. I think there are a lot of young families out there that live on farms who are looking towards organic production as a means to be able to generate an income, and feed good people. For them, their whole future is based on organics.”

Recently I have been working with a community of young market gardeners whose futures are tied to organic farming – but in the BC Peace Region that future is under threat. Leslee Jardine and Colin Meek are first year organic farmers working hard to demonstrate what the Peace River Valley is capable of. Jardine is operating a small one acre market garden while Meek grows organic sunflowers and hemp.
Jardine, age 24, has been gardening since she was three, and has been operating her own garden for the past four years. After selling extra produce to coworkers, she got the push from supportive community members to take the plunge into fulltime market gardening.

Jardine explained that she and Meek “were both in the oil and gas industry for a while and decided that we just didn’t like the way that was going and what our government was doing. Then the whole decision about Site C being approved pushed both of us to change.” Jardine went onto explain that Meek is a third generation organic farmer and had been planning on taking on the family farm but the Site C approval “made us want to go hard and show everybody what the Peace River Valley can do and what is at stake.”

With the construction of the Site C Dam looming in the distance many farmers including Jardine and Meek’s operation are currently under threat of being flooded.

Canoes along the Peace River in the fertile Peace River Valley

Saying “Yes” to Food Security

According to Wendy Holm, a professional agrologist who looked at the agricultural impacts of the Site C Dam, the Peace River Valley could feed one million people annually. Jardine, Meek and others are determined to demonstrate that. “I want the Peace Valley to be saved, preserved, and thanked I guess. I just don’t think people appreciate what you can get from this valley, and what is at stake. This valley is one in a million.”

Jardine is happy to be a part of a small community of growers banding together to demonstrate the alternative future that could be grown in the Northern BC Peace Region. “I don’t believe there will ever be a loss of jobs when it comes to farming. Food is one of the only things that people really need. You can survive without so many things but you can’t survive without food. We can only grow this market, just imagine if all the farmland in the Peace region was utilized to its full potential,” said Jardine.

The unique micro climate of the east to west valley, the rich alluvial soils, and abundant irrigation opportunities means that the Peace River Valley is capable of producing crops that cannot be easily produced elsewhere in North Eastern BC. Jardine along with other market gardeners in the river valley have successfully grown various melons, squash, and corn along with a wide variety of heritage vegetables that cannot be found in a typical grocery store. So far the community has been extremely supportive. Jardine is constantly bombarded with encouragement and questions about where to buy her vegetables and already began signing up her first customers for vegetable boxes last August.

I’m honored to be a part of a community of young growers that is fighting to preserve an incredible valley with their hands in the soil and their arguments on display on farmers market tables. “Farming is a way to create change and this summer is going to be an eye opener for so many people who just don’t know what we can grow in this valley. This valley is priceless and you just can’t replace what it can provide,” stressed Jardine.

Blossoms on organic farm in Peace Region

Jardine and others aren’t saying no to Site C. They are saying yes to a future where young people can make a living while turning the Peace River Valley into a leader of Northern food security. Jardine echoes a sentiment of many young growers when she said “before, we weren’t doing anything, we weren’t making any change, or having an impact, but I feel like with farming and young people getting into farming we are deciding that we aren’t sticking with the norm, we are helping people and we are feeding people by using what we have around us in nature.”

At one time the Peace River region was largely self sufficient and now I’m thrilled to see people taking the lead in demonstrating that it could be a reality again. As I write this in my cabin at my garden, seven kilometers down river from the Site C construction site I can hear equipment working in the valley. My thoughts go to Leslee Jardine and Colin Meek who currently have equipment doing test drilling for BC Hydro on their property, a few meters from their field and home. At times I feel hopeless, but then I think of them and other growers around the world and I am comforted to know that soon they will be waking up and getting to work doing their little part to grow a brighter future.

Learn More


Sage Birley is an agricultural journalist, 4th generation farmer, and 2nd year market gardener living on his family’s 101 year old, now certified organic, farm in North Eastern BC’s Peace River Region. As an activist and a community developer, he sees sustainable agriculture as the ultimate way to grow the change the world needs.

All photos: Sage Birley

Woolly Bear Farm

in Farmer Focus/Organic Stories
Liz at Woolly Bear Farm

Hannah Roessler

A New Farmer Struggles to Go From Caterpillar to Butterfly

I have been pretty amazed by every farmer I’ve ever met — their competence, determination and impressive suite of skills.

But now that I am a new farmer myself, I find myself in awe of Liz Perkins of Woolly Bear Farm, a one-acre market garden in Cordova Bay, near Victoria. While I have dabbled seriously in farming for years, exploring various permutations, styles, and types, I only really jumped in with both boots once I had an established, relatively low-risk scenario within which I could safely start farming “on my own.”

Liz, on the other hand, found a raw piece of land and just went for it — and her efforts and risk-taking have really paid off.

Challenges Aplenty

We all know how difficult it can be as a new farmer just starting out. It’s always the same things that get in the way — infrastructure costs are overwhelming, mistakes are plentiful, and land is hard to come by.

Most people don’t get into farming because they love business and marketing; they do it because they love to grow things. Starting up your farm is fun and exciting, but like any new small business it can also be a financial quagmire, layered with intense knowledge requirements and drastically shifting parameters. Not for the faint of heart.

But uncertainty is something that you just have to be comfortable with in order to be a good farmer. And Liz is a darn good farmer. She spent a year in Vancouver working with food through a social justice lens, an entry point to farming that is common among many of the younger farming generation.

She then spent a couple of years working on urban agriculture initiatives, but soon realized that she was not as passionate about educating people about farming as she had originally thought. What she really wanted was to just do it herself — to farm and produce an abundance of food.

Weeding at Woolly Bear Farm

A Farmer’s Education

She applied to the UBC Farm Program and to the Linnaea Ecological Gardening Program, ultimately settling on Linnaea, a farm school located on Cortes Island, BC, where she attended their holistic, full-immersion permaculture program.

“Being at Linnaea changed my life. It was incredible,” says Liz with a smile. The in-depth training offered through Linnaea along with the community-building aspect left a deep impression on her, and she knew she was on the road to farming forever.

While Linnaea Farm School set the course, an apprenticeship with Rachel Fisher and Saanich Organics helped Liz put the structure in place for a successful business.

Says Liz, “I learned an incredible amount during my time with Saanich Organics. Rachel taught me how to grow an abundance of vegetables, and I learned so much about the business aspect of farming.”

After her apprenticeship, she optimistically stuck an ad in a couple of local papers asking to rent an acre of land for farming in exchange for $500 per year, a box of veggies a week, and of course, farm tax status. She had several replies from interested land-owners and says that overall, it was not too difficult to find someone willing to rent to a start-up farmer.

Fast Track to Certification

Despite the perception that organic certification can be difficult for leasing farmers, according to Liz, it’s not as hard as new growers may think. “There had been nothing growing in that field for the six years that my landlord had lived there prior to 2011, so he signed an affidavit guaranteeing that no prohibited substances were applied to the land in the last three years. This meant I could fast-track to organic certification after one year on the land,” says Liz.

She adds, “The fact that I might get kicked off the land at any point is a bummer of a risk, but I don’t think I would have been able to farm without being able to sell at Moss Street Market and Saanich Organics. Both institutions have been a big marketing and moral support network for me. So far, no regrets!”

Weeding at Woolly Bear Farm

However, acquiring the land and the certification were only the first steps, and Liz went on to encounter more challenges. Her original business plan underestimated her initial set-up costs, and she is ever-grateful to her parents for helping out financially until the business gets on its feet. The first year, her farm’s humble sales of $10,000 were not enough to cover expenses, and in year two she just broke even – doubling sales to $20,000. She is now in her third year of farming and can smell financial freedom with a prediction of $30,000 in sales and of course much-reduced expenses.

Hard Won Advice

Says Liz, “Some of the things I had to do to start out, I just didn’t consider. I had to spend so much time preparing and setting up the farm, I had no income to live on.

“I feel like I wasted a lot of money on failed experiments. I got the wrong tiller, tried to use solely pond water for my irrigation (which didn’t work), bought huge coolers to act as my cold room, I had to learn how to build because everything I built kept getting blown down….

There’s a lot to consider when starting out, and I think that if I knew what I know now, I’d start out differently, and save a lot of money!”

The best part of this conversation is that Liz is laughing. She is taking it all in stride. Even while she’s on leased land, she’s just planted a section of blueberries on her rented acre. When I comment on her impressive ability to take chances, her bravery, she jokes that maybe she’s really just a bit crazy. But there is no denying that her farm looks really good. Liz Perkins is the picture of success for a new farmer, and she’s doing a great job at Woolly Bear Farms. I think she’s got the right recipe to make it work. Maybe we all need a dash of “a little bit of crazy” to be successful farmers.


Learn more about Liz’s path to farming independence:

Linnaea Farm

Saanich Organics

Hannah Roessler has farmed in Nicaragua, Washington, and BC on permaculture farms, polyculture cafetals, organic market farms and a biodynamic vineyard. She has an MA in Environmental Studies, and her research is focused on climate change and small-scale organic farming. She currently farms on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island. 

Wise and Winsome at Wind Whipped Farm

in Farmer Focus/Organic Stories
Alex and Virginie at Wind Whipped Farm

Hannah Roessler

Stepping Up to the Challenge

The wind was quiet and the sun was shining as I headed down William Head Road towards Wind Whipped Farm in Metchosin on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. I was on my way to meet Alex Fletcher and Virginie Lavallee-Picard, the two dynamic and incredibly sweet young farmers who are the proud owners and founders of Wind Whipped Farm.

Alex and Virginie met and became friends at Victoria’s Pearson College where they were both students. Soon afterwards, they attended the College of the Atlantic in Maine, a small alternative school that focuses on Human Ecology, and is home to a 7-acre organic farm.

“I’m not from a farming background. I’m more of an opportunist,” laughs Virginie. “I was more interested in free veggies than the actual idea of farming.” However, one year working on the farm led to another. In her third year, she moved on to the farm and, it became clear that Virginie was hooked.

Finding His Way Back to the Farm

Alex didn’t consider farming a realistic career path. “I never really considered it as an option. My parents had come from farming families in Saskatchewan and they sort of saw it as a dead-end with the increasing expansion of industrial agriculture, along with a heavy workload and low income.” But despite his family history, Alex got involved in farming at the College, feeling it would give him more clout in his interests in Environmental Policy to have experience working on an organic farm. Something tells me that having the chance to work with Virginie out in the fields wasn’t too bad either.

With a strong love for food systems, the environment, and each other, they moved back to Metchosin to Alex’s parents’ property, trying to decide their next steps. They secured a contract with Pearson College to research the viability of incorporating more locally grown produce into the cafeteria at the school. It proved to be a crucial turning point for these two farm-dabblers, as a result of a conversation with Tom Henry, the editor of Small Farm Canada Magazine. As Virginie remembers, “He said that if we want the college to have more local produce, we should grow it ourselves.”

Tomatoes at Wind Whipped FarmSquash at Wind Whipped Farm

 

 

 

 

“He outright challenged us. If you want it, then do it!” Alex laughs at the memory. “He even said that he would come by to give us advice on a good location and till up my parents’ land so we could get started.”

Reflecting on this conversation spurred these two thoughtful environmentalists to consider their options. They realized that one of the largest barriers to accessing local food in their community was the lack of people growing it. They had access to land, an existing cabin on the land that they could fix up, cheap rent and a deep love for working outside. And they already had some farming experience under their belt from their time at College of the Atlantic. It seemed as though it couldn’t be easier to make the transition to farming!

Farming: A Five Year Plan

They broke ground in 2008, and through to 2009 engaged in what they call “part-time, super-low-budget farming.” “It’s hard to know just what we were doing back then,” says Alex as they both laugh. Certainly there was a lot of trial-and-error, but they did manage to produce a yield and delivered their produce by bike trailer to their local market.

In 2010 they took to the road on their bikes to tour farms of eastern Canada, learning how other farmers were “making it work.” They eagerly absorbed all the farming tips they could, from different ways to clean salad mix to how to build a whizbang garden cart. They found the opportunity to learn from others invaluable, and returned home eager to continue working on Wind Whipped and implement some of their new-found knowledge. They started out with a 5-year plan and began investing in infrastructure—greenhouses, fencing, rototiller, a truck—all the pieces that they needed to be successful in their venture.

In 2011 they began The Local Food Box Program. Members pay $425 for a 16-week veggie box program. The boxes are delivered to two dropoff locations in Victoria or available for pick up on the farm. Wind Whipped also works with partners from Parry Bay Sheep Farm, Stillmeadow Farm, Winter Creek Farm, Ridgeview Farms and SRS Farms to offer a meat box option containing pork, chicken and lamb, and/or an egg option. They feel that this type of collaboration really adds value to their operation, and as Alex explains, “We access a larger group of customers, and create another local marketing opportunity for a few Metchosin producers. It’s great to be able to partner with other farmers in this way.”

In Search of Community

The land of Wind Whipped Farm is a gorgeous and peaceful 10-acre parcel on the ocean, worth far more today than when it was purchased in the early 80s. For new young farmers starting out, it might seem as though Alex and Virginie have everything they need to be successful—but it’s still not easy. As Viriginie explains, “we are so very lucky compared to others, but we still have land and housing barriers. We can’t have housing for workers, and our cabin is more of a seasonal dwelling than a home. Farm-worker housing is really needed.”

And more than that, they are lacking in what they really need: a strong agricultural community. Alex explains that, “We just don’t feel as though we are quite part of a thriving agricultural community. There are a few really big pieces missing. There are some great farmers around, but not a lot of young farmers who can continue the farming tradition in this area, because prices are so high. Also, there is no Agricultural Community Plan, something that we sorely need.” Virginie agrees. “How do we have conversations around keeping new farmers in Metchosin? As far as I know, this conversation isn’t happening at the municipal level. If we value the agricultural landscape, we need to actively support new growers to live here.”

If we value the agricultural landscape, we need to actively support new growers to live here.”

After a wonderful morning full of interesting conversation, I stroll up the hill from their cabin and leave the farm, loaded with squash, garlic and tomatoes. It’s clear to me how the problems these two have outlined can spell trouble for a future generation of farmers in this community. But it’s also clear how lucky Metchosin is lucky to have these articulate and motivated young farmers to help point things in the right direction.


Hannah Roessler has farmed in Nicaragua, Washington, and BC on permaculture famers, polyculture cafetals, organic market farms and a biodynamic vineyard. She has an MA in Environmental Studies, and her research is focused on climate change and small-scale organic farming. She currently farms on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island.

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