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Young Agrarians Land Matching

in 2016/Current Issue/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.

The BC Seed Trials

in Crop Production/Current Issue/Fall 2016/Seeds
BC Seed Trials Field Day in Chilliwack

Shauna MacKinnon

Scaling Up Ecological Seed Production

British Columbia is home to a vegetable industry worth $2.8 billion annually, but nearly every seed planted to grow those veggies is produced outside of Canada. While local, organic vegetable production is on the upswing, seed production is lagging. That may not appear to be a problem when browsing through a thick seed catalogue, but behind the seeming abundance of seed available there is a narrowing of diversity and neglect of varieties that perform well under organic or non-industrial agricultural practices.

The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security was initiated four years ago with a mission to conserve and advance seed biodiversity, keep seed in the public domain, and promote ecological seed production. In BC, passionate seed growers have long been at work in support of these same ideals, but the lack of commercial-scale seed production still prevented most BC farmers from using BC seed in their market operations. To fill this gap, the Bauta Initiative, carried out by FarmFolk CityFolk in BC, is focusing on increasing the quality, quantity and diversity of ecologically grown BC seed.

Inspecting golden beets at UBC Farm
Inspecting golden beets at UBC Farm Photo: Chris Thoreau

We do not need to look far for inspiration. Just over the border, Washington State has a well-established and very profitable seed production industry. Like the coastal areas of BC, Washington’s cool valleys west of the Cascades are one of the best areas in the world to grow seed for cool weather crops like spinach, beets, and brassicas.

❥ Washington state’s Brassica vegetable seed crops gross from $1,500 to over $6,500 per acre (1)
❥ Washington growers earn over $5 million on beet seed crop alone (2)
❥ The vegetable seed industry is a significant contributor to the diversity and economic viability of Washington state’s agricultural community

Going from a small number of experienced seed growers producing seed for backyard gardeners to seed production for commercial growers is not a simple transition. The BC Seed Trials project is helping to facilitate that transition by harnessing the passion and experience of BC seed growers and rising interest in diversifying local agricultural production to lay the foundation for a BC seed industry.

Beets in bins ready for evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.
Beets in bins ready for evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.

BC Seed Trials

If your goal is to grow seed for the best performing and regionally adapted crops, it is crucial to know which existing varieties perform best under local conditions. The BC Seed Trials project is seeking to do just that by trialing numerous varieties of beets, spinach, and kale on farms throughout BC to better understand which varieties are best suited to BC seed production. The three-year project began in early 2016 through a collaboration between the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm, the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, and FarmFolk CityFolk.

The project includes variety trials, seed quality tests, and field training aimed at engaging farmers in seed development. The research is participatory, which means BC vegetable farmers will be directly involved in growing and evaluating the crops. Academics and farmers will be working together to help identify varieties that perform best in local conditions and are good candidates for local seed production.

The first year is off to a strong start with 14 farm participants primarily representing growing conditions in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. BC Seed Trials Lead Researcher, Alexander Lyon, along with UBC Farm Seed Hub Coordinator, Mel Sylvestre, are overseeing the organic “mother” site at UBC Farm, where a full set of trial varieties (in triple replicates) will be grown, while Renee Prasad from the University of the Fraser Valley is coordinating growing efforts at Wisbey Farm in Chilliwack, the BC Seed Trials conventional “mother” site.

Mel & Alex evaluating beets at UBC Farm. Credits: Chris Thorea
Mel & Alex evaluating beets at UBC Farm. Credits: Chris Thoreau

The “baby” sites on participating farms are trialing a sub-set of beet, spinach, and kale varieties. Each participating farmer observes and records how well each variety grows (germination, vigour, presence of disease, pest damage) and the quality of the harvestable product (upright stature, uniformity, visual appeal). This information is collected and provided to the BC Seed Trials research team, which will analyze the data to determine the best performers.

At the end of three years, the BC Seed Trials will have helped to determine the best stock varieties for seed production in a number of crops that are well suited to our climate. But perhaps more importantly, a network of BC farmers will be well versed in the trial design and crop evaluation that is crucial for successful seed trials and plant breeding. These farmers will have practiced the first steps of choosing plants with the best genetics for improving varieties and growing superior seed as we work to scale up BC ecological seed production.

Golden beet evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.
Golden beet evaluation. Credit: Alex Lyon.

BC Eco Seed Co-op

A great complement to the BC Seed Trials in this endeavour is the BC Eco Seed Co-op. The BC Eco Seed Co-op was incorporated in 2014 in an effort to help BC seed growers scale up their seed production while marketing that seed on growers’ behalf.

The co-op allows growers to pool production and marketing resources while providing educational opportunities to growers to help them provide high-quality bulk seed to BC vegetable farmers. The BC Eco Seed Co-op represent a shift away from multiple individual seed companies selling packet seeds to backyard gardeners towards growers collectively growing bulk seed to sell to farmers.

Get Involved

If you are interested in being involved with the BC Seed Trials please get in touch as we will be expanding the number of farmers and regions involved next year. Even if you are not growing a seed trial crop you can still be a part of the research. Many of the BC Seed Trials farmers will be hosting field days this season to bring the experience and observations of the wider farming and chef communities into the research process. Join a field day and be a part of the discussion of what characteristics are most desirable for plant breeding in your area, how to select for these, and the importance of strengthening our local seed system.

Follow the research journey at the BC Seed Trials blog, on Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr.


The BC Seed Trials project is funded in part by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture through programs delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C. Additional funding is provided by the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm, the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, and Whole Foods Market.

Shauna MacKinnon has been working on food issues for over a decade, from running environmental campaigns to holding the position of BC outpost for the Canada Organic Trade Association. She recently joined the BC Seed Security Program, a collaboration between the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security and FarmFolk CityFolk.

Resources:

(1) http://mtvernon.wsu.edu/path_team/EM062E.pdf

(2) http://69.93.14.225/wscpr/LibraryDocs/BeetSeed2010. pdf

Organic Certification

in Current Issue/Fall 2016/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Standards
Certified Organic farmers at Golden Ears Farm

Michelle Tsutsumi

“More than a piece of paper, organic certification comes with a remarkable community”

Community members who visit local farmers’ markets are increasingly asking food growers very pointed questions such as, “Are you organic?” We hear that at least once every market – and it’s so much simpler to be able to answer with a clear “yes!”

Once we decided to engage in the organic certification process, it was a full-on commitment from everyone at Golden Ears Farm to compile the necessary information. It was an enjoyable exercise in learning about the historical context of the land – what had been planted before, for how long, and in what capacity. It also felt like coming full circle, as the farm had been certified organic in the past and was returning to it two decades later. Going through the process has been informative and inspiring for us to better our animal husbandry, crop planning, and record keeping.

Certification doesn’t mean that we’ve made it and now we can coast. Being certified organic provides the public with a commitment to uphold the minimum standards, and doesn’t hold food growers back from going beyond that. We are always looking for ways to grow food more ethically, both for the people involved and the land that we are on. We want to take care of this land (and water!) and acknowledge all that it provides for us.

Certified Organic farmers at Golden Ears Farm

The most meaningful part of the organic certification process has been the supportive and knowledgeable community that we’ve joined. The depth and diversity of knowledge amongst organic growers and processors in BC is phenomenal. And the amazing thing is that the overall atmosphere is one of collaboration and cooperation. Our regional certifying body hosts regular meetings with information sessions and discussions, and the annual conference hosted by the COABC is both a networking haven and time to geek out about agro-ecology (a winning combination).

A comment we hear frequently is that the certification process is too expensive. The base fee that goes to our certifying body is reasonable when one considers that it covers the administration of files and an annual site visit. COABC’s sliding scale membership is also incredibly fair, being based on gross annual organic sales. Our certification fees are less than 5% of our organic income, whether you look at gross or net income.

Certified Organic farmers at Golden Ears Farm

When considering certification fees, it is also important to recognize the tireless efforts of this grassroots, non-profit organization in advocating for organics on a provincial level. The COABC has helped BC be at the forefront of organic standards in Canada and has been dedicated to educating the public about organics and non-GMO growing. Golden Ears Farm sees the fees as being a public commitment to, and investment in, the values and philosophy of organic agro-ecology: supporting sustainable health and productivity of the ecosystem, growing food in an environmentally regenerative and socially responsible way, feeding the soil and promoting biodiversity.

At the beginning of the process, three years felt like a long time to become fully certified, and yet, here we are – in year three – and it has flown by. Some of our fields were considered certified in the first year; however, having the three years to become completely certified has allowed us to really settle into organics and the community that surrounds it.

We are grateful for the learning we have enjoyed through this process (even the rough times, which is often when the best learning takes place) and love the good people and friends that we have come to know through organics. Without a doubt, the choice to certify organic was a solid and indefatigable one.


Michelle Tsutsumi is a part of Golden Ears Farm in Chase, BC, looking after the market garden, 15-week CSA Program, and events with her partner Tristan Cavers and daughter Avé.

All photos: Abbie Wilson

The Potential for Organics in the North Peace Region

in 2016/Crop Production/Current Issue/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.

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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

Collective Marketing for Veggie Farmers

in 2016/Marketing/Organic Community/Spring 2016
Merville Organics Farmer Co-operative

Moss Dance

Get Your Produce in a Pile!

I was lucky to witness the flourishing of the Saanich Organics farming (and marketing!) co-operative when I lived and farmed on southern Vancouver Island. In their book All the Dirt: Reflections on Organic Farming, Saanich Organics farmers Robin Tunnicliffe, Heather Stretch, and Rachel Fisher describe an amusing scene—it may be familiar to you, too. Picture three stressed out, overworked farmers, hauling produce in small, worse-for-wear pick-ups—all of them headed to make deliveries to the same restaurants!

Back in 2012, they might as well have been describing me. At my new farm in the Comox Valley, I was spending four and a half hours every Tuesday delivering 25 CSA shares to members’ doorsteps after a morning of frantic harvesting and packing shares.

But that all changed when I met Arzeena Hamir and Neil Turner at Amara Farm in 2013.

As soon as we met, Arzeena and I started hatching plans for a growers’ co-operative. Thanks to those clever Saanich Organics farmers, I was feeling pretty excited about the idea of collective marketing by this time. The only issue was, we needed three members to start a co-op! So we began with a two-farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. We also took turns at the local farmers’ market where we sold each others’ produce under the Merville Organics banner. By uniting under Merville Organics, our marketing efforts could be more concise and targeted.

By 2015, several of our apprentices graduated onto their own farms, and some new young farmers were setting up shop in town. We finally had our founding member quorum and took the initial steps towards “inco-operating” through the BC Co-operative Association.

Merville Organics Farmer's Co-op

Why Collaborate?

I’m not going to lie: collaboration takes a lot of extra work at the beginning. Setting up tracking systems, establishing effective group dynamics, and doing the legwork of starting up a shared business is a huge commitment. It took many long meetings and volunteer hours from our members to get started. As we begin our second year, our co-operative still relies mostly on volunteer labour from our grower members to keep things running. For many farmers, co-operative or not, marketing comes at the end of a long list of things that just can’t wait, like thinning the carrots. Still, in our view, the benefits outweigh the challenges.

Despite the volunteer hours we spend running the co-op, our goal is to lessen the marketing workload on our members so they can spend more time farming. Here are a few of the best results of our work together:

Increased Marketing Reach

People power is real when it comes to marketing a farm—we’ve seen this time and again when our seven grower members combine their contacts in the community to spread the word about our products.

For example, when we post about our CSA on our co-op Facebook page, we can reach a portion of our 800 followers (thanks to Facebook’s limiting algorithms we can’t reach them all at once for free). If each member shares that post, we exponentially increase our online reach. Friends, family members, and co-workers who know us personally take an interest and spread the word for us. This kind of grassroots marketing is essential in small communities.

Abundance & Visual Appeal

Working together, we not only increase our marketing reach, we also increase the variety and consistency of the products we supply to our markets. A three-farm market table overflows with produce. This in turn revs up interest in our market stall—the more variety you’ve got, the more people you’re going to attract to your table!

Shared Infrastructure

Thanks to our marketing co-op, our new grower members are saving on farm start-up costs by sharing essential equipment such as a walk-in cooler, wash station, delivery vehicle, harvest totes, packaging materials, and co-op office. We hire a bookkeeper for the co-op which means financial record-keeping is much simpler for all of our members. As well, we share marketing resources—everything from printed materials to social advertising, thus reducing the cost and the workload for all.

Grower Member Specialization

Sharing in the larger tasks of operating a farm business means our grower members can specialize in roles that they enjoy and excel at such as customer relations, farmers’ markets, marketing, or sales tracking. The increased number of growers also enables each farmer to specialize in growing crops they have success with instead of trying to grow a full array of crops to ll their own CSA program. Several of our members have expertise in marketing and the co-operative as a whole gets to reap the benefits!

Merville Organics CSA

Harvesting Grassroots Media

We use three social media platforms and one in-person platform to get the word out about our CSA programs and our annual spring plant sale. During CSA season, we post our weekly blog to all of our social media platforms.

Facebook

Facebook is definitely the workhorse in our social media strategy. All of our members have active personal Facebook accounts, and this has definitely helped us to gain a good following on our Merville Organics Facebook page. It’s not all free, but it’s not expensive either. The reality is, Facebook doesn’t want you to get much exposure for free, especially if you’re running a business. That’s why we “boost” posts strategically to increase our reach at key times in the season.

Boosting Posts on Facebook

We boost Facebook posts 5-7 times per year, usually with a budget of $14-25 per boost. Here’s the break- down of our strategy:

  • Spring CSA launch
  • #CSADay
  • Spring CSA – one week before the sign up deadline
  • Spring plant sale announcement
  • Spring plant sale reminder (2-3 days before the event)
  • Fall CSA launch
  • Fall CSA – one week before the sign up deadline

Twitter

Developing a good following on Twitter can take a long time, and a bit more strategic thinking. If you really want to drive traffic to your Twitter feed, it’s important to re-tweet, post relevant content, and not just plug your sales. In our experience, Twitter isn’t a popular social media platform in our community—so it means our reach is a bit more far-flung and therefore doesn’t help much when we are selling CSA shares.

Instagram

Instagram is great for farms! We live in image-rich en- vironments—whether we’re growing microgreens or raising sheep—and people LOVE farm pictures. We use Instagram to build a story about our farms, who we are and what we are offering to our community. It’s not so much about hard sales with Instagram, it’s more about the slow process of relationship building.

“Like” Each Other

Our philosophy as a co-op is that there is no competi- tion, only more room for collaboration. We take this approach in social media too. When that amazing local yoghurt company is launching a new avour, or a new locally-owned feed & supply store is opening in town, share that news on your social media feeds!

Building this network of businesses who support each other’s work means we are creating fantastic new local economies where community members can clearly see where to redirect their dollars. Think of it as over-throwing the stodgy, competive capitalist system, one “Like” at a time.

In Person at Farmers’ Markets

If you’re running a CSA, potential members really appreciate the chance to talk to a real person and ask questions about the program. It also helps that we have solid weekly face-to-face connections with people at the market—that kind of trust helps people to take the leap to try something new. The marketing tactic on this one is so simple: put up a sign at your booth that says, “Ask us about our CSA program!”

Co-ops Love Co-ops!

Don’t be shy about reaching out to the co-ops in your community if you’re starting your own collective venture! The beauty of co-ops is that they are creating a culture of collaboration, and what could be more exciting than more people joining in?

Suggestions for Starting Your Own Marketing Co-operative

If you are interested in starting your own marketing co-op, here are a few suggestions:

  • Get together and host a meeting with farmers in your community who you think you would enjoy working with (liking each other IS essential)
  • Look for common ground: What challenges are growers facing? Do you have shared goals & values?
  • Brainstorm opportunities: What could you do together that you can’t do alone?
  • List needs & resources: What do you have that you can share? What do folks need to improve their farm businesses?
  • Start small: collaborate on something simple & manageable in the beginning and expand on your successes

Moss Dance is an organic farmer & founding member of the Merville Organics Growers’ Co-operative. She also works with the Young Agrarians on Vancouver Island.

Photo credit: Boomer Merritt

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Kenta Farm: for the Love of Weeds

in Farmer Focus/Organic Stories
Kenta Family Organic Farm

Hannah Roessler

The No-Weed Philosophy of Pender Island’s Kikuchi Family

Boarding the ferry early one summer morning en route to a unique family farm on Pender Island, I am reminded how lucky we are to live in beautiful, diverse British Columbia. I am on my way to meet Arthur Kikuchi, to see if the rumors are true – a farmer who doesn’t weed.I meet up with Arthur at the Pender Island school garden rather than his farm because it is Sunday, which means soccer day for the kids. When I arrive, kids are dancing around the schoolyard with a soccer ball while their parents are gathered next to the garden plot in the shade.

A cob-building workshop is underway, keeping these parents and other community volunteers hard at work. Soon the kids jump in to help do what they do best: play in the mud. Cob walls rise rapidly from the ground, forming a combined garden shed, teaching space, and gathering space with a cob bench and oven included.

“Soon we will cook the veggies from the garden in the oven,” says Arthur with a smile. “It is all so that we can teach the children.”

Farming, connecting with the plants and the earth, was the path to a better life for him and his family.

It is evident that growing food is Arthur’s second love: his first is sharing his knowledge and skills with children and youth. One of the first things he says to me, as I greet him and his eldest son, is that he feels it is very important to teach the next generation about growing food because “they are the future. My generation is past. This learning is very important.”

Farming as Healing

Arthur and his wife Sanae (whose name means “newly germinated sprout of a grain of rice”) don’t come from an agricultural background. “Not at all!” laughs Sanae. Their journey towards growing food started when Arthur was living in Paris as a spiritual healer, working with energetic medicine in the Shumei tradition. Unfortunately, he fell ill and was forced to return to Japan to seek healing himself. But no doctors were able to cure him, or even identify what was ailing him.

While Arthur and his healers searched for answers, he began working on a farm on Kishima Island, located in the south-western part of Japan. Within a month he began to see signs of his health returning. This was when he realized that farming, connecting with the plants and the earth, was the path to a better life for him and his family.

Kenta Family Organic Farm

A Natural Farming Philosophy

Eventually, Arthur and his family came to Pender Island, where they quickly fell in love with the hills and trees that reminded them strongly of Japan. Arthur also felt a connection to the landscape where fellow Japanese farmers had previously farmed, and this tie to the past inspired Arthur and Sanae to settle and farm on Pender Island, bringing with them their unique brand of Natural Farming techniques. In 2000, they founded Kenta Farm on the island.

Arthur bases his practice of Natural Farming on the techniques prescribed by Masanobu Fukuoka, a famed Japanese agriculturalist and the author of “The One-Straw Revolution,” as well as the philosophy of Shumei. The basic tenet of this philosophy of farming involves modeling the agricultural system after natural systems.

An example is modeling the garden after the forest, allowing for a canopy layer, shrub layer, herbaceous layer, etc. This might mean leaving the weeds to grow. Yes. Leaving the weeds. To grow.

Weedy Pioneers

Arthur laughed as I asked him, several times, about his philosophy on weeds. Dealing with my own “weed explosion” on the farm is like dealing with a niggling, guilty conscience. Bunches of weeds about to go to seed stand upright in my field, proudly displaying their amazing ability to grow taller (overnight?!) than my crops.

“The weeds are just like the pioneer species in a forest ecosystem,” says Arthur, explaining, “I let them be. I just cut them down with my kana (a Japanese garden tool similar to a sickle), and leave their root structure intact. I believe that this helps maintain the soil structure, and overall, helps my garden grow.”

The weeds are just like the pioneer species in a forest ecosystem,” says Arthur, explaining, “I let them be.”

If weeds interfere too aggressively with a specific crop, Arthur will pull them, but mostly he lets the whole system of plants thrive, believing that nature knows best when understanding the role of each element of the system.

On This Farm, Everything Comes Full Circle

In keeping with this holistic approach, Arthur also doesn’t reach for outside inputs. He gathers a thin layer of soil from the forest floor to build his raised beds, as he finds this to be the best soil for growing. When I ask about potential issues with acidity, as forest soils in this region are known for their acidic qualities, he nods and agrees, but then gestures graciously to his garden beds where all sorts of crops are flourishing.

Lettuces, brassicas, chard, curcubits and corn all grow in a happy jumble, a testimony to the success of Arthur’s practice of intercropping. While he groups crops roughly by plant family, if a volunteer kale pops up in the lettuce patch, he will leave it to thrive.

His children have adopted this mixed method of growing and they’re clearly very knowledgeable about plants, though I have to pry it out of them because of their generous humility. Arthur’s children lead their school’s garden club, where groups of children from the school and around the island meet regularly to learn about seeds and work in the garden, learning and having fun all the while.

Standing in the shade next to the thriving school garden his children have created and the brand new cob gathering space he is helping to build, I’m impressed by the family’s commitment to growing community. With a family so passionate about sharing their knowledge and holistic vision, Pender Island is lucky to have the Kikuchi family.


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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