Tag archive

young agrarians

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.

Farming on the Edge at WoodGrain Farm

in Current Issue/Farmer Focus/Grow Organic/Organic Stories/Winter 2016
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.

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.

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.

Go to Top