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Organic Stories: Gabriola Food Hub

in Current Issue/Fall 2018/Organic Community/Organic Stories

A Two-Wheeled Ride through Gabriola’s Growing Local Food Economy

Hannah Roessler

Graham Bradley is a busy guy. I catch him on a rare day off to talk about the Gabriola Food Hub, but we end up delving into the importance of cultural shift, decolonization, green transportation, feeding passions, and systems thinking. The spill over into all of these topics comes as no surprise—so many of us land-based workers, dreamers, and thinkers recognize and ponder the layers of complexities and interconnectivities encountered when engaging on food systems work on any level. Graham is a dynamic individual who spans several roles in the food system on Gabriola Island. He is someone who is clearly driven to make a difference, and has fully invested his whole self into this pursuit.

Take his work with the Gabriola Food Hub (GFH), a collective marketing hub made up of three main partner farms: Heart and Soil Farm, Good Earth Farm, and 40×40 farm. Not only is he the founder of the GFH, but he is also the “aggregator, communicator, and distributor.” He is the guy who pulled the farms together and connects the farms to various markets, and he is the one you will see delivering all the produce—he has roles in both the center of the hub, as well as the spokes.

Graham is quick to assert that he is not inventing something new, and is generous while listing off his many mentors. He names, with much gratitude, those who taught him about farming and marketing (Ferm Melilot in Quebec, Saanich Organics in Victoria, Ben Hartman’s Lean Farm approach, and more), those who helped him with legal agreements for land sharing (Young Agrarians and other generous legal advisors), his business mentorship through Young Agrarians (with Niki Strutynski from Tatlo Road Farm), the chef on Gabriola Island who last year solidly ordered produce from him every week (Kellie Callender from Silva Bay Restaurant). He even tells me about Josh Volk, the person who inspired him to build his delivery bike, named Pepper, on which he does all of the deliveries for the GFH. Something that I really appreciate about Graham is how much he obviously values the relationships that he is cultivating through his food growing—this seem to be his own personal heart hub from which all the other spokes of his work flow.

While the GFH echoes other models of marketing that exist in the small scale organic farm world, there are of course differences. These are all tied distinctly to the difference in “place”—all the variations and oscillations in the GFH are distinctly their own, as they seek to find their own dynamic equilibrium. Each of the participating farms is striving to find what model of farming and marketing works for the particular scale and sites that they work and live within, in every realm. Every farm business has to find the right flow that works in their particular bioregion, and it’s clear that when Graham talks about the GFH, he is very much focused on the interconnected systems of ecology, economics, and community that are distinct to Gabriola Island.

Graham refers to what they at GFH are aiming for as “super-hyper-local”—and they’re not pulling any punches. He’s been working tirelessly with his partners, Dionne Pepper-Smith and Katie Massi from Heart and Soil, Lynn from Namaste Farm, Rebecca from 40×40 Farm (which Graham also co-manages), and his land partner and co-farmer Rosheen Holland at Good Earth Farm, to sell everything they grow right on Gabriola Island.

In the past, these farmers usually had to go over to Cedar on Vancouver Island to sell their produce at the market. Now, with the GFH entering its third year of business, those days are done as they move towards the super-hyper-local vision. Their biggest commercial customer is the Village Food Market, the largest grocery store on Gabriola Island. “We are actually managing to replace the lettuce [that is usually sold at the market], lettuce that comes from off-island, with our lettuce. It’s exciting,” says Graham. They also run a box program, which is really important to their business, and is something that they hope to continue growing.

Another approach that helps them realize this super-hyper-local vision is how all the farms work as a team, both together and with their environment. When I ask Graham if the farms do their crop planning together, he says “well, the farms plan it on their own”. The GFH farms really embrace each of their unique microclimates, which allow different crops to thrive. They don’t try and do it all, all the time, but they work with the strength of the local ecology of each farm site. Good Earth Farm tends to flood every year, but they find that their best spring crop is lettuce, and their best winter crop are storage crops: they do grow some chard, but harvest it, roots and all, and keep it in the cold room for continued harvest into winter. At 40×40 Farm, they are really focused on salad greens. At Heart and Soil, their site is particularly good for growing early on in the spring, and they “are a bit warmer so they grow loads of tomatoes,” says Graham. “They don’t have root maggot, so their radishes and Hakeuri turnips are so beautiful that we’ve stopped growing ours.”

It’s almost as though Graham frames the land as the ultimate leader of their little team: “it’s really just the geography that is key to making all of this work in the way it does.” And when it comes to enjoying the bounty of the island, they don’t stop at just farms. “If I see grapes,” Graham exclaims, with a fair share of eye twinkle, “and it’s in someone’s backyard, I will knock on the door and ask them if I can sell it for them.”

This opportunistic approach and ability to be flexible is bound, as any farmer knows, to create quite a bit of extra work. And in a busy farm season, it seems hard to imagine taking on extra bits and pieces. But it seems to fit in Graham’s wider hopes for the food system on Gabriola. We had a long discussion about trying to think a bit more outside of the traditional agriculture box, hoping to understand the potential for managing the broader ecosystem for food in a careful way.

“I think we can have a full and complete food system here, we just have more to learn” says Graham, respectfully acknowledging the long term management of a food system by the Snuneymuxw, long before agriculture as we know it arrived to the island. Graham is keen to continue learning how to incorporate a broader vision, and in the meantime, on the peaty grounds of Good Earth Farm they are busy planting Malus fusca, relying on the embedded local knowledge of that native rootstock to help it withstand rainy winters.

With all the successful strides they’ve made, trying to effectively respond to the dynamic nature of a particular bioregion, of a particular place, must certainly be challenging. I ask Graham about this, and he names some common themes that most farmers struggle with: the desire for more restaurants to get on board with buying local produce, how small their market is, how difficult it is to rely on commercial clients, being burnt out and overworked, etc.

I am particularly curious about how he manages his own work-load, because as every other farmer I know, he seems to have several jobs and commitments. He is also the Chair of the Economic Development Advisory group on Gabriola Island, as well as the National Farmers Union Youth Advisor for BC. Graham is practically bursting with energy even as we quietly sit and chat, and he is so clearly committed to his vision of a better food system and green transport—but he admits to it being overwhelming at times.

Then he explains to me the moment of his day which feeds his energy and desire to push through and keep striving, and I’m left with a clear picture painted in my mind: Graham on Pepper, his bright red electric cargo bike, loaded with veggie boxes, ripping full speed down a hill framed with soaring trees, exuberantly singing Janis Joplin tunes to scare away the deer, and periodically yelling gleefully “the future is NOW (insert expletive)!”

Check out the Gabriola Food Hub: gabriolafoodhub.com


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.

Feature image from Quinton Dewing. All other photos from Graham Bradley.

Meat from Here

in Current Issue/Fall 2018/Grow Organic/Livestock/Organic Community

Challenges to Localizing Meat Production

Tristan Banwell

Consider for a moment the complexities of the industrial meat supply chain. Livestock could be born on one farm, sold and moved to another location for finishing, trucked to yet another premises for slaughter. The carcass will be butchered and processed at a different location, and sold at another (or many others), and could be sold and reprocessed multiple times before it ends up on a customer’s plate. The farm, feedlot, abattoir, and processing facility could be in different provinces, or they could be in different countries. It is a certainty that some of the meat imported to Canada comes from livestock that were born in Canada and exported for finishing and/or slaughter before finding their way back to a plate closer to home.

A 2005 study in Waterloo, Ontario(1) noted that beef consumed in the region racked up an average of 5,770 kilometres travelled, with most coming from Colorado, Kansas, Australia, New Zealand, and Nebraska. The author concluded that imported beef products averaged 667 times the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of local beef, and the emissions were at the top of the chart among foods studied. Meat production is low-hanging fruit for reducing pollution and improving the environmental footprint of agriculture, and not just through reducing transportation. Implementation of managed grazing and silvopasture ranked #19 and #9 respectively in terms of their potential impact on climate by Project Drawdown, in the same neighbourhood as other exciting forestry and agricultural innovations, family planning, and renewable energy projects.(2) Organic methods further reduce negative externalities by nearly eliminating inputs such as antibiotics and pesticides, which are used heavily in conventional settings.

Much of the agricultural land in our province is also well suited to livestock according to the Land Capability Classification for Agriculture in BC. In fact, 44% of BC’s ALR lands are categorized in Class 5 & 6, meaning the soil and climate make them suitable primarily for perennial forage production. Looking beyond the ALR boundaries, 76% of all classified arable land in BC is in Class 5 & 6.(3) Of course, there is land in Class 4 and better that could also be best suited to livestock production, and livestock can be beneficially integrated into other types of crop and orchard systems. As farmland prices spiral higher, aspiring farmers could be looking further down this classification system for their affordable opportunity to farm. Livestock production and direct marketing meats can be an attractive enterprise for a new entrant, especially given the exciting opportunities for regenerative organic methods and an increasingly engaged and supportive customer base.

Unfortunately, there are numerous challenges facing both new and established small-scale meat producers in their efforts to implement improved methods and supply local markets. The cost-slashing benefits of economies of scale in livestock enterprises are staggering, and even the leanest, most efficient small livestock enterprise will incur disproportionately high production costs. Sources of breeding stock, feeder stock, chicks, and other outsourced portions of the life cycle chain can be distant, and finding appropriate genetics for a pasture based or grass finishing operation can be next to impossible. Given the geographic fragmentation of the province, managing the logistics of other inputs like feed, minerals, equipment, and supplies can be a Sisyphean task.

The regulations around raising livestock, traceability, slaughter, butchery, and meat processing are complex and span from the federal level (Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Canadian Cattle Identification Agency, Canadian Pork Council) through provincial bodies (BC Ministry of Agriculture Food Safety & Inspection Branch, Ministry of Health, supply management marketing boards), regional groups (regional health authorities, regional district governments) and right down to municipal government bylaws. The tables are definitely tipped in favour of large-scale commodity producers, who have the scale to hire consultants and meet more expensive requirements, and who are beholden to regulators for only one product or species. For a small scale diversified livestock operation, compliance becomes expensive and time consuming as a producer navigates the rules, requirements, and permits for multiple species.

Should a farmer manage to jump some hurdles and establish an enterprise in compliance with regulations, they may find that their growth is capped not by the capacity of their land base or even their markets, but rather by regulatory factors and supply chain limitations. There are particularly low annual production limits in supply-managed poultry categories—2000 broilers, 300 turkeys, 400 layers per year—and that is after applying as a quota-exempt small-lot producer. There is currently no path to becoming a quota holder for small pastured poultry operations. The sole quota-holding pastured poultry producer in BC is currently under threat from the BC Chicken Marketing Board, which requires a set production per six week cycle year round, rather than the seasonal production necessitated by outdoor poultry systems. The BC Hog Marketing Scheme allows a more generous 300 pigs finished per year, and there is no production regulation for beef cattle nor for other species like ducks, sheep, and goats.

Regardless of what livestock species a farmer raises, eventually they must go to market. For most commodity cow-calf operations and some other livestock enterprises, this can mean selling livestock through an auction such as the BC Livestock Producers Cooperative. However, many small scale producers prefer to maintain control of their livestock, finishing them on the farm, arranging for slaughter, and wholesaling or direct marketing the meat. This can help a farm retain more of the final sales price, but adds another layer of complexity around slaughter and butchering, as well as storage, marketing, and distribution.

In BC, there are five classes of licensed abattoirs in operation, including 13 federally-inspected plants, 63 provincially-inspected facilities (Class A & B), and 66 licensed Rural Slaughter Establishments (Class D & E).(4) Federally inspected plants are under jurisdiction of the CFIA and produce meat that can be sold across provincial and international borders. The two classes of provincially licenced plants include inspected and non-inspected facilities. Class A and B facilities are administered by the Ministry of Agriculture Meat Inspection Program, have a government inspector present for slaughter, and are able to slaughter an unlimited number of animals for unrestricted sale within BC. Class A facilities can cut and wrap meat, whereas Class B facilities are slaughter-only with no cut/wrap capacity.

Class D and E slaughter facilities, also known as Rural Slaughter Establishments, are able to slaughter a limited number of animals per year without an inspector present after completing some training, submitting water samples and food safety plans, and having the facility inspected by a regional health authority. A Class D facility is limited to 25,000 lbs live weight per year, can slaughter their own or other farms’ animals, and can sell within their regional district only, including to processors and retailers for resale. This class of licence is limited to 10 regional districts that are underserved by Class A and B facilities. Class E licenses are available throughout the province at the discretion of Environmental Health Officers. This type of licence allows slaughter of up to 10,000 lbs live weight of animals from the licensed farm only, and allows direct to consumer sales within the regional district, but not for further processing or resale.

Despite multiple options for abattoir licensing, small farms are underserved and slaughter capacity is currently lacking in BC. Running an abattoir is a difficult business, with significant overhead costs and strong seasonality, and there is a shortage of qualified staff in most areas of the province. On-farm slaughter options may sound appealing, but the costs associated and low limits on the number of animals per year make small on-farm facilities a difficult proposition. Producers will find it difficult or impossible to have their livestock slaughtered throughout the fall, which is busy season for abattoirs for exactly the reasons producers need their services at that time. Some poultry processors are beginning to set batch minimums above the small lot authorization numbers to eliminate the hassle of servicing small scale producers.

Clearly, improvements can be made to increase the viability of local and regional meat production in BC. This year, meat producers throughout the province came together to form the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA) with an aim toward creating a network to share resources and to speak with a common voice to move systems forward in support of producers raising meat outside of the conventional industrial system.

The BC provincial government has reconvened the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fish & Food, and the first task of this group is to make recommendations on local meat production capacity.(5) The SSMPA has been active in these discussions, as well as earlier consultations regarding Rural Slaughter Establishments, and looks forward to encouraging a more localized, place-based meat supply in BC.

To learn more or join in the discussion, visit smallscalemeat.ca or facebook.com/smallscalemeat.

To reach the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA), get in touch at smallscalemeat@gmail.com.


Tristan Banwell is a founding director of both the BC Small-Scale Meat Producers Association and the Lillooet Agriculture & Food Society, and represents NOOA on the COABC Board. In his spare time, he manages Spray Creek Ranch in Lillooet, operating a Class D abattoir and direct marketing organic beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs. farmer@spraycreek.ca

References
(1) Xuereb, Mark. (2005). Food Miles: Environmental Implications of Food Imports to Waterloo Region. Region of Waterloo Public Health. https://bit.ly/2nh4B37
(2) Project Drawdown. https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/managed-grazing
(3) Agricultural Land Commission. (2013). Agricultural Capability Classification in BC. https://bit.ly/2vl3SC8
(4) Government of BC. Meat Inspection & Licensing. https://bit.ly/2uIcNgJ
(5) Ministry of Agriculture. (2018). Discussion Paper prepared for the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fish and Food. https://bit.ly/2J1x9Kc

An Ode to the Farmer

in 2018/Current Issue/Fall 2018/Grow Organic/Organic Community

Josh Brown

…It was a few days ago at around 7 am when the sun peered over Fairview Mountain to kindly balance a rude 40 km/h south wind. It happened while I was neurotically leaning over the hood of my van trying to pick out a slightly different noise in the engine (of all things) hoping to hear something different each time, hoping to disprove Einstein’s basic philosophy of insanity. After about 20 minutes, I didn’t even know what I was looking for anymore, or if anything was even there in the first place. I’ll have to keep an eye on it. At around 8 pm later that day, the sun was falling behind K Mountain, finally offering slight relief from a 30 degree (spring!?) day. The wind soothed new sun burns and the cooling soil felt nice in my hands. It happened when I went to check the water and gopher traps in the apple tree nursery and garlic crop. My new low emitter overhead sprinklers are a head scratcher right now as I try to develop a schedule with the new irrigation system. And after opening up a fallow field for the expansion of the nursery, gopher trapping has been relentless…

This all started with a fallow field, for most of us here. As someone who is still very close to that moment, I can speak to what it’s been like to take that leap, and how special it has been to share the experience with likeminded people doing the same thing. I own a small-scale organic tree nursery in Cawston, a village nestled in the Similkameen Valley, and just outside the industrial fortitude of the Okanagan. Over the last 10 years farming for others, as well as investing in my own project here, this community has come alive in a most remarkable way, through compounded experiences with people who share a passion for designing a good life, and by people who quite literally design as a profession. This is an attempt to understand the mechanism by which I and likely many other organic farmers ended up living here and doing something we truly find meaningful, and why we stayed.

Perhaps if we stop and smell the roses a little more, we may be able to break pattern and follow a different path. That this narrative is like a little red thread that weaves its way, inductively, moment to moment, rose to rose, through disjointed chaos, and that we can surprise ourselves with how far we can actually go. There are moments we cherish, whose substantive merit eludes us less that moment in time when we stopped to notice it. But I’m beginning to think those moments do not drift far. The first time opening up a piece of land like a blank canvas and feeling liberated by it. An evening with close friends whose intimacy is built on innumerable shared experiences over years, and feeling at home. Trying to erect multiple freestanding cold frame tunnels in the middle of a field in the windiest place on earth, and through constant repair and correction realizing how passionate and focused you are.

These moments and their respective rewards are fleeting, though they help us refine exactly what we are seeking and what feeds us, and over time they define and become us. I’m beginning to think that we don’t actually make many long winded choices—you know, the big ones: where to live, who to love, who we are. Rather, if we slightly untether ourselves from those plans and expectations that we can gear toward so eagerly, and give ourselves the freedom to take notice to the moments we are in from time to time, letting them inspire us to deviate course a little, we may find ourselves doing something we truly find meaningful. And that is how I would describe the process of somehow starting out in Toronto 10 years ago, running a scooter business and living downtown, to now finding myself farming in the Similkameen.

This is not just my story. I live in a community whose members’ stories have grown, and continue to grow, unrestrained by fear of discomfort or by doing things differently. This is a sentiment I feel often, and is confirmed by the reaction I get from people who come here and experience the work in the fields, and who may have had the opportunity to join us at one of our potlucks, filled with fresh ingredients cooked by the local farmers whose hard work that day grew them.

There is something that happens when all the farmers get together here, where friendship, profession, and community are indistinguishable. Sometimes I feel that we have replaced a few of our older patterns, some of which did not feel organic, with others that do—for example, the nature of the work/life balance here, as well as the nature of the work itself.

…It was a few days ago at around 2 pm, around the time when the heat of the day can make you irritable, that I needed to borrow a T-post pounder to build a deer fence for the nursery. The heat we have been getting so early in the year had pushed the buds from my newly grafted trees a lot quicker than I was expecting, and so I really needed to build that fence before all the new growth was a fawn’s snack. Emilie Thoueille, who runs an extraordinary small scale organic market garden down the road from me, had one so I stopped in to pick it up. She invited me in for a coffee in the shade of her tiny home container conversion that she built herself. My roommate, David Arthur, who also runs a small organic market garden on a shared lease with me, was over helping build a cooler out of another converted container, which they will be sharing to store their veggies. Our mutual neighbours across the road, Paul and Lauren, who have been unbelievably helpful over the years to all three of us, stopped in to say hi as well. Community is quite literally woven into the fabric of our lives and careers here, and I believe we farm to feed it. The deer fence could wait 15 minutes, because this was a special moment in the shade…

Life here really is quite unbelievable, and my goal and that of so many other farmers I know is really just to be able to keep doing this. I recall a conversation I was recently having with Corey Brown from Blackbird Organics, a friend and mentor, about this valley and what makes life and farming in this small town so unique. He was describing how “we are essentially a community of entrepreneurs.”

And yet our homes and communities are a little more entangled into the mix of business and pleasure, so it is all being designed to work harmoniously. This is where the work/life balance disintegrates, when your work is your home as well, and your local economy is also your community.

“It returns to something that actually feels more comfortable and natural, yet needs to be relearned,” added Melissa Marr at Vialo Orchards, owner of one of the oldest organic orchards in the area. That level of interdependence, ownership, and accountability is pervasive, and it shows in the quality of the product and lifestyle experienced here.

In some ways I feel that what we are doing here in Cawston builds on an experience as old as time. That from rose to rose, moment to moment, we have come to find ourselves farming here. Though as off the beaten path as it has felt for some of us, it has in many ways reconnected us to a personal and social archetype, a self and a community, whose fire has been burning for a long time, and which feels more honest, organic, and sustainable.

I still see it in the passion and pride held by those who found themselves in a similar moment to the one I’m experiencing years ago, in the generation before us. Farmers whose wisdom in both how to farm, and how to be, have been tantamount to our success, and the continuation of this movement, just as we hope to be for those who we will have the privilege of sharing this with in the future. These are farmers whose passion and story are cellared in the true nature of this lifestyle, in both its romance and its hardship. Those who have been here long enough to experience crop successes and failure, the strength to work 12 hours a day in 30 degree heat as well as those who have sustained togetherness, and union in the community, as well as prohibitive injury, fragmentation, and loneliness, the perfect apple year followed by a flooded orchard the next. Someone so in tune with those cycles, that they almost become predictable, thus inhabiting a trust in its continued ability to provide.

As a matter of fact, sometimes I think the hard work and resilience of the organic farmers I know in Cawston would stand to bear that the pain is manageable when compared to the reward, and the rewards are unquestionably rich.


Josh Brown owns and operates Joshua’s Trees, a certified organic tree fruit nursery in Cawston, BC, where he grows trees for orchardists as well as the retail hobbyist and backyard market. joshuastrees.organics@gmail.com

Photos by Sara Dent | farmlove.org

From the Chilcotin Wildfire Front: A Rotational Grazer’s Story

in 2018/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Summer 2018/Tools & Techniques
Wildfires scour the landscape around Riparian Ranch

Shanti Heywood

This story first appeared on the Young Agrarians website.

Protecting my home was just something I had to do. People keep commenting on how brave I was—but I like to think everyone has some grit inside of them somewhere to fight when they have to. My heart goes out to those who have lost their homes and those who are still fighting to save homes.

We bought 256 acres of cleared but poor quality (and consequently, affordable) land out in the middle of nowhere. My husband wanted to live off the grid and I grew up off grid, so it wasn’t a huge stretch buying this place. With technology these days we have a lot more creature comforts available off grid than I did as a kid in the ‘90s.

The only catch was my hubby has a company down in Burnaby so I’m up here by myself 90% of the time learning to do a lot of things I never dreamed I’d be doing. Since the land needed improving and was not fenced we bought some solar powered fencers and step in posts and got to work. With affordable solar fencers, the voltage isn’t that much, so you really have to work with the psychology of the animals. If they’re not satisfied they will just leave. Solar fencers definitely let you know if your animals are happy in a hurry.

I moved them last year every 24 to 48 hours, and I saw a good deal of improvement. This year we dedicated a lot of time to fencing. I would only move them once per week but it still did what it was supposed to do.

The forage stayed green a lot longer than the ungrazed areas despite extreme drought conditions. Once the fire started I kind of knew we were in a good spot. Some of my friends, bless their hearts, were heavily involved in helping people evacuate livestock. They were quite insistent that I should get my animals out of there, but I refused. They’re as much my coworkers as they are livestock and they had as much of a job to do during the fire prep as I did.

I put my cows and horses in the hay field (the only area that had not yet been grazed…lots of fuel growing in peat soil) and started to move the step in posts closer to the forest every time they had finished a section. The fire danced around me for a month and finally made a pretty decisive b-line for me. Once the fire started to come I moved the posts back to the grazed area so they wouldn’t burn and set up a second water source in case the first source had fire near it. I moved the animals’ loose mineral tub back to where I thought was safest so they knew that was the best area to hang out, and that was that.

Intensively grazed pasture stopped the spread of fire
Intensively grazed pasture stopped the spread of fire

We watched the fire come in on all sides in one wild night. There’s no way I can describe the power of this fire so I’ll just give a rundown of what happened. August 11—I kind of knew it was the day the fire would come. Five weeks of waiting, watching, and preparing. That morning I got my chores done early and headed inside for a nap. I woke up in the afternoon to roaring fire on three sides and hot—I mean HOT—wind.

My neighbours Becca and Darrel showed up not long after. Darrel was worried about a cabin in the woods, Mikey’s cabin, and wanted to go check that the pump was still running. He went one way and Becca and I went the other way to break a dam upstream to let more water in to the creek for Mikey’s pump. There we are, two girls sitting in the mud listening to the roar of the fire behind us. Once we started heading back we quickly realized the fire was already almost at my property and became pretty worried about Darrel. He never made it to Mikey’s pump because the fire was already in the surrounding forest. We all figured the cabin was a pile of ash.

Another neighbour, Robert, showed up at that point, as did the one and only guy we had ever seen from Quesnel (who is supposed to be managing this fire). He quickly left. There wasn’t much we could do. We stood and watched the flames come in on all sides, completely surrounding us and cutting off all exits.

Once the fire had come in close I turned the waterfowl and billy goat loose and went in to the field that the goats and dogs were in. I called them all out of their huts as I was worried the roofs might catch a spark and led them to the sprinklers. They seemed to understand what I was showing them, as they never walked back in to their huts that night. I was not concerned about the cows and horses out in the hay field. We do managed intensive grazing, which proved very effective at stopping the fire in its tracks. I was pretty confident they were completely safe.

Then the smoke came down on us and for most of the evening we were choking on smoke and couldn’t see a thing. We had a couple little hot spots in paddocks and pastures throughout the night but they either burnt themselves out or were put out.

About midnight the fire calmed down on the Northern side and much to our surprise we heard the buzz of Mikey’s pump in the distance—the cabin had survived. The water from the dam had finally made its way down to us so we used it to put out a few fires and wet certain areas down. At the end of the night we all stood in awe of what had happened and what was still going on. Robert cut his way through my driveway to get home and we headed to bed. Darrel stayed up to keep watch.

The next day my husband finally was able to make it home and the fire ripped through two of our neighbour’s properties (they both made it). We weren’t able to be there for either of them but we cut our way through and went to help as soon as we could. Later that evening Robert’s wife Mamie said, “Who’s even going to believe this? Two people in their mid ‘60s running around with hoses fighting a wildfire.”

The fire burnt right up to where they had grazed and stopped. It was very hot and burnt pretty much anything in its path including green marshes and willow bushes. In one spot where I had just grazed but didn’t move the posts back to the grazed area the fire actually burnt the hot tape but not the posts because the cows had reached under and grazed around them.

Peat soil is quite notorious for burning underground for months…even through the winter…but for whatever reason the field appears to be just fine. My poor neighbour who owns another part of this field about two km away is still battling underground hot spots in his peat soil and he had the fire pass through one day after me. We’ve been over a few times to help him put out spots and move hay.

We have major wolf problems in the winter so fencing and LGDs (livestock guard dogs) are actually more important than this fire ever was. I shocked the heck out of the structure protection crew when I told them my puppies in training were more important than their hoses and I would NOT move them out of their field. Never a dull moment around here.

Horse and cows happy to be safe and sound!
Horse and cows happy to be safe and sound!

None of us are able to get fire insurance due to our remote off the grid locations, so of course we all stayed to fight. We have been spending every day since checking on the properties and putting out little hot spots. It won’t be something I will ever forget, nor will this area ever look the same within my lifetime.

In the end, we didn’t lose anything to the fire. There’s no damage other than a few singed fence posts and of course my canoe I forgot about until we had gone to break the beaver dam when the fire was here. All the prep I did made it a fairly easy experience and the people that stayed with me of course helped immensely. I was never very good at studying for tests in school but this one I feel like I did my homework and was pretty well prepared for.

The fire is still blazing to the East of me. I can see plumes of smoke rising as I type this but for the most part we are safe. It’s never a dull moment here but I think it is safe to say this was one of the most exciting.

facebook.com/riparianranch


Shanti Heywood manages Riparian Ranch, an off grid ranch in the Chilcotin working towards providing humanely raised meat and livestock in the most natural and peaceful setting possible.

All photos: Riparian Ranch/Shanti Heywood

Foodlands Cooperative of BC

in 2018/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Summer 2018

Breaking New Ground

Michael Marrapese

Spring is often a time of optimism and renewed expectations. This will be Ariella Falkowski’s first year breaking ground for her new Sweet Acres Farm.She is leasing two acres of land at Lohbrunner Community Farm Cooperative on the outskirts of Langford, BC. She’s still getting to know the land and is excited by its potential. “It’s been really busy,” she says, “but some parts of the field dried up fairly early so I’ve been able to get crops in the ground earlier than I expected. My two projects this month are to finish putting up my hoop house structure and installing the drip irrigation.”

The Lohbrunner Farm is also home to Vitality Farm. Farmer Diana Brubaker and her husband Doug have been growing market vegetables on the property since 2012. When Brubaker first arrived on the property it was held in trust by the Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC). Norma Lohbrunner had wanted the 40 acre property with its rich peat soil and rolling wooded hills to be preserved as a working farm and wildlife sanctuary. Brubaker and a group of community volunteers signed on to maintain and enhance the existing crop beds and berry bushes after Norma Lohbrunner died in 2011. However, TLC was facing financial difficulties and the fate of the farm was uncertain.

There were hopes that TLC would still function in some manner and that the group of fledgling farmers could arrange to lease the seven acres they were hoping to farm. “We tried for about four years but it just didn’t happen. Our second option was to buy it,” Brubaker explains. “We were trying to develop a co-op and buy the property. TLC couldn’t do that because they were in the courts trying to resolve their difficulties.”

Ariella Falkowski with her walk-behind tractor
Ariella Falkowski with her walk-behind tractor. Credit: Diana Brubaker

Unfortunately, the process ended up with a court order to put the Lohbrunner Farm and other properties up for sale in order to cover some of TLC’s funding shortfalls. Brubaker and her farming group had to scramble to find another option. “The last option for us was to look for someone to transfer the land to who could hold it as a farm for eternity. That was our main drive: how do we keep this farm as a farm forever.”

The group turned to the newly formed Foodlands Cooperative of BC (FLCBC). FLCBC’s visionary mandate is specifically to hold farmland in trust and ensure that it is actively farmed, managed by a community group, and accessible to the broader community. Heather Pritchard, the co-op developer with FLCBC, notes the process of developing Lohbrunner Cooperative and taking a farm in trust is new ground for all involved. “The leases, agreements, governance processes, and Cooperative structure of Lohbrunner are essentially the template for how other farmlands can be held in trust,” she says. “The lessons learned from Lohbrunner Community Farm will be the basis for other lands held by the Foodlands Cooperative.”

However, FLCBC hadn’t finished incorporating and couldn’t act quickly enough to take the Lohbrunner lands into trust. Pritchard met with funders and stakeholders and arranged to secure the funding and have FarmFolk CityFolk hold the title until FLCBC had fully incorporated and secured charitable status.

Celebrating the Fall harvest web. Credit: Michael Marrapese

Brubaker recalls that, even though the farm had been secured, the co-op members at Lohbrunner soon realized there was still much to be done. The governance and management structure, the co-op’s constitution and by-laws, and core operating agreements all had to be worked out. “The Foodlands Cooperative has been so supportive in helping us establish our own co-op. It’s given us lots of flexibility to design something that works for us. It’s truly incredible to be in this place of options and choices. We’re extremely blessed,” she says.

While cooperative ownership can be challenging, it has big benefits, particularly when starting a new enterprise. Principally, with the high cost of farmland, pooling personal and community resources can be one avenue to secure financing. Falkowski notes that there are other practical benefits. “One of the things that initially drew me to leasing land at Lohbrunner was the opportunity to have a more stable long-term lease. Another benefit is that we have really helpful co-op members with really different skill sets. Different people have different experience and different connections that they can bring to the table.”

One of the current challenges is securing organic certification. As it turns out, the unusual ownership model has made organic certification more difficult. Initially, the Islands Organics Producers Association (IOPA) was suggesting an incubator farm model but it just didn’t fit. Brubaker reflects that, “the problem seems to be that we’re the ‘square pegs that don’t fit into their round holes’. I really liked the idea an incubator farm model where a new farmer, who doesn’t necessarily have the skills, could be mentored to help them get started. However, when they wanted to move on, they couldn’t take that certification with them—they’d have to start over again.”

Falkowski was involved in a lot of back and forth discussions. She recalls that, “what seemed to make the most sense for Lohbrunner was to certify as three different entities—as Vitality Farm, Sweet Acres Farm, and Lohbrunner Community Farm. One of the benefits of doing it this way is that if I were to leave the property or to lease some additional land elsewhere, my certification number would go with me.”

Diana Brubaker working the field while her dog Bella supervises. Credit: Ariella Falkowski

The downside to this process is that each certification will cost $500. “Using this approach we now may have to pay $1500 a year to be certified,” Brubaker says. “At this point, I’m not sure there’s enough revenue off the farm to justify the expense.” The further implication is that when other farmers come onto the property the costs could rise to $2000 or $2500 a year.

Brubaker also finds the certification process particularly arduous for their diverse market vegetable operation. She has many different inputs for the different crops. Chief among them are all the different seeds she purchases—three to four hundred different seeds from different catalogues. “I’ll have to detail why I choose one over the other and whether they are organic or not. If we were just growing one or two crops it would be far less work.”

Despite the difficulties, Brubaker asserts that the certification process has been valuable for her. “As part of my professional career as a leader in health care one of my roles was quality improvement. When I apply those similar principles to the certification process I appreciate that it is a really good process to go through. I look differently now at everything I buy, everything I bring to the farm. I think that, in the beginning, we had the very basic principles of organic farming but this process has taken us a step further.”

Trying new processes and new approaches, breaking new ground, is difficult but in the spring, the season of optimism, it seems possible. “It’s not going to be easy,” she says, “and there are lots of unknowns. We’re hoping this year has more laughter and hugs than tears.”

foodlands.org

lohbrunnercommunityfarm.org

sweetacresfarm.ca


Michael Marrapese is the IT and Communications Manager at FarmFolk CityFolk. He lives and works at Fraser Common Farm Cooperative, one of BC’s longest running cooperative farms, and is an avid photographer, singer and cook.

Feature photo: The Lohbrunner Farm crew with their garden hoophouse. Credit: Michael Marrapese

Ecological Farming with Interns and Volunteers

in 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

Ask an Expert: Transforming Conflict on the Farm

in Ask an Expert/Organic Community/Spring 2017

Keeley Nixon

Seeds ordered? Check. Planting calendar set? Check. Staff hired? Check. Conflict resolution preparedness in place? Wait, what?! Though it’s often overlooked in the sheer onslaught of too-much-to-do-not-enough-time of daily farm life, collaborative communication practice can be one of our strongest tools,.Think you’ve got this covered? Remember back to the hardest moments of last season—could something have been made easier by clarifying a directive or job duty? Sharing feedback sooner? We can’t go back, but wouldn’t it be nice to avoid the uncomfortable hardship of unresolved conflict?

This is the crux of good communication; it’s not something we’re explicitly taught, but it is something we can always improve with practice. And while unfamiliar communication tools may feel awkward at the time, the alternative of inaction is often much worse.

Our communication muscles are underdeveloped—the good news is there are simple things we can start doing to build them.

Change how you understand conflict

Conflict is not inherently bad or negative. Conflict is normal and part of an ongoing cycle of change. Recognize where conflict comes from. Assumptions, misunderstandings, and perceptions can all prompt conflict, and forces such as the individuals involved and their relationship, time demands, and stress can impact it.

  • See the agenda and relationship. In any conflict there’s an agenda and a relationship at play. How we deal with conflict is dependent on the focus of each.
  • Aim to depersonalize. It won’t be neutral but strive for cooperative instead of adversarial. Think “us vs. issue” instead of “you vs.me”

Know thy self

It’s important to acknowledge your lenses. Values, ego, expectations, goals, needs, attitudes, and beliefs inform how we engage. Be mindful of what these are for you. Next, identify your default style. When a conflict arises do you cooperate, direct, compromise, accommodate, or avoid? Each has a time and place, and knowing your default will help you build awareness of when it serves you best—and when to try a different approach.

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Lean in to process

Think of the process as a messy Venn diagram of 4 overlapping stages:

1. opening (approaching the issue)
2. identifying (sharing perspectives)
3. exploring (building understanding) and
4. closing (agreeing on solutions).

Each has certain goals and tasks, and in order for communication to be effective, there are some important considerations:

  • Be mindful of language. Use “I” language to speak from your experience and use “we” language for collective goals and impact.
  • Where and when a discussion happens matters. Friday afternoon at the wash up area is likely not the best time or place. Think about a space where everyone is comfortable, allocate time to bring the topic up, and share enough information to clearly convey the topic. This could sound like, “I’d like to check in with you about how we each feel the season is going so far… Could we make time after lunch one day this week?” Making time for regular check-ins creates space for conversation before issues arise and a space to channel ideas in-between.
  • Check your body language and don’t interrupt. Listen to understand before you speak to be understood
  • Question assumptions. Try asking, “Can you tell me what makes you think that way?” or, “What have I done/said that makes you think that way?”
  • Anticipate emotion. When you feel emotion rising, stop and breathe before you respond. Defensiveness comes on fast, don’t let it.
  • Stay open to resolution. Recognize that there’s no right way to resolve a conflict and in sharing perspective, listening deeply, and engaging you may be surprised where a solution does emerge. If a resolution isn’t apparent try taking a break and coming back at a set time, obtaining more information to help inform the group, or agreeing to disagree.

Tension and conflict are inevitable in any job. With the lived realities of being a farmer, or working for one, prickly situations are common. We owe it to ourselves and each other to strengthen our businesses and practices by learning how and when to approach tough conversations and show up with open ears and an open heart both on and off the farm.


Keeley Nixon has been involved in farming and food sector organizing since moving from the BC interior in 2001. After stepping out of field last season she’s pursuing training in mediation with a focus on agriculture. Keeley thrives on working with farmers to create durable changes and preserve important relationships. She brings her passion for food, good design, community engagement, and general joie de vivre to all that she does.

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.

Organic Certification

in 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

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