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Organic Stories: Grounded Acres, Skwxwú7mesh territory

in 2022/Climate Change/Crop Production/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Marketing/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Summer 2022

Digging into Community

Darcy Smith

Mel Sylvestre has been farming for almost 20 years, and she’s pretty sure she’ll never run out of lessons learned. From last year’s heat dome, to this year’s cold, wet weather, to figuring out just what type of kale customers want, every farming season brings new challenges—and new opportunities.

She farms with Hannah Lewis, her “partner in life, partner in business,” at Grounded Acres Organic Farm on what is today known as the Sunshine Coast. Of their five-acre property, “about two acres, give or take, is farmed in some way.”

Mel and Hannah grow mixed vegetables and have about 100 laying hens, and they get their food to their community through the Sechelt Farmers’ Market, their farm stand, local restaurants, and a collaborative community box program put together by a local organization.

The vision for Grounded Acres was to open up an acre of land and grow from there. They knew they could make enough revenue out of an acre to keep them going, and build from there wisely. They were also keen to learn what people wanted in their new community. “We did a lot of market research,” Mel says, “Our first year we did a blind shot in the dark—we grew as much and little as we could of everything and let things fly, so we could see what the enthusiasm was for. In one region everyone wants green curly kale, in another people want Lacinato kale, and you don’t know why.”

Grounded Acres apprentice crew working in the fields. Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

As they get to know their community, Mel and Hannah are also learning the land, which was first opened up over a century ago. First a strawberry farm, then planted in potatoes, it had been 30 to 50 years without having tillage of any sort when they arrived. The land isn’t classified as agricultural soil: it’s class four, or with improvement class 3, loamy sand. Mel says “it’s extremely sandy, and in some parts extremely rocky. In other parts, folks a century ago did the work of removing rocks.”

The good news is Mel is familiar with improving soil. Before moving to the coast, both Mel and Hannah spent almost a decade working at UBC Farm, which has the same soil class. “We came with a shovel when we visited the property. I dug a hole and said, ‘Ah, same soil’.”

Mel originally trained as a musician and sound tech, but when the industry began turning to technology and opportunities dwindled for sound techs, she landed on an organic farm in the outskirts of Montreal teaching children. Despite being raised in the middle of cornfields and dairy cows, she hadn’t been interested in farming until, she says, “I was watching people in the field and thought, ‘Hey, that looks fun’.” One day, they needed help, so Mel “picked up a hoe, went out and helped, and fell in love.” From there, she got another farm job.

Sometimes, Mel says “I wish I had started with an apprenticeship, or working more intentionally on the farm. Things just kept happening, and life brought me from one farm to another.” She ended up in BC in 2005, and farmed with Saanich Organics on the island for six seasons.

Curious hens provide eggs to the Gibson’s community. Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

Eight years into her farming journey, she had a window where she could return to university, and studied plant and soil science at UBC. That led her to UBC Farm, where she “discovered a new love, teaching and helping other folks getting into farming.” UBC farm is also where Mel had the opportunity to get into seed production.

UBC Farm is where she found a different kind of love. Hannah was already working in the Indigenous garden at UBC Farm when Mel arrived, but it took them a year—and realizing they were neighbours—before they started connecting. “We didn’t overlap much at the farm, our rhythms in the day were quite different, but we discovered we lived a block from each other, and every time I was taking the 99 bus from East Van she was on the bus. We call it a 99 romance—the 99 brought us together.”

Mel knew she didn’t want to stay in the city long-term, but Hannah was an educator by training. While she really liked gardening, Hannah wasn’t sure how she felt about farming—until she took UBC’s farm practicum and discovered she also loved working the land.

But, Mel says, “what Hannah loved even more was the Sunshine Coast. In my head I thought I was going to go back to the island where my community was, but she convinced me.” They started looking for property, and, Mel says, “I started developing my relationship with the land here.”

It took them three years to find the right piece of land, and by then Mel and Hannah had new twins along for the ride. “We have the lucky situation, the privilege, of having family that invested in our land,” which, Mel says, “was a life saver in the start-up of this business.” Hannah’s mother sold her condo in Vancouver and moved with the young family in order to help them buy the property. “Having the grandchildren in the picture helped.”

Mel is “thankful for the years I spent working on other farms. It’s a blessing and curse. I knew what I needed to be successful, but the curse was I knew how much money it would cost.” They started with zero savings, and Mel knew they would need $100 thousand in financing for the first year to even be able to make their loan payments. “That was the barebone minimum. It seems like a lot of money but it was just barely what I knew we needed to be resilient and get through those first few years, as well as be healthy for our family. We’re not 20 anymore,” Mel says. “We have twins and they’re two years old, and we had a lot of infrastructure to put in place: irrigation, greenhouses, washing station, cooler, workshop. There was a lot that needed to come together to make the farm possible.”

With a solid business plan, clear vision, and the confidence that comes from experience, they went in search of funding—and an angel investor from the community “came out of the woodwork, believed in us, and lent us the money that we needed,” Mel says.

Hannah and Chef Johnny Bridge satisfied with cauliflower. Credit: @joshneufeldphoto.

Mid-way through their second season on this piece of land, Mel reflects on how lucky they’ve been, despite a tough year. Crops are three weeks behind, and some have been lost due to weather and pests. “All the things from a cold wet spring,” Mel says. “That’s the name of the game. Every farm has pluses and minuses, and depending on the season, you’ll lose some and gain some.” They have sandy soil, so the heat dome—and accompanying water restrictions—was harder. The sandy soil helped them out this spring, while nearby farms are on clay soil, which never drains. “I feel for the beginners right now. The last two to three seasons were uniquely hard. It’s next-level hardship for farming.”

Mel has the “old equation” in her head, from when she was brought up to be a new farmer. Once upon a time, the first three years were supposed to be tough, and starting in years four to five, “it should be even keel, you should have your system down and understand the land enough to play around.” That magic three-to-five-year number is because “even if you know what you’re doing, there are still things to learn, on the land, in the area, what’s the pattern here, why aren’t the cover crops growing. There’s lots to troubleshoot.” But, Mel says, “that’s not the way it is any more. It could be year 10 before you start to feel like you’re coasting…”

At Grounded Acres, they’re “still really in the deep of it,” learning what their customers want, what ingredients chefs are looking for—there’s lots to figure out. But there’s good news: “one thing people have said even before we moved here, if you grow it, it will fly.” Even before the pandemic, young families were leaving the city and moving to the Sunshine Coast. Between the young families and established residents, there’s high demand for fresh produce. Marketing their product on the coast “has been a fairly easy ride compared to other regions I’ve worked in where there are a lot of other market gardeners per capita,” Mel says.

Mel out on the tractor on a long summer evening.
Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

As it turns out, on the Sunshine Coast everyone wants curly kale, but that hasn’t stopped Mel and Hannah from planting a variety. “We love the diversity. One will sell more, but there’s going to be a reason why we’re glad we planted the other,” says Mel. “Siberian kale is not my favourite in the summer—pests love it. But I always plant a bit because over the winter it’s going to rock it. We had the worst winter last year, it was so cold for so long, but we were still harvesting Siberian kale.” Mel remembers that the other varieties were skeletons, but the Siberian came roaring back and they were able to sell bags of braising greens. “Fresh kale on the stand in March—people will elbow each other out of the way to get it.”

Mel says they will always keep the diversity in their crop planning. “I think climate change is reinforcing what we’ve known as biodiverse small-scale farmers,” she says, and recommends that even within one crop, don’t plant just one variety, go for a few. “It surprises me every year, that one variety rocked it for four years but this year not so much. I’m always so glad I planted that other one. Climate change is running that message back home heavily about not putting all your eggs in one basket.”

Over the last hard winter five or six years back, Mel remembers people planting more and more overwintering brassicas like purple sprouting broccoli, or planting lots of greens in the spring. The risk there is picking up on that trend and over-committing. One person, at least, planted triple the amount and lost everything. “Mother nature is always like, ‘Oh you’re feeling confident, I’ll take your confidence away’.” Moments like that are there to “remind you not to bank too hard on that income, to have other avenues to make it through the season.”

“We live in a culture where we’re looking for that one book, that one person who’s going to teach us everything,” Mel says. “Farming is not that. I know folks that went to five, six, seven different farms to learn as much as they can. You will still learn until you die. There is no recipe in farming, there’s just a set of skills and knowledge you can keep accumulating.”

Mel highlights the importance of having a “troubleshooting mind” in the absence of a formula: someone can say, do it this way and this will be your result. “Maybe one year out of three that will be true. Other years, you get a cold spring and you have white fly now.” She is adamant that no one person on this planet can teach you—rather, it’s important to have diverse teachers. While there’s lots to be learned from books or online resources, that can be “a dangerous road. It doesn’t give you as much resilience in your toolbelt as just going through a season with one farmer locally in the region you want to farm.”

Grounded Acres Organic Farm Family: Hannah, Mel, Juniper, and River. Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

Community has been more important to their early success than Mel would ever have dreamed. Between Hannah and Mel, they have an incredible—and complementary—set of skills that are different and complete each other. Mel loves people but describes herself as “a blunt Quebecer who tells it like it is, which doesn’t always fly on the coast,” while she says “Hannah has this incredible way to put things in words. She’s spent a lot of time building who we are for the community.”

They landed in a new place mid-winter with small children. “We only had so much time to go around mingling and meeting people,” Mel says. Hannah spent the winter building the farm’s website and social media, telling their story. Coming from a teaching farm where Hannah was running a volunteer program, they wanted to open up their new farm to folks wanting to connect with the land. Between the pandemic and working from home, people were “aching to get out into nature. Our story spread like wildfire and we got so many volunteers. Our investor came out of that, too.”

A handful of the folks who started coming in that first year are still coming—“they are really committed and became our community,” Mel says. “We call them friends, we know everything about each other from weeding.” Mel has lived in small communities before, and knows that when you’re new somewhere you have to prove yourself. “People have to ask themselves, ‘Am I going to invest energy in building a relationship with this person?’ I think we’re in the book now!”

Overall, they have found that the community has been very welcoming. “Despite the fact that it’s small here, it’s mighty,” Mel says. “The farmers we’ve met have been very supportive. We can borrow from each other when we run out of pint containers, for example.” This kind of collaboration is especially essential because the Sunshine Coast is not in an agricultural area, and there’s a ferry between them and any supplies.

Community extends beyond their neighbours on the Sunshine Coast. Grounded Acres is certified organic. “The community that raised me as a farmer in BC was the certified organic community,” Mel says. “At a really young farmer age, I got into the importance of organic, and the importance of that community in itself.” Mel went to her first BC Organic conference her first year farming in BC. “It’s always a highlight of my year, not necessarily what I’m learning but who I’m connecting with, who I’m getting to rant with, have a beer with. That precious moment that every farmer needs, to feel that you’re not alone.”

Mel and Hannah started out with laying hens right away to respond to the community’s needs. Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

For Mel, being certified organic is about more than just what organic means. “At the end of the day we can make those practices happen without having certification, but certification is investing in keeping that community alive, that one thing that gives us a voice, makes us visible, makes us not just a trend.” The organic community in BC specifically has been together for many years, and Mel has “so much respect for the folks that put that system together, and the folks keeping it together.”

While there’s no one recipe to farming, Mel and Hannah have certainly pulled together many key ingredients, from their diverse skills to the people who support their farm in many different ways. “Diversity in the field, diversity in skills” is important, Mel says. “The jack-of-all-trades farmer thing is romanticized a lot, but it’s a harsh reality.” Bringing multiple skill sets and interests to the field is so important—even if someone is just looking for a business partner, don’t look for people who like doing the same things you do, Mel recommends.

“That’s one thing I appreciate about our farm every day. Hannah will put time into doing wholesale with chefs and going to market on the weekend. My favourite thing is to be alone on the farm, and she comes back so excited, it feeds her—and that in turn feeds me.” The foundation of Grounded Acres is the relationship between Mel and Hannah, “romantic partners who are good business partner matches as well, how lucky we are!”

groundedacresfarm.ca


Darcy Smith is the editor of the BC Organic Grower, and a huge fan of organic farmers. She also manages the BC Land Matching Program delivered by Young Agrarians.

Feature image: Queer community setting up tomato tunnels. Credit: Grounded Acres Organic Farm.

Your Land, Your Legacy

in 2022/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Spring 2022

A Farm and Foodlands Owner’s Guide

By Michael Marrapese

The Foodlands Cooperative of BC has a bold vision—to secure farmland for farming for future generations. While the Agricultural Land Reserve offers some protection by restricting the allowable activities on farmland, it has had only a modest effect on the selling price and accessibility of farmland in BC. Our primary activity is to facilitate the acquisition of land by cooperatives, non-profit groups and charities, municipalities, or Indigenous communities.

In the summer of 2021 we published Your Land, Your Legacy: A Farm and Foodlands Owner’s Guide. The Guide is expressly designed for owners of farm and food-provisioning lands who wish to create a legacy by preserving their land for generations to come.

Written by Ava Reeve, the guide is a culmination of a two-year research project made possible by funding from the Law Foundation of BC and the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC. It focuses on two particular processes to secure land for agriculture. One is to donate land to a community organization. Another approach is to register a covenant on a property. The guide covers both of these processes in detail.

North of town. Credit: Michael Marrapese.

For many farmers, selling the farm is a major part of their financial and retirement planning. However, selling their property often means it will not be used primarily for farming. In much of BC, farmland is being bought up and converted into recreational acreages, vacation homes, or rural estates—or for future real estate development.

Over the last five years the Foodlands Cooperative of BC has met with dozens of landowners who want to ensure their properties continue to be farmed and used for the benefit of their communities. We found that lawyers and estate planners are often unfamiliar with the unique legal and taxation statutes that apply to these situations, not only because it is unfamiliar but also because the process can be very nuanced and specific to each property and situation.

While many farmers are sympathetic to the plight of aspiring young farmers, transferring land by any other method than direct sale is a daunting process. As Chad Hershler, Executive Director of Deer Crossing the Art Farm observes, “transferring land ownership, legacy planning, formalizing a vision—these are all emotionally fraught, extremely challenging things to do, no matter the context. When it comes to food provisioning (and, in our case, culture-making), this is even harder.”

Cows make great neighbours. Credit: Michael Marrapese.

We engaged a team of legal experts to review existing legislation, and possible approaches to transfer land out of the speculative market, and present it in terms accessible to the layperson. “There is a gravitational pull towards doing what everyone else is doing, doing what comes easiest,” continues Hershler. “Every bit of help to move against this is crucial—and this guide is more than a bit of help. It clearly outlines steps we need to take, people we need to talk to, documents we need to draft. It takes something massive and breaks it down into simple achievable steps.”

The Foodlands Cooperative is exploring several avenues towards returning land to the public commons and out of the speculative market. While registered charities are one kind of qualified donee, the CRA recognizes a number of others. Under the Canadian Income Tax Act, qualified donees can often issue official donation receipts. Qualified donees can include the Crown at federal and provincial levels, municipal governments and other public bodies, and, interestingly, the United Nations. Many Indigenous governing bodies are also now registered as qualified donees.

When we began this project three years ago, there was an obvious need for clarity around the various options, processes, and costs of having land transferred to a land trust, either via donation or through other transfer mechanisms. In creating a plan for their estate and a succession plan for their farm operation, a landowner will want to understand the tax benefits or policies that will apply to their situation. The guide has an extensive section on Canadian tax law that explains the considerations when making a donation of land and the implications of various types of land transfer. It also lays out some practical examples of how tax law might be applied. There is a complete glossary of all the legal and financial terms to help make the material more useful and approachable.

The final section of the Guide lays out very specific steps for due diligence when a landowner is considering donating their property. Some seem quite obvious—engaging professionals such as lawyers and appraisers. Less obvious may be the need to have the property surveyed to confirm boundaries, to document encroachments and Right-of-Ways, and the existence of any environmentally sensitive or protected areas.

We are keen to pass this knowledge on to the general public through our our lawyer-reviewed guide. The guide will undoubtedly help to alleviate many of the challenges of planning farm and foodland trusts, lead to greater community access to foodlands, and to foster sustainable farming.

We see this as a first step in opening up possibilities for landowners to create a lasting legacy with their farmland.

Your Land, Your Legacy, A Farm and Foodland Owner’s Guide is available for free at foodlands.org/a-farm-and-foodland-owners-guide


Michael Marrapese lives and works at Fraser Common Farm Cooperative in the Fraser Valley on the unceded territory of the Kwantlen and Katzie peoples. An avid photographer, writer and musician he loves working on the farm and marvels at the beauty of nature. Though recently retired, he continues to be involved in various interesting projects and seems to be willing to travel at the slightest provocation.

Feature image: Tilling at Sunset. Credit: Michael Marrapese.

In Memory of Bob Mitchell

in 2022/Organic Community/Spring 2022

Over the past year, the Organic BC community lost two very special people, Dave McCandless and Bob Mitchell.

We remember them here with sadness for their passing, and with gratitude for the legacy of their knowledge, skills, rich soils, stories, passions, and contributions.

They are remembered, and live on in our work.

Bob Mitchell (1939-2022)

By Robin Tunnicliffe

Metchosin just got a little quieter, a little more docile, and definitely less colourful. A library of local history has burned. On February 13, Bob Mitchell passed away at Victoria Hospice at the age of 83. Farmer, politician, thinker, and International Man of Mystery, the tales of Bob’s adventures will live on in the many lives he touched.

I met Bob because he got a copy of our book, All the Dirt: Reflections on Organic Farming. He wanted to meet, because he had gone through three farm managers in five years. He thought I sounded serious, so he called me. At the time, I didn’t want to leave Saanich, but I have a soft spot for older farmers, so I went out to meet him.

I took one look at the soil, and I was hooked! He and his dad had been building beautiful soil there for decades, and evenly fertile crops flourished on class A ag land. Woah! Bob promised me a farm succession plan as bait, and the deal was sealed. We were there for nine years to the month when he died. Bob thrived, surrounded by younger farmers, and he loved talking politics and most anything during our daily communal lunches. As a tribute to his legacy, Sea Bluff Farm will be farmed in perpetuity to feed the surrounding community.

Bob was born in Saskatchewan but came to Metchosin as a young boy. He fondly recounted a rich childhood spent blowing up stumps with dynamite and tossing hay bales with his father. Bob’s wild years were enlivened by running after-hours nightclubs in Arizona and Seattle. He recalled these years as the best of his life. He met and married Jackie Slater and fathered his only son, Geoff. He wasn’t one for domestic life, and soon ended up in jail after getting busted for turning his agricultural gifts to the cultivation of marijuana. We guessed that Bob’s short stint in jail was the thrill of his life, for we heard many a soliloquy about his time behind bars. He continued to advocate for youth detainees and for prisoners at William Head for many decades.

Bob’s adventures spanned some years up at Clo’ose on the West Coast trail. He loved recounting tales of incoming storms into the beach, and having to sail out to anchor his boat, and then swim to shore to keep his rig from getting tossed into the rocks. He continued to visit the site, and was there last fall and had to hike out because of a misadventure.

Bob served on the Metchosin council for three terms. His slogan? “I’m the only one running that has a conviction!” The folks of Metchosin will be familiar with the sight (and smell) of the tractor and trailer loaded with seaweed coming up from Weir’s Beach. He was a regular at the Broken Paddle, and could be seen whipping around Metchosin and beyond in his iconic Mini Cooper, the farm delivery vehicle. A point of pride for Bob was to be the first one to plough up his field in the spring, even when he got mired down in the mud.

Above all, Bob loved Sea Bluff Farm. He was so proud to feed the community 12 months of the year from our humble farm stand on Wootton Rd. “Things are really cooking!” he’d say with satisfaction while looking over our loaded farm stand. Bob was rototilling in the greenhouse mere weeks before he died. He would spend hours on the end of a hoe, methodically saving crops from the weeds. He was devoted to soil health and his legacy lives on in our giant beets and Hubbard squash.

Bob was happiest when he was sharing knowledge: helping out new farmers and scheming about local politics. Bob shone when he was the centre of attention, and he could regale you with tales drawing on a huge breadth of knowledge. He was extremely well read, always curious, and had an excellent memory for municipal history.

If you would like to honour Bob, please consider a donation to the Bob Mitchell New Farmer Microloan Fund. Over the past 10 years, Bob has changed the lives of six new farmers who used the loan and were able to pay it back in the same year because of their strong start.

Donations for the the Bob Mitchell New Farmer Microloan Fund can be sent to the following email, with the subject line “Bob Micro loan:” seabluffbox@outlook.com


Feature image: Bob Mitchell pleased with the daikon crop. Credit: Sea Bluff Farm.

Organic Stories: Wildflight Farm – Secwepemeceulecw, Mara BC

in 2022/Crop Production/Farmers' Markets/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Winter 2022

A Community Movement Takes Flight

By Brianne Fester

Wild Flight Farm was never really part of the plan. In fact, Hermann Bruns grew up just down the road from the Wild Flight farmstead, and actually worked very diligently for 10 years to ensure he was on track to do quite the opposite of farming. But fate had other plans!

After their respective studies of geography and biology, Louise and Hermann met in Tumbler Ridge while working for a mining company. Both passionate about being active outdoors, exploring nature, and living as environmentally-conscious as possible, they began to recognize a disappointing lack of options for local and organic produce.

For Louise, switching gears and becoming a farmer was a clear choice. Deciding to grow the food that they themselves were unable to find was a way they could “walk the talk.”

Becoming organic growers was not only a way to advocate for living with less environmental impact, but it would provide a tangible way for others to make that choice as well.

Seeding Garlic. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

The farm lies on a beautiful 20-acre slice of fertile land in unceded Secwepemc territory, along the Shuswap River. Wild Flight Farm was named in reverence for the river and the numerous migrating bird species that make a home there. It is from that deep place of appreciation and respect for their environment that Hermann and Louise have been dedicated stewards of the land they farm.

What began as Louise’s quaint notion of a small-scale farm, run by the two of them, transformed when Hermann really sank his teeth into the idea of making a concerted effort to feed their community. Where Louise imagined “small is beautiful,” Hermann saw “expand to meet demand,” and the fusion of these two ideologies is the essence of Wild Flight Farm.

Through thoughtful growth of their business, customers from Kelowna to Revelstoke have been nourished, inspired, and gathered by the dedication to—and consistency of—the produce that Wild Flight Farm has brought to their lives and wider communities.

Louise and Hermann in the greenhouse. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

One thing that has really set the farm apart from other local growers is that they grow, store, and sell produce year-round. “Deciding to expand our infrastructure—building a bigger packing shed and additional cooler rooms—was really driven by customer demand,” reflects Hermann. The “big build” at the farm took place about 10 years into the growth of their business and was an integral step in the evolution of the farm, as it secured a supply of organic produce throughout the winter months for customers.

Direct to consumer sales, especially farmers markets, have been central to the business model of Wild Flight. In the early years they tried various markets throughout the region but eventually focused on serving two communities: Salmon Arm and Revelstoke. Their delivery methods have evolved over time and they have experimented with a Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program, in addition to attending both summer and winter markets. Over the years, “we’ve actually been all over Revelstoke,” recalls Hermann. “We’ve parked at people’s houses, industrial sites, the community centre, and centennial park.”

Continuous communication has been a real strength of Wild Flight over the years. Currently, over 2,300 people receive a weekly e-news publication, drawing recipients into the on-farm experience through bright photos and the anticipated ‘featured vegetable,’ the in-season veggie of the moment. The newsletter originated as a humble, word-processed piece of paper, authored and printed by Louise during the farm’s second year. It was a way to stay connected to their customers and offer recipe suggestions for some of the more obscure vegetables found in their CSA box.

Through its evolution, the newsletter has served many purposes: a means to convey moment to moment farm struggles and excitement and a platform for political engagement, community announcements, general farmers market news, but also a way to create a network responsive to the unexpected changes that occur between field and market. Its efficacy has been tested on several occasions, and regardless of delivery delays, weather issues, or COVID-related challenges, the newsletter has demonstrated a consistent and rapid ability to reach farm customers when plans change.

Keeping harvest day interesting. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

This attentive and thoughtful way of aligning with customers is also echoed in how Hermann and Louise connect with their employees. I worked at the farm over four non-consecutive years in a variety of roles. There were two constant threads woven into all my experiences of working with them: the authentic and genuine care for their employees, and their keen desire to share with, and support, interested young farmers.

The simple act of sitting with their employees at lunch each day spoke volumes to me; we were all working together to achieve the same goals and our efforts as employees were respected and valued. Their appreciation was also undoubtedly clear on Fridays when Louise would create an extraordinary dessert for us to share. Definitely a weekly highlight!

Both Hermann and Louise were always available to chat about any and all things farming—or life—and on several occasions the crew arranged to have post-workday Q&A sessions, where we could pepper them with our extensive farming queries. To this day, they make me feel like there is never a question too silly or a moment too busy to reach out.

Whether nurturing aspiring farmers or building relationships with existing farmers, Wild Flight has been integral in maintaining a strong farmer network in the region. At the very onset of their farm business, Hermann and Louise were warmly welcomed into the realm of organic growing by Rob and Kathryn Hettler of Pilgrims’ Produce. They generously offered insights and experience and even gifted Hermann and Louise their first hoop house!

Wild Flight farmers’ market spread. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

This sentiment of reciprocity has remained a top priority as Wild Flight has grown over the years, whether through co-marketing, exchanging insights and info, coordinating with other growers to share shipping to Urban Harvest or Farmbound, or joining forces to save costs by splitting a pallet (or more!) worth of goods between several growers.

Nearing the end of their third decade, Wild Flight continues to have the same dedication to providing organic produce to as many folks as possible. Farming still requires them to navigate new challenges with unique and innovative solutions and it appears that traversing their next steps of farm succession will be no different. “Our hope is that the farm will continue in a similar direction,” says Hermann when asked about their idea of Wild Flight in the future. But, Louise adds, “our kids definitely don’t want to farm.”

At the edge of one of the fields, behind the alley of hoop houses stands a proud new house, ready for its first occupants. “Building it is definitely a gamble,” Hermann shares, but they recognize that having on-farm housing is a necessity. The intention with the build is that the house will attract potential successors, and the entering farmers will have a comfortable place to live with the space to raise a family, if they chose to. With the price of land increasing at such an alarming rate, it remains one of the largest barriers for aspiring farmers, not to mention the widespread trouble accessing affordable housing. (1, 2)

Several years ago, The Bruns’ decided to incorporate Wild Flight Farm, but keep the land and infrastructure that the farm uses under their private ownership. “The idea is that because the farm doesn’t actually own any of the land itself, it is more affordable for someone to buy into the business,” explains Hermann. “The farm would continue to operate, they would make their salary and then be able to use the profit, or some of the profit, to invest back into further ownership of the business, while continuing to lease the land and buildings.”

Looking forward, Louise and Hermann see exciting potential. They envision a sense of gusto brought to the farm by folks who, as Louise imagines, “can use the infrastructure to make it their own.”

wildflightfarm.ca


Brianne Fester is grateful to have been involved in organic growing in various capacities since taking a job with Wild Flight Farm in 2013. Brianne is passionate about all things food and is particularly interested in how we can work to create a more just and equitable food system.

Feature image: Bringing in the harvest. Credit: Wild Flight Farm.

References:
Cheung, C. (April 20, 2021). To Ease Housing Crisis, BC is Largely looking to Developers as Partners. The Tyee. thetyee.ca/News/2021/04/20/Housing-Crisis-Developers-Partners/
Fawcett-Atkinson, M. (August 12, 2020). Young BC Farmers Can’t Afford Farmland. Canada’s National Observer. nationalobserver.com/2020/08/12/news/young-bc-farmers-cant-afford-farmland

Grazing the Way for Small Scale Meat

in 2021/Fall 2021/Grow Organic/Livestock/Marketing/Organic Community

By Ava Reeve

Drive down any rural road in this province and you’re sure to pass cattle on the range, a flock of sheep, or mobile pens for pastured poultry. Small-scale livestock production has a long tradition in BC, and has been reinvigorated in recent years with practices such as rotational grazing and regenerative agriculture that allow for significant meat production without industrial practices. Demand also seems to be growing for local and sustainable meats.

But are there really enough of these small producers to play a serious role in BC’s economy today? And how much potential does this industry have for the future?

Associations representing commercial livestock producers collect data on their own members – those producing over 300 hogs with BC Pork, for example. Commodity producers also enjoy the benefits of their association’s advocacy, and commerce support from marketing boards.

Meanwhile, producers selling directly to consumers, raising multiple livestock species, or simply operating at a smaller scale have lacked a collective voice in provincial conversations about agricultural policies. And little is known about the current scale and potential capacity of these producers.

Credit: Small Scale Meat Producers Association.

The Small-Scale Meat Producers Association (SSMPA) aims to address both of these issues. In spite of a diversity of livestock types and sizes of operations, the organization says that its members are united by operating without the supports of the existing commodity associations or marketing boards.

SSMPA was established by a group of farmers and ranchers in 2017, and its membership now includes representation from all livestock sectors. “The Small-Scale Meat Producers Association represents British Columbia farmers and ranchers who are raising meat outside of the conventional, industrial system,” reads the SSMPA website home page.

This might include a pork producer raising 200 hogs per year, and all poultry producers who sell direct to consumer. It can also include cow-calf operations that process a few cull cows for sale to friends and neighbours, even if they otherwise primarily sell at auction.

It has also succeeded in becoming recognized in consultations and conversations with the BC Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, such as in the development of changes to on-farm slaughter licensing that the province recently announced.

Julia Smith of Blue Sky Ranch near Merritt is the President of SSMPA. “We’re happy with the regulatory changes,” she says of the announcement. But, she notes, “There’s more work to be done to build a thriving small-scale meat industry.”

Including Smith, SSMPA’s founding members were selling their meat products directly to members of their communities, rather than through a marketing board or distributor, and feeding communities in the process. And their experience was that their industry was growing.

Suckling piglets. Credit: Small Scale Meat Producers Association.

Smith raises a rare heritage breed of hog as well as a small herd of cattle on pasture. Selling directly has helped her see better margins than many commercial producers, where processors and retailers realize the lion’s share of the profit.

The demand for her product has been enough to enable Smith to grow her operation, from raising just two pigs in her first year, to running a farrow-to-finish operation with fourteen sows and two boars just four years later. She has supplied meat and other farm products to hundreds of British Columbians and currently has a waitlist for both meat and breeding stock.

Smith says this experience is repeated across the province. “We know that a small-scale operation can contribute to food security and the local economy. What we don’t know is the cumulative potential of producers like this spread all over the province – or their specific barriers to reaching that potential.”

She says information like this hasn’t been available because the right questions weren’t being asked. This summer, SSMPA launched a comprehensive survey of meat producers. She says the resulting information will help the organization define its policies and priorities to support these producers moving forward.

The province seems to agree that the industry has promise; many of the new changes to the slaughter regulations had been advocated for by SSMPA for years. Smith believes the number of producers that could be affected by policies like this is in the thousands. And they should all be giving their two cents to SSMPA.

“Everyone who processes at a provincially-inspected abattoir or on-farm should be participating in this survey,” she says. “Tell us: What is your path to growth? What obstacles do you need to overcome in order to reach your goals?”

At Blue Sky Ranch, Smith’s own goal was to produce just under 300 hogs per year. But the operation met with processing roadblocks at 125 hogs.

“We’re not the only operation that isn’t reaching its full capacity,” says Smith. “SSMPA is using the survey to document this. We want to know what would happen if we could create the conditions for successful operations across the province. For example, how many abattoirs would need to be built before producers could book the slaughter dates they need, with enough reliability to scale their businesses?”

“We’re connecting the dots, but without data to prove our case we won’t get the resources and support to let our industry thrive.”

Smith emphasizes that this survey is an independent project. “SSMPA is a producer-led organization and our mandate is to look out for producers,” she says. “We’ve gone to great lengths to protect the anonymity of survey participants and we will not be sharing survey responses or any other raw data with government, or anyone else.”

For an added incentive SSMPA connected with BC-based fencing company FenceFast, which has offered a $25 discount to every current producer who participates. Smith says FenceFast recognized the potential. “Really, this is just an example of the ripples of impact that can come from growing a locally-based industry like this.”

She adds, “We might be surprised at the opportunities being squandered because of challenges that are within our capacity to address. Even producers might be taken aback. We hope that there will be findings in our report that invigorate and inspire producers with a vision of what could be possible. We have so many people who want to enter this industry. Imagine the impact if these producers will have a fair chance at success.”

The survey is open until September 10, 2021 and can be accessed at smallscalemeat.ca/survey or it can be completed over the phone by appointment at 250-999-0296. SSMPA can also be reached at info@smallscalemeat.ca.

SSMPA is conducting regional focus groups in mid-September to dig deeper into potential solutions to the problems identified through the survey. By early 2022 they will be releasing a report on their findings, and announce how they will ensure that their own programming is geared to meet the needs of its membership.

Producers – and all supporters of local and sustainable meat production – are invited to join SSMPA by signing up for a membership.


Ava Reeve is the Executive Director of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association, where she gets to pursue her passion for the sustainable practices that result in a high quality of life for both livestock and people.

Featured image: Spray Creek Ranch Cattle. Credit: Small Scale Meat Producers Association.

Incubating Certified Organic Farmers at Haliburton

in 2021/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Spring 2021

Erin Bett

Our farm, Fierce Love Farm, is a one-acre vegetable, fruit, and flower farm in Saanich on unceded W̱SÁNEĆ territory. We are part of Haliburton Community Organic Farm, which is a beautiful piece of farmland in the middle of the Victoria suburbs.

Haliburton Farm operates as an incubator farm: new farmers can lease plots between half an acre and one acre for a short-term lease of up to eight years to start their farm business. Our farm, and all the other farmers at Haliburton Farm, are certified organic through the Islands Organic Producers Association (IOPA).

While Haliburton Farm operates somewhat differently than other IOPA incubator farms, since it is run by a non-profit society on publicly owned land, it served as part of the inspiration for IOPA’s incubator farm policy. The incubator farm policy aims to expand the opportunities for new farmers to start organic farms with the support of established IOPA farmers.

We started our farm business at Haliburton Farm in 2018, and are entering our fourth season. After both completing the UBC Farm Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture and working for many years on farms throughout the province, we were ready to take the leap and start our own farm. With land prices what they are in BC, and especially on the west coast, we knew our only option was to lease land. When the opportunity to join Haliburton Farm’s incubator model opened up, we jumped at the chance, and have benefited from it greatly.

Jon harvesting leeks. Credit: Fierce Love Farm.

Farming at an incubator farm gave us the head start that leasing a raw piece of land from a private landowner never could have. With the key infrastructure like hoop houses, irrigation, and a walk-in cooler in place, and existing plantings of cane fruits in the ground, we were able to hit the ground running in our first season.

Kevin Allen, who also started Elemental Farm at Haliburton in 2018, adds, “The incubator policy has created the opportunity to start the farm business in a stable and supportive environment. This will be the fourth year of Elemental Farm’s operations and I am grateful this incubator policy exists.” He highlights that the incubator allowed them to start small and build their level of investment over time, as their risk tolerance increased. “For example,” he says, “we didn’t need to invest so heavily in the fixed assets of a cooler.”

Our plot had been farmed by two previous farmers before us, so we were also inheriting years of work building the soil. We were incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work for the farmer whose plot we took over, Northstar Organics, the year prior to starting our farm. Having the mentorship of Shawn Dirksen on the land we would be farming, was invaluable to our business. Hearing his experiences, successes, and cautions gleaned over his time on the land gave us history and knowledge that would have taken years to collect on our own—a true gift to have before even putting pen to paper for our crop and marketing plans. Even three years later, he is only a phone call away to help us troubleshoot.

Being part of an incubator farm also gave us access to existing marketing channels. Our large stall at the local farmers’ market already had name recognition, and over the last three years we have worked hard to expand our dedicated customer base. We also partner with three other Haliburton Farm current and former lessees to collectively market our produce to restaurant and small grocer customers, which is coordinated by a fourth former Haliburton Farm lessee.

This combination of support, infrastructure, and our previous experience has allowed us to focus on the thing we didn’t have experience with—running a business. We have since been working to expand our own CSA, as we have always loved the CSA model and the connection with our community that it brings, and grow our farm to bring on more staff and our systems, while we plan for the future and a more permanent home for our farm.

While for us, the thought of starting over on another piece of land is daunting, and the barriers to land access for farmers are all too real, we are grateful that we have been able to start our farm business at Haliburton Farm.

Kevin’s farm has grown beyond the borders of Haliburton, too. “Starting last year, we were able to find another plot to lease and expand our plantings,” says Kevin. “We’ve now graduated out of the incubator policy and are continuing to search for more land to lease.”

Much needs to be done to make sure we set up the next generation of organic farmers for success, and incubator farms like Haliburton Farm are an important piece of the farm landscape. Haliburton Farm is celebrating its 20th year of operation this year, and as a member of the IOPA certification committee, I’m so excited to see applications from new farmers, who are being mentored by established organic farmers under the incubator farm policy.

If you would like more information about IOPA’s Incubator Policy and you are located within IOPA’s region of Vancouver Island and surrounding islands, reach out to admin@iopa.ca.


Erin Bett farms at Fierce Love Farm, a diverse, small-scale, organic farm located at Haliburton Community Organic Farm in Saanich, BC. Erin and her farm partner Jon are two first-generation farmers growing a variety of high-quality vegetables, berries, and flowers on one acre of leased land.

Feature image: Erin Bett showing off a bucket full of dahlias. Credit: Fierce Love Farm

A City Boy Goes to Work on the Farm

in 2020/Fall 2020/Marketing/Organic Community

Devon Cooke

On April 15th, I uprooted myself from my Burnaby basement suite, packed as much as I could into my hatchback, and hit the road. Pandemic lockdown plan: go to where the food is. Destination: Amara Farm in the Comox Valley. I had negotiated what I thought was a pretty sweet deal. Amara Farm would provide me with room and board, and I would offer my labour on the farm. And one more thing: while I was there, I’d be filming my documentary, The Hands that Feed Us, about how farmers are coping with COVID-19.

I’m a city boy, with no farm experience and no particular desire to be a labourer, but Arzeena was thrilled to have me on the farm. Usually, she relies on interns for labour, and with travel shut down for COVID, she was wondering how she was going to get through planting season when I called. For myself, I saw a selfish opportunity to make my film, but also a safety net. The apocalyptic part of my mind could see the possibility of a Great Depression, and I wanted to be at the front of the breadlines. I might not make any money on the farm, but I wouldn’t starve, and I’d be learning how to grow food to feed myself, if it came to that.

Filmmaker Devon Cooke. Credit: Derek Gray.

I’ve had back problems for almost 20 years, and the legendary farmer work ethic made me a little nervous about how my body would stand up. I was envisioning working the fields sun-up to sun-down, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the farm’s work hours were 8:30-4:30, with a full hour break for lunch. Those are better hours than I’ve ever worked, and certainly much better than the 12-plus hour days that are standard in the film industry.

The last hour of the first day turned out to be the hardest on my body. My assigned job was to mark holes for onions that would be planted: three rows per bed, spaced 12 inches apart. Doing this efficiently meant squatting down, marking a few holes, standing up, shifting down the row, and squatting down again. Squatting was especially bad for my back, and with three beds left, I couldn’t stand straight. At that point, the farm manager, Kate, took pity on me and took over. I felt defeated. Kate’s comment: “That’s farm life. Sometimes it defeats you.”

Since then, I’ve had days where my back was sore, but my body has toughened up as I’ve gotten used to farm work, and now I don’t worry about my back. For the first time in years, I’m not paying $120 a month to have someone “fix” my back. Who knew that all I really needed was some actual work!

Amara Farm salad fields. Credit: Michaela Parks.

One day, I wanted to film customers, so I needed to stay close to the farm gate where I could intercept them before they picked up their orders. I couldn’t be in the fields while I waited, so I asked if there was any work I could be doing between customers. There was! The wash station was right where I would be waiting, so I was assigned to wash produce tubs.

After a few hours and a half dozen customers, I thought, “Gee, I wish I could be doing something more useful with my time.” Cleaning tubs didn’t feel like “real” farm work—real farm work was planting, or seeding, or weeding. But, as I ruminated a bit more, I became aware of the prejudice in my thought. Cleaning tubs is just as much a part of farm work as seeding or weeding. If I didn’t clean them, someone else would have to do it later. Cleaning tubs is useful work; it was only the mundane nature of the task which made me feel like I wasn’t contributing to the farm.

Arzeena Hamir and Neil Turner of Amara Farm. Credit: Michaela Parks.

My realization contains a bigger lesson. We don’t tend to place much value in the mundane. We like cleanliness, but cleaning tubs is a job for somebody else, and often we want to pay the absolute minimum to get the job done. Food has the same problem. What could be more mundane and routine than eating a meal? We eat three times a day—and we do it quickly and thoughtlessly so we can spend our time on “more important things.” Is it any wonder that our culture spends so little on food?

This cultural attitude was illuminated for me enroute to my next farm. I stopped in Vancouver for a day or two, which meant that for the first time in two months I had to buy my food at a store instead of just raiding the seconds bin.

Walking into Whole Foods, I was overwhelmed. Any food I could imagine was on a shelf somewhere, enticingly displayed and picture perfect. For a moment, I had no idea what to do. At Amara, I cooked whatever was growing at the farm; the idea that I could simply buy a pair of artichokes and a lemon for dinner didn’t make sense. Are artichokes in season? How long ago was the lemon picked? I couldn’t answer these questions, and that disturbed me because, at Amara, I would have known the answers intimately. I had helped grow it!

COVID-19 protocols at a Whole Foods Vancouver store. Credit: Devon Cooke.

Allow me to use Whole Foods as a symbol. In our culture, Whole Foods is a shrine to food; it represents the best of our cultural ideals around food: organic, wholesome, healthy, and plentiful. It’s more expensive, but people shop there anyway because they care about the quality of their food. Before I set out on this journey, I was a worshiper at the shrine of Whole Foods. And, indeed, the values behind Whole Foods are good values, ones that I still hold dear.

Nonetheless, my time on the farm has taught me that Whole Foods is a false idol. The ubiquitous bounty on the shelves, the fact that I can buy mangoes from the Philippines at any time of year, all that encourages me to treat food as mundane, as something I can obtain on a whim if I’m willing to part with a sufficient amount of cash. Because it is so easily available, I’m discouraged from knowing where the food was grown, who picked it, and what growing conditions were like. I can’t know these things even if I want to; I simply trust that Whole Foods has taken care of that for me. I pay a bit more to Whole Foods because I believe they are better priests of food than the ones at Superstore, but the bottom line is that I’m still delegating control of my food to someone else. In doing so, I treat food in the same way I was thinking about cleaning tubs: a job for someone else.

Farm interns working at Amara Farm. Credit: Michaela Parks.

I’m now on my third farm and fifth month of this journey. I’ve had many lessons since I left Amara Farm, with many more to come in the coming months. I expect that once winter comes, I’ll stop working on the farm and focus on completing my documentary. I can’t say what I’ll be doing for food at that point, but I can say that I won’t be satisfied shopping at the supermarket. Now that I’ve spent time learning how to grow food, I don’t think I can simply put food in my mouth without asking where it came from or how it was grown.


Devon Cooke is making The Hands that Feed Us, a documentary about how farmers make a living during COVID-19. You can follow his journey as a farmhand online.

Feature image: Basil harvest at Amara Farm. Credit: Michaela Parks.

Green bean harvest. Credit: Michaela Parks.

Sparkly Eyes, Grit, and Land Access

in 2020/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Marketing/Organic Community/Summer 2020

New Organic Farmers on Leased Land

Tessa Wetherill

Spring on an organic produce farm looks like baby greens, tiny radishes, overflowing seedling greenhouses, and freshly turned soil. Everything feels precious and new and brimming with possibility. Touring around Loveland Acres in Salmon Arm with farmers Robin and Maylene, those feelings were especially palpable and poignant since it’s their first season on the land. They’ve had a long journey getting here, one filled with familiar challenges and dreams. The other familiar things these farmers have are sparkly eyes and grit, ineffable qualities that go a long way in agriculture.As a farm business, Loveland Acres’ main goal is to provide high quality organic food for as many months of the year as possible. Robin and Maylene have been personally committed to eating as locally and seasonally as possible for many years and have identified a gap, often referred to as the hunger gap, in the availability of local produce in the region.

Crop rows in gorgeous soil under row cover. Credit: Tessa Wetherill.

“We want to help promote the Eat Local message all year round,” says Maylene. Which is why their next big project is to purchase and convert a shipping container into a commercial kitchen, an investment that will give them a place to process their produce, dry peppers, can tomatoes, and make pickles.

In discussing this next step in their business plan, Maylene points out that “no one talks about the money when starting a small farm.” She makes a good point. Even with all their sweat labour, these new farmers have invested a huge amount of money that they saved over a long time of working two jobs each into infrastructure, systems, and set up. They have poly tunnels, seedling greenhouses, storage spaces, and a very impressive irrigation system—all necessary to launch into marketing their products this season. The next step in building towards their goal of providing local food 12 months a year will take more capital than they have available right now, but seeing what these farmers have done in a couple years, I have no doubt they will make it happen.

In 2014, Robin and Maylene both left their professional careers in publishing and printing to pursue a siren song towards sustainable organic agriculture and a better quality of life. In her former life in Toronto, Maylene describes her experience with insomnia and a feeling of unease with the constant race and pace of the city and industry she worked in. When Maylene is asked what she loves most about farming, the answer is easy: mental space. Thinking about whatever she chooses all day long, rather than the 300 emails in her inbox. Contemplative, diverse, connected labour. That said, they both admit to having the occasional nightmare about their greenhouse flying away and that time they missed the window on flame weeding carrots!

Robin in the high tunnel hoop house. Below: Maylene with the celeriac harvest. Credit: Loveland Acres

Robin and Maylene met interning on an organic farm in Ontario. They fell in love with each other and the land and made a life-altering decision. Being in that environment and working in sync with the processes of nature, they both immediately began feeling healthier and sleeping better. They were learning that this was the life they were called to. They spent the next four years working and volunteering on farms across Canada and eventually found full-time employment working on a third-generation family-owned orchard in the Okanagan.

“For any aspiring farmer, working in agriculture is essential. It is the best way to learn and get hands-on experience. The only catch is that wages in agriculture are prohibitively low, which makes the prospect of land ownership, especially in the Okanagan, pretty unrealistic,” says Maylene. “With the average agricultural wage hovering around $14 an hour and the average price per acre of land in the Okanagan sitting at about $100,000, it’s not hard to see that land ownership is essentially out of the question for most agricultural workers.”

The high cost of land was the biggest hurdle they faced. Starting their new farm business on leased land was the only viable option for them, which is how they ended up connecting with the B.C. Land Matching Program (BCLMP) and with me, the land matcher for the Okanagan region.

Robin on the tractor. Credit: Loveland Acres.

Loveland Acres is one of 78 matches the BCLMP has supported on over 4,600 acres across the province since launching in Metro Vancouver in 2016 and expanding province-wide in 2018. The BCLMP provides land matching and business support services to new and established farmers looking for land to start or grow their farm business, as well as landowners interested in finding someone to farm their land. The benefits of land matching are hands-on support services to help new farmers and landowners evaluate opportunities, access resources, and ultimately find a land match partner. The program aims to address a lack of affordable farmland as a significant barrier for farmers entering the agricultural industry. The BCLMP is delivered by Young Agrarians, a farmer to farmer resource network, and is funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Real Estate Foundation of B.C., Bullitt Foundation, and Patagonia.

After registering for the BCLMP, we worked together to refine their focus on what attributes Robin and Maylene were looking for in a piece of land, taking the guesswork out of the leasing process and then connecting them with interested landowners.

“The BCLMP is so much more than a program that links landowners and land seekers. They helped us negotiate a stable and secure land lease, provided advice and access to a lawyer to look over our agreement, and connected us with their business mentorship program,” says Maylene. “If Tessa hadn’t reached out to us, we’d probably still be unsuccessfully trying to convince bankers and mortgage brokers that we weren’t crazy, and that, yes, you could make a living growing vegetables on two acres of land, with only a walk-behind tractor and a few simple pieces of equipment.”

Robin and Maylene knew from the beginning that organic certification was a priority for them, so when they were introduced to landowners Dag and Elina Falck, who own the land on which Loveland Acres has made their home, there was an instant spark of connection through their shared values.

Maylene with the celeriac harvest. Credit: Loveland Acres

Besides wanting to give their customers a guarantee that the food they produced was being done in a way that met the highest criteria for environmental sustainability, they have also felt the support of a community of fellow organic growers in the region. The pair emphasized the importance of being connected to a group of people who understand what they are going through, are available to answer questions, and generally help alleviate the feeling of being alone in a tough industry. On one particularly bad week, filled with unfortunate life events, including a car breaking down and other irritations, they recalled attending the annual general meeting for the North Okanagan Organic Association (NOOA). Just being in a room with other organic growers gave them the encouragement they needed to push through and keep going.

The willingness these farmers have in engaging with the community and accessing all possible resources to support their dreams has been instrumental in moving them into the exciting place of possibility they are at now. When I asked, what’s the most exciting thing for you right now, they responded by loading me up with freshly-harvested arugula and French Breakfast radishes, which I ate in handfuls on the way home.

Land matchers love being able to help farmers achieve secure access to land to start or expand their businesses, and to help farmland owners enjoy the benefits of agriculture of all kinds on their land. Farmers, get in touch to start a conversation about leasing land for your operation! Landowners, reach out to the BCLMP to help a farmer access land, whether you have hundreds of acres of farmland, or a small urban plot. There are so many growers looking for spaces to produce food across the province, and your land might just be the perfect fit.

Find Loveland Acres online!

First farmers’ market . Credit: Loveland Acres.

Send an email to land@youngagrarians.org and a land matcher will get in touch to learn more about your needs and vision and help you get on your way to making a match.

The B.C. Land Matching Program is funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Real Estate Foundation of B.C., Bullitt Foundation, and Patagonia.

Tessa Wetherill farmed full-time and with all her heart for 11 years, first in Vancouver and then the North Okanagan, before joining the Young Agrarians team as the BCLMP’s Okanagan Land Matcher. She loves all things that grow—plants, people, and communities—and what really lights her up are relationships and collaborations that form strong, diverse human ecosystems.

Feature image: Robin and Maylene with starts. Credit: Tessa Wetherill

Maylene with low tunnel row cover hoops. Credit: Tessa Wetherill

Organic Stories: UBC Farm, Vancouver, BC

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Stories/Past Issues/Seeds/Winter 2019

Cultivating Climate Resilience in a Living Laboratory

Constance Wylie

Surrounded by forest and sea, the University of British Columbia is a quick 30 minute bus ride west of downtown Vancouver. A city unto itself, more than 55,800 students and close to 15,000 faculty and staff study, work, live, and play there. A small but growing number also farms. Countless hands-on educational opportunities are offered at the UBC Farm: from internships and research placements for university students, to day camps and field trips for school children, to workshops and lectures for interested community members. There is something for everyone, including bountiful amounts of fresh organic produce.

Globally, agriculture accounts for 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Half of that is from land use changes such as deforestation, while the other half is attributed to on-farm management practices and livestock. Moreover, our food systems are contributing massive amounts to our ecological footprint. Food accounts for about 50% of Vancouver’s footprint, according to UBC Professor Emeritus William Rees. Evidently, food can, and must, be an agent of change. In our rapidly changing world where the future of yesterday is uncertain, farmers are on the front line.

The folk at UBC’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems are digging into these challenges using their very own “living laboratory,” aka UBC Farm, as a testing ground. It is a hotbed of leading agricultural research with “aims to understand and transform local and global food systems towards a more sustainable food secure future,” according to the farm website. It is also a green oasis where everyone is welcome to find a quiet moment to connect with nature; the hustle and bustle of campus dissipates on the wings of beneficial insects and chirping birds.

At 24 hectares, this certified organic production farm makes for a unique academic environment. As Melanie Sylvestre, the Perennial, Biodiversity, and Seed Hub Coordinator, puts it, “having a farm that does research in organic production is unique in BC and vital for the future of organic agriculture” in the province.

We can all whet our farming practices by reviewing some of the 30 ongoing research projects at UBC Farm. It should come as no surprise that many of the projects relate coping with the effects climactic changes have on agriculture, locally and globally.

UBC Farm. Credit Constance Wylie

Organic Soil Amendments

One such project is Organic Systems Nutrient Dynamics led by Dr. Sean Smukler and Dr. Gabriel Maltais-Landy. Their research compares the performance of typical organic soil amendments: chicken and horse manure, blood meal, and municipal compost. Depending on the type and amounts of organic soil amendment applied, crop yield will vary, and so too will the environmental impact. They found that often the highest yields result from over fertilization of Nitrogen and Phosphorus, which leads to greater GHG emissions. For example, chicken manure releases potent levels of GHG emissions.

It is a challenging trade-off to negotiate. This information is critically important for the organic grower trying to decrease their environmental impact. Another topic of study was the value of rain protection for on-farm manure storage: for long-term storage, it is always best to cover your manure pile!

Climate Smart

Were you aware that the application of black or clear plastic mulch with low longwave transmissivity can increase soil temperatures by about 40%? Conversely, a high reflective plastic mulch can reduce soil temperatures by about 20%. These are some of the findings of the Climate Smart Agriculture research team, composed of Dr. Andrew Black, Dr. Paul Jassal, and PhD student and research assistant Hughie Jones. In an interview for his researcher profile, Hughie explains that through his work he is “trying to get direct measurements … so that people have access to hard, reliable data” for enhancing crop productivity with mulches and low tunnels for season extension. “By increasing the amount of knowledge available we can reduce the amount of guessing involved for farmers, increasing their predictive power.” When it comes to getting the most out of a growing season, less time spent with trial and error can make a huge difference to your yields and income.

Fields of curcubits at UBC Farm. Credit Sara Dent @saradentfarmlove

Seed Savers

With the fall frost of 2018, the first phase of the BC Seed Trials drew to a close. The collaboration between UBC Farm, FarmFolk CityFolk, and The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security kicked off in 2016 to run these trials. Lead scientist and project manager Dr. Alexandra Lyon explained that the first phase asked, “What are the most hardy, resilient, well adapted varieties that we already have access to?”

More than 20 farms from across the province were involved in trialing seeds including kale, beets, leeks, and spinach. These varieties were chosen as crops that are already known to perform well in BC. The seeds in question are all open-pollinated varieties which boast “higher resilience then hybrid varieties in the face of climate change,” says Sylvestre, who has also been a leading figure in the seed trials.

While farmers may choose hybrid seed for their higher yields and other selected traits, Sylvestre explains that they lack “horizontal resistance, the concept of having diversity within a population allowing it to withstand various climatic changes. Through our selection process, we try to achieve horizontal resistance and therefore offer new varieties that would be better suited in various growing scenarios. It is important to understand that goal of horizontal resistance is among multiple other goals to reach varieties with agronomic traits that will be desirable to farmers and customers.”

“Community building around our local seed systems has been significant through this research project,” Sylvestre adds. The seed trials are also contributing to community building at UBC Farm itself. Rather than compost the crops grown for the seed trials, they are harvested and sold at the weekly farmers market.

With new funding secured from the federal government, the BC Seed trials will continue for at least another five years. Going ahead, the “role of UBC Farm is to train and connect farmers for farmer led plant breeding” says Lyon. While institutional academic research will play a significant role in seed selection and adaptation, “lots of types of seed trialing will be really important.” This means that farmers across the province “supported with tools and knowledge for selecting and saving seed” can contribute significantly to our collective seed and food security. Lyon encourages farmers to reach out with their experiences with regards to climate change and seed. She and members from the team will also be at the COABC conference February 22-24, 2019 with the intention to connect with BC farmers.

Ultimately, at UBC farm, “all the issues people are working on play into what we will need to adapt to climate change” says Lyon. The formal and informal networks made at UBC Farm are really starting to take root across the province. This is an amazing resource for us all to profit from. Take advantage of these slower winter months to dig in and digest the information available to us—it may very well change the way you approach your next growing season.

FOR MORE INFO

Check out UBC Farm online at: ubcfarm.ca

More on Organic Systems Nutrient Dynamics: ubcfarm.ubc.ca/2017/06/01/organic-soil-amendments

More on UBC’s Climate Smart Agriculture research: ubcfarm.ubc.ca/climate-smart-agriculture

For BC Seed trial results and updates: bcseedtrials.ca

Dr. Alexandra Lyon can be contacted at alexandra.lyon@ubc.ca

Seed grown at UBC farm is now available through the BC Eco-Seed Coop. Keep an eye out for two new varieties: Melaton leek and Purple Striped tomatillo.


Constance Wylie left her family farm on Vancouver Island to study Political Science and the Middle East at Sciences Po University in France, only to return to BC where she took up farming, moonlighted as a market manager, and got a PDC in Cuba and Organic Master Gardener certificate with Gaia College. She now lives, writes, and grows food in Squamish with her dog Salal.

Feature Image: UBC Farm. Credit: Sara Dent @saradentfarmlove

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

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