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In Memory of Bob Mitchell

in 2022/Current Issue/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: Kloverdalen Farm – K’ómoks Territory, Courtenay, BC

in 2021/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Summer 2021

Learning and Sharing at Kloverdalen Farm

Moss Dance

Kloverdalen Farm is a beautiful patch of great farmland in the Comox Valley producing mixed organic veggies. It is owned and operated by Kira Kotilla and Ingemar Dalen, along with their two adorable kids, Eilif and Olin.

I met Kira Kotilla in the Comox Valley. My five-acre farm was just down the road from where she grew up in Merville, BC. We both learned and apprenticed in the early- to mid-2000’s with some of the same mentors on southern Vancouver Island.

When she saw what I was up to with small-scale mixed organic veggies, she generously offered to come over and help out a few days a week. She taught me all kinds of things about soil and plant science, got a lot of work done, and she was really good with the tractor. She says one of the things she gleaned from that time on my farm was experience creating real hardpan! Oops.

Luckily for me, I sold the tractor and bought a walk-behind rototiller, and those early days of her volunteering on my farm ended up creating a lot of collaboration, learning, and fun. We ended up becoming co-founding members of Merville Organics Growers’ Cooperative with Arzeena Hamir, Neil Turner, Russell Heitzmann, Calliope Gazetas, and Robin Sturley.

By the time we met in 2013, Kira was well into her explorations of profitable small-scale farming. And her interest in techniques and tools that increase farm profitability was a huge boon for Merville Organics. Like many of us, she was originally drawn to farming by the ideals and the way of life it could offer. “I was inspired by my love of plants,” she says, “I wanted to work outside, and being very independent, I wanted to work on my own.”

So she did her homework. Kira wasn’t content to pursue her dreams without doing the research first to make sure it was a life path that could support her well.

Kira’s incredible cabbages. Credit: zoomphotography.ca

Early Farm Mentors

It’s amazing to think about the ways in which we all, as organic farmers, come from various tributaries into this river of organic agriculture, finding mentors along the way who lead us into pockets of communities across the country.

Kira first became interested in farming in the mid-2000’s, and found her way to Nova Scotia Agricultural College. She remembers thinking, “I hope there are organic farming courses there.” Once she was settled in at school, she realized that the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC) was headquartered there, and many of her professors were a part of the OACC! These early mentors in organic agriculture lead to Kira’s first apprenticeship in Nova Scotia. Ever practical, Kira knew her dreams needed to be tested. During her school and apprenticeship years, she watched her mentors carefully to see if farming would be financially viable and worth trying in her own life.

She had a revelatory moment at a workshop by Crop Planning for Organic Farmers author and Ferme Coopérative Tourne-Sol farmer Daniel Brisebois. “Daniel inspired me at an ACORN conference back in 2008. He was one of the first speakers I’d ever heard who made me think being a small-scale organic farmer was a viable option.”

From there, she had to decide where to dig in and start her own farm. “I had a really great time at school in Nova Scotia and was really tempted to stay out there and buy land,” she says, “but I came back to BC.”

Kira’s encounter with Daniel Brisebois and the organic agriculture community in Nova Scotia had piqued her interest in co-operatives, so when she returned to BC, she was drawn to working with Rachel Fisher at Three Oaks Farm, one of the co-founding members of Saanich Organics. She spent the 2011 season in a Stewards Of Irreplaceable Land (SOIL) apprenticeship with Rachel, and learned about collaborative farming with the other farmers at Saanich Organics, Heather Stretch and Robin Tunnicliffe. During her apprenticeship, she mentions that the “educational field trips with SOIL connected me to many other mentors as well.”

By the time Kira ended up back in the Comox Valley, she was well-educated, and keen to get started on her own projects.

Ingemar Dalen shares Kira’s passion for sizeable brassicas. Credit: zoomphotography.ca

Never Stop Learning

Kira and Ingemar purchased their farm in 2014, a sweet 4.25-acre parcel right on a rural highway for excellent exposure and farm stand potential. She planted a garlic patch, and was planning to go back to camp cooking for one more season to save up money when Arzeena Hamir called her up and invited her to join Merville Organics Growers’ Cooperative. Kira decided to abandon her camp cooking plans and dive in that season, growing some staple crops for the co-op.

Once the co-op ball started rolling, the learning curve drew her in again, and of course, many new mentors appeared along the way. In that first year of farm operation, Kira and two other Merville Organics farmers had an opportunity to join the Business Mentorship Program via Young Agrarians with John and Katy Ehrlich at Alderlea Farm. Kira and I also took part in the Young Agrarians Business Mentorship Program and were matched with Frédéric Thériault at Ferme Coopérative Tourne-Sol, who helped to guide us in developing our cooperative business structures, financial goals, and principles of operation.

Kira continues to pursue educational opportunities wherever she can. Recently she had a chance to participate in the B.C. Agri-Business Planning Program and was matched with Chris Bodnar of Close to Home Organics.

Little Olin keeping busy on the farm. Credit: zoomphotography.ca

Favourite Crops

“People keep calling me the cabbage queen and I keep forgetting that I have this unsquashable drive to grow cabbage,” quips Kira. “But I’m trying really hard to grow less cabbage all the time. I try to find smaller varieties but they keep turning out twice as large as the seed catalogue says!”

The fact that Kira can’t grow a small cabbage is a testament to her excellent farming skills. That low-tillage approach is really working for her—the soil biology at Kloverdalen is off the charts.

Kira has had to diversify for this coming season, since Merville Organics Growers’ Cooperative recently dissolved. As it turned out, all the current farmer members found themselves outgrowing the need for a marketing co-operative, so they all struck out on their own. Despite Kira’s penchant for cabbage, she now has to grow the full spectrum of crops, including crops she used to rely on other Merville Organics farmers to grow for the collectively-planned CSA program and farmers markets.

Now that she’s running a one-farm show, Kira has pared her markets down to her popular farm gate stand and a CSA program. These markets are more limited and specific than the cooperative’s variety of market options, meaning she now has to crop plan carefully. Kira spent a lot of time learning new crop planning techniques this past winter. “It’s harder to grow for CSA as a single farm than with a co-op,” she says. Cooperative CSA planning has built in redundancy from multiple farms, so there’s less risk of being short on CSA box options from week-to-week. But the downside of that redundancy are the occasional gluts of certain crops—the hustle to find markets for fresh produce on the spot can be a real challenge.

Mouth-watering CSA box program contents. Credit: zoomphotography

Favourite Tools

Kira tries to minimize tillage at the farm to encourage diverse soil biology. That’s why one of her most treasured tools is her broadfork. Luckily, she enjoys the action of digging with the broadfork. Kloverdalen employs one local person full-time each season, and they work hard to reduce their fossil fuel use through hand labour. They also aim to minimize plastic use at every level of production.

Kira and I share a love of the humble Ho-Mi, an ancient Korean gardening tool. I got my first Ho-Mi when I was a farm apprentice with Mary Alice Johnson at ALM Farm in Sooke, so when Kira was spending time working with me at my farm, I gave her one too. I like to imagine all these farmers, connected by our time in the fields together, digging with our Ho-Mis—our little iron spear-shaped diggers remaining a familiar constant throughout all the changes of life. Kira said I should mention she has both the short- and long-handled Ho-Mi, and she loves them both.

Her most modern tool acquisition is the Jang Seeder, and she says she loves it, despite (or maybe because of) the learning curve. See, I told you—she just loves a good challenge.

Beautiful sunflower bouquets at the farm stand. Credit: zoomphotography

Hot Tips: Farming with Kids

I’ve always been curious about how Kira gets all that farming done with two young kids in tow, so I asked if she had any hot tips for farming parents. “Don’t be shy about using daycare!” she laughs. “And just abandon perfectionism—you have to accept a certain amount of destruction if you’re going to have them tagging along with you.”

Kira copes by allowing a certain amount of chaos with the kids in the field: “I let them dig holes right in the garden beds just to keep them entertained while I’m working.” Kira also suggests wasting a little water to keep your sanity. Let the kids play with the hose.

Growing into the Future

In the past seven years, Kira and Ingemar have managed to grow a vacant field with a dilapidated farmhouse and decaying shed into a thriving small farm with excellent infrastructure, soil fertility, and markets to sell their produce. And it all started with a quarter-acre garlic patch and an invitation to join a co-op. Since then, Kira and Ingemar have expanded to a full acre in production with new infrastructure, including a greenhouse and barn with a farm stand.

I’ve been enjoying watching her story unfold, gathering up seeds of knowledge from her experiences and seeing her develop into a leader in her field, both literally and figuratively. I know Kloverdalen Farm is just going to keep growing and adapting, even in these unpredictable times—and I am grateful for their example of resilience, curiosity and innovation.

kloverdalenfarm.com

instagram.com/kloverdalenfarm

facebook.com/kloverdalenfarm


Moss Dance (she/they) is an organic gardener on Territories of Hul’qumi’num and SENĆOŦEN speaking peoples (Salt Spring Island), and works with the BC Organic Grower as layout editor. Moss spent a decade farming and organizing in K’ómoks Territory as a founding member of Merville Organics. She is currently completing her Diploma of Acupuncture in Victoria, BC, and hopes to have a market garden again someday.

Feature image: Kira Kotilla holding beautiful beets. Credit: zoomphotography.ca

iCertify Supports the Organic Movement: Umi Nami Farm

in 2021/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Summer 2021

Originally started in Iwaki, Japan, Umi Nami Farm moved to Metchosin on southern Vancouver Island in 1996. The farm has been certified organic for more than 20 years.

Umi Nami Farm specializes in year-round production of Japanese vegetables and some Asian and Western produce. They use both unheated greenhouses (high tunnels) and outdoor fields to achieve year-round growing, and their small orchard supplies apples, pears, and plums.

As they prepared to do their 2020 organic certification renewal, Heather Ramsay from Umi Nami Farm says they were pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to use iCertify, COABC’s new online organic certification system.

“We weren’t so enthusiastic about the switch to an online system at first, but after seeing how easy it is to use, we’re liking it,” says Heather. “It serves as both an upload platform and a checklist for what we need to provide. It was nice having standardized premade records to make it easy to know what we do and don’t need to report.”

According to Heather, one of the biggest benefits of iCertify is that by helping growers to standardize their reporting, the work of reviewing all the applications—whether renewal or first-time—gets easier for the certifying body. This, in turn, helps keep costs low.

“As a grower, I also find it easier not having to wonder how much detail to go into,” says Heather. “The online system asks the questions I need to answer and provides forms to capture the information we need to record. I like that we have the option of photographing or scanning hand-written records and then uploading the electronic image.”

From Heather’s point of view as an organic farmer and organic farming advocate, iCertify also plays a larger role in the organic movement.

“Shifting to the online system makes sense to keep up with the times and to take ourselves seriously as a movement and as business owners,” says Heather.

“The organic movement has really grown. We expect more of our farms now than in the earlier years of the organic movement. And since BC’s mandatory organic regulations came into effect in 2018, we need to step up to the plate with documentation and traceability. A standardized online system is only one small part of the bigger picture, but it helps us in our efforts to efficiently function as the growing movement and robust businesses that we are.”


Funding for this project has been provided by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The program is delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC.

Feature image: An aerial view of Umi Nami Farm in Metchosin. Credit: Umi Nami Farm

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

Bringing History into Modern Cider-Making at Twin Island Cider

in 2021/Grow Organic/Marketing/Spring 2021/Tools & Techniques

Katie Selbee

“Natural” has always been a concept at the centre of our cider production, and over the past year I have been able to bring that ideal into our most basic equipment: fermentation vessels.

Just over a year ago, we were at a point of deciding whether to invest in more wood barrels or stainless-steel tanks for our production space, when I stumbled upon a documentary about ancient Georgian wine qvevri. Qvevri are large earthenware vessels used for fermenting and storing wine. These huge, hand-built clay pots are still being made today in Georgia just the same as they have been made for thousands of years, even down to the native clay they dig themselves.

This launched me on an investigation into whether our native Gulf Islands clay—Twin Island Cider is based on Pender Island—might be usable for low-fire earthenware, too. Luckily, a few test firings confirmed that it was.

Though I haven’t worked much with clay in the past, I am also lucky to have a professional potter living next door (Nancy Walker of talkingclay.ca). As I learn from her advice as well as footage of Georgian qvevri-building, I have been hand-building pots and gradually scaling up to vessels that hold around 150 litres, measuring about 35 inches tall. When I can problem-solve finding or building a larger sized kiln, I will scale up to larger sizes. For now, we are busy experimenting with fermenting and aging in the earthen clay and learning as much as we can about its effects on the finished cider.

It’s hard to say what impact using qvervi will have on the cider itself at this point as we’ve only made one batch and have been occasionally tasting another that is still aging in the clay. The first batch we made has a wonderfully punchy, tangy character, and we did notice it has a more mature profile than other ciders would be at its young age, likely due to the micro-oxidation effects mellowing the acids faster. We’ll do more comparative batches as we go—aging the same batch in stainless with clay to compare. It is safe to say this is a direction we will wholeheartedly be pursuing and improving on for the long term.

The main reason we are excited about clay is that it imparts less flavour than most wooden barrels, but it still allows some micro-oxidation—unlike stainless steel. And it also adds another layer of “terroir” that makes so much sense for our hyper-local cider: fermenting and aging in the material of its home.

Raw clay is collected from a large pile of clay, unearthed some years ago when our cidery partners/landholders Sandra and Noel had an irrigation pond dug.

 

The clay is mixed with water into a slurry and then poured through a fine mesh to remove any coarse particles and rocks.

 

The clay is then settled-out and allowed to dry until it is elastic and workable.

 

The vessels are hand built without a pottery wheel, in the traditional style of Georgian qvevri. One 3-inch layer is added per day. A 150-litre pot takes about 12 days total.

 

Once dry, the vessels are kiln-fired to 1060 degrees Celsius. Most native, hand-processed clays like this cannot be fired much higher or they will warp and melt. This clay turns a beautiful terracotta colour once fired.

 

After firing, they are re-warmed and lined with melted beeswax, also a traditional Georgian method. The heating opens up the larger pores of the clay, allowing them to absorb the wax while still leaving smaller pores open to allow micro-oxidation and direct clay contact.

 

Katie Selbee and Matthew Vasilev at their clay harvest site.

 


Katie Selbee and her partner Matthew Vasilev are the cider-makers and co-founders of Twin Island Cider on Pender Island, blending hands-on experience and training in cider-making, orcharding, and farming. Twin Island Cider began with making cider on a basket press with family and friends, using apples from old orchards and the Vasilev’s family trees on Pender Island before developing into a land-based cidery in 2016 when they partnered with landholders Sandra MacPherson and Noel Hall. They are immersed in operating the cidery year-round, from pruning and harvesting dozens of island orchards, pressing, blending and bottling, to pouring the cider at the tasting room. They care for and harvest from dozens of century-old settler orchards on North and South Pender Islands to create their fine, low-intervention cider and perry fermented only with native yeasts—cider which seeks to communicate the land, the lost varieties and the stories of the place we live.

Featured image: Katie Selbee putting the finishing touches on two Qvevri.

Seeding Local Farm Community

in 2021/Grow Organic/Marketing/Organic Community/Winter 2021

Mary Alice Johnson

When I first ventured into growing fresh produce commercially on lower Vancouver Island in 1991, I was fortunate to connect with a number of folks who were also farming on small acreages in the area. Like myself, they had grown up in rural areas but had followed careers other than farming as young adults. We held in common a longing to be outdoors growing food, and that gave us the audacity to think we could make a living growing food here at this time.

Another common thought was that it didn’t make sense to put poison on the food we were growing but rather to embrace organic practices to grow healthy, beautiful food for our communities. This same group of growers had recently formed the first organization in BC to set organic standards for its members to follow—Islands Organic Producers Association (IOPA).

COG Vancouver Island tour at ALM Farm. Credit: Keeley Nixon. 

I got to know these farmers and their farms when the Sooke Harbour House restaurant asked me to pick up their fresh produce for the restaurant. I saw this as an opportunity to travel around the area to different farms and see what other farmers were doing. I worried that these farmers would see me as a competitor but instead they welcomed me onto their farms and shared information about what varieties to plant, where to find seed, when to plant, harvesting techniques, and pest control. More than half of these famers were women, my peers and relatively new to farming. I had found a strong community right in front of me.

Tina Fraser, one of these farmers, welcomed three of us to form a team to market to restaurants. Before long, the Island Chefs’ Collaborative formed, made up of chefs who wanted to buy from local farmers. These same farmers again came together to help start the Moss Street Market, our chapter of Canadian Organic Growers, and Linking Land and Future Farmers, a land linking program that ran from 1995-2016. Those early years were captured when a UVic Gender Studies student who was apprenticing on my farm produced a film about women organic farmers titled Outstanding in her Fields in 1995, a copy of which can still be found on YouTube.

Rebecca Jehn of Rebecca’s Seeds and Teresa Heinekey of Saanich Organics Seeds visit ALM Farm/Full Circle Seeds to use seed cleaning equipment purchased by the farm with a grant from The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security Foundation in 2015. Credit Full Circle Seeds.

While each of us ran our farms, we were also getting into seed saving. We started out by saving seeds on our own. We then came together to form Full Circle Seeds, and operated as a collective of seed producers for several years. I eventually purchased the company as a sole proprietorship and the other three women went on to establish their own seed companies.

Part of our struggle was the coordination of the growing and marketing of over 150 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers in a time before email, Google Drive, and video conferencing. Fast forward 25 years and we now have a group of 20 BC seed growers who came together to form the BC Eco-Seed Co-op in 2014 to increase the quantity of BC grown seed for other farmers, offering hundreds of varieties of seeds available to purchase online.

No longer do budding seed growers have to set up their own seed companies with logos and branding, websites and distribution systems, seed cleaning equipment, germination trials, packaging, and storage. In addition to many local seed growing companies that started in the ’80s and ’90s, we are fortunate to have such a cooperative available in BC. Not only does it mean we have more locally grown seeds, but the quality of the seeds has improved through the collaboration of these seed growers.

I have dozens of stories and memories from these past three decades of farming in Sooke and some of my favourites are those with fellow farmers. The ways we collaborate, connect, and share ideas and frustrations make the challenges of this work more rewarding. I can’t wait to see what is ahead for us with the new projects, collaborations, and coming together to learn, teach, market, and grow together.

Cut flower harvest. Credit Keeley Nixon.

Mary Alice Johnson is the owner of ALM Organic Farm and Full Circle Seeds. Mary bought a 100-year old farm back in Sooke in 1986 and began farming it in 1990. She helped create Moss Street Market, taught organic farming at Camosun College, and worked with farmers in the Phillipines, China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Barbados. Mary Alice set up the Vancouver Island Chapter of Canadian Organic Growers and was president of the national organization. Over 200 young people have worked on her farm as apprentices or volunteers over the years, many going on to grow food for themselves and their communities.

Featured image credit: Sam Nixon

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.

Organic Stories: HAY! There’s a Fire!

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Land Stewardship/Organic Stories/Summer 2019/Tools & Techniques

Meagan Curtis

During the first decades of the 20th century in rural Vancouver Island, horses were used for farm work and personal transportation. It seemed everyone had a horse of some kind. Horses co-harvested the hay and grain that would feed and warm them through a cold rainy winter after these crops were cut by scythe, raked into wind rows, and left for days to cure. The numerous hay fields surrounding us are remnants of this past work—two centuries of clearing and harvesting.

Although sometimes used for pasture, a hay field is a not a rangeland. It is not a fire-adapted grassland like a tallgrass or shortgrass prairie composed of native plants. These fields of forage were created with non-native plants—plants that are maintained, managed, seeded, cut, irrigated, and fertilized. These fields were essential to how people fed themselves and the livestock that were typically present on farms in the past. In 1871, an average farm in Canada had four pigs, seven head of cattle, and 33 acres of cropland. There were three times more horses on farms then compared to 2016. This meant that much less livestock feed and soil fertility came from off-farm sources.

Many smaller acreages of previously hayed or grazed fields are no longer harvested. Their grasses choke out any possible forest encroachment. Fir, hemlock, spruce, cedar, and understory brackens and ferns cannot re-occupy the spaces. As forest fires are projected to become more frequent and severe in Western Canada and the United States, unless maintained these fields are looking more and more like a patchwork of fire risk across the landscape. An ignited field can spread to barns and houses. Underutilized hay fields have become a question of emergency preparedness and fire safety.

Wildfires near Cawston in 2018 at night. Credit: Sara Dent (@saradentfarmlove)

On average, one to two million tonnes of hay and silage are cut each year, according to the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture. The 2011 Census of Agriculture found that 64% of B.C.’s total cropland was hay. At the same time, hay production totals are becoming increasingly variable as drought and unpredictable weather patterns continue. The BC Forage Council reported in 2011 that record precipitation during the growing season and a reduction in livestock demand produced an estimated hay surplus of 122,566 tonnes in the Bulkley-Nechako region. This surplus contrasts conditions in 2006, when widespread drought and reduced livestock numbers resulted in hay shortages throughout the Central Interior, and the reality for some last year, when hay production plummeted in parts of BC and Alberta and buyers faced a price increase from $80 to $200 a ton.

With this cost, some may be convinced to get rid of farm animals. If this occurs, a decrease in demand may result in the increased likelihood that more fields sit fallow. Oscillating years of surpluses and shortages bring uncertainty and could result in a decreased willingness to participate in haying as a sure stream of income.

When a shortage arises, alternative supply possibilities within the region are not numerous and importing hay carries its own set of risks: the introduction of invasive species, the inability to secure a sufficient volume to match herd size, and/or an inability to source appropriate quality. Farmers can use some tools to help ensure sufficient hay production and reduce fire risk on their own farms. These include:

  • rotational grazing
  • utilizing different types of grass
  • water storage and conservation
  • mowing perimeters, field edges, and near farm buildings in the spring
  • avoiding mowing in late summer when conditions are dry and there is risk of sparking

These suggestions are appropriate for those still engaged in haying, but irrelevant to those whose fields stay untouched. Encouraging the haying of abandoned fields, or at least their perimeters, is one idea that Farmer’s Institutes and others have begun discussing within their communities.

This patchwork of abandoned fields is also symptomatic of a larger problem we face: the lack of working viable diverse small farms and the ongoing loss of a generation of farmers with more haying experience and equipment then the next generation can afford. Buying the equipment necessary for haying acres of land is estimated to cost $60,000 used and $130,000 new. As the average age of farmers increases and their farms are sold for millions, these fields are markers of our ever-declining food security. In the 1950s, Vancouver Island was estimated to produce 85% of its own food. Today we sit between 5-10%. Fields that have not been hayed for many years are rarely in good shape. Their gaps and bumps damage machines and the resulting feed may be of low quality. The economics of haying these fields are questionable, but so is the decision to leave them untouched and not confront why they are unused. As many pieces of haying equipment are retired with the generation that bought them, it appears time to discuss the future of our fields.

Thanks to DeLisa Lewis, Jerry Emblem, and the BC Ministry of Agriculture for their insights.


Meagan Curtis is a member of the BC Eco Seed Coop in Port Alberni, on Instagram @mtjoanfarm. Inspired by EF Schumacher, her farm has three goals: health, beauty, and permanence—productivity is attained as a by-product.

Feature photo: Hay bale with bird. Credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Sources
bcforagecouncil.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Forage-Ex port-Report-Summary2.pdf
globalnews.ca/news/4389942/feed-prices-for-cattle-climb-as-pas ture-and-hay-fields-fall-short-in-hot-dry-weather
msn.com/en-ca/news/canada/dry-conditions-have-some-farmers-making-hay-others-facing-a-hay-shortage/ar-BBlNxuP
globalnews.ca/news/4389942/feed-prices-for-cattle-climb-as-pas ture-and-hay-fields-fall-short-in-hot-dry-weather

Organic Stories: Eatmore Sprouts

in Fall 2017/Organic Community/Organic Stories

From Seedling to Success Story

Moss Dance

If you’ve ever bought a box of sprouts in BC, it’s highly likely that they were grown at Eatmore Sprouts in K’ómox Territory, on Vancouver Island (Courtenay, BC.) Behind that delicious package of sprouts, there is a story of earth-conscious principles, community, and dedication to the organic movement. The story of Eatmore Sprouts is like the life of a germinating seed—but also a lot like the story of the Little Engine That Could.

Carmen Wakeling, co-owner and operator of Eatmore Sprouts, got an early start in growing food. Growing up in the Comox Valley, she says her Mom was an avid gardener, cultivating a garden that supplied the family’s table. At age 15, Carmen started working at Eatmore Sprouts—at the time, it was just “the farm down the road” to her.

Founded in 1975, Eatmore Sprouts was a market garden and a small sprout operation in the early days. Carmen received a lot of mentoring in the garden. The farmer “was a phenomenal grower,” she recalls. “He used French intensive methods, and made his own compost, and I was just amazed you could do all of that.”

Photo: Pea shoot salad. Photo credit: Pamela Powell

Carmen worked at Eatmore Sprouts each summer throughout her teenaged years, and met and married her husband, Glenn, when she was 19years old. Glenn Wakeling grew up on a conventional hill country l farm on the North Island of New Zealand. Carmen remembers how he moved to Canada and saw this ecologically-friendly way of producing food, and was quickly convinced of the benefit of organic principles.

Soon after their marriage, Carmen and Glenn had the opportunity to purchase the Eatmore Sprouts business. They had bought a home in Oyster River a year before hand, just north of Courtenay, and moved the operation to their newly acquired half acre and greenhouse. Glenn was building and Carmen was a nursing student, so both worked part time with the sprouts. Eatmore Sprouts began to germinate in their backyard.

In the early days, Carmen and Glenn worked with incredible drive. They were producing enough product to deliver to Courtenay, Comox, Campbell River, and Nanaimo weekly. They also hired four part-time employees who came in to pack sprouts for shipping. They were so busy, they barely had time to think, but Carmen says, “We didn’t have business background, but then we began to pay attention to money,” she laughs, “because we were wondering, why is there no money?”

“We started to realize it was financially unstable because of the size and the scale of the operation.” says Carmen, so they dropped some product samples off at the Thrifty Foods grocery store in Nanaimo. “Alex Campbell Jr. called us the next day and said they wanted to carry our product in all of the stores on Vancouver Island—this was a big breakthrough for us.”

Interest from a major retailer shifted things substantially for the Wakelings. “We went from part-time growing out of the back shed to a full-time sprout operation,” Carmen says. ” I made a decision to stop nursing school because I realized the healthy food we were producing had a far more long-term and big impact potential for the people that we were feeding.” Scaling up, they were starting to see the financial benefit of the operation. Soon enough, they realized that they were beyond capacity with the facilities they had available.

Photo: Display at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market. Photo credit: Pamela Powell 

At this point, the Wakelings were producing enough to supply all of the Thrifty Foods stores on Vancouver Island plus their existing markets on a half acre lot in a rural neighbourhood. Carmen laughs about the trucks coming in and out at midnight to pick up and drop off. They realized their little sprout of an operation needed to be transplanted to a new facility. They approached a local farmer who had been producing bean sprouts for them to distribute, and they agreed to partner and purchase land together where they could build a bigger facility. They chose their current location on Grieve Rd in Courtenay because it had excellent water, and highway access in an area that was agricultural and business-friendly.

After the move, the Wakelings’ family grew, and as a mother of two young children, Carmen focused her energy on producing special events, and delved into learning more about food safety. In the new facility, they were amazed at all the space they had available—but within two years they were busting at the seams again! They built additions and entered into wider distribution networks, and demand skyrocketed.

It’s an incredible story of exponential growth—Eatmore Sprouts started on half an acre with four employees, and they now operate on a 3.75 acre farm and lease 7 acres from a neighbour. Their operation boasts a state-of-the-art ecological sprouting facility and a two acre market garden. They are also one of the larger agricultural employers in the Comox Valley with around 40 year-round employees.

Business was booming, and the Wakelings had learned through the school of hard knocks about all aspects of the operation, including logistics management, distribution, food safety, and strategic planning. That’s when they decided to restructure the partnership—Carmen and Glenn purchased the business from their partners. It was a huge risk, but the Wakelings had a vision and they wanted to pursue their passion for creating the business in a way that deeply reflected their values.

Carmen says, “We realized that we were sprout producers, we were not distributers, we were not logistics managers, we wanted to grow sprouts and create healthy community. Every year, we learn more. The whole thing is still really exciting to me as I get to learn something new every day.”

Photo: The Eatmore Sprouts team. Photo credit: Pamela Powell

Ecological Footprint

When asked about Eatmore’s natural wastewater treatment system, wood gasification heater for the pea and sunflower houses, and about their commitment to lowering their ecological footprint, Carmen says, “We’re always talking about it, and we’re always trying to do better, especially Glenn, and my son Robin—they are very focused on this aspect of the business.”

“We own this property, and that makes a big difference, because we can make those deep investments that will be impactful ecologically and financially.” The Wakelings regularly look at the return on investment for each sustainable technology or adaptation they implement on their operation, to ensure that they make financial sense.

“We don’t always take into account the amount of maintenance the technology will require,” says Carmen. For example, the wood gasification heater for the pea and sunflower greenhouses means that Glenn is constantly on the search for firewood in the summer, and is schlepping wood every day in the winter to keep those greenhouses heated.

Photo: The wood gasification heater at Eatmore Sprouts keeps the pea and sunflower houses toast all winter. Photo credit: Pamela Powell

A recent carbon assessment reported that Eatmore Sprouts was “inches away from being carbon neutral,” and that the business would soon be eligible to sell carbon credits back—all they had to do was transition to renewable natural gas, so they did. Carmen would like to go further: “We still use plastic packaging, which none of us like, and we are always searching for alternatives. Our packaging is recycled, and it’s recyclable, and it’s made in Vancouver, so it’s the best we can get—but it’s not ideal.”

“There are parts of this operation that still drive us crazy—bureaucracy continues and paper work is never ending” she continues, “but we try to do everything we can to mitigate those issues. We extract heat out of our processing wastewater which we use to then heat our facility through heat pumps. We are doing everything we can, and we know that we can always do better. We always challenge ourselves to look for better ways to do things sustainably. We want to be the kind of business that shows that change can happen.”

Photo: Solar panels on the roof of the sprouting facility. Photo credit: Pamela Powell

Germinating Organics

The Eatmore Sprouts story has been evolving as the organic movement grows—step by step, the Wakelings have been engaged and involved in the development of standards and the growth of the community for decades.

There was no formal organic movement that they knew about when they first started, but the Wakelings had read about organic farming and principles, and had mentors who were composting, regenerating the soil, and role modelling ecological growing practices. From the beginning, Carmen was firm about her desire to farm without chemical inputs. She feels lucky that in her early agricultural education she learned about composting and healthy soil instead of how to apply chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

While the operation was fairly simple to manage ecologically at the time, Carmen admits that “the hardest thing was that there was no standard to follow.” So when they became aware of the BC organic program, they certified in 1994, and ended up helping to develop the standards for sprouting. Now there is a national standard on sprouting, and the Wakelings contributed a lot to that.

In 1999, the CFIA started to turn its attention to the sprouting industry, and the Wakelings stepped up again, building relationships and helping to develop the food safety standards for organic sprouting operations. The main issue at stake was seed sanitizer recommendations: “at the time, the standard was to apply 20ppm of chlorine to sterilize the seed,” Carmen remembers. “In the U.S., to this day, that is still the only standard that they have for sprout production.” So Carmen got on board with the the International Sprout Growers Association (she’s now the president) and she is advocating for organic sprout growers south of the border to create more organic-friendly standards with the FDA.

Photo: Washing sunflower shoots. Photo credit: Pamela Powell

Early Days for Organics

Carmen remembers an early Organic Conference in 1998 with the COABC. “We organized a conference for 150-200 organic producers at Tigh-Na-Mara in Parksville on a shoestring budget,” she remembers. “I made platters and platters of lasagne and I baked them in the ovens in the cabins of participants, and we all ate together in the biggest room we had available, just to save money!”

“The willingness to give and share with each other —all these people were showing up and feeding each other and I thought, wow, this is a powerful community.” When Carmen saw Mary Forstbauer’s ‘Checkmark Dance,’ she realized, “these are my people—organic producers are fighters, they’ve had to fight for everything. Their communities thought they were just a bunch of hippies and a bit weird. It was all very grassroots, and it still is very grassroots.”

“Whenever I had a chance to contribute something to the COABC community, I would. I was on the standards review committee for ages, and I got to do the SRC for aquaculture. I got to know so many great people.I always want to contribute however I can to the COABC.” Carmen laughs, “Funnily, now, I’m considered an elder.” Even though she’s far from typical retirement age, Carmen’s experience and knowledge are so extensive, this makes sense. “Right now I’m in this role as president of the organization—but I feel like my main role is as a bridge person.”

“There’s so much brilliance and intelligence amongst the people in the organic sector,” Carmen says. “People are so innovative and creative, and they’ve had to be business people beyond business people, because they’ve had to stand up in community, and also make room for themselves in the business world. Now, it’s a matter of trying to encourage and engage the youth so we can start to plan for succession in the organization. And there are so many people coming on board and it’s just so great to see that happening.”

“There is such amazing energy in this sector. And it’s interesting because you hear that the agriculture sector is not having people show up. Of course, we are not perfect yet. We have not spent enough time on financial sustainability in this sector, we tend to focus more on sustainability of the planet, and community, but we forget that financial piece sometimes.”

Carmen worries about the challenges facing new farmers now: “There are a lot of challenges associated with trying to get into the food game at this stage. I look at what we’ve done and I don’t know if we could have repeated the experience now, because of the cost of everything. It makes me really concerned, and it makes me really value the work that Young Agrarians are doing to link land and farmers and to bring people a level of business acumen so that the people who are showing up really understand what they are getting into.”

“The coolest part about this generational shift that’s happening,” Carmen says, “ is that people are seeing collaboration is essential. It takes a team to climb Mt. Everest. That’s where I see so much hope and benefit for the organic sector and the planet—that younger people are seeing the importance of this.”

“I’m getting older, and I want to eat really well when I’m old. So now I’m thinking about getting farmers on farms, and supporting them to be financially viable.”

Learn more: www.eatmoresprouts.com


Moss Dance is an organic farmer on the search for a new farm on Salt Spring Island, and works with the BC Organic Grower as layout editor. She spent the last decade farming and organizing in K’ómox Territory, and even got to work at Eatmore Sprouts for awhile!

Feature image: Carmen and Glenn Wakeling, owner-operators of Eatmore Sprouts. Photo credit: Pamela Powell

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.

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