Tag archive

Vancouver Island

Incubating Certified Organic Farmers at Haliburton

in 2021/Current Issue/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/Current Issue/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

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
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

(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.

Collective Marketing for Veggie Farmers

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

Moss Dance

Get Your Produce in a Pile!

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

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

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

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

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

Merville Organics Farmer's Co-op

Why Collaborate?

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

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

Increased Marketing Reach

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

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

Abundance & Visual Appeal

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

Shared Infrastructure

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

Grower Member Specialization

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

Merville Organics CSA

Harvesting Grassroots Media

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


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

Boosting Posts on Facebook

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

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


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


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

“Like” Each Other

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

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

In Person at Farmers’ Markets

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

Co-ops Love Co-ops!

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

Suggestions for Starting Your Own Marketing Co-operative

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

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

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

Photo credit: Boomer Merritt

Facebook: MervilleOrganics
Twitter: @MervilleOrgCoop
Instagram: @mervilleorganics

Woolly Bear Farm

in Farmer Focus/Organic Stories
Liz at Woolly Bear Farm

Hannah Roessler

A New Farmer Struggles to Go From Caterpillar to Butterfly

I have been pretty amazed by every farmer I’ve ever met — their competence, determination and impressive suite of skills.

But now that I am a new farmer myself, I find myself in awe of Liz Perkins of Woolly Bear Farm, a one-acre market garden in Cordova Bay, near Victoria. While I have dabbled seriously in farming for years, exploring various permutations, styles, and types, I only really jumped in with both boots once I had an established, relatively low-risk scenario within which I could safely start farming “on my own.”

Liz, on the other hand, found a raw piece of land and just went for it — and her efforts and risk-taking have really paid off.

Challenges Aplenty

We all know how difficult it can be as a new farmer just starting out. It’s always the same things that get in the way — infrastructure costs are overwhelming, mistakes are plentiful, and land is hard to come by.

Most people don’t get into farming because they love business and marketing; they do it because they love to grow things. Starting up your farm is fun and exciting, but like any new small business it can also be a financial quagmire, layered with intense knowledge requirements and drastically shifting parameters. Not for the faint of heart.

But uncertainty is something that you just have to be comfortable with in order to be a good farmer. And Liz is a darn good farmer. She spent a year in Vancouver working with food through a social justice lens, an entry point to farming that is common among many of the younger farming generation.

She then spent a couple of years working on urban agriculture initiatives, but soon realized that she was not as passionate about educating people about farming as she had originally thought. What she really wanted was to just do it herself — to farm and produce an abundance of food.

Weeding at Woolly Bear Farm

A Farmer’s Education

She applied to the UBC Farm Program and to the Linnaea Ecological Gardening Program, ultimately settling on Linnaea, a farm school located on Cortes Island, BC, where she attended their holistic, full-immersion permaculture program.

“Being at Linnaea changed my life. It was incredible,” says Liz with a smile. The in-depth training offered through Linnaea along with the community-building aspect left a deep impression on her, and she knew she was on the road to farming forever.

While Linnaea Farm School set the course, an apprenticeship with Rachel Fisher and Saanich Organics helped Liz put the structure in place for a successful business.

Says Liz, “I learned an incredible amount during my time with Saanich Organics. Rachel taught me how to grow an abundance of vegetables, and I learned so much about the business aspect of farming.”

After her apprenticeship, she optimistically stuck an ad in a couple of local papers asking to rent an acre of land for farming in exchange for $500 per year, a box of veggies a week, and of course, farm tax status. She had several replies from interested land-owners and says that overall, it was not too difficult to find someone willing to rent to a start-up farmer.

Fast Track to Certification

Despite the perception that organic certification can be difficult for leasing farmers, according to Liz, it’s not as hard as new growers may think. “There had been nothing growing in that field for the six years that my landlord had lived there prior to 2011, so he signed an affidavit guaranteeing that no prohibited substances were applied to the land in the last three years. This meant I could fast-track to organic certification after one year on the land,” says Liz.

She adds, “The fact that I might get kicked off the land at any point is a bummer of a risk, but I don’t think I would have been able to farm without being able to sell at Moss Street Market and Saanich Organics. Both institutions have been a big marketing and moral support network for me. So far, no regrets!”

Weeding at Woolly Bear Farm

However, acquiring the land and the certification were only the first steps, and Liz went on to encounter more challenges. Her original business plan underestimated her initial set-up costs, and she is ever-grateful to her parents for helping out financially until the business gets on its feet. The first year, her farm’s humble sales of $10,000 were not enough to cover expenses, and in year two she just broke even – doubling sales to $20,000. She is now in her third year of farming and can smell financial freedom with a prediction of $30,000 in sales and of course much-reduced expenses.

Hard Won Advice

Says Liz, “Some of the things I had to do to start out, I just didn’t consider. I had to spend so much time preparing and setting up the farm, I had no income to live on.

“I feel like I wasted a lot of money on failed experiments. I got the wrong tiller, tried to use solely pond water for my irrigation (which didn’t work), bought huge coolers to act as my cold room, I had to learn how to build because everything I built kept getting blown down….

There’s a lot to consider when starting out, and I think that if I knew what I know now, I’d start out differently, and save a lot of money!”

The best part of this conversation is that Liz is laughing. She is taking it all in stride. Even while she’s on leased land, she’s just planted a section of blueberries on her rented acre. When I comment on her impressive ability to take chances, her bravery, she jokes that maybe she’s really just a bit crazy. But there is no denying that her farm looks really good. Liz Perkins is the picture of success for a new farmer, and she’s doing a great job at Woolly Bear Farms. I think she’s got the right recipe to make it work. Maybe we all need a dash of “a little bit of crazy” to be successful farmers.

Learn more about Liz’s path to farming independence:

Linnaea Farm

Saanich Organics

Hannah Roessler has farmed in Nicaragua, Washington, and BC on permaculture farms, polyculture cafetals, organic market farms and a biodynamic vineyard. She has an MA in Environmental Studies, and her research is focused on climate change and small-scale organic farming. She currently farms on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island. 

Nanoose Edibles

in Farmer Focus/Organic Stories
Barb and Lorne Ebell, Nanoose Edibles

Hannah Roessler

It Takes Dedication, Devotion, and a Community to Raise a Farm

I had been trying for weeks to make it to Nanoose Edibles Farm to visit Barbara and Lorne Ebell, but bad weather on the Malahat Highway turned me back each time. The day I finally made it was sunny and warm, and I could barely contain my excitement.

I’d recently read an interview with Barbara Ebell in a local paper, explaining the hardships encountered by farmers on Vancouver Island; it was a deliciously blunt article, and she caused quite a few ripples. I had heard great things about this remarkable woman, but nothing quite prepared me for the amazingly accomplished yet humble person I met. “I’m a farmer and I really like to farm,” says Barbara, “but I’m always under pressure to do more. People have been phoning me since that article saying ‘now what are we going to do?’”

It’s understandable that folks are approaching the Ebells for solutions. Barbara and her husband Lorne Ebell have a successful farm business…which they started only after successful careers in forestry and agriculture. Over tea and cookies, we discussed their fascinating farm backgrounds, and it’s clear that agriculture has always run deep for them; it’s in their blood.

Barbara’s mother was born on a large estate farm in England, and her Swedish father emigrated to Golden, BC, where the family sold farmed vegetables and fruit, fish from the Columbia River, and wild game to the CPR. Lorne, an agriculturalist through and through, attended school in Manitoba and Alberta before taking a job in the Ministry of Forestry. After several years of working in the Canadian government, Barbara and Lorne moved to Liberia, Africa where Lorne was Head of Botanical Research for the Firestone Rubber Company. They spent seven years in Liberia, working on a huge plantation housing 13,000 residents.

As Barbara recalls, “The women were excellent farmers and wonderful marketers. My collards were only regular size and theirs were the size of small bushes!” I find myself thinking that Barbara could probably grow collards the size of trees if she wanted to, but I don’t say that.

After a brief stint working in Guatemala, and then several years in the state of Bahia in Brazil, they returned to Canada where Lorne went back to working in Forestry Research and Barbara took a position with the Ministry of Agriculture in the Policy Branch. After the adoption of Canada’s Employment Equity Act in 1986, provincial governments followed suit and Barbara became the first Manager of Women’s Programs for the Ministry of Agriculture to help “push the envelope” of women’s advancement in the government.

I find myself thinking that Barbara could probably grow collards the size of trees if she wanted to, but I don’t say that.

As they crept closer to retirement age they began to contemplate what their next steps would be, “We thought…hmmm, what should we do now? Well, we’ve got farming in our blood, so we should farm!” says Barbara with a laugh. Walking around their beautiful farm, I’m having trouble resolving my image of “retirement” with the dug pond, drained land, tool wizardry shop, seed saving shed, greenhouses, seedling carousel, orchard, blueberries, and more. Lorne describes how they started farming on weekends and holidays, driving up from work in Victoria to clear 12 arable acres of blackberries and roses… and I am firmly set in my feeling of awe.

Nanoose Edibles

Everyone on the Farm Needs to Farm

Early on they focused on strawberries, which their daughter advised them to price at five dollars a pound because “if we don’t start that high people will never pay more… and we can’t really go up from that even today!” says Barbara with a smile. “But we can sell every strawberry we produce. We started with the assumption that we would grow high-end organic food, because otherwise you’re just producing cheap food for people and working your head off! And you’re not really getting anywhere.”

Barbara and Lorne were among the first island farmers to sell direct to local restaurants. They were ahead of the game in the early days, but sales have started to drop as big box stores mushroom up all along the highway headed up island. They have a beautiful and successful on-farm market — people come from far and wide to buy their produce, and customers are encouraged to walk around the farm and have a look at what’s growing. They sell their vegetables, plants, and eggs, as well as grain, flours, homemade soups, honey, fish, salad mix, and cookies (that I ate several of), and much more, and they are open every day during the summer time. Profits from their off-farm sales (CSA and farmers markets), farm sales, and restaurants are roughly equal.

If you have your fingernails painted gold, well, that might make you think twice about farming.”

When I asked if they hire retail help, Barbara firmly stated, “Everyone on the farm, needs to farm. Can’t be a bookkeeper or a vendor or answer the phone without knowing how to farm, otherwise you can’t possibly answer a question intelligently about the produce or do your job properly. If you have your fingernails painted gold, well, that might make you think twice about farming.”

She says this with a hearty laugh and her blue eyes twinkle something fierce, and I glance down and take comfort from my own dirty fingernails and calloused hands.

Building the Future: A Farmers’ Co-operative

“You get these really wonderful people working for you, and you can’t pay them minimum wage! You have to honor what they are doing. This year we are setting the foundation for a farmers’ cooperative so that by next year they [the workers] will be running the farm, not us. We will stay on as members so we can help them make decisions. We might come have a peek to make sure they are getting things right and sticking to the program. The idea is to put the farm itself into a partnership,” explains Barbara.

Succession planning is tough for many farmers, and though it is clear that the Ebell family is an environmentalist gang, and everyone loves the farm, each family member is out doing other things in the world. Putting the farm into a partnership promises to be an exciting way forward to keep this land producing food for a very long time.

Although partnerships can also be difficult to navigate, the Ebells are clearly grateful for their farm workers. Barbara is generous with praise, pointing out things on the farm that different workers have done or made. As she says, “You can have all the education in the world, but if you’re not practical on the ground you can’t be paid for the fact you went to university — not on a farm. You have to be paid for what you actually produce.” This honoring of practical skill sets is echoed in the meticulous attention to detail in their well-designed farming systems. Lorne’s mechanical and technical acumen is astonishing; walking into his workshop is like walking into a wizard’s den.

Nurturing the Land is Everyone’s Responsibility

Barbara believes that while farmers are here to grow food for people in the community, it’s the community’s responsibility to ensure that continues. As she says, “That is the missing piece of the equation if you really think about it. Farmers have to keep producing, set proper prices for themselves, make sure there is enough supply for people to buy – but the rest is not the farmer’s responsibility, it’s a social responsibility. Public participation and advocacy doesn’t really happen. And if you don’t push it or fight for it, it just won’t happen.”

Barbara has many great ideas for the future of farming — more education, apprenticeships, more support from the public— but it’s hard to take all these things on while farming at the same time. “If you go anywhere else in the world, you’ll see it happen — the farmer farms! You don’t have to get all gussied up and see the premier, and tell them they should be buying your vegetables!” But their example is inspiring — talking with Barbara has the distinct effect of making me want to visit the Premier immediately to demand better agricultural policies. While wearing my farming clothes. No gussying.

Their example is inspiring — talking with Barbara has the distinct effect of making me want to visit the Premier immediately to demand better agricultural policies.

On the drive back to Victoria I’m thinking about many things, mainly about how great it has been to hang out with such an amazing woman in agriculture. She ended our visit with this wonderful piece of advice, “Farming just gobbles up your life and your time, so you need to have other loves in your life. If you run into a really long tedious spell and you are frozen in for 3 or 4 months, you start to really think ‘I don’t like this.’ It’s not because you don’t like farming – it’s because you don’t like your life! Ha! And in the summertime you are working like hell, but you need to socialize. You know that what you do is crazy, but you don’t feel as crazy when there are others there with you; you need to make fun of it.”

And with that she gives a little nod, and as I share a smile with this twinkling-eyed wise woman, I think about all we can learn from her.

Check out the many videos on the Nanoose Edibles Youtube channel!

Hannah Roessler has farmed in Nicaragua, Washington, and BC on permaculture farms, polyculture cafetals, organic market farms and a biodynamic vineyard. She has an MA in Environmental Studies, and her research is focused on climate change and small-scale organic farming. She currently farms on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island.

Go to Top