On the outskirts of Nanaimo, the roads start to swerve and bend, and trees open up at intervals, revealing verdant meadows dotted with livestock and hay bales.
As the border between Yellow Point and Ladysmith begins to blur in a sea of field and forest, one thing is clear: this is farm country.
It’s no secret that the era of the family farm is experiencing a fundamental shift as the agricultural old guard ages and the next generation, challenged by economic turbulence, are slow to pick up the pitchfork.
According to a 2011 census, on average B.C. farmers are the oldest in the country, with almost half the farmers in Canada over the age of 55 and only 8.2 per cent of operators under the age of 35.
There is land however, though increasingly nibbled away at the edges by development, and there is labour, in the form of young apple-cheeked folk, flush with desire for food they have nurtured themselves. There are even funds, levied by an increasingly food-savvy and selective public.
Any given season, any one of the four markets in the Nanaimo area are typically bristling with people porting baskets filled with home-grown produce.
Community gardens have filled the gap left by a shifting agricultural demographic for some time, offering the urban cultivator room to experiment with their own small-scale production.
However just off Yellow Point Road, an exercise in taking food cultivation to the next level is playing out in the formation of what are now not just community gardens, but community farms.
These days, an aging milk barn has again become an operational focal point of the four-family Wyndlow Farm.
The 120-acre operation, which primarily produces hay, requires a level of upkeep and maintenance that can be challenging, especially as family members age.
As for the barn, which was formerly the headquarters of a herd of dairy cattle, it has had a renaissance of sorts. recently tidied and renovated to include a large walk-in fridge now filled with market-ready produce.
Squash, potatoes, parsnips, turnips and beets are already starting to pile up in the barn’s 360-square-foot root cellar, and it is anticipated that by the end of the season it will be completely full.
It’s been a successful first season in operation for the five-member Farmship Growers Co-operative, which has joined the forces of farmers Isabelle Morris, Chris Brown, Craig Evans and Jen Cody.
Thirteen years ago Morris returned to Canada with her husband Ian, son of one of the farm owners, to help out on the land, and quickly established an ambitious and productive garden.
She helped with the existing hay and corn production, and maintained her own quarter-acre of carrots that brought in good money at the market.
“Year after year we expanded, and last year I was lucky enough to put the grapple on Craig when he left Providence (Farm),” said Morris with a laugh. “Finding partners like Craig and Jen just boosted the production last year, and then we doubled the production this year.”
Evans came on board with a 30-year history in agriculture as the former market garden manager at Providence Farm and a founding member of both Nanaimo Community Gardens and Nanaimo Foodshare.
Already busy with the Growing Opportunities Farm Project, a non-profit co-op dedicated to educating new growers, Evans and Cody saw an opportunity to create a new organization that encompassed both teaching people how to farm as well as generating income.
The group worked out a deal in which they would lease nine acres of the Wyndlow Farm, and along with Chris Brown, a new farmer who just wrapped up his first year growing food in the Cowichan Valley, the Farmship Co-operative set sail.
Preparing to pick for market means rising at 4:45 a.m. three days a week, and hitting the field hard and fast.
“To do a full prep for a market is at least 50 person hours,” said Brown, who added that is just for market sales. “Like clockwork, every week, to make it happen.”
He pulls out their ‘pick list’ for the Cedar Sunday market: everything from seven types of tomatoes, plums, ground cherries, to 12 types of squash, spinach, beets and basil — 55 different varieties of produce in total.
The job can be challenging, and the immediate financial rewards uncertain — the 2011 census also said that for every dollar Canadian farmers make, they have an average of 83 cents in expenses — but Brown says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
This is the culmination of years of dreaming and planning, and as he walks the dirt road that cleaves the green fields, neat 300-foot rows of beans, peppers, melons, asparagus and broccoli unfolding in the shallow peat valley below, he waves his hands to illustrate a picture.
“This is paradise, right?” he says with a grin. The faint twinkle of Michael Lake, their water source, peeks through the distant trees. “They’re growing hay here, but in the future, envision livestock, envision a five-acre orchard, solar panels harvesting sun, food forests, chicken tractors and portable electric fences so we can graze cattle on rotation. We’re blessed with incredible soil here.”
Much of the material they use is donated or recycled, from old milk crates for vegetable storage to plastic growing cloches constructed from 90-year-old steel hoops recovered from the Harmac pulp mill. This is not only to reduce waste but to keep startup costs — the bane of any new farmer — as low as possible.
A 1948 Ford tractor is parked in the distance, looking like it might be the relic of a bygone era. However it is still an integral part of their operations.
“That’s the tractor I grew up with as a kid,” said Evans, who was rasied on a farm in Ontario.
“We put it on a transport trailer and shipped it out, and the elders here rebuilt it. It’s pulling a potato harvester made in the ’20s.”
Two plastic cloches next to the produce rows house an experimental seed project, funded in part by the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, in which the Co-op are growing carrots for seed production.
“The point of the Bauta Initiative is to improve the quality and quantity of locally produced seed,” said Cody. “Over the last ten years or more, there has been a slow consolidation of people who control seeds into larger and larger organizations, so the larger organizations have been gobbling up all the smaller ones. There’s not a lot of local seed being produced on a scale for farmers to use.”
The benefits of locally-produced seed are that it is adapted for growing in the local climate, as well as offering the farmer independence.
“The whole issue around having food sovereignty is related to being able to produce and grow your own seed,” she said.
What the Farmship Co-op say they are striving to illustrate is the new and innovative face of farming, in which a framework is provided that allows resources such as skills, land, equipment and physical labour can be shared in new ways.
They say it also offers a new model of farm sustainability, by uniting the ability for farmers to work collectively as a money-making venture, while encouraging newcomers to learn how to farm in the non-profit educational component of the co-operative.
And one blends into the other, as volunteer Markus Pearce found out when he began to work at the farm this season.
“This year, when Chris moved his farming lifestyle north, closer to town, I told him to message me every day and if I was free, I would come out,” said Pearce.
In addition to getting exercise and fresh farm air, his labour is bartered for food, part of what he calls “the 22-kilometre-diet.”
Soon, he began offering hungry friends a seat in his car, and estimates more than 40 people have accompanied him out to the farm this season, which earned him a new role as the co-operative’s volunteer coordinator.
“Once, a friend’s entire visiting family came out,” said Pearce. “The nine of us went to a row of beets overrun with weeds and I showed them the reddish line on the beet leaf as we lined up, about 20 feet apart on the same side of the row. About 25 minutes later that 200-foot row of beets was clear and free.”
What started out as a volunteer gig may end in a membership with the co-op for Pearce, and current members said people are encouraged to take on all levels of involvement, from simply buying produce to volunteering two hours a week to becoming full-time members.
This Saturday, the co-operative will have a presence at the Harvest Festival in the Old City Quarter, in addition to their usual tables at the Cedar, Downtown and Bowen Road Farmer’s Markets. The Harvest Festival runs Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Wesley Street and includes live bluegrass music, a petting zoo and fresh food.
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