On Vancouver Island and the more southwester part of the province farmers are ramping up for the coming season. It may be still too wet to plough fields, but it’s in the greenhouses where a lot of the action is happening right now. I've been sticking my head into some of those warm, humid structures at places like Hope Bay Farm on Pender Island, owned by Derek Masselink, pictured at left.
Derek and his helpers have been quite busy in their propagation house, a greenhouse where all the seeds are started. I first met Derek when he was the program co-ordinator of the UBC Farm in Vancouver, but about seven years ago he founded his own environmental design company based on Pender Island, where he and his wife also operate Hope Bay Farm, a fairly small patch of land on North Pender. When I visited Derek was away from his computer and drafting board, working away in the greenhouse with some of this year’s early crop, which include spinach, scallions, shallots, leeks and some 'keeper' onions as well.
Last year Derek started a Community Supported Agriculture project and ran it for 25 weeks. That meant providing food for a number of families in the form of a box full of produce every one of those weeks. "It felt like we were growing for one of the family," says Derek. "An especially understanding family as we didn't get too many complaints when we were heavy on the radishes and turnips and had a little less variety than we would have liked because of crop failures and a very challenging growing season from a weather standpoint."
Commonly known as CSAs, at the beginning of each year you make a contract with the farmer. You pay your money for the whole season up front, and then every week you can go to the farm or a designated pick-up place and get a box of fresh produce. The box varies every week with what’s in season, and you’re trusting your financial investment with the farmer. If they have a bad season, your box isn’t going to be as overflowing as it usually is during a good year, but it gives the farmer that needed capital at the beginning of the year to get things started.
At certain times of the year Derek would find himself out in the fields playing chef, seeing what was ready to harvest and how it might go together in a basket of produce. Every week they would put a picture of what was going to be in the box on the website, like this one on the left, (photo courtesy Hope Bay Farm) so people would have a bit of advance warning of what they were getting. Many of last year’s subscribers are coming back, some thought it wasn’t quite what they needed, but the whole process is evolving for them. I should tell you though, that this whole CSA thing has been catching on across the province and that some farms have waiting lists for people to get on their roster…if you’re interested, the time to act is NOW.
With small farming these days, it’s not enough to just do the farmers market every week, or only a CSA or only sell to restaurants or have a farm stand. At Hope Bay Farm they are getting into raising heritage breeds of ducks and chickens, and then there are the Icelandic sheep.
(photo courtesy Hope Bay Farm) "My wife trains border collies and we wanted something for them to train with," says Derek. "These sheep are triple purpose, milk, meat and wool. We have a small property so we are pasturing them with our neighbours wherever we can. We send the young rams to be butchered and the wool is in demand from spinners."
I’m always encouraged when I visit a farm like this because it shows that something can be done for food security on a smaller scale in a sustainable manner instead of relying on large, mono-culture farms that have become prevalent in Canada since the Second World War. Derek says, though, in addition to diversification, in order to succeed, a farm like his depends on a number of factors all working together: "You need to design a relatively quick return on investment so that you’re paying off debt instead of incurring more of it. Quality in your products and your business dealings. Superb customer care and service. And Time – putting in the time to learn the business."
Related note on Food Security: Next Wednesday night, March 23rd at Canoe Brewpub, Slow Food Vancouver Island & the Gulf Islands present Nick Versteeg’s latest documentary, Food Security: It’s in Your Hands. I wrote about this a few weeks ago as it made its premiere at the Victoria Film Festival. That was a sell-out, so Slow Food and Canoe have got together to show the documentary again, this time with food and beer pairings, dishes created from local producers of course. Canoe’s expert chefs have prepared amazing organic delicacies with greens from the Saanich Organics Farm, fish from Finest At Sea and mushrooms foraged by Eric Whitehead of Untamed Feast. Enjoy a refreshing complimentary glass of Kings and Spies from Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse. Advance tickets are $35 and $30 for Slow Food members from www.selectyourtickets.com. More information at www.slowisland.ca.