Tag Archives: sustainable farming

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Community Farming!

I have to say that since I embarked upon this farming endeavour of mine, I have been shocked and delighted to discover how social farming can be. Unlike my writing life, which tends to be solitary and which suits the hermit side of my personality very nicely, it turns out farming lends itself well to a more collective effort.

The massive round table in the Zero Mile Eatery at OUR Ecovillage was the perfect piece of furniture to facilitate the discussion about community farming...

The massive round table in the Zero Mile Eatery at OUR Ecovillage was the perfect piece of furniture to facilitate the discussion about community farming…

Work parties are a great excuse to get everyone together for a meal (and, yes, are a fabulous way to tackle a big project) and networking with other farmers is always both educational and reassuring. Not so long ago I took part in the Community Farms Roundtable up at OUR Ecovillage in Shawnigan Lake. Organized by Young Agrarians and Farm Folk City Folk, the roundtable format brought together an eclectic group of farmers, land owners, policy makers, researchers, and foodies to discuss ways of bringing together farmers, land, and communities.

No job is too large, small, or cold for our long-suffering helper, MC.

No job is too large, small, or cold for our long-suffering helper, MC.

With agriculture being increasingly concentrated on larger farms, land prices rising, and older farmers retiring at an alarming rate, conversations like those had at the roundtable event have never been more important. How do we find ways to get young farmers onto the land? How do we connect communities with their local growers (it’s shocking how many miles food travels before it lands on the average dinner plate). And how do we ensure that governments at all levels protect farmland?

Here in our neighbourhood, all kinds of initiatives and shared projects have blossomed as various landowners have collaborated to share resources, labour, and land. My short presentation at the roundtable had a look at the informal model we’ve been using here in the ‘hood as we work together as a neighbourhood to grow food crops and raise eggs and meat on relatively small amounts of land.

Community farming can take many other forms including formal co-ops, collectively held land, and farms owned by various levels of government. There are also various programs that match young farmers with land owners who would like to see their land in production but who may not, for whatever reason, wish to farm themselves. Some programs include a strong teaching/mentorship component while others are more casual.

On our little farm, we’ve not only tapped into the local community we’ve also recently joined the fascinating world of being hosts to travelers looking for a place to stay in exchange for helping out around the place. There are several websites that help coordinate these partnerships. WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) connect organic farms with those wanting to learn by doing on the land. Workaway and HelpX broaden the jobs list to include everything from childcare to office work to cooking, cleaning, and building projects. SOIL (Stewards of Irreplaceable Lands) has a strong teaching component and, like WWOOF, focusses on farming.

Our first two volunteers, both from Germany, have been nothing short of a godsend. From washing eggs, to sorting seeds, to building a new portable hog hut, they have cheerfully jumped in and set to work. Which, of course, has been marvelous – I am feeling much more optimistic that we might actually make some good headway on the never ending to-do list.

Mud? No problem...

Mud? No problem…


The end result of a whole lot of digging was water running into the ditch rather than over the neighbor’s driveway! Much better!

What has been the biggest surprise, though, is how much fun it is to have all this youthful energy around! We’ve had interesting conversations over dinner every night as we hear about their experiences travelling and share a bit of our lives here on the farm. I am having a lot more fun than I expected (and I really, really hope our visitors are not finding it too bad to be here!!) The weather has been crappy, to say the least, and this has meant we’ve had to ask for help with some rather soggy and unpleasant jobs – like digging a ditch to channel water away from the neighbor’s garage. The grim job was completed in record time with lots of smiles, chatting, and good humour despite the miserable conditions.

Stay tuned for a future update on the progress on the new hog hut. MC is an engineering student, so unlike some of my more wobbly creations, this hog hut is square, strong, and beautiful!

Rain, Aggie AgVentures Cow, and Hugelkultur

It’s astonishing how much water can land on this small farm during a wet winter storm. The hog pen? A river runs through it… The seasonal springs? All full to overflowing. The goats are miserable and won’t come out of the goat barn. The hogs have been complaining no end. The barn cat spots me and starts whining and looking skyward as if there is some way for me to turn off the taps.

DCF Aggie in mud

For the past couple of days I’ve been slopping around in the wet, building dams and dredging channels to try to divert the water away from the animal shelters so everyone has somewhere to get under cover and stand with dry feet. The dogs sulk in the cab of the truck while I get steadily soggier.

Only the ducks are truly happy. They dive into all the newly formed puddles and ponds and lakes and rivers, flapping and splashing, preening and chuckling. The drakes strut back and forth as the ladies bathe, occasionally knocking one another around a bit just to show who is the most handsome and virile. All this water can only mean that spring is just around the corner, and you know what that means when you are a male whatever living on a farm.

DCF Aggie and Iago

The other things that are working amazingly well are the hugelkultur beds we put in a couple of years ago. Built on top of mounds of brush, branches, and logs, the beds soak up a phenomenal amount of water with nothing much seeping out below where they have been built (more or less following the contour lines of our sloping property). Where there are no beds (just grass, the driveway, or even the area under the trees where the hogs have been merrily rooting around through the fall) there is running water everywhere. Any place that has a dip or hollow is full of water. Except those hugel beds.

I was amazed how well they performed during the hot, dry weeks of the last two summers. As advertised, all the water they had soaked up during the winter was slowly released back to the plants and I barely had to irrigate at all, even when properties around me were watering like mad. I had my doubts as to how well big branches were going to break down, but already when I dig into the beds, there’s lots of lovely soft organic matter and not so many sticks and twigs. The biggest branches are still findable, but even they are well on their way to Rotsville.

I am impressed enough with how they have worked that I’m going to retro-build my existing raised beds in the same way. No more burn piles! I’ve always thought it was wasteful and unnecessarily polluting to burn branches and sticks. How cool to have found such a simple and useful thing to do with all that garden debris!

For more information about hugelkultur, check out the richsoil website.

Day 19 – An African Women’s Farm

Last night Dad and I attended a talk about a women’s collective farm in the north eastern part of South Africa. It’s hard to know where to start as the talk touched on so many vital issues facing agriculture today. The speaker, Dr. Elizabeth Vibert, was excellent – her talk both inspiring and horrifying.

Dr. Elizabeth Vibert, University of Victoria

Dr. Elizabeth Vibert, University of Victoria

In the aftermath of the apartheid and drought, a group of women in Joppie Village started a small farm so they could grow vegetables for their families and community. 20 years later the farm is a vibrant hub in the community serving many roles beyond simply growing vegetables. It was inspiring to hear how these women have managed to get the farm off the ground, how it sustains them today, and fuels their hopes for the future.

Issues like the fact they must use hybrid seed (and, therefore, are beholden to the seed companies each year), have very little capital to invest in infrastructure, endure long periods of heat and little rainfall followed by short periods of deluge, and the ongoing struggles they face to protect the equipment they do own (pumps to provide essential irrigation to keep crops alive during those dry periods) against theft make my farming challenges insignificant hiccups. Despite the obstacles, through their perseverance they have created an amazing hub that sustains many people in many ways.

I found myself wondering if we shouldn’t be looking more seriously at other land-ownership models here on the peninsula that would make it easier for young farmers to have access to farmland (the Women’s Farm is owned collectively by the community) and at the same time move us along the road toward securing our own local food supply. Not so very long ago, Vancouver Island produced 80+ percent of our food. Today, that figure has plummeted to somewhere between 3% and 8% (depending who you ask). If we do not provide markets, infrastructure, and access to land for our farmers, AND we proceed with making changes to the ALR as is being discussed by our dear government, then why would we expect to see any farmland left at all? As a farmer said at a recent Peninsula Agricultural Commission Meeting, if we were to make farming a viable profession, there would be no need to protect farmland because young farmers would be lining up to get into the profession and they would be financially able to do so because farming would be a job that would pay a living wage.

There are so many cans of worms in that last paragraph I would be blogging until Christmas if I started opening them all. My point is, really, whether we are in South Africa or south Asia, Australia or Hawaii, the Fraser Valley or right here on our island, we ALL need to pay attention. We need to worry about seed saving, about who owns the genetic rights to living things. We need to think about smart ways to use infill development, to preserve the farmland we have left and make it accessible to a new generation of farmers. And, we need to provide useful ongoing support to farmers willing to use that farm to grow food. We need to look at the logic of using chemicals on food crops and how smart it is to ship lettuce from California when we can grow lots of it right here in our back yards.

Supporting local farmers is an essential part of the equation when it comes to deciding how we are going to plan for our collective food growing future. The decisions you make - organic vs conventional, local vs hauled in from a gazillion miles away affect you, yes - but they also have an impact on the bigger picture. Voting with your food dollars does matter.

Supporting local farmers is an essential part of the equation when it comes to deciding how we are going to plan for our collective food growing future. The decisions you make – organic vs conventional, local vs hauled in from a gazillion miles away affect you, yes – but they also have an impact on the bigger picture. Voting with your food dollars does matter.

A vibrant community farm is far more than just a place to grow vegetables. The way we feed ourselves, our children, our neighbours, our elders, our friends, and our communities tells us a lot about how healthy [not just physically] our families and communities are likely to be for the long haul. 

Soapbox moment finished – for now. Stay tuned. And consider coming to the ALR Town Hall Meeting in Sidney (Mary Winspear Centre) 7pm on November 27th. Unless, of course, you don’t eat. In which case, farmland really is of no concern.