Archive for the 'farming' Category

The Long Field, Part 1

By Tom Read

Here’s The Long Field as it appeared yesterday around 7:30 pm. A few new cedar fence posts are already in position, but we still have a long way to go before this field is restored to productive agriculture.

The acreage surrounding where we live, which Texadans have called “Slow Farm” for decades, has seen farmers come and go for about a century. We are slowly, pun intended, joining that farming history by resurrecting the old fields here one by one. Our latest endeavor parallels the High Road; we call it “The Long Field.”

By mainland standards this field would be considered so small and irregular as to hardly qualify for serious agriculture. Allowing for proper clearances from the road and a nearby creek, it’s only about 500 feet long by 30 to 60 feet wide. But it’s all good bottom land — quite rare on Texada Island — and it has a history of growing food. Decayed but still standing cedar fence posts and half-buried strands of wire fencing remind us of our farming predecessors.

During the past several decades, a wall of roadside trees grew up next to the field, casting deep shadows upon it. Reluctantly, we had to remove those trees to bring back the sun. This work was quickly accomplished a few weeks ago by our friends Stump, Warren and Brian at RAW Select Logging. Now comes the hard part: hand labour to pick out odd bits of left-over branches and the occasional rock, plus fencing the whole field to keep out the deer.

We do not plan to rototill this field. In keeping with our desire to minimize fossil fuel use, we will instead hand-sow a cover crop of buckwheat, to be followed next summer by rotational grazing of pigs and chickens. Our choice of buckwheat was inspired by several attributes: Our neighbours to the south on High Road, Brian and Leslie, are using this crop to improve the tilth on their bottom land this year, so we expect it to thrive on our place, too. We also realized that buckwheat makes great honey and can be planted even in mid-summer for a fall flowering, so it will help feed our bees as they’re getting stocked up for winter. And fresh buckwheat pancakes come well recommended, too.

So much for Part 1 of our Long Field story. Sometime in the future I’ll report back on how we’re doing with this project, as our Slow Farm adventure continues.

There’s no place like home

By Tom Read

We came home to a plum-blossom surprise -- this young tree given to us by a neighbor a few years ago has never blossomed before now. Bees and other pollinators abound hereabouts, so we’re hoping for plums this summer.

Our 3,500-mile road trip from Texada Island to southern California and back is over at last. Our little Toyota Matrix burned about 110 gallons of gasoline during the 19-day sojourn, but this extravagance (for us) allowed us a rare and thoroughly enjoyable visit with family and friends ranging from Victoria, BC, all the way south to San Diego. Our previous road visit to California took place in 2007, involved travelling by pick-up truck and burned a lot more gas. Depending on the global price of oil a few years hence, maybe next time we’ll go by bus and train.

It was a refreshing, though tiring, trip. Being away from our island gave us a chance to see our lives here from a different perspective. For example, I’ve long been interested in the agricultural potential of Texada, which stands in sharp contrast to the huge agribusiness centres along Interstate 5 in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Any casual traveler along that route sees the vast monocultures of fruits, nuts, vegetables and grasses. My eye also caught the occasional grouping of bee hives, some looking normal but in several cases carelessly piled in a heap — dead.

What happened to the bees? Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I saw, in nearly every field, at least one grouping of translucent liquid-filled plastic tanks boasting chemical company logos. Bees and toxic chemicals didn’t evolve together, so is it any wonder the bees are disappearing?

And then there was the soil. At 65 miles-per-hour you can’t do a soil test on the passing scenery, but you can see the emerging salt flats — white crystals on the soil surface amid flourishing salt-bush — caused by excessive irrigation and lack of soil tilth in a field that still shows eroding furrows from former food growing. There’s just mile after mile of it.

Along with the ruined soil I also saw signs, literally, of renewed political conflict over water in a place prone to increasing drought. One empty field after another for hundreds of miles contained a political campaign-style sign reading “Congress-Created Dust Bowl.” California agribusiness exists on federal subsidies, particularly for water, but since the state’s rivers and reservoirs have run much lower in recent years, the water-war propaganda has become more intense.

Bear in mind that these valleys provide much of the fruit and vegetables we find on grocery store shelves on Texada Island and in BC. Our dependence on this dying system becomes much more real when one sees it in person.

Which brings me back home to our island, where water is usually not an issue and the soil ranges from Agricultural Land Reserve Class 5 rocky pasture to occasional pockets of Class 1 bottom-land richness. Small-scale mixed farms once flourished here. The time is coming when factory food will no longer be cheap, and small local farms will once again become economically viable. Let the transition begin.

Bringin’ in the slops

By Tom Read

Usually, the slops are waiting for me just inside the kitchen back door at the Texada Island Inn. Today I lucked out when chef Elaine saw my arrival and met me halfway.

It’s Friday afternoon and I’ve just pulled up to the back door of Van Anda’s Texada Island Inn, right outside the restaurant kitchen. At home each day, we feed a small stream of kitchen scraps to our chickens and compost pile, but the volume of “table scraps” flowing from a restaurant kitchen seems like a river by comparison. I’m here at the Inn — known to locals as “the hotel” even though it also includes a restaurant and bar — to pick up the Friday slops.

One of the hotel’s excellent cooks, Elaine, saw my car pull in the driveway, and she brought today’s slops out of the kitchen to be loaded in the back of my car (photo). In return, I gave her a couple of clean buckets from a previous slops pick-up. I make sure to scrub the returning buckets with soap and hot water to comply with the stringent sanitation standards required in a commercial kitchen. Sometimes Linda and I will have dinner at the hotel, then I’ll go fetch the slops and we’ll head home. Of course, there’s never anything left over on my plate.

So why am I going to all this trouble, and burning a few extra litres of gasoline in the process? Answer: I’m retrieving slops from the hotel thrice weekly, all year, because the organic matter feeds our animals and our soil. Food-growing removes a certain amount of soil nutrients every year; if we don’t replenish those nutrients then our food-growing will eventually fail for want of soil fertility. Thus, a constant balance must be maintained between what we take away — harvests — and what we add to offset the soil nutrient depletion caused by those harvests.

Slops use is only one part of the balance. They’re a little heavy on tired lettuce, surplus French fries, deep-fried onion rings and mashed potatoes. So we’re fortunate that we have our own chicken and pig manure and that Texada is abundant in wild sources of soil amendments. Texadans also have access to some very effective commercial organic fertilizers that are sold across Canada but brewed right here on the island from imported ingredients.

The wild stuff includes seaweed (collect in fall only), nettle (collect before it forms seed-heads), nitrogen-fixing trees (Western Red Alder) and lots of maple and alder leaves. If you cut thistle tops before they form a seed-head then these widespread “weeds” also become a good input for the compost pile. How attitudes change! When we started our first garden after moving to Texada ten years ago, I tried in vain to remove all the nettles and thistles from our property — the hard way, by hand with a shovel and a hoe. Now I welcome these useful plants on the farm (but not directly in the garden beds).

But I digress, and must conclude by returning to the slops. It’s a privilege to be given those buckets. They help offset the cost of animal feed, even though I must carefully inspect the slop bucket contents just in case a bit of plastic should find its way there. That’s rare, but it happens. And sometimes I find meat scraps, which become dog treats. As for the travel costs — I’m usually able to combine slops pick-up with other errands, so what’s another stop along the way?  Plus, there’s a real satisfaction in keeping something of value out of the waste stream that would otherwise end up in a landfill at Cache Creek.

Now, if I could only get the hotel to add more seaweed-based items to the menu….

A very practical food security workshop

By Tom Read

A lot of Texada-grown vegetables and even some local chicken went into the lunch served at our recent Micro-Farm Workshop, thanks to a dedicated group of Texada Garden Club volunteers.

Farmer, author and teacher Robin Wheeler came to Texada Island last Saturday to lead us in a six-hour “Micro-Farm Workshop,” sponsored by the Texada Garden Club.  Linda and I found the experience quite rewarding, and so did many others from what I observed. Here are a few highlights of the workshop, from big picture stuff to fascinating (to me) details.

By my count, 47 people came to the workshop on a mild, sunny morning, with 31 from Texada and 16 from Powell River (who arrived 30 minutes late due to an ambulance run that delayed the ferry). The Garden Club, of which I’m a member, had estimated a maximum of 50 participants would attend. So we were a little tense as people kept streaming into the Community Hall — would we run out of food at lunchtime? As it happened, there was more than enough food for everyone, and many of us felt pleased to see such a strong turnout.

Why so much interest in learning about growing food year-round, and building more capacity in our community to provide for a reliable local food supply? The term “food security” is not exactly a media buzz-word these days, but I think the concept is on folks’ minds in this community even if not in those exact words. In conversations I’ve had with fellow islanders over the last few months, many seem to sense that there’s a certain economic, environmental and energy-related volatility afoot in the world, where food prices and even availability might become a concern quite suddenly.

Robin briefly mentioned better food security as a key reason for the workshop, then she moved into specific ways we can do more to create a local food supply for our individual households and as a community. Here are some samples:

We learned how to understand our land better, including mapping of wind and water flows, soil types and most important, sun exposure.

We learned that seaweed is great for soil conditioning, but that we should collect it only in the fall, not in spring. That’s because spring seaweed contains fish eggs and provides both shelter and food to young marine organisms. If we take seaweed at that time of year, we could disrupt marine life-cycles. Besides, there’s lots more seaweed on local beaches in the fall, and it contains less woody debris, too.

We learned how to start a garden on heavy clay soil: use “sacrificial” deep-rooted plants first for a few years to break up the clay chunks, plus add more organic matter to the soil. Then plant vegetables.

We learned about the “spiral cut” on trees adjacent to a garden. This technique lets in some sun without killing the trees, as occurs with cutting off tree tops. The spiral cut removes selected branches in an upward spiral all around the tree, leaving the tree in balance and growing normally. This preserves the trees while letting in filtered sun, changing a fully shaded area where nothing will grow into a partially shaded garden that can grow some types of food plants.

We learned the critical necessity of planning at planting time how to preserve and store a crop so that you’re ready with adequate space and tools when the moment arrives for harvest.

We learned about the simple, affordable deer-fence building technique of using scrap wood, such as fence posts made from cedar tree tops left over after logging, and slabs from a local sawmill to fill the space between posts. Yes, this requires some annual maintenance, but it’s a really quick and cheap way to build a fence that otherwise might cost thousands of dollars.

There was so much more to this workshop — these few samples simply don’t do it justice. As I review my notes from that day I can see many more ideas and suggestions that I’d like to put into practice here at Slow Farm. Seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Life in a modern village

By Tom Read

Minor ball players and their coaches gather at the ball field in Van Anda, a de facto village commons (firehall in the background). Photo taken a few years ago.

On Texada Island we often speak of Gillies Bay and Van Anda as “villages.” A few evenings ago I happened across a book at the Texada Library entitled Life in a Medieval Village, by Frances and Joseph Gies. Their book describes the evolution of villages from antiquity, and provides great detail about the English Midlands village of Elton as it was approximately 700 years ago. Elton still exists as a modern village, but it is completely different in function from medieval times. To quote the Gieses:

In the modern world the village is merely a very small town, often a metropolitan suburb, always very much a part of the world outside. The ‘old fashioned village’ of the American nineteenth century was more distinctive in function, supplying services of merchants and craftsmen to a circle of farm homesteads surrounding it.

The medieval village was something different from either. Only incidentally was it the dwelling place of merchants or craftsmen. Rather, its population consisted of the farmers themselves, the people who tilled the soil and herded the animals. Their houses, barns and sheds clustered at its center, while their plowed fields and grazing pastures and meadows surrounded it. Socially, economically and politically, it was a community.”

The modern village of Elton still has a few farmers and sheep, but its residents make a living by commuting to jobs in cities, including London, which is about 70 miles distant. Here on Texada, our villages include merchants, craftspeople and artists, but hardly any farmers. Some of our neighbours and almost all of our teenagers commute to jobs and school, respectively, in Powell River. Like Elton, we see gardens and orchards in many yards. A few cows graze on pasture in the centre of Gillies Bay, and chickens, including roosters, seem well represented, too.

Alas for anyone contemplating an increase in local agriculture, our villages appear to be surrounded by temperate rainforest and ocean, not fertile fields. Appearances can be deceiving, however. We may not look like the Midlands, but it turns out that Texada actually has plenty of agricultural land — the island once supported so many farms that we had our own Farmer’s Institute. So where have all the farmers gone?

One of the main reasons our island and its villages lack farmers today is that local farms could not compete economically with government-subsidized agribusiness. Thus, socially, economically and politically, it would appear that our Texada villages have evolved as mere outposts of global industrial life. That’s because we depend on the same life-support systems as mainlanders for our energy, food, transport, governance, communication, etc. Yet our small population (about 500 people per village; 1,100 for the island as a whole) gives us much closer-knit communities than would be possible in the suburbs or cities. We know each other by sight and reputation if not always by name or first-hand experience.

Medieval villages were especially noted for their permanence, according to the Gieses’ research in the book cited above. English agricultural villages often lasted hundreds of years. Through cooperative efforts they were resilient enough to survive war, pestilence and famine. The modern villages of Texada Island are relatively young (about 120 years for Van Anda and 60 or so years for Gillies Bay), and depend almost entirely for their existence on a global industrial system. Maybe someday we’ll see a book about Life in a Modern Village that describes a deliberate return to sustainable village agriculture accompanied by a diverse local economy, albeit without feudal overlords.

Growing opportunities

By Tom Read

Here's a photo I took today of some thriving White Russian Kale in our garden. We bought these plants as seedlings from Carolyn Heriot in August. This open-pollinated kale variety is very cold-hardy and we find it quite satisfying in salads, stir-fry and even pesto sauce!

Here's a photo I took today of some thriving White Russian Kale in our garden. We bought these plants as seedlings from Carolyn Heriot in August. This open-pollinated kale variety is very cold-hardy and we find it quite satisfying in salads, stir-fry and even pesto sauce!

A few weeks ago I posted some thoughts here on the agricultural potential of Texada Island, based on a document just released by the Powell River Regional District (PRRD). Texada Island is Area D within the PRRD. In that previous post I mentioned several strengths that support the idea of a positive agricultural future for Texada, such as favourable climate, soil, water, and proximity to markets.

This week I’d like to follow up with a few thoughts about agricultural  opportunities, starting with a general statement from the PRRD report, entitled “Powell River Agricultural Plan — Economic Development Discussion Paper,” by consultant Gary Rolston.   Here’s a summary of the paper’s comment on agricultural opportunities for individuals:

It is difficult, if not impossible, to identify opportunities for individual operators without knowing the individual or the resources they have available to them. This has happened in the past. An “opportunity” is identified to a broad audience. Several people get into the business at the same time and the market is saturated before the first product is available for sale. Opportunities are created by people who have the ability to evaluate trends that suit the resources they have available and can have products available for market when demand is strong. [my emphasis]

The paper goes on to identify three possible “opportunities” for individuals in our region: developing an abattoir or food processing facility, creating value-added products from local produce, and starting a vineyard/winery. Hmm. If you’re interested in making value-added products, wouldn’t that require some kind of food processing facility? Would it be cost-effective for an individual to create such facilities?

As for making wine, I’ve noticed that our region, including Texada, already has affordable custom wine-making services available, and it’s not that difficult to ferment your own, either. Since wine is a discretionary food purchase (unlike, for example, vegetables, grains, and other food staples), and given the many imported wines I see for sale at Texada’s grocery stores, perhaps that market is a bit “saturated.”

So, are there any opportunities that don’t require a large up-front investment in processing facilities?

One possibility not mentioned in Rolston’s paper is growing winter salad greens and vegetables. As about fifty of us heard from Carolyn Heriot at a Texada Garden Club-sponsored workshop in August, almost all greens and vegetables are currently imported into our region during the cold months of the year. She lives near Victoria, and claims to have found a strong demand in her area for fresh local vegetables that can be grown and harvested all during the winter — because the imported stuff isn’t so fresh and is rather expensive as well. Carolyn is author of a best-selling BC coastal gardening book, A Year on The Garden Path, and also sells coastally-adapted seeds (see her website at http://earthfuture.com/gardenpath/Lectures.htm for more information).

Admittedly, our rural island isn’t quite as affluent as the urbanized Vancouver Island market that Carolyn sells to, but it would be a huge accomplishment if local farmers could meet Texada’s needs for fresh produce in the winter. We could also export fresh produce to Powell River if the cost of distribution and marketing could be kept reasonable.

Which brings up another type of opportunity: cooperation among local farmers and eaters in the financing and operation of local food processing facilities, including possibly an abattoir. Texada has few land-use regulations that would get in the way of setting up a small-scale food-processing facility. But do we have the entrepreneurial spirit and financial resources capable of competing with the industrial food system? And could we do it in a way that wouldn’t endanger the livelihoods of our neighbours who work in our local grocery stores?

Food for thought, as they say.

The agricultural potential of Texada Island

By Tom Read

This former hayfield on Texada Island is a small pocket of rich bottomland awaiting a new agricultural enterprise

This former hayfield on Texada Island is a small pocket of rich bottomland awaiting a new agricultural enterprise

The Powell River Agriculture Plan, subtitled “Economic Development Discussion Paper,” by Gary Rolston, has just been released. Texada Islanders and ratepayers throughout the Powell River Regional District paid for this study so I was eager to see what it has to say about farming on our island.

Alas, Texada is largely invisible in the report (the author tended to lump us together with Lasqueti Island or to simply ignore us, unfortunately).  Still, the report contains useful information about the region as a whole and some good discussion questions that are relevant to Texadans interested in farming and in eating locally produced food.

Of particular interest to me is the report’s “SWOT” analysis for local agriculture, where “SWOT” stands for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.”  Here are the agricultural “Strengths” of the region as quoted from Rolston’s report along with my comments from a Texada perspective in italic type:

Strengths:

1)  Climate and soils that are suitable for a wide range of agricultural production

That’s true for Texada, as well. The widespread limestone deposits on our island give us a more alkaline soil than in Powell River, generally speaking, and our climate is usually a little warmer and drier, too. Texada has pockets of really good soil, but most often the soil here tends toward rocky and thin.

2)  Availability of irrigation water

Yes, we’ve got lots of water on Texada, too, unlike most other local islands

3)  Captive market – the local community supports local farmers.

“Captive market” is not how I’d describe the Texada food shopper today. In spite of our fine local grocery stores, many islanders like to buy most of their groceries at supermarkets in Powell River or at Costco (and the like) on Vancouver Island. This is likely to change as the cost of transportation rises.

4)  Land Prices are somewhat lower than other areas with similar coastal climates – the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island.

This is true for Texada, too, but land prices are still quite high relative to the income a farmer can expect to earn solely from conventional farming. Possible solutions: There are agricultural land leasing opportunities on Texada, and a potential farmer here would also be advised to focus on value-added products or services to raise one’s income potential.

5)  Small scale – this could be a benefit if the industry can work together. Everyone knows everyone.

This is also quite true of Texada, which has only about 1/20th the population of Powell River. We should be able to cooperate with each other for mutual benefit because that’s what we do in many other endeavours on Texada.

6)  Isolation. This causes a few problems …. However, it is a strength that could be converted to opportunities albeit with some work. The “moat” that surrounds Powell River has some benefits in terms of protecting it from introduction of diseases and pests that may be affecting agricultural enterprises elsewhere.

Texada Island is surrounded by population centres that collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on food and other agricultural products. So we’re not that isolated, really. Yet, as an island that’s NOT on BC Ferries’ Circle Tour, we enjoy relative freedom from hordes of tourists, from urban land-use regulations, from crime and from population pressures in general. We’re ideally situated geographically to serve the communities around us, so I wholeheartedly agree that developing new agricultural enterprises and repopulating abandoned farms should be high priorities for Texada. ]

Yes, there are some potential strengths for agriculture on Texada Island, and they lead directly to real opportunities for those with entreprenurial vision and energy. That’ll be my focus in future posts.


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