Agricultural Heyday:

🕔Jul 16, 2009
Imagine a farm in northern BC where you could wander through a field of winter wheat, examine forage crops, learn about poultry housing and read years of local weather records. At this farm you would find a supervisor, a manager agronomist, a clerk and a plethora of knowledgeable staff, all there especially for your education. They would happily tour you through their agricultural trials and share with you their lessons on what grows best in our local climate and how best to manage a farm.

It sounds so idealistic—I can almost see the bluebirds sitting on the fence-posts and hear the gentle cows rustling in the fields—yet it was true. The Dominion Experimental Farm officially opened in 1937 on 320 acres just east of Smithers. Its purpose was to educate farmers and prospective farmers on how best to farm in our often-inhospitable northern climate.

The early years
As early as 1913, The Interior News reported on the need for an experimental farm to help the local farmers. The early settlers painstakingly cleared land by felling trees, blasting stumps, pulling roots and moving rocks. With little guidance and often no former experience they learned through trial and error. The 1913 article refers to the “many failures” of early agriculture and states, “what is needed is a northern experimental farm.”

Local farmers experimented on their own with various crops and livestock, and formed groups and societies to share information. It wasn’t until July 1937 that the Dominion Department of Agriculture bought the 320-acre Sproule farm for $5,500 and established the Smithers Dominion Experimental Farm.

The Experimental Farm was, by all farming standards, a major operation. It had livestock: cattle, hogs and sheep, work horses and poultry. They grew forage crops and cereals including wheat, oats and barley. The farm had large gardens with vegetable crops, small fruits, tree fruits and ornamentals. Detailed records were kept on everything from egg production to fruit-tree diseases. The full-time staff of seven men in the winter and up to 17 in the summer was completely dedicated to farm duties. There were even a half dozen workers busy all summer picking rocks from the fields.

Many local men were employed as carpenters to build the farm structures, outbuildings and residences. Many of these workers were from Holland and learned English while they worked—measuring and sawing boards; mixing and pouring cement. The farm buildings were built according to federal government standards with deep cement footings, solid wood beams and a uniform colour scheme.

Field days
A report from 1950 states the Smithers Dominion Experimental Farm held “field days” in “order to help the farming public become better acquainted with the work underway…in an organized effort to make the results of the work known to all.”

At one such field day in 1951 Mr. Johnny Zacharias led a group of thirty interested farmers through the fields at the farm. The Interior News reported that the farmers made lots of notes and later discussed “...whether it was better to sell forage crops or use them to fatten beef; whether there will be a reasonable market for milk in Kitimat; and whether or not fertilizer is as good as the experts say.”

A Mr. Walter Burns was part of the field days, and led a discussion about marketing and the challenges faced by our farmers.

Mr. Burns was appointed the Superintendant of the Experimental Farm in 1938. He was dedicated to agriculture and worked on the Smithers substation farm for many years. In 1950 he wrote a detailed progress report for submission to Ottawa with information on raising farm crops and animals in our northern region. Barring the details on how to apply DDT to fruit trees and berry plants, many of the conclusions are applicable today.

“The long winter feeding period,” wrote Mr Burns, “is a severe handicap to animal production.” Despite noting that the “summers are short and the frosts frequent,” he pointed out “the home garden is a very vital food source for the area.” He goes on to list the best varieties of vegetables to grow in our region.

The Experimental Farm started scaling down employees and production in the mid-1950s. In 1957, a change in the federal government led to a tightened national budget and the eventual closure of the farm.

The later years
What was once the Experimental Farm is now cut up into smaller acreages, with Highway 16 running through the corner of it. You can catch a glimpse of some of the original cement fence-posts and the old root cellar as you approach the curve near Babine Lake Road.

Between 1957 and today the site has had many uses. In the late ’70s and early ’80s it served as the Northern Training Centre, a vocational training residence for young people with disabilities.

Young adults living at the facility managed a garden, raised pigs, and utilised a commercial kitchen. Eileen Klassen worked there from 1980-83 and recalls that the site was always busy with up to 26 young adults living there and a steady wait-list.

From 1984-96 it was home to the Residential Attendance Program, a 24-hour staffed facility for young offenders. The program offered counselling and focused on improving the young adults’ life skills.

Still later, the non-profit Smithers Community Services owned part of the property. During this time the small farmhouses were rented out and a community garden and greenhouse were on site.

The main part of the old farm, with its large barn, tall seed-house, many outbuildings and small houses, is now owned by the Penninga family who have, through much effort, cleaned up the site.

The owners toured me through the old farm with its charming 1950s-style bungalows, the small creamery with its sunken floor for cold storage, and sheds with counterweighted sliding doors still riding smoothly more than 50 years later. The stunning hip-roofed barn, with its huge timbers and sunlight streaming through the holes in the original roofing, has just enough hay and manure smells remaining to hint at the pigs that used to live there.

The day I was there, swallows swooped around the rafters and laying hens happily ranged around the grounds. But there is no active farming today; it is a family home now, not buzzing with staff dedicated to farm activities. The Penningas and I stood in the shade of the old barn and discussed Mr. Burns and the old Experimental Farm.

We acknowledged the work of Mr Burns, who passed away at 93 in April of this year. He dedicated his career to agriculture and earned an Order of Canada for his work in Canada and abroad.

We talked about how many of the records from the old Experimental Farm have disappeared, possibly squirreled away in a former employee’s attic. But we hope that documents and images will resurface, providing the farmers and growers in the area with more advice and insights into the past.

In Burns’ 1950s report, after many years of experimenting with crops and livestock and experiencing the challenges of northern farming first-hand, he wrote very frankly that the farmers in this area face some significant disadvantages: long winters, lack of water, poorer soils and distance to market.

Despite the difficulties in growing crops and raising livestock here, Burns noted that there were many farms succeeding despite the odds against them. He attributed the fact that they did so well (and, I should add, continue to do so today) solely to the farmers’ tenacity.