Still Growing

Still Growing

👤Sheila Peters 🕔May 01, 2017

Like many young families who moved to the northwest in the 1970s, we were determined to feed our children food that wasn’t grown with chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, or sprayed with pesticides, food you couldn’t find in the grocery store. Pretty soon we had a big garden, a root cellar, chickens, bees and a couple of sheep. We found a supplier for raw milk, we bought local beef and our Watsonquah Food Co-op joined about fifty buying groups from around the province to source organic food through Vancouver’s Fed-Up Co-op. Networks to find tomatoes for canning or to swap apples for fish linked like-minded people across the region. Local farmers and kindly neighbours taught us much about growing food in a northern climate.

But there was also conflict. When ranchers requested a program to control Canada thistle, many of us relatively new arrivals didn’t take kindly to picloram, a systemic herbicide, being sprayed along roads where Saskatoon berries seemed to grow best. Pesticide permits were challenged and harsh words were exchanged.

That was then…

Things have changed. Today hay is wrapped in plastic and old hay barns shelter motorhomes in winter. As well as the dairy and cattle producers who still sell their milk and beef into the corporate food system, we have many more mixed farms and market gardens, some of them organic, supplying our communities with vegetables, fruit, grains, meat and honey. Others add value through artisanal baking, meat processing and preserving. The numbers have changed as well. In 1977 it was estimated that agriculture brought $1 million into the Smithers economy. A recent UNBC study suggested the BV Farmers Market alone generates $1 million of economic activity.

Projects to stimulate local food supply have come and gone over the years: the Northern Pride vegetable packing plant in Smithers, Robin Creek Dairy in Telkwa, and Fairhaven Bakery just west of Kitwanga to name a few. [Correction: Robin Creek Dairy is still operating as a full-time beef and dairy farm. - ed] New ones continue to appear: Vanderhoof’s BC Livestock Producers Cooperative Association’s stockyard is estimated to bring $39 million into the community. That town’s Country Locker and the Bulkley Valley Custom Slaughter means local meat is inspected and can be sold beyond the farm gate. Consumers have shown a willingness to pay more than grocery store prices for that meat and the other food available through the 128 farmers markets in BC, some now operating year-round. They welcome the 50 certified organic operations north of One Hundred Mile. They buy over 1,300 locally-made pizzas a week from grocery stores across northern BC made by Smithers’ Chatters Pizzeria and Bistro.

The internet has helped people find these entrepreneurs. “Social media has made all the difference,” says Trevor Tapp of Copper-T Ranch in Fraser Lake. He and his wife Janice sell registered Polled Hereford breeding bulls and replacement heifers through the stockyard in Vanderhoof, but also sell meat through farm gate sales, local craft fairs and, now that SuperValu has pulled out, at a corner store in Fraser Lake.

This is now

Disputes continue. The eventual establishment of the Northwest Invasive Plant Council in 1992 helped manage conflict about the use of herbicides on crown land. Not so on private land. Farmers themselves disagree about farm practices around the long term effects of pesticides and, more recently, genetic modified organisms (GMOs) on our health and the health of watersheds, wildlife and the soil itself.

Megan D’Arcy, a biologist who also raises about 400 meat birds a year near Walcott, uses the example of zero tillage to illustrate the complexity of choices facing farmers. Tilling the soil, she explains, releases a lot of carbon and also increases the risk of erosion. Zero tillage, a practice that uses herbicides instead of tilling to prepare the plot for planting, reduces both. But what long term effects do those herbicides have?

“Some farmers using this method actually have very good soil health,” she said. “I just wish we had independent research to determine how safe the herbicides are, or to find safer ones.”

In fact, an Environmental Health study published in February states that many of the health risks for the use of herbicides like Roundup have been underestimated. And the reduction in the overall use of pesticides companies like Monsanto promised those who planted so-called Roundup Ready GMO crops has not arrived. “Since the late 1970s,” the report states, “the volume of glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) applied has increased approximately 100-fold. Further increases in the volume applied are likely due to more and higher rates of application in response to the widespread emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds and new, pre-harvest, desiccant use patterns [zero tillage].”

When a dispute between neighbours about the planting of GMO crops and herbicide use spilled into the public arena, hard lines were drawn and harsh words once again exchanged. Josette Wier circulated a petition calling upon the Bulkley-Nechako Regional District (BNRD) to implement its 2013 resolution to “not support the use of GMOs for agricultural purposes within the region.” She was disappointed with the response. BC’s Farm Practices Protection Act, she was told, allows farmers to carry out ‘normal’ farming practices even when municipal and regional governments try to restrict them. In Canada, planting GMO crops and using associated herbicides is normal farm practice. And no farmer is required to tell anyone, including the regional agrologist, what he or she is planting or what licensed pesticides are applied.

At the market

Growers who want to supply local markets need to be willing to talk to their neighbours and their customers. Working together is essential for organic growers who might find their certification challenged if a neighbour uses, for example, a GBH that drifts across property boundaries. That’s not a problem for Jonathan Knight, whose certified organic WoodGrain Farm in the Kispiox Valley is isolated enough to be well-buffered.

WoodGrain sells 95 per cent of its produce at the farmers markets in Smithers and Hazelton. Knight says the give and take between producers and consumers is a matter of mutual education. “We hear what people want and we also try to encourage them to try new products. My enthusiasm can be catching.”

In response to customer demands and their own concerns about animal welfare, Les and Chris Yates of Lemieux Creek Ranch in Quick, market their Galloway-Angus grass-fed beef as “raised without antibiotics, growth hormones, animal by-products or grain.” But in order to grow enough hay for their herd on their 327 acres, they need to use chemical fertilizers, Yates says.

D’Arcy says her customers want chickens that are well taken care of. “We have a nice setup in the barn for them with natural light. I put garlic or apple cider vinegar in their water if they’re looking unwell and I’ve experimented with growing fodder for them—they really like it. We don’t do any preventive antibiotics—only use it on the tough cases and we keep careful records.”

Transparency and trust is essential, Knight says, and D’Arcy agrees. She has not chosen to register as an organic producer because she wants more flexibility, she says, but she’s happy to tell customers just how she’s raised her birds.

Food costs

While buying local food can be more expensive, no one’s getting rich. Except for dairy farmers and some larger cattle operations, most are lucky to cover costs. For example, it costs D’Arcy about $15 to bring a chicken to market, not counting her labour. She sells them for $4 or $4.50 a pound, depending on the cost of feed.

Why in the face of all this do people keep farming? A bear can come in to eat your pigs, a late frost can kill your squash seedlings, or a wet September can rot your potato crop. Again and again people talk about the ability to create something useful, to care for land, for animals.

“It feels good to provide people with something very positive,” says Knight. “It’s not really a practical economic decision. I used to run a bakery and am passionate about baking. Working with the farmers who supplied the grain, well, it became an experience I wanted to have for myself. I’ve always been adventurous and been drawn to adventures. For me, the farm is very much the next adventure.”

Yates, a Prince Rupert businessman for many years, tells a similar story. “I always wanted a farm since I spent my childhood summers helping my grandfather on his farm in southwestern Ontario. He raised three children on 100 acres—a self-sustaining farm with beef, pigs, chickens and other crops.”

Both Knight and Yates have brought their business experience to market their products. Like most savvy farmers, they have accessible websites with beautiful pictures.  “I know that on a business level the story and the image is a big part of selling,” Knight says.

We also have to be willing to pay more at the grocery store. Bryan Swanberg, one of the organizers of the February Carrots to Cattle conference where about 70 people gathered in Smithers to take workshops on everything from soil health to agritourism, agrees. He pointed out that in France, people spend about 20 percent of their income on food; in Canada it’s about 11 percent.

“There’s plenty of room here to grow lots more produce,” Knight says, “but we have a limited local market. If more people, for example, bought at farmer’s markets, we could all do better. It is not sustainable if it’s a lifestyle choice only—people need to be able to make a living at it.”

Climate change and corporate agriculture are also having an impact. Food producers from the Lower Mainland, Alberta and China are looking north with interest. Mark Parker, a second generation cattle farmer from Fraser Lake and the chair of the RDBN’s newly constituted agriculture committee, was just in Ottawa addressing the senate about foreign ownership of agricultural land. A Chinese company, Tophay Agri-Industies, now owns about 12,000 acres of prime agricultural land in the Vanderhoof area, and is exporting compressed hay to China, a venture that may actually reduce food security.

Working together

John Stevenson, Regional Agrologist, helped the Smithers Farmers Institute organize Carrots to Cattle. He thought one of the conference’s most exciting presentations was about Paris Marshall Smith’s work around Creston, work based on Vermont’s Fields Forward initiative. It brings local food producers together to share their knowledge and pool resources in a way that is organized and supported. She quotes Chuck Ross, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture: “We’re building a food system for the 21st century and it’s going to need to be diverse and community-based, one that’s grounded in knowing each other, in providing for each other and in sharing our stories and our practices with one another.”

Stevenson agrees. “Despite the divisions about farm practices, in the face of all the changes we’re seeing, we need to work together.”

That is easier said than done. Stevenson happens to be the only Ministry of Agriculture employee in his region, which stretches from Endako to Haida Gwaii, an area with about 100,000 residents, close to 500,000 hectares of agricultural land and about 900 farms.

To fill that gap—one that hasn’t changed in forty years—farmers and community members volunteer in farmers’ institutes, cattlemen’s associations, 4H clubs, and organize workshops on everything from irrigation to farm safety. But when asked a question at her agritourism workshop, Heloise Dixon-Warren said, “We need to move beyond volunteering. In our experience, the Ministry of Agriculture hasn’t been very supportive. There are not many feet on the ground.”

It might be time for that to change.


Our garden is much smaller now that our kids are grown, but we are reassured when we see young families working with their farming elders to begin their own ventures into agriculture. To know they mentor each other, trade equipment and watch over each other’s operations when family emergencies arise. We continue to hope that the conflicts themselves will teach us how better to support healthy food production that sustains the growers, our communities and the earth itself.