Coming together to build healthy and sustainable communities in ways that do not leave anyone behind feels crucial in times like these. In Creston, British Columbia, farmers are doing this the best way they know how, by feeding their fellow neighbours using unique and resourceful approaches.
Laura Francis and her husband Nigel were on their way to the University of Victoria to attend his first year of law school when they made a stop in Creston. It was meant to be a sort of vacation before committing to the long and tedious pursuit of attaining a law degree. The community had other plans for the young couple. Halfway through their vacation, Laura recalls the owner of the cabin they were renting inviting 13 people to dinner one evening.
“She assured me that I wouldn’t have to host, that everyone would be bringing something to the table, but that these were the folks in the community who we should know.”
It was at this point that Laura and Nigel realized they weren’t leaving the small community of Creston. Their plans for law school and city living were immediately put on hold. The deep sense of community in this small town was everything they had been looking for, so they took a leap of faith and decided to make this place their home.
Over the next couple of years, Laura and Nigel were able to stay in Creston by taking odd jobs like house sitting for various people in the community.
“One job would end and then someone else would need us to house sit or take care of their property,” Laura says. It was all very serendipitous.
And then six years ago, they stumbled into an incredible opportunity: an organic farm came up for sale. Laura and Nigel now run Cartwheel Farm and a type of Community Supported Agriculture program that services the Creston region from Kitchener all the way to Riondel with their food delivery service.
“We didn’t know anything about farming when we moved here,” she says, but Nigel, who had planned on studying environmental law, had a pretty good understanding of the importance of food security.
When they first took on this small-scale organic farm, they spent one year apprenticing, learning all of the basics of farming and how to make the land work for them and for their community. They now have seven employees helping them run the farm, including one employee who lives on the property.
“It’s hard work, it’s tiring growing food by hand,” Laura admits. That first year they learned a lot of valuable lessons, including just how much labour goes into growing food. When they moved to the farm, there was very little infrastructure, there wasn’t even an irrigation system for the first year of operation.
“We literally had to hand water our crops, and some of the crops required water twice a day.” Laura and Nigel now have irrigation systems, and their farm remains non-motorized; they use mostly hand tools while tending to their gardens.
Growing food is hard work but it is a good kind of hard that offers tangible results. The couple quickly realized just how much time and commitment farm life would require, and that they were both up to the challenge. So they traded in their laid back, zero-obligation lifestyle for a mortgage and eventually, a family.
Over the years, they have gotten better at farming and as their farm grows so does their knowledge.
“People have gotten better at eating what we grow, and we have gotten better at growing what people want to eat. We realized that we couldn’t just feed people turnips.”
Laura and Nigel are learning to grow the food that makes sense for the community and for the land where they live. Creston has such a unique climate, you can grow pretty much anything in its valley, which allows them to get creative with their crops, to reimagine food in new and exciting ways.
Community Supported Agriculture fosters a connection
Community Supported Agriculture or CSA programs emerged as a response to the farm crisis of the 1980s, when family-scale farms were struggling to compete with big agriculture. The people who wanted to maintain their family run farms had to come up with innovative ways to market their business.
In many ways, Community Supported Agriculture fosters a buyer-farmer connection that Liz Henderson, a writer for The Natural Farmer, the newspaper of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, sees as “an alternative system of distribution based on community values.” These programs mutually benefit both farmers and consumers. Participating in Community Supported Agriculture means that farmers are able to plan their harvest according to actual demand allowing them to prepare for the season better, leading to better financial security for both their farms and their families. For consumers, they save money on produce in the long run, and they have the opportunity to connect with their food source by building a relationship with the people who grow their food. They also have the added benefit of knowing that their money is going directly back into their community.
Laura and Nigel have noticed a huge shift in their program this year. At the end of last season, they had decided that 2020 would be the year that they would “take it easy.” They thought they had finally gotten the farm and the business to a place where it was running well, and that they could find a bit of time to pursue other passions outside of the farm. Then COVID hit, and they realized that they could help their community the best way they knew how, by feeding people.
As a result of COVID-19, the number of people utilizing their delivery service has increased. There was no time to slow down this year. This year for 24 weeks, they delivered to 150 households weekly and biweekly, including eight local cafes and restaurants. On top of this, their produce can be found on store shelves as well as at the Creston Valley Farmers’ Market. Who they deliver to has changed, too. “We deliver to a lot of vulnerable folks, people who can’t go out and do their own shopping the way they used to.”
This year has made the Francis family more aware of how they live day to day and how they manage their operation; they have to be more mindful of the extra steps it takes to keep their community healthy and safe. Their farm had always been a lively place where people liked to gather and experience first hand where their food was coming from; this year this just hasn’t been possible, and there have been far fewer visitors to the farm.
A changing food security landscape
People’s relationship to food has changed. Access to food has changed. COVID-19 has made people more aware of just how little security we have over food sources. Laura worries what might happen if another pandemic hits, or how ongoing climate impacts like the increase of forest fires make growing crops harder.
Laura believes that, “with the chaos of the world, people want to know where their food is coming from.”
She gets phone calls almost daily from people who are curious about Community Supported Agriculture, people who are interested in what food delivery programs look like, including what types of food are included in the program. The pair want their community to trust in their decisions on the types of foods they grow, and perhaps to experiment with foods they have never tried before. In each food box, Laura and Nigel include a story from the farm, some educational bits on food security, as well as a new recipe each week that utilizes the produce in the box that week. Laura sees this as an opportunity to educate and engage in meaningful conversation around healthy eating, eating with the seasons, and food security in general.
Moving forward, Laura sees a world where we learn to work together. “There are so many things we don’t know how to do together,” she says. This is an opportunity to change our relationship to the land to find ways to become stronger and more resilient when faced with the next challenge.
“We are waiting for elders to come show us the way.”
Laura feels as though something is missing. She and Nigel and other farmers just starting out are hungry for that knowledge, and they are ready to learn, which is why people like Joanne and Drew Gailius are so crucial to their community.
Tucked away in the Skimmerhorn Mountains in the community of Canyon, a ten minute drive from Creston, live two long-time farmers. Joanne and Drew Gailius run Full Circle Farm, a small certified organic farm practicing regenerative agriculture, a farming practice that aims to improve its resources rather than deplete them by focusing on making soils healthier.
For their farm, Joanne and Drew like to practice what they call a “full circle approach.” Drew delves deeper into this concept: “The world has always worked in a circular way, but we have manipulated the system, and we now live in a very linear sort of way, and that just isn’t very sustainable.” Joanne and Drew manage their farm to take care of itself; for instance they grow their own hay to feed their cows, whose manure they put back into the land: full circle.
Joanne and Drew have been farming in Creston for 21 years, yet they feel as though they are just starting to understand the land which they steward. Drew speaks about the industry of small agriculture with humility: “Farming requires a lot of knowledge, and that knowledge takes a long time to build. Farms work best when they are passed down from generation to generation.”
Unfortunately, you don’t see a lot of small farms being passed down through the generations anymore, and as a result, there are huge gaps in knowledge and learning curves that make small-scale farming seem like too much work, overwhelming, or simply unappealing to younger generations. Drew sees the importance of getting young people interested in farming.
For now, Joanne and Drew stress the importance of finding community and seeking the guidance of seasoned farmers for people new to farming. There is a lot to be learned from one another and from the people who have been working with this land their whole lives. For instance, Joanne has learned one of the most important lessons on food ethics from the very established Morman community surrounding Creston: “Save enough food for one year.”
This simple lesson has stuck with both Joanne and Drew, as they find innovative ways to produce food for longer and preserve it better. In fact, this year they are experimenting with an underground greenhouse with the hopes of growing peppers, chard, and other greens throughout the winter. They also grow a lot of grains, root crops, fruits and berries, as well as caring for six milking cows. Their two freezers are full of delectable rations, including Drew’s homemade pastas. For Joanne it is one of the most rewarding experiences to eat fresh food that they have grown.
“Ninety-five present of what we eat comes from our farm,” she says.
Innovating and experimenting with new ways of farming while still honouring the traditional values and practices they have learned from the people who have come before them is important to both Joanne and Drew. It is a fine balance.
One of their biggest accomplishments has been getting their farm off of using oil and gas. Drew, who is a machinist, welder, and mechanic by trade has been busy “electrifying” their farm. There are 32 solar panels in the Gailius’s fields that create energy that is then redistributed to the community; they also have a licence to install a micro-hydro system on one of the creeks that runs through their property. Perhaps most impressive is the creation of Sparky, their solar powered tractor.
Drew began building Sparky ten years ago as a sort of fun hobby project. At the time, Sparky seemed like just another one of Drew’s quirky ideas; however, Sparky has been one of his most valuable inventions. Sparky doesn’t require the same maintenance a traditional tractor does; it is quiet, doesn’t smoke, and has saved Joanne and Drew a ton of money in fuel. The added health benefits of not working around toxic fumes is something that Joanne and Drew appreciate after they watched their child suffer from asthma from air pollution..
Their solar powered tractor is multi-functional. They use Sparky for various tasks on the farm, from plowing to gathering firewood. Sparky was even able to provide power when a windstorm knocked the farm off the grid.
“Having power is crucial when you have more than a year’s supply of food in your freezer.” Joanne can’t imagine how devastating it would be to lose all of their food rations.
“As humans, we are very good at innovating”
Drew doesn’t see why we can’t move toward more sustainable and renewable sources of energy. Ten years ago Sparky seemed like an outrageous idea; today electric tractors are starting to come to the market with companies like Solectra Inc. launching a line of electric tractors and even big players like John Deere backing the transition to clean and renewable energy.
Farmers in Creston see the benefit of linking past to present in their daily practices. Laura and Nigel see a lot of value in creating close relationships with farmers like Joanne and Drew who are honest and upfront about the struggles of this life choice, admitting that farming is hard work. There are times when there is a great deal of uncertainty and disappointment. There is also this very visceral reward that comes from farming. Laura agrees: “It’s all about doing what you can do: the lie is that we are not enough.” As far as what that means for Laura and Nigel, “We are growing food, we are feeding people, and we are trying to be happy.”