Saving Farmland: The Fight for Real Food

  • Saving Farmland: The Fight for Real Food
    by Nathalie Chambers with Robin Alys Roberts and Sophie Wooding
  • All the Dirt: Reflections on Organic Farming
    by Rachel Fisher, Heather Stretch, and Robin Tunnicliffe

Reviewed by James Murton

Home to the original 100-Mile Diet and inheritors of a vague but resilient tradition of earthiness and back-to-the-land, British Columbians do not need to be told about the rise in interest in local and organic foods or the literary explosion that has accompanied it. The number of small-scale farmers pushing back against a corporatized and centralized food system, and the books chronicling their efforts, continue to multiply. Food scholars however, while supporting these efforts, have recently begun to call publicly for broader reform. In a review of journalist Sarah Elton’s Consumed: Sustainable Food for a Finite Planet in the Literary Review of Canada, the University of Waterloo’s Jennifer Clapp noted that for 100-mile diets to become the norm, we will need to see major changes in agriculture and food policy and regulations. While both of these books are very much in the inspiring pushback against big food mode, they can also, interestingly, be seen to be taking up Clapp’s challenge by proposing possible infrastructures for local food.

            All the Dirt is the story of the Saanich Peninsula organic farms of Rachel Fisher, Heather Stretch, and Robin Tunnicliffe, as well as their marketing arm, Saanich Organics. The book is part of a genre that aims to provide ideas and advice to aspiring young, small-scale farmers. Personal histories are mixed with discussions of the engineering of greenhouses and much advice on the business of farming (embrace unusual varieties; be reliable; keep good records). On one page, Fisher talks about her exhaustion in trying to care for a newborn baby while farming; on the next, we’re told that she used one-and-a-quarter- to one-and-a-half-inch pipe in her irrigation system. The book includes beautiful photographs and samples of spreadsheets. The effect is a bit jarring, but then, armchair analysts are not the real audience. Prospective farmers are. This book will not tell them how to actually build a greenhouse or irrigation system; the detail on the size of the pipe is probably more than either of us needs. It will tell a young farmer just what they have coming and what they can do about it. The rest of us can skim the spreadsheets and appreciate the beautiful images of produce and the drama of starting your own farm: the image of the three authors, standing sorting produce late into the night and almost crying with exhaustion, sticks with me.

            Nathalie Chambers’ Saving Farmland is in some ways a more conventional book. It tells a simple, inspiring story. Around the start of the twenty-first century, Nathalie met David Chambers. Nathalie was an agro-ecology student at the University of Victoria; David was farming land that had been in his family for over a century, on Blenkinsop Road in the Victoria suburb of Saanich. Nathalie and David fell in love, coming together in part over their determination to do farming differently. Madrona Farm was twenty-seven acres of houselot, farmland, forest, and wetlands in a rapidly urbanizing area. David and Nathalie developed a plan to preserve the whole property intact as a working farm. However, though David farmed the land with the blessing of his grandmother, it was actually owned by his father and uncles, who inherited it on their mother’s death. At least one uncle wanted to sell the land and collect the cash; the front four acres, in particular, was prime development land. Nathalie and David hatched a plan to raise funds to buy out the uncles and turn the land over to a land conservancy which would own the property, making land available for young farmers while imposing ecologically sensitive farming practices. A grand fund-raising campaign followed, involving Nathalie and David’s customers, a Chef Survival Challenge where Victoria chefs raced across Madrona Farm gathering the ingredients for a meal cooked on campstoves, and a large donation of airtime by Victoria radio stations. At some point -- Chambers is chary with dates and unconcerned with chronology -- the money was raised. Madrona Farm is now legally protected.

            Saving Farmland is an often-exhilarating ride through farm activism and the frontiers of agro-ecology. It includes a history of the financial and political troubles of the Land Conservancy; a fascinating history of Steveston; a chapter on bees. Yet Chambers wants to tell the story of how Madrona got preserved and present a replicable model for preserving farmland, but she largely fails on both counts. This is a messy book. Readers wishing to know the story of Madrona Farm must assemble it from bits and pieces of narrative scattered throughout the book. Chambers’ explanation of the Madrona model is short on clear detail. For instance, she claims that the Madrona model deals with “the largest obstacle to food security on Vancouver Island: the price of farmland.” But we are told that farmers lease their land at market rates. How, then, is the problem of affordability addressed? We are never told. That said, this is an inspiring manifesto, packed full of fascinating detail, which forcefully defends a vision of sustainable farming.

            Nathalie and David seek to subvert the capitalist market in land. Theirs is the more radical vision here. Fisher, Stretch and Tunnicliffe are businesspeople and happy to be so. Their major innovation is Saanich Organics, through which they coordinate sales of their own and others’ agricultural products, via a food box delivery business, year-round sales of greenhouse salad greens, and commercial sales to thirty-five restaurants and a grocery store chain amounting, in 2008, to $185,000 in revenue. Thus Saanich Organics functions something like a co-op while being a business, though one that is deliberately limited: Fisher and her colleagues note that they could expand the business by buying up food from other farms, but they do not, as their main concern is to support financially and ecologically sustainable farming. Thus, while Saanich Organics is limited as a model for a future, more local food system -- and to be fair, the authors never claim it as such -- others would likely not be so restrained. Finally, and it might be just be my own prospect of facing down another northern Ontario winter, but as models for Canadian practice both books are perhaps limited by their Victoria-ness. Both note that they are blessed by a long growing season (by Canadian standards), good soils, and the eagerness of Victorians to embrace local, organic, food and small farmers. How the Madrona or Saanich Organics model might play out elsewhere in the country, then, is unclear.

            These are not scholarly books but books with their own, especially in the case of All the Dirt, particular audiences. Yet scholars will benefit from this look inside the sweat, tears, ingenuity, and bloody determination that make up small-scale, local, and organic farming.  Would that policy-makers could make it just a little bit easier.

REFERENCES

Clapp, Jennifer. May 2013. “Eating and Surviving: The case for more government support of sustainable food -- and less meat in our diets,” The Literary Review of Canada 21: 4, 13-14.

Smith, Alisa and J.B. MacKinnon. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. Toronto: Random House.

Saving Farmland: The Fight for Real Food
Nathalie Chambers with Robin Alys Roberts and Sophie Wooding
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2015. 358 pp. Illus. $25 paper

All the Dirt: Reflections on Organic Farming
Rachel Fisher, Heather Stretch, and Robin Tunnicliffe
Victoria: Touchwood Editions, 2012. 228 pp. Illus. $29.95 pape

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017