Across Canada in a farmhouse: Mile Zero and counting

We’re packing up to head back to some semblance of "normal" lives in Ontario. As small as our quarters have been for the past year or so, it’s utterly amazing how much stuff we’ve crammed in there!

And, in order to head for home we’ve had to strike a few deals over the past five days. First, we found a buyer for the little Massey tractor. Selling a Massey on the Island is something of a challenge, on account of there not being a dealer — lots of old Masseys here from back in the day, but few new ones.

Anyway, Don James, who owns the world’s largest independent distributor of Harley Davidson motorcycles, made us an offer on the tractor. He has Arabian horses on a beautiful property north of Victoria. He really doesn’t need a new tractor, but he was happy to help the cause by making us a fall-back offer. So we’re going to give it one last service and then the little red tractor goes to a new home… tomorrow.

Secondly, we got our hands on a vehicle to drive back to Ontario. Susy Chung, president of 4-H British Columbia, gave us a call. Her son Jarrett attends the University of Guelph and he’d really like to have his truck with him in Ontario — a nice little red Ford Ranger. Jarrett bought this truck with money from a steer that won him first prize at the Pacific National Exhibition — a far cry from your average paper route.

Our home base on Vancouver Island has been Saanichton Farms, owned and operated by Bryce and Jill Rashleigh and family (featured in Country Guide back in 2005) This is an interesting place. As mentioned before, agricultural land is obnoxiously expensive in the Greater Victoria area — anywhere between $60,000 and $100,000 per acre. Naturally this prompts creative and innovative approaches to farming around here.

The Rashleighs own five acres but farm about 700. This means constantly hustling (in the good way) for new farming opportunities. Bryce takes hay and various grain crops off acreages owned by retirees on the hunt for the ag tax exemption. Sometimes they simply pay him; sometimes they pay and he leaves with the crop; sometimes he just gets the crop — it all depends on the people and the context. Otherwise, he does custom combining, custom haying, straw, et cetera.

This year his home five acres yielded lentils, and he’s now working on making arrangements with the University of Victoria, which lately has committed to using 30 per cent local food in its campus food services. Bryce sees his lentils fitting into that scheme nicely.

In any case, Saanichton Farms is a going concern, employing a full-time mechanic and, depending on the season, anywhere between 10 and 25 workers.

It helps, too, that Bryce Rashleigh is a well liked and highly respected person in this area. His word is good, and everybody knows that. This made it easy for Bryce to put us in touch with plenty of local producers over the past three days.

One particularly memorable interview was with Lorne Jack, a long time poultry producer in East Saanich. The Island chicken industry has contracted big time over the past twenty years, mostly because of processors pulling out and heading for the mainland. Despite a population of nearly 750,000 — plenty of demand for poultry — it’s now virtually unworkable to produce on the Island; pretty much everything travels on the ferry.

A few years back Lorne Jack led the charge to re-establish an Island processing plant. Despite having all the ducks (I guess that’d be chickens) lined up — commitments from producers, financing, professional market research, et cetera — the provincial marketing board disallowed the project.

I asked Lorne why anybody should care, so long as mainland processors are getting chicken to the Island at consumer-friendly prices. His answer was simple: "They talk all the time about the importance of regional agriculture, but the evidence on the ground suggests different."

It’s been a great stay on Vancouver Island. We’re so grateful to Bryce and Jill for their over-the-top support and generosity. Now it’s time for Phase 2 of the project: getting home and turning all this into a film that’ll make a difference.

From a red tractor to a red truck… this time eastward.

— John Varty and his fiancee Molly Daley have been driving across Canada in an effort to speak to farmers about the issues that concern them, and to bring those concerns to urbanites. They’ve done it in an unusual fashion — towing a "farmhouse" behind a Massey Ferguson 1660 — and have posted periodic reports here of their trek across the West.

Related stories:
Across Canada in a farmhouse: Victoria to Mile Zero, Sept. 25, 2012
Cross-Canada tractor pull, July 30, 2012

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