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Across Canada in a farmhouse: Delta to Victoria

The regional municipality of Delta, B.C. lies south of Richmond, at the mouth of the Fraser River. Long-time residents say this area once felt quite isolated — prior to construction of the George Massey Tunnel in 1959. These days it feels more like a very "roomy" suburb; the Vancouver skyline is pretty easy to spot from just about any place on this plain.

But urban sprawl doesn’t change one basic reality: this is prime agricultural soil out here. It is a river delta, after all — nutrient-rich Fraser River waters have washed over this area for millennia. Now it’s prime vegetable, potato, blueberry and cranberry land.

To discuss all this we met up with former B.C. agriculture minister John Savage. Around here farmers meet for coffee at the Boundary Bay Regional Airport, a nice little regional port within a stone’s throw from pretty well everybody’s property and featuring a nice little restaurant.

Savage soon regaled us with stories of 1969 and 1972, the years in which W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit government expropriated farmland in the Delta area to facilitate port development. The Savage farm was spared, but many families were forced either to farm elsewhere or not at all.

One major legacy of this period is the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), an NDP initiative in the early 1970s to preserve agricultural lands. And, although many farmers once considered the ALR an affront to their personal freedoms (mainly by placing limits on the sale of farmland), it’s now providing Delta farmers with a fighting chance as yet another major round of port expansion approaches.

Recently, about 200 acres of farmland have been purchased for road construction and rail siding facilities. The port authority’s CEO, Robin Silvester, has his eye on a great deal more land for container storage, more road expansion, sidings, et cetera. Meanwhile, the truck traffic builds and it looks like this rich agricultural area’s days are numbered.

After a very busy 36 hours on the Lower Mainland, it was time for us to head toward the Tsawwassen ferry terminal! We were welcomed onto the lovely B.C. Ferry at 9 a.m., and after some Gravol and a great breakfast buffet, we made it to Vancouver Island. Rolling hills and Pacific waters greeted us on this stunning island — and not a moment too soon! After eight months of driving time, we were thrilled to reach the site of our final miles.

Farming on the island presents some peculiar and unique issues. First off, we have been floored by the number of local vegetable, berry and flower stands in and around Victoria. Hands down, this is the most — especially considering the population — that we’ve seen yet. Enthusiasm for local produce is alive and well here, and it is fantastic to see. With warm winters and a long growing season, the island may seem like the perfect place to start a farm. But with agricultural land values hovering around the $100,000-per-acre mark, it is a tough place for young farmers to start up.

With land prices as high as they are, folks on the island have gotten creative. We have toured numerous small land bases (some even as small as half an acre) producing food — whole front yards filled with tomatoes, herbs, corn, peppers and some of the finest blackberries I have ever tasted.

Residents of downtown Victoria share yards to order to produce a sizeable crop, and are even allowed chickens and goats on their property — certainly a far cry from the story out of Drummondville, Que. this past July, in which the city banned front-yard vegetable plots. Although the would-be front yard farmers in Drummondville eventually won out, it is alarming to hear people referring to a lawn as "better for the land" than a garden. We’re so pleased to see such thriving local agriculture here on Vancouver Island.

— John Varty and his fiancee Molly Daley are driving across Canada in an effort to speak to farmers about the issues that concern them, and to bring those concerns to urbanites. They’re doing 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: Revelstoke to Vancouver, Sept. 15, 2012
Cross-Canada tractor pull, July 30, 2012

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