Saanich Farmers Face the Future

Family traditions combine with creative land use, innovative technology and sheer grit to keep local agriculture thriving.

Douglas Magazine - Jun/Jul 2023 - Saanich Farmers Face the Future
Kyle Michell is a sixth generation farmer, but now he’s adding value to his Saanich Peninsula fields by malting wheat and barley for local craft breweries and distilleries. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Once dirt gets under the fingernails, it stays there — sometimes for generations. Planting season is underway at Field Five Farm in Saanichton. Kyle Michell kicks at a clump of dark brown soil then looks out at roughly 150 acres tilled in arrow-straight furrows. Come late summer, this field will be ripe with wheat and barley ready for harvesting. Then begins the year-long process of malting between 250 and 400 tonnes of grain that will end up in the beer of more than a dozen craft breweries, and the whisky at nearby Devine Distillery and other spirit makers.

“I’m a sixth generation farmer,” Michell says. “We’ve been farming on the Saanich Peninsula for more than a century.” 

In the late 1880s, Michell’s great-great-great grandfather Thomas Michell sailed from the U.K. to North America. In search of opportunity, he eventually landed on the Saanich Peninsula, drawn by the fertile land, sea breezes and the Mediterranean-like climate. He planted wheat and vegetables and raised cows and other livestock. He did what you did to make a living from the land and raise a family. 

Like a lot of settlers, the pioneering Michells saw sunny Saanich as a breadbasket. It still is. But a century of land development, urbanization and soaring real estate prices hasn’t made the business of farming any easier. 

Farming Ain’t What it Used to Be

Even though it’s in his blood, farming hasn’t always been Kyle Michell’s calling. A family excavating business got so busy that they let the fields go fallow for a time. In 2010, Michell dabbled back in agriculture, planting wheat on a 10-acre field. By 2020, he was done with the construction business. It prompted a full-time move back to the land just when he and his wife Jennifer realized growing wheat alone wouldn’t be enough to pay the bills.

“We knew we’d have to do something value-added,” Michell says.

A meeting a few years earlier with beer guru Mike Doehnel, who would become their business partner, prompted the idea of getting into malting. This is the process of soaking, drying and activating enzymes in grains to create malt, one of the four basic ingredients of beer. 

As the economy shut down during the pandemic, the newfound partners got busy designing a malting machine that would vastly reduce water consumption. At the same time, they leaned on the metal fabricating skills of Jennifer’s family, which owns Saanich boat-building company Titan Boats. 

“We invested about $1 million. It was a little scary,” Michell says.

But the pivot was perfectly timed. The craft brewing industry was booming, and, coming out of the pandemic, the demand for locally sourced ingredients was high. “So far we’ve malted enough wheat to make a million litres of five per cent beer,” says Kyle. “There’s something about growing and creating with your hands that’s very satisfying.”

Douglas Magazine - Jun/Jul 2023 - Saanich Farmers Face the Future
Kyle Michell has already malted enough grain to make a million litres of beer — a boon to craft brewers who want to feature local ingredients. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Food Security vs. Soaring Real Estate

For relative newcomers to farming like Katie Underwood, owner of Peas nʼ Carrots Farm, a two-acre plot of leased land, owning her own chunk of dirt isn’t even a remote dream. Vancouver Island is an expensive place to farm. By virtue of being an island, it’s remote by agriculture standards. That means farm supplies are more expensive. So is farmland in such an urbanized region. Since 2007, the price of farmland has soared in Canada by 132 per cent. In 2019 alone, Vancouver Islandʼs agricultural land prices jumped 13 per cent, the highest per-acre price increase in B.C. Finding farm labour is also a big challenge in one of the country’s least affordable urban areas. 

Not long ago, the Island was surprisingly food self-sufficient. As recently as the 1950s, Island farmers supplied 85 per cent of our food needs. Today more than 90 per cent of our food comes from somewhere else. Like elsewhere, Island farmers are aging, and pondering retirement. In 1931, one in three Canadians lived on a farm; today it’s less than two per cent. Nearly half of Canadian farmers say that off-farm employment is their main source of income. This all adds up to a worrisome trend for people interested in food security.

It’s planting season and feeding time at Peas n’ Carrots Farm on Prospect Lake Road. A flock of chickens cluck loudly as farm owner Katie Underwood enters the run with a pail of feed. Since 2020, she has been growing up to 35 kinds of vegetables and raising chickens. She sells produce and eggs at her own small farmstand and at the North Saanich Farm Market. In addition, her Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program is fully subscribed. CSAs enable consumers to pay up front for a weekly box delivery of fresh produce throughout the harvest season. It’s a win-win; small-scale farmers get needed early season cash flow and customers receive a weekly box delivery of locally produced, GMO- and chemical-free food delivered to their front door.

Planting, harvesting, fixing the irrigation system, mending a rickety wheelbarrow, loading the truck to bursting for the trip to the farmers’ market or to make CSA box deliveries — it seems like a farmer’s day is never done. Yet Underwood laughs when asked if Peas n’ Carrots generates enough for her to live on.

“I pull weeds on other farms, clean houses, wash boats and work as a graphic designer,” she says. “I have to supplement my farm with all kinds of work.”

It’s a labour of love and Underwood takes it all in stride with a good sense of humour. She belongs to a vanguard of young farmers for whom the values of food security and sustainability are at least as important as keeping the farm in the black.

Land-Matching Farmers and Landowners

Underwood had to get creative when pursuing her one-woman, small-scale farming dream. She admits she wouldn’t be farming — at least not on the Saanich Peninsula — if not for a land-matching program run by the Young Agrarians, an arm of the Agrarians Foundation that promotes agriculture Canada-wide. 

Young Agrarians support ecologically minded farmers and one of the most effective ways they do this is through land matching. This program pairs farmers with community-minded landowners sitting on fallow farmland that they’re keen to get back into production. Farmers pay a nominal lease for the land. The landowner gets a property tax benefit, the feel-good factor of supporting small scale farming and often a fresh supply of produce.

“Land access is the number one challenge identified by new farmers. The cost of land and production has increased significantly over the past decades, and new farmers are increasingly coming from non-farming backgrounds,” says Darcy Smith, who manages the B.C. land-matching program.

“Vancouver Island is our busiest land-matcher region. One-third of all of our inquiries have come from the Island,” Smith says. “There’s lots of interest in Saanich, both from landholders and farmers. It’s a great location for farmers due to its proximity to markets.”

Since its launch nearly five years ago, Young Agrarians has made 79 matches, totaling 220 acres in the Vancouver Island/Gulf Islands region. Twenty-seven of those matches have occurred on coveted farmland in the Capital Regional District.

Political support for farming and young farmers like Underwood is getting increasing support on the South Island. For the past several years CRFAIR (Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable) has been promoting the idea of a Food and Farmland Trust.

Douglas Magazine - Jun/Jul 2023 - Saanich Farmers Face the Future
At Peas n’ Carrots Farm, Katie Underwood grows up to 35 different vegetables and raises chickens, but had to get creative to make her business work. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Public funds would be used to buy and preserve agricultural land and stimulate farming in the Capital Region District. Increasingly, the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which emerged from the 1973 Agricultural Land Commission Act as a response to the loss of farmland, has proven to be an imperfect solution — great for securing land, but not great for promoting growing and cultivation. With more than a half-dozen municipalities and a regional district around the table, talks take time. 

In the meantime, the District of North Saanich forged ahead unilaterally on an agriculture boosting project after acquiring 205 acres of ALR land. The property on Glamorgan Road was the home of Sandown Harness Raceway for 50 years, which closed for good in the early 2000s. In the fall of 2020, the district signed a 10-year deal with the non-profit The Circular Farm and Food Society to operate the farm. The following year, the property was relaunched as the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture. The centre’s signature “farmpreneur” program offers new farmers up to two acres of south-facing land, shared tools, storage, marketing support and mentorship.

A similar story of agricultural renewal unfolded at Haliburton Farm near Cordova Bay two decades ago. At the time, the Capital Regional District wanted to sell the nine-acre former farm to create a dense residential development. The scheme was met with vociferous opposition. It triggered the formation in 2001 of the Land for Food Coalition, a group that partnered with the Cordova Bay Association for Community Affairs to pitch the idea of converting the land back to agriculture. Their idea for a community-focused farm got traction and the CRD agreed to sell the parcel to the District of Saanich for $400,000. In 2004, farmers started working on this land that had sat fallow for 30 years. Today, five farm businesses, including Teto Farm, Fuller Farm Organics and Heartbeet Market Garden, lease plots of land from the Haliburton Community Organic Farm Society and co-market their produce at farmers’ markets and the Haliburton farmstand.

“I was a tenant farmer, like 90 per cent of the farmers on the Saanich Peninsula. It’s a very different farming community here,” says Shellie MacDonald, a board member with the Haliburton society. “The economics of small-scale farming on an island are difficult.”

MacDonald recently retired from full-time farming but remains actively involved in local agriculture as a consultant for new farm start-ups. She says Haliburton is important for both experienced farmers needing access to land and new farmers looking for experience. Katie Underwood, of Peas n’ Carrots, says she learned a lot about farming working the dirt at Elemental Farm, a former leaseholder at Haliburton, before starting her own small farm.

“Haliburton has been part of the community for 20-plus years. I’d say of the 23 farm businesses that have operated here over the years, 20 are still in business,” MacDonald says. 

But not every ag-based business is small scale and traditional. Like Field Five, EIO Diagnostics was born in a barn. A previous Douglas 10 to Watch winner, EIO has successfully married tech and agriculture. The company developed a solution for the early detection of mastitis, which costs the dairy industry millions of dollars each year. Mastitis is an udder infection in dairy animals: cows, goats, sheep, any creatures  that can be milked. EIO uses a combination of imaging and machine learning to do a non-invasive and more affordable diagnosis of these infections.

Says Tamara Leigh, CEO and co-founder: “There’s been this whole realm of precision agriculture technology in crops.”