Big Bend property going back to farming roots
Amidst the semitrailer trucks and traffic whizzing by along a stretch of the mainly industrial Byrne Road in South Burnaby, listen carefully and you might hear a few contented snorts.
That would be Chop and Bacon, two Tamworth Berkshire cross pigs that are now making a three-acre patch of long-neglected farmland home.
They're also playing a major role in returning the land back to its farming roots.
Farm manager Julia Smith, 41, and her partner, Ludo Ferrari, started leasing the property from its owners, a local Hindu temple, back in the spring. And already there have been a myriad of changes.
The little white farmhouse turned out to be inhabited by "crackhead squatters." After spending four months evicting them, they entered to find the house's foundation was pretty well gone, the roof was leaking, and it was infested with rats and black mould.
Down came the house. "We had to bring in 14 dump trucks of gravel so the equipment could get in," said Smith. "The ground was so wet everything was sinking."
In the seven years since it was a full-time farm the land has been taken over by weeds, including highly invasive ones such as quackgrass that are extremely difficult to remove.
Being an organic farm, herbicides are a no-no.
So apart from being raised for food, Chop and Bacon also earn their keep by digging up and eating the quackgrass and other weeds. Indeed, the clearest patch of land here is within the solar-powered electric fence they're penned inside.
Smith certainly shows her appreciation. Along with being fed donated fruit and vegetable waste from a local supermarket and whey from nearby Avalon Dairy (a protein source), the pigs get lots of belly rubs and hugs. They respond in turn with contented grunts and friendly nuzzles.
"I think I may have the happiest pigs in the world," Smith said with a laugh.
This wasn't exactly what Smith had in mind when she was a student at the University of British Columbia.
She was studying geology, but grew somewhat disillusioned after spending a summer working in the mining industry.
"I realized I wasn't able to stomach taking out of the earth without putting stuff back."
She also took a permaculture design course, "which is what derailed my six-figure dreams of a career as a geologist," she said with a laugh.
A fascination with farming took hold and three years ago, she started farming a quarter-acre residential property in Vancouver's tony west side, at Blenheim and West 43rd.
Smith farmed the front and back yards, took up all the lawn. Before she knew it, neighbours were asking her to similarly transform their yards.
She ended up with more produce than she could use, and started selling it. Pretty soon, she started farming another quarter-acre in Steveston.
With the addition of the Burnaby property to her Urban Digs Farm, she's in the process of cutting back the heavy workload, and handing off the Vancouver sites to another urban farming group.
It's not just a one-woman show, of course. Ferrari helps out when he's not working full-time in construction—"somebody's got to support this expensive habit," Smith said with a laugh.
And volunteers help in a big way, with planting, weeding, harvesting and everything else in between. They get involved to learn about sustainable agriculture, where food comes from, and to support food security initiatives.
Smith says she tries to recruit people from all walks of life, "so you're not just preaching to the choir."
She's also got some significant help from the farmer operating the conventional farm next door. As Smith is tractorless, he's been plowing her fields, partly because he's a "really nice guy," she said, but also to reduce the weeds blowing onto his land.
The operation is largely funded through community shared agriculture (CSA), in which people purchase a share of the harvest in advance, helping farmers like Smith whose expenses tend to be incurred early in the growing season before there's anything to sell.
The shares work out to $30 to $35 a week for a weekly box of produce. Smith noted, while plucking squash from a mass of vines, the CSA members are buying in during good times or bad.
"In a good year they'll get more than their money's worth. In a bad year, they share in the pain of the farmers."
She's glad to be boxing up lots of product for members now after a wet start to the summer curtailed a number of her crops.
What's left over gets sold at local farmers' markets, with Smith recently joining the vendors at the recently-opened River District Farmers Market, which runs Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. until Oct. 27 at the new plaza south of S.E. Marine Drive and Kerr Street in Vancouver.
Smith hopes to have a market stand set up at the farm next year. But for now, she's focused on reclaiming the land for agriculture.
She's growing upwards of 15 different crops on different patches of land, and in a greenhouse. She's raising pigs, chickens, rabbits and the odd turkey, collecting eggs and manure, all while spreading the word about food security and sustainable agriculture.
As for the neverending battle with weeds, Chop and Bacon will soon have some help.
"I've got sheep coming in to help, I'm bringing in reinforcements."
For more information on Urban Digs Farm and CSA memberships, visit www.urbandigsfarm.com, call Julia Smith at 604-780-5262 or follow her on Twitter, @UrbanDigsFarm.