Duncan incubator farm starting to grow

Foster Richardson plucks seeds from one of the sunflowers drying at the Cowichan Green Community’s new incubator seed farm. CGC launched the projected in the spring.  - [James Goldie/Citizen]
Foster Richardson plucks seeds from one of the sunflowers drying at the Cowichan Green Community’s new incubator seed farm. CGC launched the projected in the spring.
— image credit: [James Goldie/Citizen]

An idea planted four years ago to establish a farm in North Cowichan has since blossomed into a project never done before in Canada and one that targets the very heart of food security for this region.

In 2012, Cowichan Green Community started exploring the possibility of creating an incubator farm, which would help to address a need for more education and training for farmers in the Cowichan Valley. Such farms are increasingly common across North America, and CGC consulted one in the Kootenays to learn more about their operation. However, it was not until 2015, after securing land in North Cowichan for the project, that the organization started considering a unique kind of incubator farm: one that specializes in seeds.

“A lot of things came together last fall. And the idea of specializing in seed preservation seemed to hit a lot of key points,” said Judy Stafford, CGC’s executive director. “Seed security is really the predicator for food security, yet nobody seems to talk about it.”

The idea was first presented to them by someone from Salt Spring Seeds, a seed company on Salt Spring Island with which CGC already had a close working relationship. Stafford pointed out that other than that company, there really aren’t a lot of seed producers in this area.

She also noted the idea of growing crops specifically for seed is significantly different than growing for food production, requiring a specialized skill set.

“So we thought this was an opportunity to give something to the community that was really quite valuable,” said Stafford.

CGC’s incubator seed farm is the first of its kind in Canada, and will train or “incubate” aspiring seed farmers starting next year. Much of 2016 has been focused on preparing the three-acre property, which CGC leases from the Municipality of North Cowichan. Finding the right place for a farm was one of the organization’s biggest challenges between 2012 and 2015, when the site on Beverly Street was finalized.

“We did have offers of other sites… [but] we wanted something close to downtown. We wanted more visibility. We didn’t want to be out in the middle of nowhere where people wouldn’t be able to see it,” said Stafford.

After securing a location for the farm, Stafford said it was much easier to obtain funding for the project. To date they have secured grants from a number of organizations and governmental bodies including the Cowichan Valley Regional District, Coastal Communities Credit Union, Island Coastal Economic Trust, and the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security. Additionally, School District 79 has donated a portable classroom to be made into an office and seed bank at the farm.

Through its job creation partnership program, the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation provided funding to hire five workers at the farm this year.

Foster Richardson heads that team, which has been working the land since spring and has planted a wide variety of crops, flowers and herbs including beans, peas, barley, radishes, arugula, beets, rutabaga, broccoli, tomato, sunflower, calendula, dill and more.

“The ultimate goal is to focus on seed that is appropriate and well adapted to our environment,” he said. “We’ve become really accustomed, at least in commercial agriculture, to seed being produced on a commercial scale for a wide range of locations and environments and climates.”

The result, said Richardson, has been a staggering loss of crop diversity over the past 60 years, which leaves food systems vulnerable to increasingly unpredictable weather conditions brought on by climate change.

Ownership of seeds has also become ever more consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer companies, as evidenced by the possible purchase of seed giant Monsanto by Bayer.

Richardson said seeds produced on the incubator farm will only be open-pollinated, which simply means the grower can save those seeds for future planting, unlike hybrid (genetically modified) seeds, which are only good for a single planting. Hybrid seeds must be purchased anew each growing season.

“Ultimately the seed this year we’ll be selling and it’ll sort of be the trial run for getting a seed brand going. Part of a seed farm is going to be selling all the seeds,” he said, adding that an additional source for local, organic seeds is much-needed right now.

“A lot of small farms, especially organic farms, can’t even get sufficient organic and regionally appropriate seeds.”

He said the goal is for the farm to eventually be financially self-sustaining. Next spring it will have its first intake of four or five aspiring seed farmers and he is looking forward to helping them get started.

Richardson, who’s from the Cowichan Valley, studied at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of land and food systems before moving to the Comox Valley to run a farm with friends.

When the land they were renting was sold, he returned home and took on his current role with the incubator seed farm.

“I’ve been growing and saving seed for 10 years,” he said. “It’s always been an interest of mine ever since high school when I read one of Dan Jason’s books.”

Jason is the owner and founder of Salt Spring Seeds, who started the company about 30 years ago and has written several books including Saving Seeds As If Our Lives Depended On It, which is currently in its sixth printing.

“I was just in love with the plants and I loved to see how they went to seed and I thought that was an important part of completing the process of farming,” Jason said. “I really felt that people who grow food should try to save some of their own seeds at least.”

Jason has been a major proponent of CGC’s seed farm initiative.

The prospect of a competitor seed company in the region doesn’t bother him at all, and he said the notion that he is going to put himself out of business by encouraging people to save and use their own seeds is wrong.

“Gardening is the number one hobby of people in North America. You’re always going to have new gardeners and part of your job as a seed company is to find exciting and new varieties, or exciting and old varieties, and there’s always more,” he said.

Seed saving and collecting is all about “local self-empowerment,” helping people grow their own food, Jason said. He pointed to the long distances most food travels from field to table as the number one cause of climate change.

“We’ll send our cherries to Australia and they’ll send us their cherries — it’s just crazy. That uses so much energy,” he said.

Jason has watched the seed-saving movement really blow up in the past three years, and said activities similar to the seed incubator farm can be found in more and more communities around the world.

For Stafford at CGC, the process to get this farm project off the ground has been long, but well worth the effort.

“It was a good four years in the making but we’re harvesting seed now, which is really exciting. It reminds us that we just have to keep persevering,” she said.

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