Plowing ahead: Reflections from 26 years in Cowichan Valley agriculture

Wayne Haddow has seen plenty of changes during his 26 years as regional agrologist

Wayne Haddow has seen plenty of changes during his 26 years as regional agrologist for the huge area covered by both the Cowichan Valley and Nanaimo Regional Districts, but his passion for agriculture has never faded.

He retired at the end of April, 2016, but still farms an apple orchard on the seaward slope of Mill Bay with wife, Cindy.

When Haddow arrived in the Valley from the Peace River country, he was immediately amazed at the agricultural diversity of his good-sized territory.

“When I look at the vegetable crops and berries and tree fruits and specialty crops here like the essential oils, and herbs and everything that can be produced in this region, it’s pretty phenomenal.”

Farm size was increasing in the Peace in those days but it’s really changed now and in the Cowichan Valley, you can see that change in the size of dairy herds.

“There are some big farms now. We have operations with more than 200 cows. There are still operations that have 30 cows but the majority would have over 70 cows in herd size,” Haddow said.

“And when I started, I think there were 116 quota dairy farms on Vancouver Island and now there are less than 50.”

“Years ago, on Vancouver Island, the vast majority of the food that was consumed here was produced here,” he said. “Now we’ve got a much larger population base but we are producing a much smaller percentage of it. If you look at the retail outlets, the vast majority is imported product from everywhere in the world.”

Haddow admitted that lower production costs are a factor but he also said that people have become spoiled by so much variety.

“People used to be conditioned to buy seasonally because that was what was available but that’s changed now.”

That means most Valley producers are targeting direct farm sales and as many as five farmers markets a week “to optimize sales.”

What’s crucial for farmers is that market buyers expect the produce to be ripe and smell good.

“That’s a challenge: timing that. Many of [market farmers] will have multiple seeding dates to stage their production for the marketing season. A number of them are extending the season into earlier in the spring by using plasticulture to cover rows, and greenhouse facilities to start the crop off.”

Haddow also had some thoughts on the size of farms and whether that affects what they produce or just how effectively they produce it.

“For small scale operators, there is that decision: do I go larger and make the huge investment in storage facilities, handling equipment, packing and sorting equipment, field operation equipment, precision seeders,” he pointed out the dilemma.

“If you’re going to be at that scale, where you’re selling wholesale, then you need all that mechanization to go along with it, to optimize your labour. And because your seasons are so short it’s critical to have things ready to go at a scale that will provide the volume that’s needed at the wholesale level,” he said.

It is about choice, but it also includes the ability to capitalize, to go to the next level.

“The kind of management that’s required to make that move is substantive. A lot of knowledge is required to be able to manage the labour pool effectively. It’s not easy for a small scale operator to make that next step,” he said.

Smaller scale producers may be able to adapt more quickly, overcoming the challenges of individual problems that reduce the quantity and quality of production, Haddow said.

But, it’s still not so easy being a farmer today. And to top it all off, there’s the everlasting pressure on land. Buyers are coming to the Valley not necessarily to farm those acres but to have two or three horses for their children on that scenic bucolic property.

And that “residentialization” changes the feel of the neighbourhood if suddenly newcomers don’t want the smell and noise of agriculture nearby.

“In my work with the ministry, we used to be concentrated on production and marketing of agricultural products. Then in the last 15 years or so, we saw much more work with local and regional governments to try to bridge that gap between agricultural and rural-urban neighbours, to maintain good relationships between the two communities,” Haddow said.

Young people getting into farming is another issue altogether, even if they come from a farming background.

“It’s so rewarding for a patriarch or matriarch to see someone take over. It’s just incredible that sense of doing something right.”

In addition, a young person who was raised on that farm has learned a lot over the years, but communication challenges can come up within a farm-family business, such as deciding when a new hand takes the wheel, or whether to take the farm in a new direction.

However, for people who are new to farming, it’s a different story again.

Investors may want a quick return and unexpected circumstances, like this year’s weather, can cause setbacks.

However, an increasing number of young people are trying farming, hoping enthusiasm will carry them over the first few rough years, Haddow said.

There are groups eager to help, too. Cowichan Green Community, the Southern Vancouver Island Direct Farm Marketing Association and the farmers markets associations themselves have supported the relationship between consumers and producers.

On another agricultural front, wineries are now going great guns in the Valley. Haddow has seen a quarter century of effort to find the most suitable grape varieties.

Some vineyards were started on sites that proved not to be as suitable as first hoped and no longer produce wine, but success or failure can also be affected by how the site is prepared initially and how the soil itself is maintained.

Money and knowledge base also play a part and the cost of land, and equipment can be huge at the start.

“The challenge that we see is making people aware that there are opportunities out there,” he said.

In future, in Cowichan, new thrusts in agriculture could include an increase in agritourism, especially taking advantage of the grape production.

“This is a fabulous region to visit so we need to market it,” he said, urging the agriculture sector to look for new ways to harvest this field.

But, with care, there’s continued opportunity in areas like production of broiler chickens, dairy and milk products, and egg production.

“This is where capitalization is huge because of the cost of quota, cost of facilities, and cost of land, but there are opportunities there as well. When Lilydale closed, we lost a number of our large-scale broiler producers so there’s opportunity to bring that quota back here to support Island Farmhouse. Fortunately, the BC Chicken Marketing Board has been supportive so they’ve provided Island quota to broiler producers on a relatively smaller scale in an effort to sustain Island Farmhouse.”

Haddow is also hoping to see more push towards value-added agriculture and processing.

“Value added means jobs. Island Farms was fabulous at taking the raw milk product and processing it into a diversity of products. If we look at the agrifoods sector, it’s one of the biggest industries in B.C. There are definitely opportunities there that we haven’t grasped onto in the Cowichan region.”