Cowichan’s Old Road Farm adopting new, green ideas

From the new farmhouse under construction to the tractor run on biodiesel to the use of solar panels to run pumps on the property, Old Road Farm has gone green.

But for owner Harry Williams the choice of all of these renewable energy technologies on his farm aren’t about philosophy, they’re about practicality. Williams sums it up in two words: saving money.

"The idea is to reduce my energy costs," he said. "I’m always kind of amazed because the heat from the sun is free," Williams points out when he explains the careful design of his new family home to use passive solar and solar panels. "It’s kind of a no-brainer. Sometimes I fail to realize why there’s not more guidelines and more encouragement for builders and for people building new houses to do that. It’s free energy. You can get considerable savings. You can get up to 30 per cent of your heat from the sun."

The house Рstill mostly an outline of beams and raw floorboards Рhas been carefully angled to face south, Williams explains as he squints up at what will be a wall of windows into the second floor. An overhang has been precisely calculated to allow sun to angle in during the colder fall, winter and early spring months, but prevent the powerful rays from shining directly onto the fa̤ade during the heat of summer.

"All you have to do is point your house due south and put lots of windows facing south and you get lots of heat and light," he said. "It’s nothing new. People have been doing this stuff for 25, 30 years in different parts of the world."

Williams sources the wood and supplies from local businesses – a point of pride. The foundation has been poured to provide additional insulation to keep the heat in during the winter and out in the summer. It’s located on a slight rise to catch the sun. The simple sloped roof makes it easy to add solar panels. Ultimately, the idea is to produce enough energy to put some back into the grid.

He runs through the pluses and minuses of each of the alternative energy options – wind, micro-hydro – and explains that solar is the only one that made sense.

"There’s been a lot of improvements in the technology over the last 30 years in solar, and also once it’s installed it’s very low maintenance, you just have to essentially go up there once a year and dust them off," Williams said.

He’s hoping to move the family into the new house by fall, and they’re all looking forward to not spending another winter in the old, chilly 1923 farmhouse across the orchard, which now belongs to his sister.

Williams has taken over farming the property from his parents, David and Laura Williams, though he’s only able to do it part time. Several days a week he makes the trek over the Malahat to his job as a biologist, but the farm is more than just a hobby.

The goal right now is to make $10,000 to $12,000 a year from the property.

The main source of revenue is the small, 12-member herd of Icelandic sheep, grown for both wool and meat. The wool is sent to Salt Spring Island where it is processed by the Gulf Islands Spinning Mill.

Williams hopes to expand the herd in the future. He’s also planted willows, whose branches are harvested and sold for people to make goods from them.

He grew up on the land and has kept some aspects of it the same, like the old fruit trees, some of which look more like surrealist sculptures, though they still produce, he points out. Other aspects have changed. He’s dug ponds to provide water and the barn had to be replaced when he burned it down (by accident – don’t play with matches) as a child.

The peach and nectarine trees clinging to the barn’s outside posts are new.

Williams has also created forested areas on the farm as habitat for other animals, as well as to beautify the property.

"I like to think the larger community benefits indirectly from having a greenspace there and having an intact forest," Williams said.

He also enjoys experimenting with different plants, pointing out the olives currently growing in the greenhouse.

"I’m a plant guy, I like plants. I hear about some interesting plant, I’ll look into it and maybe try to grow it," he said.

He’s realistic, though, explaining that the climate makes any large-scale planting of most exotics impractical.

He rents out some of the land to small market garden farmers Della James and Ron Ingram.

They are both inspired by Williams’s energy-saving efforts.

A small solar panel sits on the roof of their shed, the energy it produces used to pump water from the farm’s ponds to their crops.

"There’s been a lot of talk about how to conserve energy and we wanted to do something that was energy-positive, that was my main interest from the start, was getting into something, you could have a viable business that wasn’t dependent on the grid, and hopefully put some energy back into the grid. We’re building in that direction," said Ingram.

The only farm equipment Williams runs is the small tractor parked inside the barn that runs on biodiesel, sometimes supplied by the Cowichan Biodiesel Co-op and Cowichan Energy Alternatives.

Brian Roberts, president of the co-op, said that Williams isn’t the only Valley farmer and food producer that uses biodiesel.

The Vancouver Island Salt Co. is one of their biggest local buyers, he said, and Earth Candy Farms on Salt Spring Island is also a user.

"However, price seems to be the biggest barrier and support from local farmers in the Cowichan is spotty," he said.

He’d like to see that change, as the two local industries are natural partners, Roberts said.

"There’s so much common ground in the sustainable food and sustainable fuel movements," he said.

"We use that comparison all the time. We’re kind of like the local, organic agriculture for your fuel tank. Our line is, we eat locally and so do our cars," he said. "It’s a really challenging thing to get people to think about it that way because even though it is locally produced, it’s better for you it’s better for the environment, all those things, it’s not in your face three times a day."

Local biodiesel is more expensive, Roberts admits, usually about 20 to 25 cents more per litre. But often local, organic produce is likewise a more expensive option, and people have been increasingly convinced to spend a little more to "do the right thing."

"In the last 10 years people have really gotten behind the local food movement, and as an agrologist, it’s fantastic to finally see that turn-around," he said. "I think farmers would all agree it’s been a long time coming and we need more of this kind of local support for what they do, especially living here on an Island. The exact same thing can be said for local energy, but there is still a massive public disconnect and none more so than in the vehicle fuel market.

"On price alone local biodiesel is definitely the underdog," he said. "And for price-sensitive farmers who have been struggling for a long time, it’s sometime hard to put your money where your mouth is and support local, sustainable alternatives."

Roberts said they’re also still working to convince people that biodiesel isn’t just a "lesser evil", but is, in fact, produced entirely from waste cooking oils it recycles from local restaurants, giving an energy return on energy invested of about eight to one: "As good as it gets," he said..

He said there are some less expensive biofuel alternatives for farmers that are interested, and they should contact him if they want to find out more.

Roberts said his vision and the vision of the others at the co-op is a world without fossil fuels. "And that’s why the Cowichan Bio-Diesel Co-op and its dedicated members keep slogging on to offer our 100 per cent feel good biofuel."