The bountiful harvest of a great summer at Makaria Farm is not going to waste even though Brock and Heather McLeod can no longer farm their property.
In a remarkable gesture, the popular couple have handed over their crop and tractor keys to a new generation.
A group of young farmers, calling themselves Veggie Vibes, now have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to manage the harvesting of the 24-acre organic vegetable farm.
It’s been eight years since the McLeods started Makaria, but they had to step away from the farm to focus on 36-year-old Brock’s health following a diagnosis of kidney cancer and face another tough decision at the same time.
“We were in the middle of the season but it was just too much for Brock, physically and mentally, because his cancer had gotten much, much worse. One option was to fire everybody, till in all the vegetables and call it a day but it felt really wrong to do that with all that food and with our really awesome crew of people,” said Heather.
They had to act quickly, too, as investigation of Brock’s sudden and uncharacteristic bouts of tiredness last October led to a June confirmation that Brock has stage four renal cell carcinoma, a terminal form of cancer. He is now receiving treatment that the family hopes will slow the cancer’s spread and growth.
The farm switchover was both exciting and bittersweet for the McLeods.
“All of a sudden it was no longer ours and became theirs, but it was an exciting day,” Heather said.
The new group took over on July 26, as self-employed farmers.
They are continuing to serve the farm’s 300 vegetable-share subscribers, while also selling their vegetables through their farm stand, farmers’ markets, and local-focused grocery stores.
During their tenure, the McLeods have built up a loyal following for their vegetable delivery program.
“People have been so supportive of us. There’s no way a farm like ours could survive without our customers,” Heather said, adding that this busy season is providing plenty of challenges for the new group.
“Now they’ve started hiring to fill in the gaps because they need more people in order to keep up with all the vegetables that are planted. They just have to get them out of the field and get them sold. But that’s a lot harder than it sounds,” Heather said.
Makaria Farm is for sale, and efforts are underway to help the family financially as well.
A trust account has been opened to support the family while Brock undergoes treatment. Donations can be made at any Island Savings Credit Union to account # 21210-809-102440337, or online at: www.youcaring.com/brock-mcleod-409148
Already, nearly $8,000 has been raised on the YouCaring page.
But their own concerns aside, Heather has been hearing one other comment.
“’What are we going to do now for vegetables?’ We fed a lot of people. The new crew doesn’t know yet if they are going to be able to continue our programs. We’re helping as much as we can with advice but it’s a huge learning curve. They dove right into the deep end of the pool and so far they’re swimming beautifully but it’s a big pool,” Heather said.
She wished the younger people success.
“In a perfect world, Veggie Vibes does really well, and those farmers continue farming in the future. It would be great to have more young farmers in the Valley. We’re just happy our people are getting their veggies every week and there’s still food coming out of the ground. That makes us feel better,” she said.
Veggie Vibes’ youthful founding partners include Grace Gillman, Lauren Cooper, Alexandra Csontos, Jake Kaszas, Evan Lachmanec and Torrey Falconer, who range in age from 18 to 24.
According to spokesperson Lauren Cooper, they are all excited by how things are going at the farm.
“We’re in our fifth week so far. It’s been a lot of long days but we’re all enthusiastic and positive. It’s working out really well. We’ve been doing a lot of veggie- and berry-picking and going to markets. A lot of us don’t have much experience but we learned so much from Brock at the beginning of the season. We’re now pushing ourselves to learn more.”
And, as for the reaction of customers, “I really don’t know if something like this could happen in any other community than the Cowichan Valley because it’s so full of lovely, supportive people,” Cooper said.
They’re working on this season’s produce, but they’re thinking ahead, too.
“Our plans for the future are definitely to continue farming. I think we’ve all discovered a passion and love for it. And I think we all have plans to keep Veggie Vibes going, stick together as a group and continue feeding the Cowichan Valley.”
Cooper said the group’s members value the chance the McLeods have given them.
“Nobody just hands over their farm to somebody. We feel so honoured that Brock and Heather had enough faith in us to let us continue for the rest of the season. It’s been incredible for sure.”
They are pursuing other opportunities, too.
“We’ve partnered up with Scoops, a natural food store down the road. Our goal on a broader scale is to encourage more young people to realize the value of local, organic farming and to learn what goes into getting their food from the earth to the plate,” Cooper said.
The McLeods moved into rental accommodation in Duncan before they made the decision about the farm itself.
“We lived in a one-room place on the farm. It wasn’t working anymore,” Heather said.