The seven acres on the Cowichan Valley’s rural Tatlo Road were just hay fields when Niki Strutynski and Nick Neisingh bought the property in 2012.
Since then, the hard-working young couple, who are expecting their first child in November, have converted two acres of their property into productive organic farmland that is currently growing approximately 40 different varieties of vegetables, including tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic and carrots, and they intend to clear and farm more of their land every year.
Strutynski and Neisingh, who both have university degrees, are the new faces of agriculture in the Valley as the past year has seen some shifts in the character of the local sector.
Russell Stewart, the long-time owner of the iconic Russell Farms Market, died in July at the age of 78.
Also in July, Lorne Campbell, the son of the late Alex Campbell Sr., co-founder of Thrifty Foods, purchased the 30-year-old Old Farm Market in Duncan from its owners for many years, Karen and Trevor Paterson.
In August, it was announced that the Cowichan Valley’s 127-acre Fairburn Farm is also up for sale.
The property, located at the end of Jackson Road, was the first water buffalo dairy farm in Canada and the original 6,000 square foot farmhouse was built way back in 1896.
The farm has been owned by three generations of the Archer family, but the current owners, Darrel and Anthea Archer, have indicated they want to retire and sell the property.
Then there’s Duncan’s Sweet Pickins Farm, known for its blueberries, which also went up for sale in August.
While the main crop at the 40-acre mixed farm is blueberries, the operation on Mays Road also has a small herd of Black Angus cattle.
The owners, Mike and Laurie Pauls, have run the farm, which has been in operation since the 1950s, for 17 years and also said it’s time for them to retire.
But young, educated and eager people like Strutynski and Neisingh are the next generation of agricultural workers and producers that are popping up in the Valley, ensuring that the rich farming tradition of the region continues well into the future.
Neither had more than a nodding acquaintance with farming through most of their lives, but years of academia made the couple appreciate the simple things that a hard-working life of farming can provide.
Strutynski grew up in an agricultural area near Salmon Arm, but didn’t see her future in farming.
She completed a degree in agro-ecology, began studies in landscape design and envisioned a career in international development.
Neisingh grew up in New England where he completed a degree in computer science and philosophy, and went on to study architecture in B.C.
The two met while continuing their studies, recognized similar interests in each other, and decided they really weren’t interested in working full time at a desk behind a computer.
They agreed to focus their future on farming, although they hadn’t figured out exactly what kind of farming they were interested in at the time, or where they wanted to purchase one.
They spent the next four years working at a number of organic vegetable farms in the province to gain experience in preparation for buying their own farm in the future.
They saw great potential in the seven acres of hay fields on Tatlo Road while visiting the Valley one day in 2012, and decided to buy the property.
Strutynski started working full time on the farm and, with the help of a neighbour with a tractor who turned one of the fields for the couple, she managed to cultivate a half acre and successfully grew a variety of vegetables during the first year on the farm while Neisingh worked in architecture in Victoria to keep the farm financially afloat.
After a couple more years of increasing their farmable land, Neisingh was finally able to quit his desk job to work on the farm full time as well.
They currently sell much of their produce to local restaurants, provide farm-gate sales to nearby consumers and regularly have a booth set up at the Duncan Farmers’ Market.
“We did much of the work by hand in the beginning, but we’ve managed to build up some farming equipment over the years and that has helped a lot,” said Strutynski as the couple took a quick break from their many tasks on the farm.
“Everything we have made so far has been put back into the farm. We don’t feel our educations have been a waste of our time because they have taught us skills in critical thinking and problem solving that we use every day here.”
The couple say they have gotten to know many of their farming neighbours and they see no lack of interest in working the land as a career.
“But a big barrier is land prices, which are astronomical considering the return you get in this business,” said Neisingh.
“It’s a tough business and while we’re friends with many of our neighbours, we have to keep in mind that they are also our competitors. We reassess what we grow every year, see what’s in demand and determine what we can grow successfully. It’s not easy and there’s lots of hard work, but we love it.”
Strutynski said she hasn’t had much time to relax, even though she’s 30 weeks pregnant.
She said she imagines her new child, and any that follow, will also work on the farm and, hopefully, provide the next generation to till the land.
“I don’t see what choice they will have,” Strutynski said with a laugh.
“After all, they will be part of the farm.”