Agricultural education in B.C. lower-mainland blossoms

TSAWWASSEN, B.C. — After years working clerical jobs, Janine van Fram is approaching her dream of becoming a farmer.

She completed agriculture studies in 2017 at the Tsawwassen Farm School through Kwantlen Polytechnic University and joined a business incubator program onsite to practice what she learned during the eight-month-long course.

Working with two partners on a half-acre of land, a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown for sale through a school-run community-shared agriculture program and farmers’ market.

“We get to test so many crops out here and see what fits best,” van Fram said as she harvested coriander.

Although she and her friends are from the area they will probably have to move away because farm land prices make ownership out of reach for beginning farmers.

“We are thinking outside of the lower mainland as a long-term goal,” she said.

Prospective farmers like van Fram are typical applicants to the program, said Caroline Chiu, farm school manager in charge of small farm business planning.

The students range in age from 20 to 60. Many had professional careers but wanted to get back to the land or they had a farming connection and want to return to the life.

Each year, the course teaches 10-12 people basic production skills, business planning and marketing. Working with business partners in a three-year incubation period eases the transition from student to private entrepreneur on a half-acre. They can use the farm’s tools and machinery and receive continuing mentorship.

“It is still a steep learning curve from a student to your own farm and business owner,” said Chiu, an agriculture economist, who took the course to gain a practical understanding of farming.

“It creates a community of new farmers.”

Boris the Boar eats and roots his way through the cover crops at the Tsawwasen farm school. The school integrates hogs with cover crops to rebuild the soil that has been badly deleted over years of potatoes. | Barbara Duckworth photo

The farm school is a collaboration between the Tsawwassen First Nation and the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen University.

The First Nation owns the 20-acre farm as part of a larger treaty settlement. It was formerly a large potato operation and the land was left full of hard furrows and depleted of organic matter. The band approached the university in 2009 and the following year production began with vegetables, a small orchard of mostly sweet cherries and research plots.

The school operates on a cost-recovery model, with gross sales of more than $100,000 annually, selling produce and pork.

“I think we can do more. It is just about finding more marketing channels,” Chiu said.

On the land management side grazing pigs and chickens have been part of an integrated program since the school opened.

“When you are working with high water-table challenges and denuded soil, you see what you can do,” said Micheal Robinson, who manages the livestock, farm tools and machinery.

The land is seeded to a cover crop mixture of cereals and legumes. The pigs are turned out to root up the land and the soil is tested when they leave in the fall. Vegetables are planted in that spot the following year.

Compost is added to start building organic matter.

Craig Morgan, left, Daniel Garinkel and Bryce Sutti dig carrots at the Tsawwasen farm school as part of the weekly harvest. The vegetables are part of the school’s CSA program. | Barbara Duckworth photo

“We are having consequences with low organic matter as far as germination goes and it hardpans up pretty quick,” Robinson said.

The farm has three sows and a boar. Piglets are born in February and are turned out in May to graze until the fall. The pigs are sold for pasture-raised organic pork to a processor in Vancouver.

The pigs and chickens are part of the education program so students can learn to appreciate the benefits of livestock grazing to rebuild soil.

“We inform them about the non-meat services they provide,” he said.

There are also some patches of salinity on the farm that may have resulted from irrigation on potatoes years ago. The farm staff has not reached the point where they might try crops to adjust salinity levels.

They are also learning to adjust for other local conditions.

Winter cover crops need to be seeded by mid-August because winters are very wet and the heavy clay soil is soon saturated.

This region is also part of a North American migratory bird pathway and when the water fowl land, fields are wrecked because they eat everything to the ground.

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