Engineering success with Asian vegetables

SURREY, B.C. — There are more people who want to farm than there is farmland available in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

Yuko Suda considers herself to be one of the lucky ones because she was able to secure a five year lease on a patch of land at Surrey.

Working with the B.C. Land Matching Program delivered by Young Agrarians, she was matched up with a landowner who wanted the property farmed and she wanted to grow Asian vegetables.

She worked as a civil engineer for 10 years but wanted a change.

“It happened when my kids were born. Your perspective changes and having to work a nine to five job and put the kids in daycare, you are wondering if you are doing any good for the world and them,” she said. “I was just trying to figure out what was best for me and the kids.”

With moral support from her husband, a software developer, she has become a farmer from March to October and returns to her engineering job in the winter months.

“We have an agreement that we get to do one crazy career move and we just have to make sure it is staggered,” she said.

She studied sustainable agriculture at the University of British Columbia. She is not organic but attempts to follow sustainable principles.

The young agrarian program is a compromise for her because she knows owning farmland in the Lower Mainland is out of reach.

“It is frustrating. My husband and I work two well-paying jobs and we can’t afford a farm, which is crazy I think.”

She is in a slightly better situation at this point in her life because she had some cash and was already established with a career that can provide off-farm income.

“That is not true for most young farmers. They are farming in their 20s and they don’t have any cash,” she said.

“Unless the farm is in the family already it is nearly impossible to get a mortgage.”

Ironically, Vancouverites want fresh, local food but the city and surrounding communities continue to convert land for urban development.

“I think it is a disconnect where they just don’t realize,” she said.

Her land is protected within the agricultural land reserve and with her farming it, her landlord receives a considerable tax benefit.

She starts plants like kale and tomatoes in her Port Moody home and work begins in March or April when the fields are ready. May is full production and she should complete harvest at the end of the October.

She has high intensity plantings of mixed vegetables on about three quarters of an acre. She is growing mostly Asian vegetables and for 16 weeks delivers produce for a community shared agriculture project in Chinatown in Vancouver. She has 30 customers and also supplies two Asian grocers.

Her delivery program is through the Choi project funded by the Hua Foundation to promote nutritious, local food for Chinatown.

“The focus is especially on younger generations that may have been born here and don’t have ties to the Chinese culture,” she said.

The foundation provides a co-ordinator funded by a Canada Works grant to help her with the CSA membership, sends email reminders and lends a hand bundling up the weekly shares of six to seven products with an emphasis on choi, that is Chinese leafy greens. For variety she adds onions, tomatoes, eggplant, garlic or whatever else is ripe that week.

She cleans and washes the vegetables and takes it to town in totes. She is trying to encourage people to go plastic free so they can bring their own bags or plastic containers.

This year she has 60 different varieties of vegetables and staggered plantings every two weeks to keep fresh produce available. A computer app tells her when to plant and keep track of rotations.

This year’s crop includes popcorn, tomatoes, squash, Japanese eggplant and cucumbers, edible chrysanthemums, a variety of Chinese greens, beans, kale, peppers, onions, melons and squash.

She use drip irrigation and most is grown outdoors with plastic and fabric covers.

Weeds and wireworms are the bane of her existence as well as the unpredictability of weather. While this area has rainy winters, the summers are typically hot and dry. This year there has been more rain than normal and some of her crops are behind.

Her children are five and seven and like to help along with her husband and some friends who can occasionally lend a hand with the heavy lifting, but otherwise this is a one woman show. Her plan is to take on a business partner next year so she doesn’t have to be there seven days a week and relieve her of some of the workload.

“Farming by yourself is really challenging because you have to be there every day,” she said.

“There are just things that need to be done,” she said.

“I knew that was always going to be an issue so that is why I started small,” she said.

Next year she plans to expand by cultivating more land and stepping up production while she continues to learn about effective insect control, preventing coyotes from chewing her irrigation lines and figuring out which crops are most successful on her little patch of land.

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