Welcome to the ‘hood’

An ambitious new construction project in British Columbia’s lower mainland integrates urban and rural interests

TSAWWASSEN, B.C. — When Sean Hodgins walks down the new sidewalks of the Southlands subdivision and watches new homes rising out of the sandy soil, his vision extends beyond another new suburb in British Columbia’s lower mainland.

The president of the Century Group, a family owned real estate development company, sees an “agrihood” where a community of 950 homes edges up to a forest and large urban farm at Tsawwassen.

“The vision is how to create a community that integrates farming and food,” he said.

The land has been in his family for a long time. Over the years, he has seen more power lines, highways and housing developments usurping farmland. He wanted something different.

The plan is to build a sustainable, profitable farm in the middle of an urban environment, said Hodgins.

“We are going to treat the farm as a business as much as possible,” he said. “If the economics of farming doesn’t work, then farming doesn’t work.”

Investments are made to set it up for success and they will adapt their plans as necessary.

Sean Hodgins regularly checks the progress of the agrihood, where the city meets the farm in an urban setting. | Barbara Duckworth photo

The property consists of 537 acres with 430 acres dedicated to the City of Delta. About 300 acres are zoned agricultural and the balance is a mix of a forest on a hillside and some environmental set asides. They are leasing back some of the land for a dollar a year to build the 50-acre Southland community farm. About 275 acres are sown to conventional crops like barley and potatoes.

The housing development consists of mostly 1,800 sq. foot townhouses and an as-yet-undetermined percentage of single family homes. Many homes are designed to look like an estate farm home and will be set up to share common courtyards.

But the townhouses are only phase 1 of the whole development site which will be made up of multiple housing types, such as courtyard cottages, single-family homes, duplex-style townhouses, multi-unit townhouses, and country flats/apartments.

Besides farmland, the development includes plans for a farmers’ market, artisan shops, a cafe and a building for offices and farm equipment.

He has seen examples of this in other cities where farm land is part of a suburban development. Fresh food is sold to local residents, who get to see agriculture in action.

Hodgins is hoping this concept could be transplanted in other urban developments where agriculture is brought back to the landscape.

“The thing we are trying to tap into is, there is a real thirst for people to understand and connect with food and farming,” he said.

A similar concept near Atlanta, Georgia called Serenbe includes commercial centres, housing, an artists’ community and a 25-acre organic farm that offers shares in a community-shared agriculture program.

While Hodgins may have the dream, he wanted professionals to run the farming side so Seann Dory and Suzy Keown were contracted to run the farm. They had a successful mixed-vegetable operation on Vancouver Island called Salt and Harrow Farm that was closed down when the landlord sold the property.

They have a big job ahead of them if they hope to have vegetables growing next year.

The water table is high and land has been elevated to raise it above the risk of floods. Drainage tiles and irrigation canals are installed to hold water in the spring and feed crops during the hot, dry summers.

They have been running extensive soil tests before any tillage started but their plan was to get garlic into the ground for the 2020 growing season.

They will be growing, marketing and distributing what they grow on the farm. Two beekeepers are also on site, where one has a queen breeding program and another keeps bees and does pollinator research.

There is an orchard with apples and cherries on-site and more may be added later.

The land was planted to potatoes and barley to get around salinization problems. Some was also put into cover crops of mustard, vetch and rye through a conservation agreement with the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust.

A heritage barn is being refurbished as part of the community centre block. | Barbara Duckworth photo

Their business model will be similar to their farm on Vancouver Island established in 2015. They had nine acres of production on marginal land but were able to grow about 300 varieties of crops that they marketed through community-shared agriculture, restaurants and farmers’ markets.

“It was really marginal stuff but it was an opportunity to start a business,” Dory said.

“We grew half vegetables, half rocks,” said Keown.

At Salt and Harrow farm, they hired students and mentored others who wanted to learn to grow food on a limited and pricey land base. They had about six employees.

“Mixed vegetables are a little easier to get into. You don’t need huge equipment and you don’t need as much land so I think that is why a lot of people starting out do vegetables,” he said.

Dory was also involved with the Young Agrarians program and land linking of small parcels of land that is often marginal.

When the land on the Island was sold, they needed somewhere new but struggled to find anything in a high-priced real estate market.

“It is pretty hard to just step in and buy land in B.C. Projects like this that offer land are at a premium,” said Dory.

Originally from Edmonton, he was exposed to farming but was not sure if it was his first career choice.

“Everybody around me told me don’t go into farming,” he said.

His first foray into growing crops came about when he co-founded Sole Food in the inner city of Vancouver growing on small plots and working with people who had addiction issues. It became North America’s largest urban farm project.

Keown grew up on a farm but had little interest in agriculture.

She worked on clinical research for pharmaceuticals and managed a brewery for a time.

“I worked in a lot of industries and I have had a lot of really exciting jobs and things I loved but I never had a sensation of where I am thinking about the next thing,” she said.

They saw magic in farming and appreciated the feedback from customers and the almost instant job satisfaction from working the soil.

They like the philosophy of integrating agriculture with an urban community where people can see modern farming techniques.

“They will see all the different scales of agriculture and how to do it in a sustainable way right down to the garden scale,” Dory said.

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