The Miskelly's passion

By Maleea Acker, March 1, 2016

Nurturing native species, young farmers and the land.

Kristen and James MiskellyOFF THE PAT BAY HIGHWAY, on Saanich’s Haliburton Farm, James Miskelly points to a clump of lime green leaves poking out of the rich earth. “That’s sea blush,” he tells me, proudly. The small-leafed annual, usually a rare sight in Garry oak upland meadows in mid spring, smatters the soil like a groundcover. The more I look, the more I see. Kristen Miskelly, James’ wife, wades through the wetlands at the western edge of their plot while telling me about the area’s tree frog song in spring. “It’s deafening!” she says, with glee.

The Miskellys, both young biologists with a penchant for native plant restoration and gardening, started Saanich Native Plants, a nursery and consulting business, in 2013, cultivating first the one-tenth acre front yard of the farm’s house, and in 2015 began work on a half acre adjacent to the farm’s biodiversity project parcel. They grow native grasses, bulbs, annuals and perennials, offering them for sale at the farm and through both large and small landscaping projects around the Capital Region.

“We both fantasized about having a nursery before we met,” Kristen tells me in Haliburton Farm’s house, which is used for community education. “We never considered growing anything but native plants.” 

Both are transplants to Vancouver Island; James chose the University of Victoria specifically to study Garry oak ecosystems in Hornby Island’s Helliwell Park. Kristen hails from Ontario. Both, after completing graduate degrees in biology, now consult for government as well as operate the nursery and serve on Haliburton’s board. The nursery, however, supports them. Along with selling plants and seeds, they offer site consultations for those interested in cultivating native plants.

Haliburton is a seven-acre community-supported organic educational farm owned by the municipality of Saanich. In 2001, the then CRD-owned land was slated for removal from the ALR and creation of a 26-home subdivision. Concerned community members, including the Land for Food Coalition and the Cordova Bay Association, banded together to provide an alternate plan. The property was eventually transferred to the Municipality of Saanich. 

Board members established the Organic Farm Society to manage the leasing of farmlands and creation of a biodiversity plot. Saanich provides free leaf mulch dumps and sells compost to farmers. Response from surrounding neighbours has been mostly positive, says board member Elmarie Roberts. “Our neighbours love us and there is a very respectful relationship.” In fact, one neighbour shuts the farm’s chickens up each night in exchange for eggs. 

Young farmers apply to the Board for a five-year lease to cultivate a portion of the property, renewable one time only. The farm acts as a local food provider, education centre and demonstration site for both farming and ecosystem restoration. The biodiversity project, for which the Miskellys estimate they volunteer over a thousand hours a year, includes the restoration of the wetland adjacent to their plot. Five years after beginning restoration, volunteers spotted the first long-toed salamanders, an indicator species that signals health of a wetland. 

A decade ago, finding native plants for sale at a local nursery in the CRD was a daunting challenge, but the Miskellys are pleased to be part of a change for the better. At Seedy Saturdays and gardening clubs, they’ve seen increased interest in native plant gardening and adaptation of municipal lands to incorporate native species. 

Still, the transformation of a thistle-infested boulevard into a native meadow draws skepticism. A lot of work was needed, not just to create, but to maintain a planting after 150 years of colonial seed dispersal. Native plantings need regular attention to remove invasives. “We’re in the Pacific Northwest, where people have been actively managing lands for thousands of years. But we still get asked ‘What’s the point of doing this if you have to care for the land in perpetuity,’” says James. “We’ve used the analogy,” offers Kristen, “of brushing your teeth,” citing the daily tasks that take time, but pay off in the long run. 

The Agricultural Land Reserve, according to the David Suzuki Foundation, has lost 35,000 acres on Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan since its inception in 1973. Most of the removed land disappeared under suburban development or industrial facilities. Rising land prices are one reason that farmers seek to sell (or develop) land previously included. Vancouver Island’s food production dropped from 50 percent of total supply in the 1950s to 5-10 percent by 2004. Production drops when hobby farmers pasture horses and when large lot subdivisions with grass lawns replace cultivated fields.

The Miskellys had to convince Haliburton’s initially skeptical board that raising native plants added to the local food supply. Today, their presence is a positive for the farm and for all food growers, concurs board member Roberts, allowing access to a time when “the First Peoples of these lands had their summer retreats on the shores of the Salish Sea and harvested the riches that nature offered so freely.” 

The Miskellys harvest and sell miner’s lettuce, bog cranberry, herbs and nodding onions, the latter as a tastier alternative to green onions. They also make stinging nettle pesto and salal sauce, and have planted extensive hedgerows of native berries around the borders of the farm, hoping that this, too, may become a saleable item. This fall, they held a harvest feast that featured a 100 percent native species meal. James also now sits on the farm’s board as its biodiversity representative. 

Growing native plants, for the Miskellys, is part of a larger turn toward learning the traditional foods, traditions and ecosystem cultivation practices of First Nations in the area. They work with Growing Our Futures at Royal Roads University, a collaborative program with First Nations that is more broadly horticultural in nature. They also work with Judith Arney at Saanich’s Tribal School, where the school’s nursery, Blossoming Place, teaches students about traditional practices, the SEN?OTEN language and native plant harvesting. Claremont Secondary students also participate in projects at Haliburton; many helped to restore and build the wetland on the farm. 

“We’re aware that the ecological wealth [of this region] is an inheritance that is really due to the hands of aboriginal peoples,” says Kristen. “The settlers never made any attempt to be at home here,” says James. “They imposed the techniques that they were familiar with.” The lack of cultural interaction is shameful, admits Kristen. “We’d really like to improve on that.” 

The Miskellys’ farming and consultation work serves as a stepping stone. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is remove the impediments to bigger restoration projects,” says James. Kristen elaborates, “We’ve done road trips to native plant nurseries in Washington and Oregon. They’re doing things at a scale that we’re hoping people will start to think about here.” Experimenting on their half-acre parcel, they use growing techniques learned in other restoration projects; techniques they also perfect in collaboration with the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve and the University of Guelph. By planting dense rows of species such as camas, wooly sunflower and native grasses, they can collect seed more efficiently. This year, BC Parks bought all of their native grass seed. 

James’ and Kristen’s eyes light up as they tell me about nearby hay meadows and highway boulevards that would be perfect sites for meadow restoration. The satisfaction in their lives is evident and infectious. “Restoration is hugely satisfying. It’s amazing how little you can do and see a result.” James, summing up their current situation, confesses, “There’s no distinction between work and non-work. The things we do for a living and the things we do for fun are indistinguishable.” 

Haliburton Farms offers its Growing Food in the City summer course beginning March 20, 2016. A free information session at the farm will be held on Monday, March 14 at 6:30pm.

Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.