Local food and other delusions

By Aaren Madden, June 2011

Locavores may be disappointed to know the “local” label on restaurant food doesn’t always mean it’s from around here.

The best farming advice Tom Henry ever got came from established Metchosin farmers John and Lorraine Buchanan. Their words? “Don’t do it.” To which Henry and wife Violaine Mitchell, determined to expand their farm, replied, “No. We’re gonna do it.” To which the Buchanans repeated, “Don’t. Do. It.” 

Now, six years later, they partner on many projects. At first, “they just really tried to scare the shit out of us,” Henry laughs. 

Rightly so. A farming life is “all-consuming.” Forget taking off for a holiday or even an impromptu dinner party in town when you have animals to feed and tend. Even more than the time it takes is the money, more of which has gone into Henry’s Stillmeadow Farm than he has seen from it. “We could have put a swimming pool in the backyard or something and that would be the same as six years of farming,” he says, joking, but not. “The reality of farming is that almost all farms are subsidized either by the government or by off-farming income,” says Henry, who supplements his own income by publishing Small Farm Canada, a magazine for farmers.

Still, he smiles, “It’s a trade-off I am totally happy making.” He seems far more content than one would expect of any man who has, count ’em, nine landlords. Though he owns two acres, he actually farms ninety. It’s a mutually beneficial model for landowners, who get a tax break, and farmers who could otherwise never afford the land. “Farming is something different than owning the land,” he observes. 

He talks affectionately and at a youthful clip about the sheep, pigs and chickens that graze and shelter on various green pockets throughout Metchosin and end up on tables at local restaurants such as the Pink Bicycle and Devour. Yours too, if you please: the farm store is open 11-1pm on Sundays (4198 Stillmeadow Road). The holly at Thrifty Foods come Christmastime grows here, as does wheat for Wildfire Bakery. 

“Really, the thrill of planting ten acres of wheat is the same as the thrill of planting a four-foot row of peas or carrots. Somehow, I just get a high off of being part of creation. I think that’s fundamental to what really turns farmers on,” Henry reflects. 

That’s why he always had a garden, even in previous lives studying at UVic, writing for Monday Magazine, travelling, and a stint teaching at UVic. He wrote award-winning books on BC’s local and nautical history, worked on tugboats, cut wood. One tome was a history of Duncan, where he was born in ’61. In 1995, he documented his move to the country in Dogless in Metchosin and The Ideal Dog and Other Delusions, collections of humorous, often touching essays that he also broadcast on the CBC. 

Now, looking out his sunny kitchen window with two happy dogs nudging at his hands, he confides, “There’s no way I could write those now because I am so immersed in this place… I contribute to the community and the community contributes to my life. I have traded novelty and freshness for long term participation and support.”

Besides, once you start a magazine, you can forget about writing books. In 2004, he, Mitchell and Peter Chettleburgh founded Small Farms Canada, a magazine linking farmers nation-wide with information and ideas. As editor, he’s at the office five days a week. He thrives on the mix of physical and cerebral work required by the magazine and the farm. “It means you are never very good at one thing,” he quips. 

The first issue carried an article by Don Genova called “Fight Menu Fraud.” It’s still such a problem that Henry wrote of it again in a recent editorial. “We’ve definitely encountered it,” he nods, explaining, “In the worst case, [restaurants] buy from us, use our farm name (or anybody’s farm name), and then stop buying.” Or maybe, say, a chef using local ingredients may resort to Sysco (a major restaurant supplier) once, move on, then his replacements follow suit and don’t perform due diligence, leaving the menu to boast of local fare when none is present. “There is this grey area where I think most of the nefariousness goes on. It’s careless. I have to think this, because it makes me so cross to think people are using farm names, and then buying from Sysco,” Henry says. “It’s really wrong for the eaters too, because there are quite a few people out there—my daughter’s one of them—who will eat local meat or no meat at all,” he says. 

Diners who are concerned about having the local lamb’s wool pulled over their eyes “have got to ask [servers], even research farm and restaurant websites,” he advises. “You’ve just got to be a bit of a harder-working consumer to have a higher level of confidence.” 

That said, he sympathizes with establishments who want to “act locally” but can’t make the logistical leap. A hotel chef recently ordered 30 fresh pork tenderloins from Henry. He had no choice but to turn him down. “What are we going to do with the rest of 30 pigs? That’s a pile of pork for us. But he could get that from Sysco—the tenderloins would be fresh, but they’d come from godknowswhere, an industrial farm in Alberta or somewhere,” he laments. 

Re-localizing our food supply takes time. Some restaurants, like Camille’s and Café Brio, are “unimpeachably supportive of local food,” he says. Over time, they have nurtured relationships with suppliers and craft their menus according to availabilities and seasons. It took about a year for Stillmeadow Farm to produce the pork and The Village Butcher’s (in Oak Bay) customers to accept higher prices, but “now we have a great relationship…and people are getting Vancouver Island pork—raised outside, happy pigs and all that—that is three days old.” 

Henry is proud of that, and given the nature of the process, cautions against a swift pendulum swing to exclusively local food production. “We are just trying to move incrementally towards self-sufficiency—and I don’t even know if self-sufficiency is an admirable goal. If we only ate food from the soils of southern Vancouver Island, we’d all be very sick,” he points out: Vancouver Island soil is selenium deficient. Besides, the amount of acreage needed for large-scale agriculture would mean some trees would be coming down, he warns. We need to make sure we go at a pace in which we can (sometimes literally) work the bugs out.

But it’s the direction we should be heading, and Henry is optimistic. “There are so many young, smart, energetic people interested in farming right now, and that is so good for the future of farming,” he says. It’s good for the future of local food, too, so long as the new guard follow Henry’s lead: persevere, take time to build relationships, and maybe even ignore the best advice you get. 

While gratefully tagging along with Tom Henry as he fed his livestock, Aaren Madden was reminded how truly glorious is the straw-manure-mammal smell of barn. She even got to hold a piglet.