The fight for real food

By Amy Reiswig, September 2015

From Madrona Farm in the Blenkinsop Valley, a new book by Nathalie Chambers, Robin Alys Roberts and Sophie Wooding explores a global vision rooted in the earth.

Chambers and RobertsIN A 20-MINUTE bike ride—the same time it takes to walk to three chain grocery stores—the Lochside Trail delivers me into the bucolic Blenkinsop Valley and to the humble little farmstand fronting the community-building powerhouse that is Madrona Farm. The stand is piled with just-picked produce. Stacks of carrots, like heaps of orange treasure, are deliciously new and sweet, even still a little dirty. But as Madrona farmer Nathalie Chambers will tell you, that dirt is the real gold.

From ancient Egypt prospering beside the Nile’s black earth to the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s, we’ve seen that soil can make or break us. It is, quite literally, the stuff on which our lives are built.

But one of the problems, Chambers explains against the farm’s idyllic background, is people’s understanding of the land. Too few of us actually know how it works, what we can do to make it work better, and why we should bother. 

In Saving Farmland: The Fight for Real Food (Rocky Mountain Books), Chambers, with a UVic diploma in restoration ecology, teams up with writers Robin Alys Roberts and Sophie Wooding not only to document Madrona’s story but to educate readers about the importance of preserving and protecting farmland locally and globally as though our lives depend on it—because they do.

Madrona Farm’s slanted rows snuggle up to Mount Douglas’ western slopes. On 11 hectares of hill, Nathalie and David Chambers grow over 100 varieties of veggies, three types of grain, fruit trees, flowers, and seemingly endless blackberries, serving over 4000 customers annually, including organic produce co-ops and some of Victoria’s premier restaurants. But how do they do what they do, and why? 

In just one gram of soil, the book explains, there can be a million species of bacteria—“networking to maintain life.” We learn that while the land around Mount Doug (known as PKOLS to local First Nations) is host to nine different soil types and over 100 kinds of hard-working pollinators in a biodiversity hotspot, it has taken years to restore Madrona’s productivity through dedicated practice of agroecology. Avoiding expensive and harmful chemical fertilizers or pesticides , the Chamberses nurture what they call the “supportive neighbourhood” of whole ecosystems, right down to the level of soil microorganisms. They nourish depleted soil through crop rotation and with the bountiful benefits of their mobile chicken coop. They maintain waterways to encourage frogs as natural pest control. And they plant cover crops, flowers and trees, making sure to consider their various flowering times, in order to encourage both bird and insect pollinators year-round. 

That’s part of the book’s story, which stretches back to the 1850s and then looks forward to, basically, forever, since Madrona’s story is also about its being saved in trust, through community fundraising, as a sustainable organic farm in perpetuity.

But few also know the regional story. So many of us come from away that there’s a disconnect, a loss of not just actual farmland but the history of traditional, small-scale, sustainable farming in the area and around BC in general. We know little about what the land has been capable of, what it can do again with the right care. For instance, we drive North Dairy Road not knowing where it got its name (which the book will tell you); we see houses and lawns rather than bygone farms in the Goldstream Hills or on Lulu Island, now mostly the city of Richmond; we see land deemed non-arable removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve rather than restored. And so the book begins by chronicling that local ecological history, rooting us in place right down to the dirt on those delicious carrots. 

This fertile place, though, comes with particular problems for farmers. The book digs into recent provincial policy changes (specifically changes to the ALR) and local land issues including prohibitive prices “swinging like an axe over every potential farmer’s head.” In fact, the authors note that Victoria’s farmland costs double that of  the next most costly region in Canada. So who can afford to take it up? Over the last 20 years the number of Canadian farmers under the age of 35 has fallen from 77,000 to barely 24,000. With 70 percent of Vancouver Island’s farmers soon ready to retire, 90 percent have no succession plan for their farms.

In the age-old paradox, people are both the problem and the solution. The book counters grim stats with a cornucopia of local food-security initiatives we can support and get involved in, as well as practical advice on everything from managing the perennially problematic geese and deer to, perhaps most importantly to Chambers, getting farmland out of private ownership and into trusts that offer affordable long-term leases.

Co-author Robyn is quick to add that, “The book happens to be centred here but had to be international in scope.” It’s concerned with far more than one farm’s success or even our food insecurity here on Vancouver Island where we import 95 percent of our food. “We’re in a global food crisis,” Chambers agrees, her easy, enthusiastic smile turning to deep concern. And so the book addresses challenges that cross borders—for instance the trap of patented seeds, the dangers of monoculture and, of course, costs. Fortunately, the book points to people stepping up around the globe to meet needs and change not just agricultural practices but lives. It’s an impressive catalogue of positive things happening everywhere.

“It’s a reminder that good stories are the norm,” Chambers beams. “That’s who people are. That’s the ordinary people’s movement.” Herself susceptible to what she calls “global grief” which can overwhelm and make us feel powerless, Chambers says,“We need to hear the message of success.” She emphasizes that Madrona’s story and the book’s many international examples of land trusts and commons are, at the root, community successes.

A mother of two, the ebullient Chambers is a whirlwind of ideas and projects. From founding the Chef Survival Challenge and the Big Dream Farm Fund to presenting the Madrona model at the 2013 International Conference of National Trusts in Uganda, she gets things done. With a long history of activism and conservation-related work, she’s the type of person who converts anger and anguish into action. So when Roberts and Wooding agreed to record Chambers for five months and then structure that into a book, they had to be of compatible mind. 

A longtime writer and Madrona customer now in her sixties, Roberts has herself been an activist (at the forefront of the equal marriage fight) and is driven by caring and a passion for what’s right and fair for people—like the right to healthy, affordable food. Sophie Wooding, a recent UVic creative writing and English literature grad in her twenties, was a Madrona worker who grew up loving gardening as something magical that conferred the power to give life. She likewise jumped at the opportunity to work on the project: “I just had to do this. It was a way to be more active for a cause I believe in.” 

That fierce local loyalty, combined with a wider vision for the world, permeates Saving Farmland. Produced by three generations of women committed to sustainable food, it’s an expansive story that begins with farms lost and ends with farms saved in trust—a story told with passion, humour and a combination of great urgency and affection. At once personal, political and philosophical, “this story doesn’t belong to me,” Chambers wants to make clear. Well-known locally as not just a farmer but a fighter, she explains: “It’s not about personalities. It’s all about principles.” Those principles centre on how we, as daily decision-makers—be it as buyers, growers or policy-setters—see the Earth and one another. 

Saving Farmland is ultimately about decision: to choose hope over global grief, community empowerment over corporate dominion, protection over peril, a sustainable feast over a slow road to famine. 

As I cycled home, bushy greens waving from my stuffed pannier, I saw both the challenges ahead and the dirt beneath my tires with fresh eyes and recalled the wisdom of what Roberts and Wooding quote from environmental activist/philosopher Vandana Shiva: “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulders. It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.” 

Having grown up in uber-urban Montreal, writer and editor Amy Reiswig remains amazed by how many local growers are within our easy reach here in Victoria and urges you not to take them for granted.