BOOKS: ALL THE DIRT (plus Q&A with Heather Stretch)

Part inspiration, part manifesto, and part reality check, All The Dirt goes beyond being a handbook of farming know how to passionately illustrate life on today’s next-gen farm. Essentially three long chapters—each chapter written by one of three co-authors, Rachel Fisher, Heather Stretch, and Robin Tunnicliffe—with two shorter, concluding, and collaborative chapters, All The Dirt mixes the romance of farming with the challenge of living off the land, so to speak. We hear how farming is a balancing act of technique and science, raising families, the need to earning a living, and about the pleasure of being plugged into a supportive farmer community and growing food movement.

But the book also digs deep into the practical knowledge required to grow food with a truckload of advice—including starting out, facts, planting and harvesting charts, tips, the best equipment, leasing land, financial spreadsheets—all the information you’d need if you decided to ditch that city job and took up feeding people for a living. Sprinkled throughout the chapters are neat little sidebars, such as On Being a Woman Farmer (Robin), How to Put Plastic on a Greenhouse (Rachel) and Farm Kids (Heather). The final two chapters discuss why they are organic farmers and describe their business collective, Saanich Organics. Informative, timely and well written, All The Dirt is a must-read insider’s account of farming today on Vancouver Island.

All The Dirt, published by TouchWood Editions, $29.95 ISBN 978-1-972129-12-8

Available at bookstores and online at www.touchwoodeditions.com

 

“An interview with farmer and All The Dirt co-author Heather Stretch

 

Your book, All The Dirt, has just been published. Is it different from what you had envisioned?

The book was originally Robin and Rachel’s idea, so I didn’t really have a vision at first. Then, we worked on the basic structure together and over the next six years wrote the book. At first we wrote in the slower times on the farms but once we signed on with Touchwood Editions, it became more intense. We can thank Touchwood for bringing the chapters with our personal stories to the front. I think it made the book more accessible to the general reader.

 

What’s your favourite part of your book?

I’m a story person so I love the first three chapters where each of us tells our story. I particularly love Rachel’s section on her apprenticeship. Oh, and her sidebar on slugs. Everyone can relate to that.

 

What happening on Northbrook Farm, your farm, right now?

This time of the year I’m out in the fields harvesting our winter crops: salad greens, pac choi, carrots, winter radishes, kales, cabbages, and beets. I’m also relocating the laying hens coop so I can plant a cover crop before rotating that land back into food production. I’m also pruning the blueberry bushes, weeding the greenhouse, and cleaning out the irrigation system, so lots I guess.

 

That’s an amazing variety of produce for the winter. How important is this crop to your farm?

Growing a winter crop is a bit like rolling the dice. You never know if it will be ruined by rot, freezing, or severe weather. But it’s important for two reasons: income, of course, but also because it is important that we maintain our connections and relationships with our restaurant customers.

 

The restaurant scene is watched very closely by EAT readers. How would you describe your relationship with the area’s chefs?

The restaurant scene is pretty amazing here. A majority of our clients are extremely supportive and go beyond just paying lip service to local with a garnish on the plate. We have great relationships with Spinnakers, Relish, and Café Brio, to name a few. They are reliable, year-round purchasers. Spinnakers even plans their menus around what we have available seasonally.

 

There’s a push on to create a year-round, public market in Victoria. From your perspective, would it be viable?

Absolutely. Do we have enough produce now to supply a farmers’ market in the winter? No. But I believe it’s a case of if you build it, they will come. Maybe not a seven day a week farmers’ market, but certainly one or two days a week depending on the season. If it’s planned carefully, it can succeed. Politicians and planners need to start incorporating food into their overall plans for the city.  I’d like to see a combination of permanent indoor vendors and farmers selling their own produce.

 

What’s the farming community like?

I tend to hang out with farmers working similar, small scale, organic farms but all the farmers around here support each other, help each other out, and share ideas. I know larger, multi-generational farmers and I know farmers who won’t go to organic certification but we all get along, talk, and visit each other. We’re in this together. There’s enough market share to go around so that we don’t need to compete. I am excited to see a big, old farm like Vantreight Farms transition from flowers to organic produce. That’s a good thing.

 

Some people say organic produce costs too much. Is that true? Are local food prices unfairly inflated?

Sometimes the media and foodies say we need more local farms so prices will come down. They think we’re gouging consumers. Prices can’t come down. The cost of production can’t come down. It’s what it costs to farm the land here. An agricultural consultant told me that in California they get 30 tons of strawberries to the acre (because of their climate) but here we can only hope for 2 -3 tons per acre. Not only is the climate better in places like California and Mexico but also farm worker wages are much, much lower.

 

Many people have a romantic notion of the life of a farmer. What would you say to them?

I would say there absolutely is romance in farming. There’s nothing more beautiful than harvesting kale in the morning when there’s fresh dew on the leaves, or more delicious than eating a carrot just pulled from the earth. It’s a hugely meaningful way of life. But there are also no shortages of challenges.

 

People reading your book and contemplating a change of career to farming, what should they know?

I went into farming in my mid-twenties. I didn’t apprentice on a farm. I was at that magical time in life when you have just enough life experience to maybe succeed and also tons of blind faith in your own abilities to forge ahead without knowing what is ahead. Today, I have a family, three kids, and responsibilities. I will say you need to go into farming with your eyes wide open. Spend a year as an apprentice on a farm and make sure you pay attention to what the farmer does when they’re not in the field. Is the farmer sitting in front of the fire or playing music with friends? Often as not, the farmer is attending to other chores like keeping the accounts, or packaging, or working on their marketing.

 

Also I would say look at your business plan. Take the word ‘farm’ out of your thinking.  It has all kinds of emotional attachments. Look at it as a business – like opening a café or a cleaning business. Maybe call it your Edible Root Production Company or something. Look at the economy of the business. On southern Vancouver Island, it is nearly impossible to own the land for farming. Renting is more affordable and sustainable economically. And then, finally, decide if this really is the life for you before taking that leap.

 

I hear people – especially policy makers – saying value-added farming is the solution to the economic viability of small farmers. Would you agree?

This question gets me going. It seems that every public policy conversation turns to value-added and politicians want to throw money at consultants. I say jam making, bottling tomato sauces, and pickling beets are all fine businesses but it’s separate from farming. It won’t change the basic economies of growing food. Saying farmers need to do these thing in order to be viable is a faulty solution. It’s an easy out for politicians. The question should be how do we make basic food production viable and sustainable. The more you process food – even the best jams, sauces, and pickles are less nutritionally good for you than fresh strawberries, tomatoes, and beets— the farther away it is from eating fresh food. That bunch of grapes is better for you than that glass of wine. The challenge for us globally is that there are not enough financially sustainable farms. That means, not only for the farmer but for farm workers too, who need to be making living wages.

 

Are you optimistic about the future of farming on Vancouver Island?

Yes. I think the next big thing is to be able to provide the bulk of the calories on our plate from local foods—not only local vegetables and fruits but also local grains and meats. The great thing is that the topography of our land is best suited to producing food that is roughly the same proportions to what we should be eating. Our land is not flat and will never be good for industrial agriculture. Growing a little grain and grass-fed meat along with a plentiful and varied crop of vegetables and fresh caught seafood is ideally suited to a Vancouver Island diet. We can’t grow cheap food but we can grow quality food.

 

Once Vancouver Island produced about 70% of all the food we needed. Now the number is less than 10%.  Can we get back to that 70% level?

Definitely. It will happen. The question is, will we choose the when and the how, or will it be forced on us out of necessity due to catastrophic changes in the world. Do we wait until we have no choice and do it the hard way, or we can do it the good way with fresh tasting food and a secure and sustainable agriculture? The choice is ours.

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