The Farms That Feed Us

While it seems as if a new celebrity chef is born every minute, farmers—those dedicated, fervent, innovative individuals—remain largely undervalued.


Yoshiko in front of the Huki plant at UmiNami. Photo by R. Baugniet

Anyone who has visited Ontario in the past few years has probably come across the bright yellow signs in their travels. The public awareness campaign started by Ontario Grains and Oilseeds in 2005 offers urbanites a reminder that “Farmers Feed Cities.” Here on Vancouver Island, we have the more subtle “Fresh from the Island” signs and stickers that help us choose local products. Yet despite growing enthusiasm for farmers’ markets, how much does the average consumer really know about where their food comes from? Yes, we want to know if it is organic, or humanely raised, if our milk comes from healthy cows, and our eggs from happy hens. But do we truly appreciate the effort and challenges involved in producing quality food? How are the farmers doing?

With these questions in mind, I set off to visit four very different farms in southern Vancouver Island hoping to get a little glimpse of what it’s like to be farming in 2011. I came away from each farm not only with delicious freshly picked samples but with a renewed sense of admiration for those who work the fields. While it seems as if a new celebrity chef is born every minute, farmers—those dedicated, fervent, innovative individuals—remain largely undervalued. The farmers involved in small-scale agriculture are always thinking about our food security and working to fortify it. It’s a beautiful thing to witness each of them doing this work in their own way.


SunTrio Farm

Three brothers farming together in Saanichton.

“I’m a fan of lemon,” says Frank O’Brien, pausing to squeeze half of one into the bin where the sunflower sprouts are being rinsed and giving them a little stir before continuing the tour through the greenhouses. The youngest of the three O’Brien brothers who run SunTrio, Frank’s domains are the sprouts, the microgreens and the strawberries. He is also the one you are most likely to meet at the market, encouraging you to try a cucumber slice or guess what kind of sprouts he’s offering a taste of today. Dennis takes care of the hot crops—tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and peppers—while Michael takes care of the accounts. The Trio have been farming the four and a half acres in Saanichton since 2008, with plans to plant apple trees around the perimeter of their property this summer. The farm is in transition to certified organic (IOPA).

Frank, who gained experience growing sprouts in Australia, is a fervent believer in the healing power of plants and as such views farmers as the new doctors. “People are waking up from the pharmaceutical age,” he tells me. “It’s no longer about ‘how long will this keep in my fridge?’ It’s fresh, it’s alive – eat it now.” With a focus on the good energy fresh, organic food can provide, SunTrio sells greenhouse-grown sprouts, greens, tomatoes and cucumbers year-round in their farm store, as well as at the Moss Street Market, the James Bay Market and the Victoria Downtown Public Market Society’s Farmers’ Market in Market Square.


Umi Nami Farm

Organic Japanese produce thrives in Metchosin.

Yoshiko Unno and Tsutomu Suganami came to Canada more than 15 years ago. They had been farming in Japan for 10 years prior to that and came to Canada in search of a larger piece of land. Shortly after setting up their 10-acre farm in Metchosin, Mary Alice Johnson of ALM Organic Farm in Sooke invited them to sell their produce at the Moss Street Market. The couple created a name for their farm out of their two surnames that, when translated, roughly means “sea wave” and developed their farm around what they knew best—Asian vegetables. Yoshiko Unno tells me that the climate is slightly cooler here than where they had farmed in Japan, but there are fewer insects here.

When I arrive, Yoshiko is tilling the soil in one of the greenhouses. As I park, I see her stop the machine and come out to greet me. The first greenhouse she shows me has tidy paths between the vegetable beds mulched with dried corn stalks to reduce weeds. Two apprentices are crouched down on either side of one of the rows, methodically planting, each using a cornstalk to measure the distance between each seed. Outside, Yoshiko tells me these are new apprentices from her husband’s home village in Japan. It was devastated by the tsunami in March, and they have come “to forget” for a while.

Now with more than 20 greenhouses, Umi Nami grows a wide variety of B.C. certified organic vegetables, from daikon, carrots and Japanese turnips to greens that have seen a noticeable rise in popularity such as mizuna, mustard greens and bok choy. As Yoshiko gives me a tour of her beautifully maintained property, I spot the kamatsuna plant and the shiso leaves I’ve tasted prepared by local chefs. But Yoshiko is eager to have me try something new. The plant, known as “huki” or “fuki” (its Latin name is Petasites japonicas; in English it is called Japanese butterbur or sweet coltsfoot), grows abundantly in one of the greenhouses. Simply prepared by removing the strings from the stalk, slicing it into two-inch-long pieces, and soaking it in cold water for five minutes, the refreshing, crunchy pieces have a more pronounced flavour than other greens—slightly bitter, yet fragrant. The stalks can be used fresh in salads, in stir-fries, or pickled for use in winter soups.

Yoshiko’s partner passed away earlier this year, but she continues to farm with the help of her apprentices and her one employee, Madoka Yasumura, who represents the farm at the Moss Street Market. In addition to selling produce at the market, Umi Nami Farm regularly supplies Daidoco Japanese Restaurant in Victoria and offers a year-round produce box program.


Terra Nossa Farm

Organic livestock and poultry in the Cowichan Valley.

I think Evelyn Pereira must be the most cheerful farmer I have ever met. Joking that the mosquitoes drove her and her husband, Jesse, out of Prince George, she explains that it is their background in railway and construction that has allowed them to live out their dream of farming fulltime. This is actually their retirement, though they have never worked harder.

“It’s all about the rotation,” she explains to me as we walk through the fields. Just as with crops, the sheep and pigs travel through pastures in a choreographed dance with nature. This ensures the health of the land and the animals. “The chickens follow the sheep. After the pigs, alfalfa.”

The couple acquired the 26-acre farm five years ago and have accomplished an incredible amount with the land in a short time. Beyond the sheep, pigs and chickens (both brooders and layers), Evelyn shows me their three acres of blackberries as well as the field that yielded 800 pounds of sweet potatoes last harvest.  Then, with a special twinkle in her eye, she sweeps her arm to show off the new orchard—300 hazelnut and 100 oak saplings, all inoculated with Perigord black truffle spores. DNA samples have been submitted to the B.C. Truffle Association, and Evelyn laughs, saying, “If this works out, I’ll be putting up bleachers and charging admission!” If it doesn’t, they’ll just try something else. Asked what she perceives as the main challenges to farming in this day and age, Evelyn admits that there are some government regulations that are impediments to small-scale agriculture, citing the quota on her flock of laying chickens as an example. Though she would like to have a larger flock to meet the demand for their organic products, the marketing board controls how many they can have.

The Pereiras, who named their farm “our land” in Portuguese, have an ardent appreciation for good food, and the scope of their products speak to this. Showing me the goji berry plants, she tells me how this came about at breakfast one morning as Jesse was putting the new super food on his cereal. “Why aren’t we growing these?” he asked. A little Googling later, and the seeds were obtained and planted.

Terra Nossa sells their products at their farm store, open daily, as well as at the Moss Street Market and the Victoria Downtown Public Market Society’s Farmer’s Market in Market Square.


Vantreight Farms

Saanich Peninsula’s biggest farm transitions to organics.

As Ryan Vantreight takes me on a tour, a few Canada geese can be seen in one field, lunching on the tops of his oats. In another field, workers in lab whites are collecting samples of soil in search of the golden nematode. (This sounds to me like the first in a cinematic adventure trilogy, but Ryan explains that the farm lies within the quarantine area for this tiny species responsible for producing cysts on potato roots.) Last year there was no trace of the destructive creature found in these fields. If the soil passes the test again this year, the farm will be allowed to grow the nightshades – potatoes, tomatoes, etc.

Like everything in farming it seems, there are some massive hurdles involved. In the case of the nematode quarantine, this includes thorough cleaning of all farm equipment as it arrives on the farm to eliminate the chance of any contamination. But Ryan has grown accustomed to obstacles. Currently Vantreight Farms, with its 165,000 square feet of greenhouses and more than 750 acres of production land, is at the centre of a controversy regarding the rezoning and development of a non-arable (unsuitable for farming) section of their property now known as the “Hill Project.” Critics maintain that the proposed residential development will alter the rural character of the area. The fifth-generation farmer/general manager counters that the development is designed to allow them to continue farming. “People want to protect farm land – so do we.” The main goal, he adds, is to continue food production. “When it comes to food security, he says, there are two main components. Land and storage space for the produce. We have both.” By October of this year, around 80 acres will be certified organic, including the greenhouses and adjacent fields where all their herbs, greens, beets and berries are grown.

Vantreight produce is available weekly in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box. They also supply The Marina Restaurant in Oak Bay.


A great resource for information on Vancouver Island farms is the Island Farm Fresh website (, as well as their printed guide. For more on Cowichan Valley farms, visit the Cowichan Agriculture Society website (


SunTrio Farm

8214 East Saanich Rd.

Saanichton, B.C.



Umi Nami Farm

961 Matheson Lake Park Rd.

Metchosin, B.C.



Terra Nossa Family Farm

765 Kilmalu Rd.

Mill Bay, B.C.



Vantreight Farms

8277 Central Saanich Rd.

Saanichton, B.C.



Written By:

Rebecca Baugniet is a freelance food writer and editor living on Canada’s West Coast with her husband and their four children. The author of three published cookbooks, Rebecca has also written for EAT Magazine and for Montréal ...

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