By Steph Wetherell
It’s difficult to sum up the magic of farming on the Gulf Islands without first talking about the colourful and eclectic collection of people who inhabit such places. The population of most islands is a wonderful mix of new faces seeking an alternative life, and families who’ve been there for generations. One islander recently told me that you weren’t considered a local until you’d lived there for at least 20 years.
They’re a place where people go to reconnect with the land, to address their work/life balance, and to live in the kind of community that you only really get on an island. The cut-off nature of the location brings with it a self reliance that I’ve never seen before. People are careful about what they bring on and off island, help to support island businesses and implement projects such as the Cortes and Hornby Island ‘Freestores’. People share tools and resources, and bartering and trading are common practices. Community potlucks and meals happen regularly, and you get waved at as you drive around. In a world where public transport doesn’t exist, hitchhiking is a common form of transport, something that was highlighted one day when a farmer regaled me with a story about how she once hitch hiked with a goat from one island to another, as if this was a perfectly everyday activity.
This all affects the farming community. Without on-island farms, fresh produce is otherwise shipped in by ferry, making it expensive, adding to the food miles, and losing that connection to knowing where your food comes from. On Thetis Island, the farm I wwoofed on was offering the only CSA on the island. Thetis is a small island, with a population of around 350 people, and there is no proper food store on the island, only a tiny shop at one of the marinas. So to do their food shopping, people have to travel to Chemainus, Nanaimo or Duncan. Suddenly the provision of an on-island CSA becomes so much more significant, providing around 40 shares of local, seasonal and organic food to people there – a vital resource.
Farming in such a location also comes with a lot of challenges. Everything you need has to be shipped on or off the island. So onto the island you may have to bring feed, livestock, hay, fertilizer, building materials; off island you may have to take animals to be slaughtered, equipment to be repaired and some produce. This is less of a challenge in some of the more connected islands like Salt Spring, where you might be able to find more of this on island, or it’s a shorter ride off. But as soon as you talk about the likes of Cortes, which is two ferries and a drive away from Campbell River, or Lasquiti, which has only a passenger ferry, this gets to be a significant issue. On Cortes and Hornby Islands, the farms I stayed on were almost completely self-sufficient, only bringing minimal external food such as grains and oils onto the farm, and trying to use on-site materials and resources within the farm itself.
During my 5 months wwoofing on the Gulf Islands, I learnt about biodynamic principles and winter farming on Thetis, seed saving and off grid living on Hornby, self sufficiency and community farming on Cortes, and experienced lambing during a snowstorm and power cut on Saturna. This snowstorm also gave me a chance to experience the strength of community that is typical on the islands, when someone made an emergency delivery of milk via boat when we couldn’t get over the mountain road to the store.
My time on the islands has left me with a strong sense of the community and self sufficiency that island life brings, as well as the vital importance and additional challenges that such a location involves. Island farming takes determination and dedication, but is also a central and valued part of the community life, and one that needs to be supported for a sustainable future.