Farming in the Queen Charlottes

“I will be in town and therefore near a phone this Tuesday between 9 & 5,” wrote Lynda Dixon in an email, replying to my request to interview her. Ok, already I was intrigued. Her response implied that she wasn’t normally near a phone. Which probably had a lot to do with where her farm was. On Maude Island in the Queen Charlottes or Haida Gwai, meaning Islands of the People.

Born and raised in North Vancouver, Lynda fell in love with Maude Island when she took a nursing job in the Charlottes 21 years ago. “It had a pebble beach, it was wild and forested with a meadow in the front. I just thought it would be a beautiful place to live,” she said.

Laird, the man she was dating, now her husband, was not as enthusiastic. He had lived on the islands all his life and knew what it took to live in a remote setting. But four years later, they picked Lynda’s log cabin up off the beach at Charlotte City and floated it over to Maude on a log raft.

“We were cooking a turkey as we floated across,” Lynda laughs. “The only way to move. You don’t have to pack a single box.” They lived in that cabin for 10 years before building a house.

The first years were spent felling trees and clearing the land. The plan was to have a market garden and greenhouse. They now run a three acre market garden growing beets, carrots, onions, potatoes, lettuce and peas. The greenhouse? Well, it’s still just a frame, but the plastic sits nearby at the ready.

“Root crops grow really well here,” says Lynda. “Carrots are the most popular.” According to Lynda, most of the agricultural belt on the Islands tends to have very sandy soil, but the soil here is inexplicably rich.

The produce feeds 36 families; all belong to their CSA (Community Shared Agriculture). Every Wednesday for 18 weeks of the year, they box up the fresh food, pile it into their boat and make the 20 minute crossing to Charlotte City where they deliver each box to the doorsteps of their shareholders. Every Saturday they sell the remaining produce at the Charlotte City Farmers’ market, a small but growing event in this city of 1000 people.

“We had two vendors to start, now we have five.” The other vendors sell shell fish, processed meats, hydroponic tomatoes and baked goods.

“People are becoming more attuned to buying local here. They are delighted with the freshness and quality of the produce too. We sell out within a couple hours most market days.”

When I ask about the challenges of growing on a remote island, she names many issues to which BC growers can relate. Deer, kept out by a good fence. Slugs that thrive in the cool, wet climate. Not enough sun to sweeten up the fruit.

Living off the grid has unique challenges too. They have to freight in everything they need including soil amendments and animal feed, which is costly. (Lynda thinks freight subsidies for farmers would help encourage more people to grow food.) Thanks to Laird’s ingenuity, they have some power; a turbine generates electricity from the creek that runs through their property. They also have hot and cold running water and flush toilets, but no phone or computer, just a marine radio phone for emergencies.

It is the lack of community that is perhaps the most difficult. Their family consists of three kids, 50 chickens, some ducks, rabbits and various other “pets”. The only other island inhabitants besides the wildlife are a couple of caretakers. Lynda wishes there were more farmers nearby so she could exchange information with them.

“We have a lot of Wwoofers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) working here and we really enjoy having them. They are part of our social life.”

Even to get the organic inspectors to their farm is an expensive, epic venture. Fortunately, they have “low risk farm designation” which means the PACS inspectors don’t have to come every year.

“The biggest challenge is to try to create and maintain agriculture here. Very few people farm and stick to it. It’s expensive to grow here.” Lynda and Laird have had various jobs over the years to supplement their income. She was talking to me today from her “second job”, a food processing co-op they helped set up a few years ago.

“We are so dependent on imports. Even when the Queen of the North ferry sank, people started hoarding food here. What happens when the oil does run out? We are in a very precarious position,” she says in a grave tone. Then her voice brightens. “This isn’t a money-making venture, I just love growing food and believe in having a secure source of food on the Island.”

This article first appeared in BC Organic Grower, Fall 2009.

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