Far up the valley, safe from the snow, a kitchen table is loaded with seedlings and transplants. When I first spoke to Delaney Zayac (then 32) and Alisha Dick (then 29) at the end of their debut year running Icecap Organics, they were part of a wave of new young organic farmers starting lives and farms in the Pemberton Valley, and I was curious to know how whether a Back to the Land movement was afoot. The day they met with me, over coffees at Mt Currie Coffee Co, where Delaney’s photos had just been exhibited, was one of their first days off in, oh, about, 8 months.
Now going into their fourth growing season, I checked in to find out how life is down on the farm, and what an IceCap Organics harvest box will look like this year.
When I talked to you at the end of your first season, your five year goal was to be here, farming ten acres of your own land, with a couple of employees and one day off a week. So where are you at? How are you doing?
It’s working out for the most part. We got some land, have employees, farming 10 acres about but still not getting many days off during the growing season… maybe some day.
Charlotte Gill just won the BC Book Award for her nonfiction book Eating Dirt? How did treeplanting prepare you to become organic farmers?
I think planting was good preparation for anything life could throw at us in general. We learned how to work through hardship, both physical and mental, and we learned a lot about working with other people and building good relationships. We both ended our planting careers with pretty intense management stints, so we also learned a lot about time management and dealing with people.
How have your lives changed since having a baby? Did the arrival of your little one affirm your decision to choose farming as a career path?
Life just got way busier all the time since having a child, but richer and fuller too. We feel really happy that we are farmers when it comes to family; we are both working from home and get to see our family quite a bit considering how many hours we put in to our work.
Do you ever think your University education was wasted?
No way. Alisha got a degree in agroecology, so hers is directly relevant, and Delaney’s degree in language and communication comes in to play almost daily. Business is dynamic, there are numerous instances where creative communicative skills are good to have in everything from production to sales.
Tell me what the average dinner looks like at Ice Cap?
Roasted rosemary chicken stuffed with garlic with fingerling potatoes, beets, parsnips, carrots, rutabaga and garlic cloves all roasting in the same pot as our chicken, with a big arugula salad. Everything in this meal is from our coop, fields or cellar. We try to keep it this way for most of the year… this past growing season we added a herb garden and did lots of sour kraut and canning to add lots of flavour and preserves. Sometime we have venison (which we hunt ourselves) or we trade for local pork or lamb, other times we just eat all veggies. We love food!
After leasing two pieces of farmland for your first year, how big a deal was it when you actually bought your place?
It was a super big deal for us, we were so stoked to just stroll out of our house and in to our field. We still use our leased land a lot, but now we have a base to operate from.
What made you commit? After the first year of experiment? (What would have been the sign from the universe to give up/throw in the towel?)
We’re not really in to quitting, apparently no matter what the universe says… we’re both really stubborn. That’s not always a good thing, but in this case it was. Our first year was super challenging and hard, but it was enough fun to keep going.
Is it still an experiment? A work in progress? How much trial and error was involved in working out what could grow here?
I think it will always be somewhat of an experiment, trying new things and learning from trial and error. We figured out what we could really capitalize on in that first year, but there is still a lot to learn. Every year’s weather is different, case in point: 2011 was very challenging for some crops that totally rocked the years previous, so it just goes to show you never know…
What do you wish people were thinking about, when they write out their weekly grocery list?
I think people should try to make more time in their lives to eat together, cook together and sort of get to know each other better around their food. Eating and grocery shopping and cooking can be so fun, eating meals together can be such a great way to spend time with family and friends. I think as a society we need to make the grocery list revolve around what meals we will cook and eat together.
Why did you guys choose Pemberton?
What do you grow? Who do you sell it to?
We grow over 30 different kinds of vegetables, some of them are winter storage crops. We mostly sell directly to the people, at farmers markets and through our Harvest Boxes. We are entertaining the idea of expanding a bit and selling to the local grocery stores as well, so that may happen in the future too.
You offer the only CSA harvest box in the Whistler/Pemberton region (that’s actually locally grown.) What comes in a harvest box?
Our Harvest boxes are delivered on Tuesdays. For the most part all the veggies are harvested on Monday and Tuesday, so the boxes are super fresh. Everything is organic and grown by us, except the fruit option. We realized there was a big demand for us to add fruit to the boxes, so last year we started offering a fruit option. We don’t grow fruit yet, so we get seasonal fruit from Snowy Mountain Organic Farm (tree fruit) or the Hare Family Farm (Pemberton organic blueberries). So in a box people get super fresh local organic vegetables and, if they want, fruit too. We are competitive with the local grocery stores in our pricing, so people can expect to get the same or more produce for their money as they would if they went to a grocery store.
How many customers? It started at 30, right? How has it grown over the years? What proportion of your produce is sold this way?
This year we will take over 100 boxes. We sell out every year. We sell about 30% of our produce this way, but we’d like to increase that ratio…
Where do you source your seed from? Do you try and save a lot of your own?
Johnny’s Seeds and High Mowing Seeds in the US or Stellar Seeds and Full Circle Seeds in BC are good as they trial and test many varieties of each crop and suggest different varieties for different growing conditions. They have fairly sizable seed growing operations and they are as much a seed farm as a seed distribution company. We really like that – it means when we talk to them about which varieties will work for our situation, they know from firsthand experience. Plus they actually come up with new varieties from their own trial and error, which gives us better options. We find some other seed companies to be just seed warehouses. We do save some of our own seed, but we still order most of it from seed growers.
What’s your favourite time of year?
Springtime! When there is still a big base of stable snow up high on the north faces to go skiing and mountaineering on, but the valley is sunny and things are growing a blooming. It’s so nice to be tilling the fields and starting to plant stuff out, yet still be planning and pursuing climbs and descents in the mountains.
What mentors have you had over this first phase of your farming enterprise?
We have some amazing local farmers that have been such an inspiration. The Helmers have helped us so much, they are amazing. Bob Mitchell, John Beks and the Kuurnes and Bruce Miller have been really kind to us too, they all have so much knowledge and have been so helpful. Delaney’s dad has been a great mentor too, he’s come out and helped build the farm up, sometimes for weeks at a time, and always has lots of good advice.
If you were to write a job description for a farmer, what would it read? How did you know you had what it took, not having grown up on farms?
I think to be a successful farmer you have to work really hard, but you also have to work really smart. You must never give up, no matter what, and seize every opportunity. You must be willing to take risks, and never be afraid of failure, and you have to know how to find fun in your work.
The average age of a Canadian farmer is around 60. Is there a back to the land renaissance happening, luring a new generation of farmer onto the land? Why might it be successful when the 1970s movement wasn’t?
I’m not sure that there is a back to the land renaissance happening. There might be a little spike in the number of young farmers happening, but I think the big shift will come from pure necessity.
As the market demands more local food, and as people start caring about where and how their food is grown, we will correspondingly see more young people get into farming. Right now I see a lot of people getting into it because they like the idea of it, or the lifestyle. That is a positive sign for sure, but we aren’t seeing a big influx of young farmers getting into it for the money – because there isn’t a lot of money to be made in it. I might be able to make a living, but if I worked this hard at almost any other career I could make a living too, probably a better living – I make a point of not working out my hourly wage!
Every young farmer I know right now is in it because they want to have a positive influence on their community, or because they want to raise their kids in a good way, or because they just love growing. But I feel that the big rush into farming will happen when gas and water and land and resources in general make the current industrial food system financially illogical. Right now some of the biggest food crops grown are grown at a loss, they are subsidized by tax dollars and essentially grown from fossil fuels, the current model is unsustainable. When this collapses, we will see young people really get into farming.