Locals growing some good eating

Farmers in Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge are carving out a niche for themselves

Emma Davison

Emma Davison

It’s 9 a.m. and the Davison family has been hard at work for hours. There are still boxes to unpack, display stands to set up, kitchen appliances to install, and furniture to arrange before the Golden Ears Cheeseworks officially opens on Tuesday.

And, of course, there’s still the cheese to make.

“I’ve had about two hours sleep,” says Emma Davison as she and her mother Lynn pull together the finishing touches on the Maple Ridge boutique cheese shop.

With dwindling profit margins becoming the norm for smaller farms across the country, the Davisons are among many local farmers who have had to get creative to diversify their operations and stay profitable.

The shop sits on the family’s 12-acre farm on 128th Avenue, which has been in the family since 1902. Lynn and her husband Kerry still farm the land, growing cedar hedges, as well as silage feed for Kerry’s brother’s dairy farm next door.

Four years ago the Davison’s came up with the idea to expand their farm operations to include cheesemaking, and open a retail store as a way to keep their farm profitable and include their daughters Emma and Jenna in the family business.

“We were worried the hedging cedars would be too much work for the girls,” says Lynn. “It’s not something the girls seemed too interested in.”

The family makes nine varieties of cheese, as well as fresh butter, with the milk from the Davison dairy farm next door. By branching out to create artisanal value-added products, Emma hopes the farm will remain a going concern for years to come.

“Farmers aren’t business people or marketers, but they have to be nowadays,” she says.

Carving out a niche is made all the more important when one considers who small local farmers are competing against for consumer dollars. Much of the food that is produced for Canadian consumers comes from industrial mega-farms, owned by large corporations, notes Emma.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2009 Farm Financial Survey, farms in B.C. that collected less than $150,000 in revenue annually saw their average annual farm sales decrease from $58,413 in 2005 to $54,802 in 2009. Meanwhile, larger farming operations saw revenues increase over the same span.

“They use the cheapest labour and the cheapest ingredients to make the cheapest product,” Emma says. “As a smaller farm we can’t really compete with their prices.”

The Davison’s solution? Offer a high quality, one-of-a-kind product in a unique setting. The Golden Ears Cheeseworks is just as much about selling the rural lifestyle as it is about selling homemade cheeses, with it’s warm colours, folk art, and relaxed atmosphere. In addition to the cheeses made on site, the shop will also feature local produce, and host cooking demonstrations.

“We need to give people a reason to come down here,” Emma says. “We are offering an experience and we want people to come in here and feel like they are family.”

Pitt Meadows blueberry farmer Sheila Martins is also hoping to market the rural lifestyle to city dwellers throughout the Lower Mainland.

In total, Martin operates 12 hectares of farmland, four hectares of which is used to grow blueberries, with the remainder used to grow more than 500 different species of nursery plants. In addition to her farming operations, Martin has profited from the movie industry. Since 2003, eight movie productions have used her farm as a filming location.

Martin has also opened the doors of her farm to the public with her website www.farmhouselifestyle.com in an attempt to take advantage of the growing agri-tourism market.

“We are living in a metropolitan area with millions of people who don’t have access to farms,” she says. “For many people, visiting a farm is a very enjoyable experience.”

The public is invited to pick their own blueberries on the farm and picnic around a landscaped pond. Martin even brings in guest chefs for cooking demonstrations in the farm’s rustic farmhouse.

Martin believes that if farms are going to continue to be profitable, farmers need to get creative.

“Farming has to encompass more than just the planting and harvesting,” she says. “It has to be sustainable, not just environmentally, but economically as well.”

With profit margins slim, a bad season can wipe out farmers without different revenue streams.

“It’s tough for farmers to make ends meet,” says Martin.

Martin says she also plans to add value-added products, such as organic fruit wines and frozen berries, in an effort to create a year-round revenue stream. Having a diverse revenue stream can help limit financial exposure to poor weather or disease.

“This year has been terrible with the weather,” says Martin. “It rained for eight months, so crops are late, and there’s the risk of fungal infections.”

Coupled with overproduction in the US, 2011 has hit many farmers in the pocket book.

However, having a number of different revenue streams has helped Martin somewhat mitigate the economic damage.

Martin hopes to see more of an effort at the municipal level to support local agri-tourism.

“Agri-tourism is not well represented in Pitt Meadows compared to other areas of the Fraser Valley,” she says. “It is a viable stream of farming and well-represented everywhere else.”

Like many farms,  Martin’s is a family run business. Her two daughters, both university graduates, work on the farm.

If farming is going to remain economically viable, Martin says, there needs to be more done to reach the next generation of farmers.

According to Agriculture Canada, the average age of those working in the farming nationally is 51 years old, and fewer than 23,000 people under the age of 35 are employed in farming.

“I think education is large part of that,” Martin says.

However, few will pursue farming as a career if there is no money in it.

“Farmers have to diversify their revenue options if they want to survive,” Martin says.

Brad Hopcott is 25 years-old and sees a bright future for smaller independent farms. His family have been farming in Pitt Meadows since 1932, when the family bought a dairy farm along Old Dewdney Trunk Road. Hopcott himself started working on the family farm full time once he graduated high school, and believes the next generation of farmers will have to be creative to remain profitable, but opportunities abound.

Today, the family raises beef cattle, cranberries, corn, and number of other crops, and sells them through their butcher shop and grocery store.

The family also operates Meadows Maze, a corn field maze tourist attraction, complete with petting zoo, hay rides, and kid’s play park.

“It’s hard to compete with larger farms on the basis of price,” says Hopcott. “So we compete on the basis of quality.”

The beef the Hopcotts raise is hormone-free, anti-biotic-free and grain-fed.

Like many local farmers, the Hopcotts are hitching their wagon to the growing local food movement, which has helped awaken an interest in many urban and suburbanites about where they get their food from. The growing market for locally-produced goods has been a boon for many farms in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows as consumers in Vancouver seek out food grown close to home.

A growing venue for so-called “locavores” are farmers’ markets, which have been growing in popularity across the Lower Mainland.

Last year, the weekly Haney Farmers’ Market expanded to add a second weekly market in Pitt Meadows.

Market manager Eileen Dwillies said consumers are drawn to the market because they can get fresh, local produce at reasonable prices.

“Grocery stores use weeks-old produce, they keep it refrigerated or on ice so it doesn’t spoil,” she says. “Everything at the market has been picked that morning or the day before.”

You can also talk directly to the farmer who grows the vegetables.

“Some people say it costs a little bit more, but if you care about what you are putting into your mouth, it’s more than worth it,” says Dwillies.

Anywhere from 40 to 60 vendors take part in the market every weekend. Of those vendors, 80 per cent sell locally-grown produce and meat.

If people in Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge want to continue living amongst the pastoral farms that surround the community, they need to start supporting those local farms, says Emma Davison

“It’s good for the community, and it’s good for the economy too,” she says. “That money stays here.”

However, more could be done by various levels of government to help support smaller farms remain profitable, she contends. Although numerous provincial and federal programs exist to assist farmers through training or subsidies, navigating the system can be onerous.

“The bureaucracy of the government is difficult to deal with,” says Lynn Davison. “It’s a huge process trying to find what’s out there. It’s like trying to navigate a spider’s web.”

Emma says she would like to see a resource guide or a person farmers can contact to help them find out just what they are eligible for.

“Farmers need to spending their time out in the field, not at a computer,” she says.

• To learn more about local agri-tourism, visit www.mapleridge-pittmeadows.com/explore/agri-tourism.

• The Golden Ears CheeseWorks is holding its grand opening this Tuesday, Aug. 23, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. goldenearscheeseworks.com

• Meadows Maze is open daily for the summer season. www.meadowsmaze.com