YA’er Robin Sturley of Edible Earth Seeds interviewed farmer Corissa Lee, who grows garlic and vegetables in the Bella Coola Valley with fellow organic farmer Corine Singfield. Farming in remote locations has its unique challenges and rewards. Robin caught up with Corissa on a trip to Bella Coola in January 2014.
Robin Sturley: What is the name of your farm?
Corissa Lee: Our CSA is based on Corine’s farm, which doesn’t really have a name right now….! We’ve called it Monarch Glacier Farm in the past.
RS: So it’s not just you on the farm. What’s the setup?
CL: Corine’s got quite a large property here in the valley. In 2011 we grew a ½ acre of vegetables to supply a CSA, and we were present at the market as well. She’s got a sizable barn that is still in good condition and that we use mainly for curing garlic – at the moment growing garlic is our main operation. We got funding through the ‘Food Security Initiative’ program out of Vancouver and we acquired a shipping container. It has spray foam insulation, so it is supposed to be a future food storage space. The idea was to have 3 compartments and have the ‘cheese and wine cave’, and the more humid storage space for those crops that require higher humidity in storage, and then a really dry storage compartment. We are still working on that and would still have to hook that up to power.
RS: Where is the farm?
CL: It’s about 12kms up from the wharf in Bella Coola, in the Valley. It’s in a place called Walker Island, on Walker Island Rd.
RS: Where are you from?
CL: Prince Rupert, originally.
RS: How many acres do you farm on? You mentioned you had grown on a ½ acre in 2011, is that all you have access to, or do you plan to expand on that?
CL: Well there is a full acre that is being worked on, and ½ of that acre we grew in vegetables and now garlic. On the other ½ the soil is being built up with cover crops. There are berry bushes on that side as well, rhubarb, and part of that plot is actually the experimental mushroom plot, where we are trying to build soil with fungi. Then there is another, oh I’d say ¾ of an acre, that has been cleared of cottonwood and alder and is slated to be an orchard. Corine and Devon (who own the place) are interested in hazelnuts, and of course apples, cherries and plums too.
RS: Can you tell us the history of that land?
CL: It wasn’t used for almost 15 years before Corine and Devon bought the place, but it was a hog farm before that, for about 20 years. So there were pigs in the area where we are now planting, and where the orchard is going to be, and they also had a small chicken operation, I think just for eggs. Walker Island was an actual island at one point, (now it is accessible by road over Snootli Creek). It’s still a sacred place where the “big cedars” are protected, and First Nations still harvest cedar bark and other medicines. This is a direct quote from a Nuxalk Cultural Leader and teacher, Clyde Tallio: “There were villages on the other side of the river there, but they were washed away after the people were hit with smallpox. The village there was called Snut’li, place of the dog salmon. The Moody family are lineage holders from that area. Walker Island is what is called a ksnmsta (resource harvesting area) for the village near the Snootli Creek and where it met the main river.”
RS: How long have you been partnering with Corine, working on her land?
CL: This will be my 3rd summer.
RS: How did you get into farming?
CL: I was looking for an affordable way to travel and meet people, and I heard about WWOOFing. I just fell in love with getting my hands dirty, I guess! Fell in love with it right away, and WWOOFed for a couple of years. Then I was a farm intern for a couple of years, at two different farms, and this will be my…. I guess this will be my 6th year involved in agriculture! We’re hoping to use that plot this year, Sheenah (another farmer friend) and I. We’re throwing around ideas for a small CSA (because we both need to work), so something part time. We’d have to limit it. It would be fun to have a presence at the market too, the community really needs a revitalization!
RS: What do you love most about the land that you are farming on?
CL: Hmm…. what do I love most about it? I guess just seeing it evolve. I’ve been able to see what it’s like to break ground that has been fallow for 15 years, I get to see how much is going into it. I love the energy that we’ve been able to put in to it. And then, it’s also probably the job with the best view in the entire world, with mountains in every direction!
RS: No kidding! Bella Coola is a stunning place.
How much did you makes on the ½ acre when you were doing the CSA?
CL: I can’t really say. I think because it was a brand new operation, we were pretty much just getting established, and part of what we had to put into it was funding. Corine mainly looks after the finances. It sounds like we may have broken even, but there are a lot of factors there, since it was our first year of working that land. It can take a long time to get it up to making a profit, that’s for sure.
RS: For sure, that seems to be one of the realities of farming. So at this point you are not making a living from farming. Would you say that you aspire to make a living primarily from farming, or do you see it as a part-time thing for you?
CL: I think it will always be a part-time thing, mainly because I have so many other aspirations. I would love to make a living from farming! But as far as I can tell with farming, it’s more fun to make food than it is to make money.
RS: What is your favorite farming activity?
CL: Well, being a wannabe garlic farmer, I would say harvesting garlic! Also pruning berry bushes, trees, etc.
RS: What is your motivation to farm?
CL: Definitely to improve local food security. Also quality of food: I’m a little bit too aware of what’s going on with industrial food.
RS: What has been your biggest farming challenge?
CL: Hmm. That’s a big topic! I’m trying to think of how to narrow it down…. Here in Bella Coola, I would say marketing, and building the network and capacity in the valley. There aren’t a lot of social groups that are really involved and really stick together. I guess it’s kind of hard to get help when you need it, and find organisations that will, say, let you rent their printer, things like that.
RS: So, a lack of resources available to farmers for free, or at least affordably, to help support them in their businesses.
CL: Yes. I find I like to have my hands in the dirt, so when I get behind a computer, I think to myself ‘I wish somebody who knew what they were doing would do this work for me!’, you know, there aren’t a lot of people with the technical skills to make the pretty posters, who know how to print that out, etc. It’s been a hard place to network.
RS: Right. So the community knowledge base that you could tap into is not necessarily there yet. It sounds like part of successful farming in Bella Coola also involves developing that supportive knowledge base in the area.
CL: Well, I think that knowledge might be here, it’s just knowing when and where to get together with the people and talk about it. For example, there are a lot of events that go missed, because there aren’t a lot of ways to get the word out in Bella Coola. Most people still rely on the old bulletin board, I mean the physical bulletin board at the school!
CL: Not everyone is online, so there are definitely people falling through the cracks. So I guess you could summarise that as community capacity building around food security.
RS: How did it feel to meet Corine, and have the opportunity to work on that piece of land?
CL: For me it was big to finally decide I was going to stay somewhere for longer than 6 months. It feels good to know that there is a piece of land, that there has been a lot of work put into it, and it is owned by somebody who is happy to have me doing the work, who is open to me doing pretty much anything on the land. Corine is not always in the valley, there’s a ½ acre there that a ton of cow manure has gone into, so now we know it’s fertile! We know that there is a rototiller there, and that everything is set up, so that is really encouraging.
RS: What farming tool could you not live without?
CL: My garden fork!
RS: What tool do you wish you had?
CL: Hmm… I’m trying to think of what Corine has! We’ve got a lot of tools. Backhoe! A small backhoe. That would make some things a lot easier.
RS: If you had a farming superpower, what would it be?
CL: Something to do with quack grass…. Not breaking off any quack grass roots when I weed it! Pull one little root and have the whole mat come out at once.
RS: If you weren’t a farmer, what would you be?
CL: I would be a tour guide, a hiking guide of some sort, trails and wildlife viewing, stuff like that.
RS: What is your favorite vegetable to grow in the summer?
RS: How about in winter?
CL: I’d have to say….. cabbage.
RS: What do you feel you have had to sacrifice the most in order to farm?
CL: I guess I would say that I have sacrificed a more stable lifestyle, one that would be possible with a more stable source of income.
RS: What is your least favorite farmer stereotype?
CL: Probably that we’re all hippies. Do hippies work hard??
RS: What inspires you to farm?
CL: I would say the community. The people I have met, going from farm to farm, were a type of person that I hadn’t really spent a lot of time with before. They were just the coolest, most down-to-earth, independent and creative group that I had found.
RS: Wow, that’s a pretty big compliment to farmers!
CL: It’s true! I just loved the idea of self-sustainability. I had never really thought about it before. Independence in food and medicine, as well as everything that came with the lifestyle, like making your own beer and wine, and just all sorts of home crafting and food from scratch. Offsetting that dollar value by doing a lot of it yourself. That’s the fun part about it. Yea, you can work your crappy job so that you can make $15 for a pack of beer, or you can brew your own beer, and it can cost you $1 a beer, and you can spend your time working in the garden.
RS: What is the biggest challenge for young farmers in the Bella Coola valley?
CL: The young crowd in Bella Coola – people in their 20s and 30s – is for the most part revolving. They are, for example, new teachers, here for the first couple of years, and then they are gone. Same with nurses. I think a lot of prospective young farmers who might end up in Bella Coola actually leave because they need more of a social scene. As it is, it’s not enough. You know, you want to work hard and you want spend your time doing what you love in that sense, but if you don’t have that social scene after work… especially in the winter, it’s a long winter. It can be hard to stick around.
RS: I think it takes a special kind of person to decide that they are willing to sacrifice that social life for living in such an amazingly beautiful place!
CL: Yes, I’ve seen a few stick around simply because they just love the place. But there have been lots more who have left, because they wonder ‘where’s the local hub?’ or ‘where’s the café to go to meet people?’ There just really isn’t much here, it’s a small town.
RS: Well, maybe that is part of what you and Corine could do on your farm, is open up a little hub and café! Supply all the food for it, etc! chuckle
CL: Yea, those are the kinds of things we need here for sure! That would help to attract new farmers.
RS: So what do you think the future of farming is in Bella Coola? Does it seem like it is heading in the right direction?
CL: I think so. At the moment there are really only a few farms in the valley that are producing enough food to distribute. For the most part it is homesteading, and folks who are more self-sufficient. But I hear more and more about people learning about more sustainable methods, organic farming, permaculture, and things like that. In the past here, there was so much rich, fertile soil, but the settlers who came farmed it until it was almost completely depleted. A lot of people now are looking at their soil and thinking ‘We need to keep this soil fertile, because we can’t farm like our ancestors did anymore’. With conventional farms that can lead to over-fertilising, and they are finding their crops are having all sorts of problems, so they are starting to look at more organic methods of revitalizing the soil. It has definitely been depleted since 100 years ago when the potato farming started.
RS: Is there anything you would like to say to other young farmers in BC?
CL: It would be ideal to start a dialogue with other communities. Bella Coola used to supply produce all the way up to Prince Rupert. I know of some connections nowadays, but if we could start talking with other communities, and find out where the demand actually is, find out where the market is. A lot of people here don’t think anyone will buy their vegetables, so it’s just a question of creating that network. We could definitely use some help educating the local population on the value of locally- and organically-grown food. Whether that be vegetables, or meat, eggs, etc, anything that has been well cared-for. Educating people on the difference between that, and what you get at the grocery store. It seems like there is money here, because there are a lot of government jobs, but it’s just creating that convenience for people. Capacity building!
3 thoughts on “AGRARIANNAIRE #4 With Corissa Lee – Farming in Bella Coola”
Hey! I wanted to know if they have a link or contact info to come and help?! I am 100% interested, this quiet, wilder, hard work is what I love to do!
Please contact me 🙂
I know this was written many years ago, but if you all are looking for a pair of hard working hands for the summer, send me an email!
We recommend reaching out to the farm directly. Good luck!