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LanouvelleProvence_250.jpg

Often it’s said that men personify their vehicles, and the three professionals standing in a fallow field near the Oyster River on Vancouver Island definitely do. Lifelong farmer Patrick Evans’s truck is littered with leftover hay, mud covers the sides and there’s the distinct aroma of cow manure.

His appearance matches that of his truck: with bed head, dirt-crusted jeans, Carhartt work jacket and a five-o’clock shadow on his round, smiley face at 11 a.m. “These are my clean clothes,” he says with a laugh. Jay Oddleifson’s Honda Ridgeline pickup, on the other hand, looks like it just rolled off the showroom floor, with a cargo bed clean enough to be used as an office desk, which it often is. Oddleifson looks as neat as his truck, in gold-rimmed shades, a crisp windbreaker and pressed slacks. As for James Street, well, this city slicker doesn’t own a truck of any description. The chef’s sporty car wouldn’t make it down the potholed farm road, let alone across a field, so he caught a ride with Evans. He looks ready for a night on the town, in a bright orange T-shirt, black shiny shoes, black pants and slicked-back hair. This farmer, former ski-hill CFO and chef are an unlikely trio to be making small talk in a field – let alone conspiring to make profits in farming. But then, farming ain’t what it used to be. By combining their talents and passions, these three are working to find new ways of making money from the rich soil and favourable climate of the east coast of Vancouver Island. It’s just the kind of synergy the Comox Valley Economic Development Society (CVEDS) wanted to encourage when it decided, in 2006, to brand the region stretching from Hornby Island to just north of Evans’s Evansdale Farm as the “New Provence.” In Provence, France, locals, cooking schools and restaurants use high-quality locally made produce, cheeses and meats. The idea is to do the same here, but with a B.C. twist. The hope is the food and food-processing investment push will increase the $27 million in farm receipts pulled in by Valley farmers in 2005. Launched in October 2006, the branding strategy is already bearing fruit, with more than $10 million in new investment planned for the Valley in everything from wineries to a multimillion-dollar berry-processing facility. To answer the question on the lips of almost everyone: yes, there is money to be made in farming, especially in the food-processing side of agribusiness. It’s just like any other business, say agriculture consultants; if you do all the little things right, you can do well. Details such as direct marketing and adding value make a big difference, and Oddleifson plans to do both. The former CFO of Mount Washington Alpine Resort was looking for a way to satiate his desire to own a vineyard when he met a Scot who had heard Vancouver Island has great potential for whisky, thanks to its clean water and barley-growing climate. The two started looking for land. The CVEDS economic development officer matched Oddleifson and his Scottish friend with Evans, who was looking for innovative new ways to use his pastures. “When we got here,” Oddleifson says, looking across the field to the waters of the Strait of Georgia lapping at its edge, “everything else [we] looked at went to a distant second place. The whole atmosphere fit in with our vision.” Evans partnered with Oddleifson and his Scottish partner, Andrew Currie, to grow the barley and build the Shelter Point Distillery on his farm. News of the planned distillery tempted Mike Nicolson, an ex-master Scotch distiller from the famed Lagavulin distillery, out of retirement. “He’s been making Scotch his whole life,” Oddleifson says. “He lives in Victoria and couldn’t let this happen without being involved. We’re really lucky to have him.” This year, Evans, a long-time Comox Valley landowner, will plant 16 hectares of barley to produce about 25,000 litres of alcohol, which in turn will be processed into 40,000 bottles of single-malt whisky. “The ability to grow barley here is unsurpassed,” Evans says. “People don’t grow it here because the ground is worth too much for the value you get from barley. You have to add value to it.” As the first few crops distill, whisky will be brought in from overseas and sold with the Shelter Point label. After about three years, partway through its distillation process, the immature booze will be mixed with Evans’s milk to make Irish Cream or added to local chocolate makers’ truffles. “Here we have a way of taking something grown here and combining it with something else from the farm to create something special,” Evans says. “That’s better than condos.” The two kilometres of oceanfront on the farm are a developer’s dream in this booming retirement region, but “you can’t create an economy on condos,” says Evans. “If you develop the farmland, you lose it forever. So we have to diversify.” Heeding his own advice, he’s looking beyond dairy and whisky to cheesecake. Evans and Street, the sharply dressed chef, are contemplating opening a cheesecake factory that would use the farm’s dairy and the berries Evans plans to plant. It’s this kind of talk that makes CVEDS executive director John Watson smile. Wearing an expensive-looking suit and tie – and looking slightly out of place considering Courtenay’s casual vibe – he commands an air of importance. Although not the originator of the phrase, he has been at the heart of the New Provence brand since its inception. The brand was developed during a brainstorming process started in 2004. The CVEDS is under contract to the Comox Strathcona Regional District to review its development strategy every five years. “It needs to be built on science,” Watson explains, “versus a desire by us.” In two phases, with the help of Synergy Management Group Ltd., the CVEDS narrowed its focus to six main areas: air transportation, environmental technology, tourism, capitalizing on the 2010 Olympics, encouraging more value-added wood processing, and the focus of the New Provence campaign: food and beverage processing. “In business you look for gaps to fill,” Watson says. “In our area, you couldn’t have asked for a more amazing opportunity than for farming.” In the Fraser Valley, 96 per cent of farmland is in heavy use. Even on southern Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley and Saanich Peninsula, virtually every acre is covered by orchard, vineyard or pasture. But of the Comox Valley’s 44,000 hectares of identified potential farmland, only one-third is in use for agriculture. The rest is forested, unused or underused. Land prices here are a fraction of those in other agriculture regions: in Chilliwack, an acre of grassland would cost about $40,000; in the Comox Valley, it costs only $15,000. What makes the opportunity even more startling is the climate and variety of soil types within those 44,000 hectares. Government mapping in the 1980s identified six different soil types in the Comox Valley, as varied as peat bogs (perfect for cranberries) and sandy grape-growing soils like those in France. The climate is equally diverse, with huge ranges in the number of frost-free days per year, and the amount of rainfall and sunlight across a geographic region that takes only 30 minutes to traverse by car and is less than 15 kilometres wide. [pagebreak] When Street, VP of the North Vancouver Island Chefs’ Association, started planning an opening ceremony dinner for the Paralympics World Cup cross-country-ski event at Mount Washington in March, he identified 90 different products grown and processed in the Comox Valley, including 10 types of berries. As an extra bonus, the fast-growing Vancouver Island population is a hungry consumer for local produce. The opportunity was obvious; now Watson had to figure out how to sell it. With the chance to ski, golf, fish and sail all in the same day, “the number-one thing people say when they think of the Comox Valley is tourism,” he says. “That’s great, but it doesn’t help with agriculture investment.” The New Provence slogan, though, automatically brings an image to almost everyone’s mind. Whether it’s rolling hills of lavender, cooking schools, fine dining or farmers’ markets, it creates an image of value-added, high-quality food production and agriculture, Watson says, and that’s what the Comox Valley wants to be known for. “We don’t want low-value agriculture,” such as feed crops or hundreds of acres of wheat, he says, or hobby farmers with four lawn-mowing goats or someone looking for a property-tax break. “We want people to actually produce something on the land.” “Any branding exercise defines and adds value to your product,” says Tom Henry, editor of Small Farm Canada magazine, who lectures on branding at agriculture shows. “It’s the only way small farms and regions will make money. You add a story to your product and people will pay more for it.” New Provence does that, he says. And the Comox Valley isn’t alone. Farming regions and communities across Canada are using the strategy. For instance, a Manitoba region rich in Belgian immigrants is successfully producing value-added foods usually found only in Belgium. The Doukhobors of south central B.C. produce distinctive Ukrainian dishes and draw tourists with the promise of authentic perogies. Tourism plays into the branding story, but, Henry says, a better strategy for farmers is to “look in your own backyard.” Consumer trends toward choosing organic and observing the 100-mile diet (cutting down on food transportation to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions) and even worrying about food security all point to opportunities in feeding the local market. The biggest growth sector in farming, driven by this demand, is market-garden farmers who sell directly to consumers. Grocery-store chains are also jumping on the bandwagon by filling their produce shelves with locally grown food when they can. “The bulk of your revenue as a small farmer comes from your local community buying locally,” Henry says. The average Canadian eats 9.7 chickens per year. So if every person in the Comox Valley – 58,600 people in 2006 and growing fast – ate only locally raised chickens, Valley poultry producers would have to raise more than 568,400 chickens a year. “As a producer, you only need a small percentage of that market to make money,” Henry says. All the farmers agree that more needs to be done to get local produce onto local store shelves and dinner tables. A big step toward that is improved distribution. “A chef doesn’t have time to drive around to all the farmers to pick up everything he needs,” says chef James Street. “And a farmer doesn’t have the time either. It’s so much easier for a chef to call North Thompson [a big food distributor]. But then, everything comes from Chile and California.” Street says 2,500 restaurants on Vancouver Island want to buy local produce. The area is practically begging for a central distribution business that works with farmers, restaurants and consumers to get local goods on shelves, menus and plates. (Watson says one’s in the works.) As part of the New Provence strategy and to fill the gap between demand and access, the CVEDS produces a guide to local farmers who sell produce on their farms. Each farm in the Growers Guide gets a little write–up that outlines what produce is sold, the farm’s operating hours and how to get there. It’s distributed annually through the local papers and is available at tourism info centres and farmers’ markets. For existing and would-be farmers, the CVEDS organizes farming workshops and skill-development seminars and, in partnership with the region’s government agrologist, provides information on soil, climate, crop and yield. They’re partnering with other marketing plans – such as Wine Islands, a guide to wineries on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands – and agriculture communities to increase awareness of B.C. products. While Watson shows interest in getting on the buy-local bandwagon, the bulk of the branding push is aimed at finding new farmers. So Watson took New Provence on the road. The out-of-town branding campaign included media events, a website, targeted presentations to select firms and partnerships with agriculture-focused realtors, producers, property owners and agencies such as the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. Since October, the CVEDS has taken out full-colour half-page ads in Western Investor and Country Life in BC magazines. And thousands of agri-investment attraction brochures were handed out from a New Provence booth at agriculture, food and beverage trade shows in Chicago, China, Brandon, Regina, Saskatoon and Edmonton. In just over six months, Watson and his staff have had 200-plus leads on projects as diverse as organic goat cheese and berry-wine production. One focus of the campaign is to draw Prairie farmers further west. WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Air Canada Jazz Inc. fly direct from Calgary and Edmonton to the Comox Valley. “On the Prairies, you need to be big to survive,” Watson says. “It’s wholesale farming. There’s no value added and no younger generation coming along to take over.” What makes the Prairie farmers an easy target, says consultant Gary Rolston, is that the price of their beef and grains hasn’t increased in 20 years, while their land is less affordable, thanks to demand from oil-and-gas companies. Rolston visited shows with the CVEDS and noticed lots of interest in selling out and starting fresh in the Comox Valley. One couple from outside of Edmonton was struggling to get enough money to make raising specialty elk, bison and fallow deer meat worthwhile. They came to the Comox Valley to check out local bison farms. “They found they were selling bison meat for a good profit and the costs were as good or lower than at home,” Watson says. “We want to attract more of these kinds of farmers.” So far, though, most of the new farmers in the Comox Valley are not professional farmers who have relocated, but part-time professionals with little farming experience. These city slickers with paper-cut scars, not green thumbs, look for outside consultants and experts to help make farming a viable option. Marla Limousin, a landscape architect, and her husband, engineer George Ehrler, are a perfect example. Neither had any farming experience when they bought, almost on a lark, Nature’s Way Farm, a successful 0.6-hectare organic blueberry farm, in 2005. Limousin and Ehrler spent a chunk of their savings on buying the farm and improving the infrastructure. They rely heavily on the farm staff and outside agriculture consultants for expertise on how to prune, maintain and improve the yield of their crop. To pay the bills, they do part-time engineering and architecture consulting work. Despite the best yield-per-acre of organic blueberries in B.C. and a contract with Thrifty Foods Inc., the previous owners of Nature’s Way Farm lived a frugal life. Limousin and Ehrler took a hard look at the economics of blueberry farming. “The costs to produce organic, hand-picked, hand-weeded, hand-sorted is really high,” Limousin says. “You have to add value to it.” So the business-savvy couple is building a berry winery on the farm that will produce a blueberry port, along with other varieties of the wine. It’s that kind of eye for business that can make the difference between a successful farmer and the one who just gets by, Rolston says. Limousin and Ehrler aren’t alone in their flight from the traditional nine to five. They personally know an ex-engineer with another berry farm, two geologist types with a meadery and an engineer-and-finance-professional couple opening a grape winery. “The new blood is the farming professional, and we’re not afraid to step out of the farm box,” Limousin says. As farm staff prune the hulking blueberry bushes, she points out the new wine-processing building, the new winterized greenhouse for growing salad greens, the new canes of raspberries and the area where she hopes to hold company retreats and private dinners as part of an agri-tourism push. Likewise, farmer Edgar Smith, who comes from a family of farmers, knew he had to add value to his chosen product – milk. When the local dairy farmers lost control of the milk-processing plant in the Comox Valley in 2000, Smith and two other dairy farmers started Natural Pastures Cheese Company Ltd. “We hired a consultant and he told us we could never compete if we just made normal cheeses,” he says. They hired a Swiss cheese-maker, built a plant and began using milk from their farms to ferment unique cheeses. Within six months, Natural Pastures started winning medals for distinct flavours and varieties such as wasabi verdelait, garlic and chive verdelait, [pagebreak] Amsterdammer and, the newest, a mozzarella di bufala made from the milk of Canada’s only herd of water buffalo, raised on a farm on southern Vancouver Island. The first few years were tough, but Natural Pastures is now a popular cheese brand on Vancouver Island. Sales grow every year, and the factory can barely keep up with orders. Neither Smith nor Limousin will divulge revenue figures or say how much they spent setting up their operations, but they admit it was a lot. The reality is, getting into farming is extremely expensive and few farmers will ever make back their capital expenditures, relying on produce sales for income and increasing land values as an eventual return on investment. That’s okay for professionals who have savings to dip into, Limousin says, but there needs to be more help for people wanting to get into the industry, especially younger people. A federal leasing program or scholarships for university and college agriculture programs would help. Limousin is concerned the New Provence brand focuses too much on the 50-somethings and ignores the next generation. She also worries about the Provence part of the brand. “The Valley is not Provence,” she says. “B.C. and Vancouver Island is its own. We’re rugged. We’re funky. We’re creating our own traditions and a regional cuisine. We shouldn’t be trying to be anybody else.” Agriculture consultant Gary Rolston is also a little hesitant in his endorsement of the brand. “It’s working and it’s a very interesting tactic for economic development,” he says. But, he adds, “I don’t think it entirely fits. We’re more the Okanagan Valley of Vancouver Island.” Cheese-maker Smith is much more positive about the Provence message. He was one of the first to raise the idea after Eric Akis, the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper’s food columnist, described the east coast of the Island as “the new Provence.” “I’ve been to Provence,” Smith says. “We have the same pristine and pure soils, the Mediterranean climate and the coastal, salt-laden winds.” Comox also has a unique terroir, the flavour of the soil that comes through in the food, be it milk or grapes. Smith says it is the terroir that has won his cheeses numerous medals. “What we don’t have is the same relationship between the farmers and consumers,” Smith continues. “Few restaurants buy locally. Little of our produce is stocked on store shelves. Processing of our produce isn’t done locally.” That is about to change, at least for the processing of berries. Back in the field at Patrick Evans’s farm, the unlikely trio looks over the plans for the whisky distillery on the gate of Jay Oddliefson’s immaculate truck. They point out where the distillery and tasting room will be, where the barley will be made into mash and where tour buses will be able to turn around. Right now, it’s a stubbly cow pasture. There’s a lot to do before tumblers of peaty flavoured auburn syrup hit their lips in celebration. Ditto for the whole New Provence brand. But the three are full of ideas, energy and ambition, just like everyone involved in the Comox Valley’s branding push. None are afraid to try something new, break ground and push farming to new limits. No one denies there are fences to climb, but there’s no lack of optimism about where the Comox Valley can go. Un verre de whisky, anyone?

 

It’s the water, and a lot more While all the small-farm and small-time operations are bringing in money and growing the agriculture sector, it’s chump change compared to the big news. Since 1997, Natural Glacial Waters Inc. has been bottling water from an aquifer near Fanny Bay in the Comox Valley. Sales, mostly to Japan, have doubled every year since 2003. This year, the company expects sales to almost quadruple from $6.3 million to $22 million. And still, the company is only tapping three per cent of its daily water permit. “We hope to be the number-one bottle-water distributor in the world in 10 years,” says Springfield Lai, the company’s Taiwanese president, in pretty good English. That would mean a billion dollars in sales. Lai says the demand is there, and the water quality is the best in the world. At a bottled-water-industry show in 1999, Natural Glacier water was voted best in quality and taste. (It hasn’t entered since.) “The berries here are also considered the best,” says Lai. “The best berries, the best water and the best technology,” he says holding up three fingers and pausing dramatically. “Best berry wine.” The CVEDS’s John Watson brought local berry producers and Lai together. Lai took 10 types of berries to Taiwan and had them processed into berry wine. “The wine was better than anything I’ve tasted before,” says Watson. Lai and Watson took the story and wine samples to Taipei, looking for foreign investment for a berry-wine-processing facility in August 2006. They walked away with $3 million in equity financing. Back in Canada, they landed a further $6 million in the form of a loan from Farm Credit Canada, a government-backed farm-lending agency. Even though berry wine isn’t available in Asia now, Lai sees huge demand for it in places such as Japan’s thirsty US$5-billion wine market or in China and Taiwan, partially because of berry wine’s purported medicinal properties. In 10 years, he estimates the plant will be doing $500 million to $1 billion in berry-wine sales. Not enough berries are grown locally to satiate that kind of demand, estimated at more than 400 hectares of berries, but Lara Greasley, the CVEDS’s marketing and communications manager, says there will be. “We’ll work with existing producers to ramp up production,” she says. “Certainty of a guaranteed buyer will allow them to plan for it.” Everyone will have to move fast. Lai hopes to begin building the factory this year so the company can start processing in the fall. “For the producers here, that’s huge,” Watson says. And it’s obvious from the smile on his face it’s big for him too. “It’s not a simple thing to be successful at economic development,” he says, especially when you’re selling something like farming. With a multimillion-dollar berry plant on the way, Watson’s job just got easier.