I was recently asked by a reader to “get back to the farm” in my column.
Now there is a journey worth taking, for the farm is both my roots and my wings. The question I asked myself was: What is new in Canada on the farm?
The answer was an hour away as I travelled to Canada’s one and only tea farm in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. This was an exciting day for I love to explore the possible in agriculture. I knew there were olives on neighbouring Salt Spring Island and that there are a few bananas and pineapples grown here on Vancouver Island as well as nuts, fruits, berries, melons, flowers, kiwis, figs and an abundance of grapes and field and glasshouse crops. There are rubber plants on the Lower Mainland along with canola, wheat, barley and corn. Every kind of livestock imaginable thrives in the moderate climate, so taking a country drive is fun and exciting.
Westholme Tea Company is situated on a hot south-facing slope surrounded by ancient forests and a variety of other small farms. The terraced hills, their deep-green tea bushes thriving in the sun, curve along the driveway to the tea house and retail shop. This is a welcoming place with generous hosts and knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff — who love tea!
- More with Brenda Schoepp: We need to open the farm gate wide
Tea is an ancient friend, with tea trees producing for up to 100 years and reaching the peak at age 30. The new-growth leaves, and sometimes the stems, are usually harvested all year round. Left unpruned or harvested that bush turns into a great tree, up to 15 metres in height, so keeping the plant at harvestable height is important.
Tea, camellia sinensis, is an evergreen, native to east Asia and has a history starting in the 10th century. There is only one tea and from that a few varieties have been developed from specific regions, such as Assam in India, from which that variety is named assamica. The colour of tea: white, green, yellow, oolong, pu-erh and black results from the process, not the plant. Westholme produces a terroir tea which translates into a tea that is distinct in attributes and flavour to its Canadian environment.
Home again and sipping this exquisite and distinctly Canadian product brings to mind the possible in agriculture.
Despite all we know and do in our daily lives, there is no substitute for a little research and a lot of curiosity. It is curiosity driven by personal values that gave us unique grains, fruits and packaged products and it is curiosity that brought tea to be planted in Canadian soil.
What are you curious about?
Is there a south slope waiting for an experiment or a source of endless water that could be used? Perhaps there are wild plants in abundance that are edible or a large area that could be used for parking so guests become part of the farm. Maybe there is a new technology that would give you a competitive edge or a market to explore.
Is it people, plants or products you wish to harvest? Livestock or bugs? Radishes or recipes? All life comes from the soil and looking at our environment with a new lens of the possible broadens the opportunities on our farms.
It is easy to pick up a basket of food or processed product and never know the history of that basket, or how breeding and selection has changed it from its original wild form. Just as there are a few varieties of tea that are presented after differing processes, there are thousands of plants deeply rooted in the wild that were later farmed. I often have wondered who those original farmers were who discovered the wild foods we now eat, treat, process, store and transport.
I am certain they were curious.
Curiosity is a strong leadership trait that is supported by the willingness to accept failure. I know what it is that I am curious about and wish to try growing — a very special fruit that goes by one name: Coffee. I would like to experiment and combine this with great conversations on growing food and diverse shared visions on a regenerative world. Inviting everyone — regardless of walk of life — to join me on that path is my road ahead.
What will you do with the possible in you and on your farm, in your backyard or on your balcony? How will you differentiate your product, making it distinct so there is an opportunity to market it at a premium? When value is added, what does it become and who will you invite on the journey back to the farm?
The farm is more than a field or a factory, and more than a lab for research and innovation. It is a vibrant ecology — a place of intersections and of balance. Each and every day it presents a clean palate for the possible.
Just as tea grows in Canada so can your farm find its speciality and more importantly give its people a life steeped in reward.