It was sweet potatoes that got Yoshi Sugiyama thinking about where food comes from. He was in kindergarten and remembers a field trip out of Tokyo to a nearby farm. “We harvested the sweet potatoes,” said Sugiyama. “I remember even drawing a picture of one after coming back.
“I really appreciated what a school in the middle of Tokyo tried to do, connect students to farming culture and farming heritage. I grew up very disconnected to what I ate. Everything came from the supermarket.”
When Sugiyama moved to Vancouver in 1998 at 23, he became enamoured with farmers markets. “I had no farming background,” he said, but that desire to be closer to food led him to volunteer on the farm on the University of British Columbia campus.
He was impressed by B.C. dairy and B.C. vegetables, but started to wonder about a staple like grain. “It’s the foundation of food,” he said. “Civilization depends on it.”
There’s a lot of grain grown in the Peace River region, where B.C. gets about 80 per cent of its supply, according to the province; mostly canola, then wheat, barley and oats.
But in the south? The rainy weather of the coast is challenging for the crop, making the local grain quest a real grail quest.
“It’s not optimal here,” said Sugiyama, “but it’s possible. It’s risky, and grain is very unforgiving. The growing window is very limited. A late spring can delay the sowing time, and the harvest must happen before the rainy days. When Labour Day comes, it’s like the weather turning off a switch: summer ends and fall arrives.”
It was an hour outside of the city in Agassiz that Sugiyama found a family farm that pulled off the civilization crop. At the foot of the Canadian Cascades by a slough that flows into the Fraser sat the farm where many came calling on their quest for local grains.
On a June afternoon, as 26 acres of wheats, oats and rye took in the sun, Jim Grieshaber-Otto sat in the shade to share the story of how Cedar Isle Farm came to grow grains.
“No one would be stubborn enough or crazy enough to do it,” he said. “If you try and grow the stuff that grows in Saskatchewan, it often won’t work.”
It’s not aggressive expansion or profits that are on the mind of Grieshaber-Otto and his wife Diane Exley. They’re happy with the farm’s “micro scale,” so they can personally get to know the people they sell it to.
“We don’t want to get big,” said Grieshaber-Otto. “The connections and the sense of community are really inspiring for us. When people value local organic food, it takes the drudgery out of the winter because you’re feeding a community that you feel a part of.”
It was his parents who started the farm in the time of back-to-the-landers, said Grieshaber-Otto. In 1972, they wanted to leave the U.S. and the growing war mentality.
“They were just driving by and had kind of given up looking for places when they noticed Agassiz,” he recalled. “It was a Swiss name, and my father’s father was Swiss. They drove into the farm, to find out that it had been put on the market that very day. So they restarted here when they were 50, and we all moved up.”
Self-sufficiency was their goal for the farm. “They had a milk cow, a flock of sheep, and they did spinning and weaving. My mom made willow baskets, they made their own butter and cheese. We had beef cows as well. We raised our own beef and all the food for the beef here too.”
That’s where the grains came in, “for the beef and the chickens,” he said. “We’d grow oats, a little bit of winter wheat, and our own hay.”
Greishaber-Otto and Exley — who both met at the University of Reading while studying for their PhDs in agricultural botany — would later come to run the farm and meet others on their own back-to-the-land journeys.
There were J.B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith who started the 100-Mile Diet project in 2005. They were interviewed by the CBC, and Grieshaber-Otto happened to be listening.
“I sent them an email,” he said, “and the next thing I know, they show up and say, how does it work?” Grieshaber-Otto and his homegrown Red Fife, a bread wheat, show up in the May chapter of the book.
In 2008, Sugiyama began looking around for southern B.C. wheat growers after hearing about a membership-supported growing program in the Kootenays on an episode of the Deconstructing Dinner podcast. He found Cedar Isle, and that year, started working there. Not long after, in 2009, two UBC students came asking if the Agassiz farm could grow wheat for members just like the Kootenay program.
And today, the model is going strong for Cedar Isle. You can buy a Community Supported Agriculture membership for a share of the harvest: $60 for about 10 kilograms, or $105 for about 20. About 150 people will be getting grains this year.
“The people who buy the grains see the grain growing in the field, they see how it’s processed in the barn, and they feel a part of it,” said Grieshaber-Otto. “And what that initially did was give us enough money at the beginning of the year, so that we could finance the growing of the grain. So, they were accepting some of the risk. If we had a crop failure, they knew they’d be out some money too. But that really gave us the ability to branch out and do a little bit of experimentation. We’re like a little research station in a way.”
One experiment they tried at Cedar Isle was Skagit 1109, which came from the University of Washington’s Bread Lab in their pursuit to breed wheat suited to the maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest.
“They breed specifically for small farms, so that the seeds get distributed as opposed to patented and sold for multinationals for huge profits,” said Grieshaber-Otto.
Skagit 1109 is a hard red winter wheat, and it grew “like magic.”
“It sprouts and grows high in the winter, and it gets cold, it gets snowed on, but it survives. And then in the springtime, it outgrows the weeds.”
Much of the machinery at the farm is decades old. One combiner is from the 1940s, a Massey-Harris, and the other the 1970s. There’s an antique grain cleaner from the 1920s, which Grieshaber-Otto rescued from the Chilliwack dump and refurbished.
It takes a lot of shared knowledge to run an operation like this, and that’s why it’s a community effort. Just recently, a friend of the couple who works at a nearby gas station was able to hunt down a part they needed replacing for their combine’s clutch.
One of the hoppers in the barn came from a microbrewery in Vancouver’s Yaletown. And a master baker who used to teach at Vancouver Community College, who buys grain from the farm, helped crack the bread recipe for Skagit 1109.
These are the community connections that make it rewarding work, said Grieshaber-Otto.
Sugiyama, now working for Cedar Isle and being on the other side of the table at farmers markets, gets to meet many faces as he introduces people to the farm’s grains and some of the vegetables he grows on the land: cabbage, carrots, beets, leeks, daikon, winter kale and watermelon radish. (“The daikon can survive minus five, even minus 10 with some protection,” he said admiringly.) In the works, he’s got adzuki beans, soybeans for natto from a friend in Nova Scotia and glutinous rice.
“It can be muddy and miserable, cold and wet, but it’s very rewarding sharing those vegetables with people,” he said.
Sugiyama has seen an increasing variety of East Asian produce available at farmers markets over the years. Many staple vegetables like bok choy and choy sum are brassica plants, and they’re “absolutely perfect” for our cool weather, he said.
There’s a huge market for it, with many Vancouverites of East Asian backgrounds curious about what cultural produce from overseas can be grown in B.C.
“I’ve noticed more and more farms incorporate these vegetables, and seed companies making them available,” said Sugiyama.
He’s noticed, too, a growing appetite from people to trace and follow the path of their food, as he once did.
“They want to find the source, a connection they can trust,” he said. “Nowadays, the system has become so large and complicated you don’t know what the connections are. Whenever I eat, I think about the people, from the farmers market to the local bakery. We know them face to face. That’s the amazing thing.”
For many, the face of flour is Robin Hood, owned by multinational Cargill. But for Sugiyama, one of the faces he thinks of when it comes to Cedar Isle flour is Vadim Mugerman.
Mugerman used to work in pest control in Squamish and was looking to switch to a line of work he found more meaningful. Like Sugiyama, he also wanted a closer relationship with what he ate.
Mugerman ended up falling in love with baking — hooked thanks to “beginner’s luck,” he said — so he quit his job and moved to Europe to learn more.
“In theory, you could survive on bread and water,” he said. “It’s such a basic staple. You can make it very easily without gas or fuel. I once made sourdough on a campfire. That’s how prospectors going to the Yukon and Alaska during the Gold Rush prepared bread. It’s such a simple thing to do, but that’s the beauty of it, and you can get very different results.”
Upon his return to B.C., Mugerman opened Bad Dog Bread in North Vancouver. The eponymous “bad dog” is his girlfriend’s rescue dog Tommy, who once ate an entire organic loaf in a matter of minutes. Tommy enjoyed it so much that the next week he ate a bag of freshly milled flour — a testament to the love of local.
For his bakery, Mugerman knew he wanted grains from “the closer the better,” and got connected with Cedar Isle.
“I like their growing philosophy,” said Mugerman, who says that the relationship is more important than what labels and certifications faraway organic grains might promise.
“Bread at a supermarket has so much else going on,” he said. “You look at the ingredients and there’s lines and lines of stuff.”
A one-kilogram classic sourdough at his bakery costs $9.50, but Mugerman still finds it “a little bit too expensive.”
“It’s actually on par with everything else or cheaper, but we’re trying to lower the price to make it more affordable to more people.”
His dream is to show children in his bakery where bread comes from: what wheat looks like, how it’s milled into flour, shaped into dough and baked.
“If you ask them now,” he said, “they’ll say the store.”
At the beginning of the pandemic came the great flour grab. Flour was purchased and hoarded from supermarkets at an alarming speed, and everyone in North America with the money to do so seemed to be baking sourdough for the end times.
But for Mugerman in North Vancouver, with his supply from small scale growers like Cedar Isle, he was immune to the logistical troubles behind the supply of commercial flour. “We don’t need to deal with that traffic,” he said.
Mugerman was even able to sell people flour at his bakery.
Social media has revealed other food trends beside sourdough, such as the delight of many upon realizing that they can regrow carrots, celery, herbs and green onions indoors at home. It’s not quite a “back to the land” movement, but it does have many more people thinking about where food comes from.
“Not saying that I wish it would happen,” said Diane Exley at Cedar Isle Farm, “but if the supply from California and Mexico stopped, people would realize what we have here.”
Risk and disruption are part of farming, but recent years seem to have brought on so much more uncertainty.
“I was just making a list,” said Sugiyama last week. “The uncertainties inspire me.”
There are the big ones, of course, like climate change and the industrial, global food chain.
Locally, there are development pressures, and “you can’t have a local diet without local land,” said Exley. There is currently a heated fight in Agassiz over the district council’s recommendation to remove 40 acres of prime farmland from the province’s Agricultural Land Reserve.
There’s the aging farming community, with the average age steadily increasing over the years, currently at 55. More alarming is that over 92 per cent of farmers have no succession plan in place, according to Statistics Canada.
But simply being in the field is a great comfort in the face of these odds, said Sugiyama. One of his sons, 15-years-old, has begun helping out with his father’s crops. He was hilling potatoes the other day, with no illusions that they magically appear in a supermarket rather than grown from the soil. He even knows who planted them.
“When I’m farming and I start thinking about those connections — social, economic, political, environmental — you engage with all of those issues,” said Sugiyama. “That’s why I’m interested in participating to find solutions.”
Grieshaber-Otto would agree. Previously, he had worked in trade policy for the provincial government as well as the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives, where he once wrote a report called “Threatened Harvest” on protecting Canada’s grain system.
“I spent years sitting in front of the computer writing documents about sometimes really important stuff, such as the Water Protection Act or helping to stop bulk order exports from B.C,” he said. “But so much of what we do in life isn’t grounded in the soil. One of the reasons I like growing wheat and oats is that it’s going directly to people who really appreciate it.”
Local food isn’t just about the products and the proximity; it’s also about the people.
“The main purpose of this farm, like life, is not to make money. We’re here to be part of a rich community that nurtures itself. And I think there’s so much potential for that in British Columbia with the diversity of crops that we can grow here. If we build on it, we can be very resilient in times of crisis.”
Next in this series, Meeru Dhalwala, co-founder of the famed Indian restaurant Vij’s in Vancouver, on how to make the local food movement more relevant and welcoming to immigrant cultures.