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Back to the Land

Vancity member and organic farming co-op founder Arzeena Hamir of Vancouver Island is pushing to get more local produce into grocery stores.

Arzeena Hamir chuckles wryly when asked if she romanticized farming life before she actually started living it. “Yes! And note that I gave a very evil laugh,” says the owner of Vancouver Island’s Amara Farm, who is one of British Columbia’s foremost experts in organic agriculture.

Hamir, a professional agrologist, was 42 when she and her husband, Neil Turner, uprooted their two pre-teen daughters from Richmond, BC and moved to the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island five years ago to begin practicing what they preached. She describes the arduous start-up of their 10-hectare organic vegetable farm as akin to giving midlife birth to a third child. “Financially, it was difficult,” says Hamir, a member of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (523,000 members, $21 billion in assets). “Physically, it was painful. Mentally, it sucked a lot of energy out of both of us. You just don’t realize how non-stop the work is and how draining it can be. There were many times I forgot to feed my kids. And to be blunt, our marriage really suffered. For the first three years, it really was like having a small infant.”

It’s not as if Hamir was green, so to speak, before turning her first sod. Since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in crop science from the University of Guelph and later obtaining a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture from the University of London in the United Kingdom, Hamir has spent her entire career knee-deep in compost. For a decade, she worked overseas with farmers in Jamaica, Bangladesh, India and Thailand. After returning to Canada, she was staff agrologist for West Coast Seeds and later ran her own seed company, Terra Viva Organics. Hamir was also the coordinator for the Richmond Food Security Society and, in conjunction with Kwantlen University, helped launch the Richmond Farm School. She even took a brief stab at Small Plot Intensive (SPIN) Farming, feeding 15 families for 12 weeks from three backyard gardens spread across Richmond.

“You just don’t realize how non-stop the work is and how draining it can be. There were many times I forgot to feed my kids.” – Arzeena Hamir

“The more I farm, the less I know,” Hamir says about the humbling experience of growing food. “You never become an expert because Mother Nature loves to throw curve balls. And this year — after giving us the wettest spring ever and then cooking us in the heat — she really knocked everybody’s knees out.”

Until moving to Vancouver Island, Hamir had never actually farmed by herself. The first year (while her husband was still working on the BC Mainland to pay for deer fencing, an irrigation system and other costly infrastructure) was particularly frustrating. “Why is it taking me so long to weed three rows of carrots,” she recalls thinking.

The management solution for Hamir, who now represents the province’s organic farming community as a board director of the BC Investment Agriculture Foundation, was found through collaboration. During that trying first season, she reached out to Moss Dance at nearby Ripple Farm, who was also facing challenges. Dance had already established a 15-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) weekly harvest box and was low on the produce needed to fill them. Hamir had an abundance of vegetables but was having a hard time selling them. By banding together, they meshed their needs, took turns going to farmers markets and grew their CSA shares to 45 members the next season.

By 2015, when three more farms had joined, they incorporated through the BC Co-op Association as Merville Organics Growers’ Cooperative. The marketing and production co-op shares equipment (including a walk-in cooler and wash station) and resources (transportation, tables, tents, signage, etc.). It pools hands for farm labour and specific crop activities (blueberry blossom stripping, for instance), while sharing the workload of selling produce. Each member has a clearly defined role (Hamir is the market manager, others manage the CSA and restaurant sales). And in times of adversity — when drought hits and certain crops fail on one or more farms — they have built-in redundancy planning to fill gaps and avoid catastrophe. “It has made farming so less stressful,” says Hamir. “This was the first year I thought, ‘Wow, I can do this for the long-term.’ ”

It was also the first summer she could take time off, allowing her to travel to Italy for the Vancity Emilia-Romagna Co-operative Study Tour, also known as the Bologna Program. Not unlike
her first farm-owning experience, Hamir went full of idealistic notions about why the country, and the region of Bologna in particular, has one of the world’s strongest cooperative movements. “I thought maybe there was something in the water — or the wine — that made Italians better at conflict management. My eyes were really opened to the truth. It’s not cultural, it’s constitutional. They have supportive mechanisms in place at all levels.”

While the study abroad gave Hamir much food for thought about how to strengthen the BC farming community — cooperative retail could get more local produce in grocery stores — she didn’t come up with any solutions to the age-old problem of succession farming. Her daughters, now 12 and 15, unfortunately have no interest in taking over. “I didn’t catch them early enough to convince them that weeding is fun,” she laughs. “But if I had grown up on a farm, I probably wouldn’t have romanticized it either.” ◊