Every May, long-time farmer Tamara McPhail’s day begins and ends with frog song. Followed closely by the chatter of birds.
McPhail, her partner and their two kids live off-grid in a fortified yurt with a dugout basement, which means even inside the walls of their home, the family maintains a close connection to nature.
“We’re essentially living in a glorified tent, so in the mornings I awaken to the dawn chorus right now,” said McPhail.
“It’s just such a great way to wake up because you’re being awakened from your slumber by sounds of the outside world saying, ‘Come on. We’re waking up … let's go.’”
McPhail, is executive director, a resident steward and all-around labourer at Linnaea Farm — a 314-acre organic co-operative land trust dedicated to sustainable agriculture, the environment and education on Cortes Island, B.C.
After frogs and birds herald the day, she has a cup of coffee and a conversation with her partner and Linnaea’s market gardener, Adam Schick, about the tasks that need doing in the fields by the farm’s team of residents.
Then, she must respond to the bellowing of the farm’s dairy cows, Zinnia and Quill, nagging to be milked.
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McPhail, 47, has been working the land at Linnaea for 20 years, and this spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic blossomed, everything and nothing is the same.
“If I don’t lift my head up from farming, everything still feels very much the same. This time of year, you need to hit the ground running … that whole spring quickening,” McPhail said.
“Getting seeds in the ground, getting potatoes planted. It’s still business as usual in the plant world.”
But the pandemic has proved a powerful catalyst for change in her small island community.
“All of a sudden, there's been a paradigm shift and conversations around food security, what it means for us, and how we can all look after one another,” McPhail said.
In the early stages of the pandemic, isolated islanders were fearful about potential food shortages where they are at the end of a very long supply chain.
But as the weather improved and dramatic food shortages due to COVID-19 didn’t materialize, the mood has shifted. People are more excited about the opportunity to increase food production locally, McPhail said.
“People are bread baking and raising chickens. They are excited about reviving their gardens and saying how much solace they have provided,” she said. “It’s been pretty fantastic.”
Cortes, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, is a tiny community of about 1,000 permanent residents only accessible by plane, boat, or ferry from the neighbouring island of Quadra. Food is trucked onto the island and dependent on the coastal ferry system to arrive.
Linnaea has always contributed to the island’s food supply. The farm’s stewards tend production gardens or raise chickens, cattle and sheep, which then supply produce, meat and eggs to the Friday market in Manson’s Landing or the Cortes Natural Food Co-op.
But during the pandemic, Linnaea is at the forefront of the island’s organized efforts to bolster food security and community resiliency. In response, Linnaea has started its Farm Food Security Guild.
Residents can purchase a membership that guarantees them fresh produce and farm products weekly. Members will get a list of what’s available and shop online for what they’d like.
But it’s not just about feeding the island locally sourced food, said McPhail.
Unlike other community-supported agriculture (CSA) food programs, Linnea is also offering guild members the opportunity to work on the farm and attend workshops on sustainable farming or on preparing or preserving seasonal produce with the overall hope of boosting the island’s food production capacity.
People will have the opportunity to really get their hands dirty, McPhail said.
“We’re really wanting our Cortes Island community to come out, learn and work beside people who have been tending the soil for decades here at Linnaea,” McPhail said.
“That experiential learning piece is a such a valuable part to food security.”
Linnaea is also concentrating on expanding its seed program.
In addition to putting more land into cultivation for food, the farm will also ensure enough space for seed crops, McPhail said, since suppliers have been overwhelmed by demand during the pandemic.
Linnaea is hoping to establish an island seed bank to ensure the island’s future ability to grow its own food.
“People sometimes don’t consider seeds when thinking about food security,” McPhail said.
“Making sure we can still produce seeds is of utmost importance because you can't grow food without it.”
Linnaea will also put the focus on locally adapted seeds that will flourish in Cortes' climate and allow islanders to grow more produce, she added.
Small-scale, regenerative farmers and local resiliency measures are playing big roles as COVID-19 disrupts the global food system, expert Ken Mullinix believes.
Local food producers can adjust more nimbly to changes in markets and demand than massive corporate entities, said Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
“The pandemic has absolutely revealed the fragility and tenuousness of our highly industrialized monolithic food system,” Mullinix said.
As COVID-19 paralyzes meat-processing plants across North America, the risks of being dependent on a large corporate food system has become obvious, he said.
“We put all our food system’s eggs in one basket … and that results in an inability to adapt to perturbance and, ultimately, a lack of resilience,” Mullinix said.
“Conversely, we’re seeing the small-scale, community-focused farming and food system sector respond very quickly.”
Sustainable farmers are seeing increased local demand and are expanding production accordingly, he added.
“They’re developing new ways to connect with consumers, develop new distribution schemes and working together more,” Mullinix said. “I’m hearing about all sorts of efforts by this sector to grow.”
To consolidate local food security gains, smaller farms need to remain diverse and focus on regional food needs, he added.
And all levels of government need to prioritize developing regional food systems while mitigating climate change and increasing productivity and farm profitability, Mullinix said.
That means targeted support for small-scale regenerative farmers and the development of regional infrastructure or hubs to aggregate, sort, sell and distribute their goods, he said.
But local food security requires local solutions, Mullinix stressed.
“One thing we need to recognize is that every strategy to address food system resilience and community food security must be unique to that community,” he said.
“We have been culturally obsessed with uniformity. And if there is anything nature teaches us, it is that the ability to adapt to change resides in diversity.”
Despite Linnaea’s role in fortifying Cortes Island’s food security during the pandemic, the farm’s core funding has taken a big hit, said McPhail.
Each summer, the farm typically hosts post-secondary permaculture field schools, ecological youth camps, as well as tours and group stays from people interested in learning about sustainable farming.
“It’s quite stressful for us right now,” McPhail said. “We’ve had a lot of cancellations in direct correlation to COVID-19 and our inability to gather.”
And since Linnaea is an unusual hybrid between a working farm, an educational organization and a charity, it can’t access any provincial or federal relief funding, which tends to be very sector-specific.
“Yes, we’re agriculturalists, but we also have an education role,” McPhail said. “So, we sometimes fall between the funding cracks of those two entities.”
Linnaea is not relying on the food security guild to ease the farm’s financial load.
“We’re not looking at the food security piece as a way to meet core funding. They are kind of two different conversations,” McPhail said.
The guild initiative has had a strong response and Linnaea has capped the number of members as it pilots the project, she said.
But McPhail is hopeful the interest signals a lasting commitment to local food security and farming even after the pandemic wanes.
“COVID, as awful as it is has been, is a catalyst for these amazing community conversations at a real deep level,” she said.
“And if we are moving into a time where we really want to look at making Cortes Island food-secure, that’s an amazing conversation to be having."
Rochelle Baker/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer