Share the surplus

Permaculture’s third ethical principle instructs us to “share the surplus”. This can feel like a tricky ask in the sometimes precarious day-to-day of small-scale farming: what is properly considered a surplus? How much can be sensibly shared now if future production is uncertain?

The question takes an epistemic form as well. Critiques of permaculture have at times centered on a perceived vein of exclusivity in the movement – a focus on perennial plants that yield food unfamiliar to many people; and workshops and literature that are inaccessible to farmers in the Global South and folks with limited incomes here in North America because of their cost, for example.

This week we made a pair of visits in an attempt to lend some practical context to these issues. On a sunny midweek morning we visit Angela Moran, coordinator with BC Housing’s People, Plants & Homes program in Victoria. Angela cut her teeth at Linnaea Farm on Cortes Island, as well as WWOOFing through Latin America, the U.K., and Canada, before settling at Mason Street Farm in downtown Victoria in the mid-2000s – where she quickly ramped up production and helped to imbue the place with a distinct permaculture ethos that persists to the present day.

A seed potato poised to go into the ground at a BC Housing People, Plants & Homes garden site in Saanich.

We meet Angela at a BC Housing complex near the Panama Flats flood plain in Saanich. She gives some background on the program: People, Plants & Homes has been around since the ‘70s, and today operates community gardens, gardening and food literacy programs, and workshops throughout the province. The community garden we’re standing next to has been around for six years, but at the moment the site is flagging. The nearby Panama Flats was farmed intensively for decades, and when this ceased in 2011 after purchase by the government, the area was left to grow and revegetate as part of a land preservation and flood protection strategy. So while the land in and around these gardens is fertile, the weed pressure is immense, and the beds we’re looking at now in the soft morning sun are overgrown and knotted with morning glory and dandelion.

Because the community garden model isn’t working here, Angela is overseeing a transition to a market farm strategy, with a handful of tenants from the complex and a few outsiders to work the beds; residents will be able to trade three hours of time in the garden for a box of food. The program has launched just the week before, and Angela is aiming to harvest a hundred boxes’ worth of food in this first season, with a target to have the first ones ready in July.

Digging furrows for seeding carrots to transform the People, Plants & Homes site into a market garden.

Angela says the program is partly “horticultural therapy”, as the social and meditative qualities of gardening and being outdoors are deeply restorative – a truth I can certainly attest to. But of course beyond the hard work of building community engagement, there are layers of practical and strategic considerations, as well. Angela walks us through some of the main ones in her world: in food literacy projects, the food often gets grown successfully but then isn’t substantially harvested or cooked. It’s important to know at the outset, then, whether one plans for a demonstration site or a production site. If it’s the latter (and this is also true more generally in social enterprise projects), it often proves challenging to both produce a meaningful amount of food and to pay one’s self. But these considerations are essential if one wishes to build something enduring and resilient. As our instructor, Jesse, notes, “projects are good when they succeed”.

In this case, Angela’s hope is that the market garden model can be implemented successfully under the People, Plants & Homes umbrella. And if anyone has the chops to make it work, it’s her – these days, Mason Street is a stellar example of an urban farm that is not only self-sustaining, but that also performs important social justice work and is deeply embedded in the fabric of the community.

Angela tells us that at the intersection of small-scale farming and the non-profit world of grant- and proposal-writing, it also becomes important to account for and articulate things like growing seasons in funding applications. The need for an influx of cash in the spring, for example – for buying seed, for tool repair, for wages – might not always mesh neatly with bureaucratic prerogatives like the end of the fiscal year.  

Robin and Nikki in the greenhouse at Sea Bluff Farm.

Angela’s considerations when crop planning are noteworthy, too: today we’re seeding in potatoes and carrots, chosen because they’re relatively low-maintenance but also because they’re likely to be familiar to the tenants. They’re also relatively heavy food – something that is significant if one buses to the grocery store and has an incentive to choose items based on carried weight.

After lunch, we head west towards Metchosin, near the site of our mushroom walk earlier this year with Andy MacKinnon. After a few winding turns and glimpses of the water, we come to the end of a country road, a few hundred yards from the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

A sign at the road reads “Sea Bluff Farm”. Assembling at the farm stand out front, we’re met by Robin Tunnicliffe, the farm manager, co-owner of Saanich Organics, and co-author of All The Dirt, a how-to book about small-scale organic farming. The organization maintains farm stands, supplies local restaurants and farmers markets, and runs a regional CSA box program. All its produce is supplied by small local farms like Sea Bluff, who operate co-operatively through Saanich Organics in order to diffuse the administrative burden and combine production power.

(L-R): Aida Mashari from Enduring Equipment doing a farm and garden tool maintenance demonstration at Ravenhill Herb Farm.

Robin tells us that she’s been farming for twenty-three years, six of them at Sea Bluff – as a disenchanted ag student in Ontario years ago, she was inspired by a talk given by the former owner of Saanich Organics, followed her out to Vancouver Island, and eventually bought out her stake in the company.

After years of farming on rented land in Saanich, real estate pressure forced Robin out of the area. A timely call from a man named Bob resulted in her winding up here at Sea Bluff.

As if on cue, a spry-looking octogenarian with strikingly wide suspenders – Bob – appears around the corner of the farm stand. After he greets us and heads off towards the fields, Robin explains that he is the owner of the farm and had made the phone call years ago to offer her a position as farm manager.

(L-R): Planting potatoes after hilling up the bed at a BC Housing People, Plants & Homes garden site; a salad washer in the new washing station at Sea Bluff Farm; repurposed bathtub at the Sea Bluff washing station.

Six years ago, Robin says, Sea Bluff was basically devoid of infrastructure and lacked organic certification (although Bob employed a number of smart growing practices, including harvesting seaweed from the beach down the road to use as organic mulch). Upon taking over the farm manager role, Robin scaled up operations significantly, undertook some major infrastructure projects – including a new washing station and greenhouse – and gained organic certification for the farm.

Metchosin is an interesting case: as with much of the region, land and property values are generally high. But unlike more densely developed surrounding areas, properties here tend to be large and well-suited to agriculture. Robin tells us that the average age of farmers in Metchosin is almost 80, and many farms are operating at reduced capacity or not at all. And so Metchosin has a significant land bank – and an opportunity for young growers to hash out agreements with farmers and property owners, many of whom might wish for an infusion of young energy, to “share the surplus” of land. Permaculture principles can be applied very differently across different local contexts, and it seems on our visits today that this principle is being employed both creatively and appropriately.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.