It’s a grey Saturday when I arrive at the top of a hill north of Duncan to meet Heather Young on her homestead. It’s here that Under the Oak Farm was born 3 years ago on an old plot of farmland left untouched for more than 30 years.
Young welcomes me into her home, where we sit around a rustic wood table. She offers me a cup of tea and start chatting about the forest and land she’s cultivated.
Young moved to Vancouver Island in 2015 with her husband and two kids, and a third on the way. She left her chiropractor job in Calgary to start her farm, but says her journey started long before the big move.
“We saved for seven years before we came here,” she explains. “In those seven years while I was being a stay-at-home mom […] I read many, many books. The one thing I really liked when I was reading about agriculture and farming was that, at least in permaculture, you take advantage of the inherent properties of each plant.”
Young adds that part of her motivation came from wanting to eat foods she could trust.
“Learning about nutrition really pushed me to learn […] that I did not want to eat non-organic food and I wanted to be as healthy as possible,” she says.
Young’s vision came to life in the Cowichan Valley when she and her husband purchased the 35 acres of land facing the mountains where we met today and turned it into a sustainable farming project.
Consisting of cleared and forested areas, this farm is different from traditional agriculture based on industrial livestock production, monoculture, chemical inputs and mechanization. Instead, the land is a quiet space filled with freely roaming chickens, trees and a large diversity of crops.
For Young, permaculture—literally meaning “permanent culture”—is the overarching philosophy behind the farm. She tells me she wants to demonstrate that it is possible to have a beautiful, productive, environmentally and financially sustainable farm.
“Permaculture is the big overarching concept that basically everything leads into everything else,” she told me. “Agriculture is not separate from community [or] from biology.”
What is permaculture?
Permaculture is the conscious design of agriculture to ensure it has the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. The philosophy behind this system is one of working with, rather than against, nature to maximize production on the least amount of land.
This farming process mimics natural ecosystems. For instance, a forest has layers of vegetation growing together in a varied environment. A direct application of permaculture would be to grow crops is the “guild” system, choosing produce that can be grown together and actually benefit one another. In her own practice, Young uses three layers of guild, planting trees, bushes and lower plants on her raising beds.
To explain this concept to me Young rummages through a large box and comes back with some beans, as well as squash and corn seeds, in her hands. She explains that these species are called the “Three Sisters“—when planted side by side, these crops help each other during growth, resulting in better yields and healthy plants at harvest.
“I want to make my life easier,” she says. “I take care of the crops in spring and fall, and then the rest of the year, I kind of ignore it—they do their own thing.”
“I call it love and neglect.”
Crops and livestock with an environmental purpose
Research on farms shows that permaculture can store about 7 times more carbon than conventional agriculture. Agriculture and our food system are also responsible for about 20% of carbon emissions in Canada and create additional greenhouse gases. This has a direct impact on climate change.
Young explains that less tillage and cover crops help carbon sequestration, hold more water and reduce soil erosion. In other words, the guild keeps everything luxuriant and moist in a highly sustainable system with no input.
“The best way you can decrease your impact on the planet is focus on soil health and plant health, and everything else will follow.”
After we’ve finished our tea, Young takes me for a tour of the farm. We see many types of trees, shrubs and vegetables, but also insects and birds all living together in a system that continually strengthens itself.
Just outside her home, there is the mobile chicken coop. Young moves it every couple of weeks to a new pasture area so the chickens can control weeds and insects.
Further up the valley, a silvopasture area is in development. This ancient practice associates trees and pasture into a single system for raising livestock. This practice can help sequester up to ten times more carbon than in a grassland environment, and it improves herd productivity and health.
Young is planting truffle trees and under that a mix of orchard grass, perennial rye grass, alfalfa, clovers, daikon radish where she will bring her chickens and ducks, and potentially add cattle too.
“[Silvopasture] decreases my input into the ground and helps fertilize it,” she says. “One thing helps the other.”
Foraging the forest and building a financially sustainable business
Passing the raising beds in permaculture, we enter a deep forest area. Some of the trees are marked with a spray-painted maple leaf—Young will tap these for their sugary sap to make syrup.
“I want to take care of my forest and at the same time produce enough income,” she says. “It’s worthwhile keeping the forest, not just for the biodiversity, but also for things that we can forage like stinging nettle […] noble pines, mushrooms and maple syrup.”
There are mostly perennial crops in the forest, which don’t need to be replanted each year and so do not need tilling. Young explained she prefers this model to larger, less intuitive industrial designs.
“When you have these big, massive farms that are just doing commodity crops, they’re not actually feeding the world,” she says. “They’re feeding into the industrialized food system, which is really not improving anybody’s health.”
Time and infrastructure costs, the two obstacles to get the farm off the ground
While we keep chatting, we walk down the hill and Young introduces me to her sister-in-law. Aiyana Jennings moved to the Valley last August to start a market garden called Acorn Veggies at Under the Oak. After a few months of weeding, seeding and harvesting with hand tools, the quarter-acre looks productive already.
Some studies demonstrate that it is possible to make a good living out of a small parcel in permaculture. For Young, however, the difficulty comes from financing the infrastructure when starting up. Building water lines and electrical infrastructure is expensive.
“Rebates from the government on equipment such as mobile coops or electric netting would be very beneficial,” she explains. “Those are the things you wouldn’t be buying if you weren’t already doing some sort of restorative agriculture. Why not give people money back for investing in healthy farming?”
Still, Young is confident she can transform her farm into a profitable business. She has big plans for it, including building a commercial kitchen and preparing her soil for high-value white Italian truffles.
Farming is a long term project, but Young is here to stay.
“Part of why I love the food culture here in the Valley is [that] we do have the green community […] Everything I need is here,” she says.
Want to learn more? Heather Young recommends these books
- In a small space: All New Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew
- In a backyard: Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway
- As a small-scale farm: The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman
- For large-scale farms: Dirt to Soil, by Gale Brown; Restoration Agriculture, by Mark Shepard; Growing a Revolution, by David Montgomery
- To better understand food systems: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan; The Third Plate, by Dan Barber
This Food For Thought article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights/RBC. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.