Hello! My name’s Eugénie. I’m a photographer from Portland, Ore., currently on the road in the great Northwest. I’ve just wrapped an artist’s residency at the Tofino Botanical Gardens, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and am now heading to Alaska by way of British Columbia’s mainland and the Yukon. I’ll be checking out farm life along the way, traveling in my truck, and having deep conversations with Tilly, my pup and trusty co-pilot (shown above ignoring me, as usual).
This is what I saw during the first leg of my trip in Tofino, British Columbia. Check back each week, where I’ll be showing more pics from my road trip here on Modern Farmer.
Setting out from Tofino
What better place to start a Northwest farming odyssey than Tofino, which at first glance seems to have no farming community at all. This is coastal temperate rainforest at its rainiest, with salty air and shallow, acidic soil. There aren’t any farms, as we know them. Instead, Tofino has mudflats, the keystone habitat for local and migratory wildlife from salmon to whale, shorebirds, wolf and bear. The muddy goodness provides a veritable feast that impacts the humans around here too, as it’s an abundant resource for wild harvesting. Tofino’s mayor, Josie Osborne, lives at the mudflats’ edge, and as a biologist who spearheaded the Tofino Mudflats Stewardship Project, she’s not afraid to get the good stuff between her toes.
Maintaining a Healthy Ecosystem
Healthy mudflats lead to healthy wild salmon. As they say around here, take care of this place, and it will take care of us. This Coho, caught about 30 minutes before we ate it, melted in my mouth and left me buzzed.
Finding Our Roots
In most farming communities, at dawn the farmers rise and head to the fields; here, the boats line up, and cruise out to sea. I learned all this from Dan Harrison, of the Raincoast Education Society. Wild harvesting has long been central to this region’s food security. Fishing, crabbing, clamming, seaweed harvesting, berry picking and estuarine root gardens comprise the local fare. Traditional First Nations cultivation of root gardens in estuaries could even be hailed as the first form of agriculture in the coastal region; European settlers were less successful with their later attempts. Dan tells me all this with great passion. The wild harvesting is clearly central to the region’s culinary identity.
The Culinary Guild Grows
To bring seasonally fresh fruits and veggies to such a geographically remote community, Tofino had to get creative. Enter the Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild. Originally formed by a small group of chefs who wanted to merge British Columbia’s bounty of fruits, vegetables and specialty meats with Tofino’s own abundance of wild goods, the Guild now has over 70 individual members, and 30+ participating businesses, who each receive a weekly shipment from farmers, fishermen and foragers from throughout the BC province.
The Weekly Fare
This week, members will go home with tomatoes, potatoes, basil, garlic, greens, raspberries, blueberries, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, sea asparagus and hazelnuts. The Guild deals only in wholesale quantities, which makes it worth the farmers’ while, and encourages members to preserve and can anything they don’t scarf down straight away.
Connecting Farmers with Community
Bobby Lax is the logistical wizard behind the Guild. Every weekend he’s on the phone with all participating farms to see what’s available; he sends an email to the Guild’s members with the list of goods; and then collects and disseminates the orders back out to the farms. The farms pick to order – this is the crux – usually on the day of, or just before, delivery. The shipments arrive in Tofino on Wednesday afternoon, and members pick up their boxes that night, knowing exactly what they’re going to get. If someone isn’t at the pickup, Bobby’s been known to deliver the food to their home. Impressively, in the midst of all this he also manages to squeeze in time to surf.
Curious about the more remote residents of Clayoquot Sound (there are a lot of them), I hop on a boat and head to one of the more spectacular projects dedicated to creating a raincoast farm: Freedom Cove, a floating oasis tucked into an inlet about an hour up the Sound from Tofino. This place is nuts, and quite the design challenge. Fourteen individual greenhouses and small structures (including a two-story house) are tethered together and buoyed by old fish farm floats, housing an abundant and colorful array of fruits and veggies that are the sustenance for the Cove’s two year-round residents, Catherine King and Wayne Adams.
Wayne is the engineer behind the project. They started building in 1992.
Building a Floating Farm
Nearly all the containers used in the garden were salvaged from fish farms in neighboring inlets. The netting keeps both the wind and salty air at bay. They have to import the potting soil from the garden supply store in Tofino, and harvest seaweed to help fertilize. Irrigation is piped from a spring on shore and distributed through a network of hoses that run along the walkways.
Managing the Farm
Catherine is the floating farmer. She enthusiastically welcomes visitors, and aims to have enough food on hand to feed up to eight people at any given time. I’m guessing the visitors arrive often, based on what’s growing this year. She’s harvesting from 25 different vegetables, 18 different herbs, 6 types of fruit tree, 6 types of berry, and an assortment of edible flowers. But it is still very much in the wild; Huckleberry, the Chihuahua, can’t stay outside unattended for long, lest he get plucked by an eagle.
Gunnera – A Big and Beautiful Weed
It’s time to head north. On my way out of town, I pay my tab at the Tofino Botanical Gardens, where I’ve been gorging on their quiche and garden-grown salads for weeks. Rosanna manages the café, here, doing her best to be botanically tough. Gunnera, over her shoulder, is one of the more controversial plants in the area. It’s big and it’s bold, some even say it’s beautiful for its broad dramatic flair, but unlike Rosanna, who’s a Tofino native, it’s also technically a weed.
Bidding Farewell to Tofino
I take my time crossing the island, and just before catching the ferry, stumble into the world’s tallest garden gnome. Guinness Book proportions, hiding out in Nanoose. I’m not sure what his gesture means, but I take it as some sort of awkward Northwest islander goodbye. So I thumbs-up and wave back, and leave the island.