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Biting the Land that Feeds Us

A couple years ago I was actively involved in the fight to save Formosa Farm from being paved. We lost. The Pitt Meadows municipal government along with the same characters involved in the first travesty, are now trying to put in the second road that I mention in this chapter from my new book. That road – the North Lougheed Connector – will take off the top part of this farm. Go to Formosa’s blog for more info and sign the petition. As for the Golden Ears bridge, seems no one’s using it.

Until a week ago, I was a protest virgin. I had my very first experience at the Formosa Farm and Nursery in Maple Ridge on a late fall day. Media, supporters, activists and politicians from all sides gathered there to try to save something very precious. Someone was about to lose their organic blueberries.

It started innocently enough. Someone much older and more experienced lured me into this campaign. “Can you help me hand out leaflets at an organic farmers’ dinner Saturday?” he asked. In my world, that was just like distributing brochures, educational materials or promotional flyers. I had no idea that “leafletting” was an actual activist term and that I was committing a political act. To me “campaign” meant advertising: snappy headlines, nice graphics, engaging copy and maybe a promotional event. I was about to lose my innocence.

When I arrived at the farm, someone tried to thrust a sign into my hands. “I’m not r-ready,” I cried and ran and hid in one of the nearby garden sheds. Hanging out in the background at a rally was one thing, but sign carrying was way too advanced for me.

If you attended the rally at Formosa that fall, you would have seen the plants at their finest. Vivid red stems pierced a brilliant blue sky. On a day like that day it was hard to believe those blueberries wouldn’t last forever. Even though bright yellow tape already marked where the road would run through the field. The crowd gathered at the edge of this red sea while Ting Wu and Risa Lin pleaded their case through the media.

“They’re tearing my heart out,” said Risa in one TV interview. Both Risa and Ting were becoming powerful spokespeople for their own cause and that made a lot of people nervous.

The Wu family has owned Formosa Farm for more than 30 years. It’s a 46-acre, certified organic farm, the only certified organic farm in the Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows area. They grow blueberries mostly, along with some oriental pears and other fruits. Ting, an engineer and UBC graduate, was born and raised on this Fraser Valley farm. Now his two children are growing up there. Three years ago, a process was started that would see a road, the Abernethy Connector, bisect Ting and Risa’s 10 acre blueberry field; the road is part of the Province’s Golden Ears Bridge project and the larger Gateway expansion that would see more bridges and highways built.

Nearly thirty years ago, another road was planned. In fact it is there and gazetted – “ which means it is legal, officially designated and owned by the government. But when Ting and Risa found out that road would adversely affect their southern neighbours, they suggested a compromise to Translink, the regional transportation body charged with putting in the road. They offered up their own land, in fact their house, proposing that Translink move their road only 30 metres over so that it wouldn’t damage their neighbours’ farms and wouldn’t bisect theirs. Translink said no. After all, they had already expropriated the land. They said the bulldozers would be there in eight days.

The couple’s story drew a sympathetic crowd and an interesting coalition gathered around them. Environmental groups, food activists, farmers, friends and supporters from the Taiwanese community, the media, politicians from all parties, even Bill Vander Zalm, former Premier of BC and champion of the underdog showed up at one of two rallies to defend them. Banners fluttered in the breeze, Signs were waved. “Grow Food, not Pavement.” “Save this Organic Farm.” “Farmland Forever.” “Keep Highways off our Foodlands.” There was chanting. People shouting out during the speeches. Definitely not the kind of campaign I was used to creating.

The other players in this tragic drama were Translink, the Agricultural Land Commission (a crown agency whose mission is to preserve farmland and encourage farm businesses), the Environmental Assessment Office, the municipalities of Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows and the Provincial Government – both the ministries of agriculture and transportation. But the Ministry of Agriculture, charged with defending farmland was nowhere to be seen. They appeared to have completely washed their hands of the matter. Even though this was a case of farmers wanting to stay in the protected Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), unlike many others who are desperate to get out.

According to a report prepared by the government’s own Agriculture Ministry Staff (BC’s Food Self-Reliance: Can BC’s Farmers Feed Our Growing Population? 2007), we will need up to 49% more land to produce our food in the next 20 years. Currently, BC farmers produce 48% of all foods consumed in BC, although local food security experts estimate we could probably be growing up to 85% of our own food. There are even pineapples growing in the Southlands area, bananas in West Van and there’s an olive farm on Salt Spring Island. With greenhouses, they say, we could produce anything and be capable of feeding ourselves.

In order to produce a healthy diet for British Columbians, farmers need 2.15 million hectares of arable land with access to irrigation. By 2025, they project we will need another 92,000 hectares to adequately feed the population. In spite of this report and the Ministry of Agriculture’s mandate to defend farmland, they are biting the land that feeds us.

Over the last several months of this battle over Formosa, there were many meetings, a lot of paper and strong arguments flowing back and forth. Some slick with spin. Others wet with tears.

“You’re taking my blueberries,” cried Risa in one meeting with Translink.

“They’re our blueberries now,” was the sinister reply.

“My mother planted those blueberries,” said Ting in another meeting.

“What’s that got to do with it?” snarled Translink.

Ting and Risa weren’t the only ones being bullied. Municipalities confessed that they had been threatened with contractor imposed “late fees” if they didn’t play along. It seems the private company, contracted to build the road was now controlling public highway design in this province.

Hand in hand with the bullying was the finger pointing. No one would take responsibility. The provincial government said Translink was in charge. Translink said the municipalities have agreed. Ting and Risa were told it was their fault because they didn’t get involved earlier. Although there is documentation that records Formosa Nursery’s concerns as far back as August of 2003, long before public consultation. But even if Ting and Risa only found their voices late in the game, wasn’t “a better late than never policy” desirable when a bad decision, an unjust decision was about to be made?

And then, at the 11th hour, a call came in from Translink. “Come on over we’re going to make you happy.” Ting and Risa went, with too much hope. Their supporters hoped along with them. Hope is a dangerous thing. What they hoped for was an offer to move the road, but that offer never came. Instead another financial offer was dangled in front of them.

Throughout this process, Ting and Risa were repeatedly accused of being clever, money-grabbing immigrants. Money was not what would make Ting and Risa happy. And in the midst of all this grief and struggle, a family was being torn apart; the land that Formosa Nursery sits on is owned by several extended family members. Translink had done a masterful job at dividing their interests instead of negotiating with them as a whole. Ting and Risa did not take the offer, but abandoned their public fight. Their farm would be paved.

Since the final verdict came down from Translink, the bulldozers have been slowly moving closer, preparing to flatten the south side of Formosa Nursery as soon as the ground dries. But in spite of the imminent devastation, to the farm and their livelihood, Ting and Risa have decided to stay on and try to make a go of it. Everyday, Ting moves a few blueberry bushes out of harm’s way and friends help take cuttings just as Ting’s mother did 30 years ago. Full circle. They do this, even though incredibly, there is talk of another road that may take the top half of their farm on the Pitt Meadows side. That road, the Abernethy Extension, will give access to more shopping centres and big box malls.

The current Liberal government is now expanding highways and building bridges to accommodate the movement of more cars and goods. They argue that it is the sustainable solution; that it will decrease congestion on roads and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Yet it will border on an environmentally sensitive bog, remove prime farmland from the ALR, expropriate more residential properties, and bulldoze over aboriginal archeological sites. Experts have been telling them over and over, that increasing the road network will only increase traffic. That they should invest in better alternative transit and bikeways, get people out of their cars. And they say, build, but build on the vast available non-arable land in urban areas, densify the cities more, build up the slopes and stop wasting land by building one-storey warehouses and shopping malls on huge acreages in the fertile valley.

In the Formosa case, someone could have been a hero by moving a road 30 metres. But nobody had the courage to admit they were wrong. We are still planning our cities around the car and the “transportation of goods and people” as if we were all just commodities. And along the way, the farmer has been lost. How is that sustainable for Ting and Risa, for farming, for any community? And if this farm could be sacrificed so easily, others will surely fall.

This story has a happy ending. Or at least a kind of phoenix rising from the ashes crescendo. Ting and Risa decided to throw a party. A Mothers’ Day plant sale fundraiser actually. They would sell 1000 cuttings from their organic blueberry plants in honour of Ting’s mother who started the farm thirty years ago from the 10,000 cuttings she collected from other farmers. Funds raised would help relocate blueberry plants, the nursery and greenhouses now that a road will run through the heart of their farm. Ting and Risa insisted that the blueberry plant sale was not a wake. It would be a celebration of farming and devotion to the land. The promotional material read:

If you care about the preservation of farmland, if you want to support farmers, if you believe in buying, eating and growing locally, then bring your mother to Formosa on Sunday. Buy her a cutting or a plant for her yard or balcony. Gift a friend with a pot of blueberries and spread more motherly love. And take home a piece of Ting and Risa’s farm and their courageous spirit for yourself too. Plant it in protest and the sweet promise of renewal that a garden brings.

The day was cool, but the atmosphere was warm, festive and fun. There were singers and musicians, dancers, Chinese YoYo-ers and spontaneous Tai Chi demonstrations. Plant sales were brisk, trolleys of blueberries rolled by all afternoon. It was such a happy sight to see people wearing the Hope T-shirts and hats created for the event, carrying little pots of Hope plants, eating the organic blueberry muffins, taking home pies and plants and trees and knowing they would be planting hope in their yards.

There was great diversity at Formosa that day, young and old and in between, fleece jackets and camouflage pants, gardening clothes and coveralls, tattoos and sunhats. One politician pointed at some environmentalists, “I used to throw these guys in jail and now look at us working together.” Everyone was welcome, and everyone who was there cared about Ting and Risa and their farm. At least 600 people showed up that day. Sales covered the cost of event. The media came in full force too. And five eagles flew overhead, as if to bless the gathering.

There were many miracles that day. There was one that touched me deeply. A Vancouver City Councillor and Translink Director showed up. I worked with him on the Vancouver Food Policy Council and had sent him an invitation to attend but without much hope. He was one of the directors who voted to have the road put through Ting and Risa’s farm. He came with his wife to buy blueberries. After startling him with my exuberant embrace, I gave him a tour. We stood on the freshly ploughed road and looked toward the golf course. Golfers were just “playing through”, focused on a little white ball, not even aware that a farm and a family was being ripped in two.

When he saw the devastation, you could see the impact on his face. “Oh God,” he said. And later, “It is always best to come and see for yourself.” All the directors had been invited to come several times during the process. None had. It was too late now.

Risa told me that the day after the sale she put the “closed” sign out so that she could rest. But the cars kept pulling in to the driveway, full of people who wanted to buy the “baby” plants. She said they all offered to help in any way they could and said she should call them anytime. The Formosa Blueberries are famous now.

As for me, I was now a seasoned protestor. In one meeting, my name had appeared on a list of campaigners with “relationship manager” beside it. Oh my God, what would people think? My reputation was sullied. What was next tying myself to railway tracks?

The next day my horoscope read:

Activists in the Pacific Northwest have sometimes resorted to extreme measures in their efforts to end the clear-cutting of old-growth forests. Among the most creative has been a woman named Dona Nieto, also known as La Tigresa. She has on occasion planted herself half-naked in front of marauding lumberjacks bearing chainsaws and bulldozers, stopping them in their tracks with the sight of her bare breasts and regaling them with her “Goddess-based nude Buddhist guerilla poetry.” She’s your role model Libra. Let her inspire you to be original, experimental and funny as you fight a righteous cause that rouses your zealous idealism. It could be political in nature as in La Tigresa’s case, or it could be personal, as in lobbying a loved one for more focus and intensity.” (Free Will Astrology, Rob Breszny, Westender, w/o March 15, 2007).

1 comment to Biting the Land that Feeds Us

  • My city newspaper mentioned in a story today that, due to dwindling bank accounts, many people are growing fresh produce. Do you think that many families are really growing their own food?

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