Terry and Vern Michell own a farm with 30 different crops that are planted, watered, harvested and delivered. (Hugo Wong/Black Press)

Growing the South Island: Vern Michell, Michell Farms

“You’re doing a good job, you should get 35 cents an hour now!”

This is the third story in a six-part series chronicling farming on the South Island ahead of the 150th anniversary of the Saanich Fair. We talked to farmers both old and young, and asked them what has changed over the years and what makes them who they are today.

Check back each morning and afternoon for new stories between Aug. 29-31.

Part 1: Erin Bett, Fierce Love Farm

Part 2: Robin Tunnicliffe, Sea Bluff Farm

Part 3: Rob Galey, Galey Farms

Part 4: John Pendray, Pendray Farms

Part 5: Jack Mar, Mar Farms

——————

Vern Michell was born on the family farm and as a boy in the late 1930s worked a horse-drawn cultivator and raked up hay on a property roughly six or seven acres in size. At that time, small dairy and fruit farms dotted the Saanich Peninsula and each provided enough to support the family that lived on it.

“I would get 25 cents an hour to do that job,” said Vern, now 87 years old. “Until my boss said, ‘You’re doing a good job, you should get 35 cents an hour now!’”

His 60-year-old son Terry drives up and down almost 500 acres, ensuring the more than 30 different crops are being planted, watered, harvested and delivered at the right time.

“We can harvest a whole load of carrots in 20 minutes nowadays, where it would used to take half a day,” said Terry, a fifth generational member of the Michell family. The load of carrots he refers to: 12-14 tons.

Technological improvement changed every aspect of farming, replacing shovels with automated planters and overhead sprinklers with drip irrigation to minimize water waste.

“Every gallon of water is quite valuable to us farmers,” said Vern. “We put the water where it’s needed, around the plant.”

In Terry’s view, the biggest change has been the availability of land, which he says is in part because of development. As soil is replaced by impermeable surfaces like concrete or asphalt, water that could have been absorbed instead drains into the lowlands, where most fertile soil (and thus farms) is located. A small flood is enough to destroy a field’s worth of crops in a matter of hours.

Other challenges include distributing the product to large chain grocery stores, non-migratory geese, housing and labour availability. These days, around 40 employees plant, pick and pack the food grown on the farm, many of whom are professional migrant farm workers.

Both Michells’ said it was a challenge to meet the demand for local produce throughout the year.

“Our buyers are demanding a continuous supply of everything we grow,” said Vern, “whether it’s cabbage, lettuce, or cauliflower. They want a supply of those seven days a week. They don’t want one day without any and the next day with some.” Keeping a continuous supply when the weather might not cooperate for planting or harvesting the crops in time is challenging for them.

“You want a certain size, you want a certain quality so your customers are calling, wanting your product and you’re not trying to sell it to them,” said Terry.

Their wide range of crops means if the market price of one crop goes down, they might make up the difference in another crop and remain profitable. It also means daily delivery trucks can be full. Terry said some produce is picked in the morning, shipped to stores by lunch and sold out by the end of the day. The work is challenging for the family, but there are advantages. Family photos are everywhere in Vern and Dorothy’s living room, with several generations living on the farm together.

“We’re working for ourselves, which is nice,” said Terry. “Every day you’ve got a different challenge which keeps your full attention on the farm. You never know what comes next.”

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