Small-scale farming operations pop up on the outskirts of Squamish

Homesteaders get used to remote living with no cellphone reception

brood of chickens darts along the path that travels between the towering cedars, following the four-wheeler at a rapid pace. Like a school of fish, their feathery mass hides the ground below them, parting intermittently as hens break from the stream to peck at a leaf or scratch the dirt. 

They know the routine. Food and then up for the night in the chicken coup before Tracy Robertson rises again at 5:30 a.m., feeds the goats, checks on the turkeys, lets the pigs out and then sets the chickens free to forage in the woods. 

Nine years ago, Robertson traded in her title as an account manager to buy a piece of property in Paradise Valley and pursue the life of a farmer at Stony Mountain Farm. Robertson and her partner, Dan Price, wanted to raise animals naturally on a property that they fell in love with 25-minutes up Paradise Valley Road.

Starting a business up the valley comes with challenges. There isn’t any cellphone reception, which in today’s world of instant information sometimes requires customers to evoke the dying trait of patience. Robertson has a land line and an answering machine. 

While this has had little impact on day-to-day business, Robertson says social media takes a hit. 

“The only thing that really sucks is I can’t do Facebook live,” she says, noting visual delights like the “chicken run” have to be uploaded later. 

Despite the technological limitations, small, homestead-style agricultural operations keep popping up in the valleys. 

In 2013, Mike Holmes bought 160 acres to open Squamish Valley Hop Farm. This year marks his first major harvest and he will be selling his hops to craft breweries in the Lower Mainland. 

“I fell in love with the property. It has a lot of potential,” he says.

Holmes would like to see more farming operations take advantage of the agricultural parcels up the valley. However, out-of-date laws don’t accommodate the resurgence of people looking to start small-scale operations on smaller pockets of land.

With the average age of Canadian farmers in their late 60s, the government should be encouraging the current trend toward this style of agriculture, he notes. If officials made way for small-scale farming operations, Holmes says, the industry in the valley would become a more self-sustaining hub. The farms could capitalize on resources such as labour and ordering of supplies. 

While Squamish has undergone a construction boom, its extremities – the Squamish and Paradise valleys – have remained relatively the same as they were when Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman first laid eyes on them during a train ride from North Vancouver to Whistler more than 20 years ago. 

“There haven’t been that many changes up the valley,” she reiterates, recalling how the bald eagles seemingly swirled around the train during her first encounter with the area. 

Much of Paradise Valley lies within District of Squamish jurisdiction, but Squamish Valley falls within the Squamish Lillooet Regional District. The areas are “married” and need to be viewed that way, Heintzman says. 

Increased farming activity in recent years has appeared on officials’ radar, she notes. As such there is a plan to provide good internet connection to operations up the valleys. A provincial grant was awarded to Whistler’s Base Technology to oversee the project. 

The district and SLRD are also eyeing the creation of a joint agricultural plan for the area, Heintzman says. Food security and food strategies are important topics and can’t be looked at in isolation, she notes. 

“We want to be able to preserve the agricultural opportunities, particularly into the future.”

Holmes and Robertson will continue to forge ahead with or without changes. The natural beauty of the area keeps their feet planted in the valleys.

“There is something about the valleys. We have community events and you get to know your neighbours,” Robertson says. “All these young families who are moving up there are interested in a homestead lifestyle. It is nice to have a little part in that.” 

Mike Holmes, the owner of Squamish Valley Hop Farm, harvests his latest crop. - Mike Chouinard
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