Harold Steves’ family has been farming in Richmond since 1877 and his sons are now the fifth generation. Over his lifetime as a farmer, Harold has been at the forefront of many agricultural issues, championing farmland preservation, seed saving and good stewardship of the land.
As a member of the Dave Barrett NDP government in the early ’70s, Harold helped set up the Agricultural Land Reserve and he continues to champion the saving of farmland. He is acutely aware that this region has only about a three-day supply of food in the event of any emergency.
A contingent from Bowen Island Food Sovereignty, Julie Sage, Meribeth Deen and I, visited Harold on his farm in June of this year to learn from his insights, stories and wisdom. The family’s farm history was evident all around us; it appeared they had never thrown out any of the farm’s nearly 150 years’ worth of implements or artifacts.
Only 15 acres of the original farm is left. Most of it was lost in the Great Depression in a $3-per-acre tax sale but the family later acquired more farmland near Cache Creek, which their son Jerry manages.
They raise all grass-fed organic beef, which they direct market to the public along with organic eggs. At one time, they had difficulty getting their cattle slaughtered as the abattoir was frequently shut down because of e-coli outbreaks.
As it turned out, the abattoir was slaughtering their grass-fed beef together with grain-fed beef. According to Harold, grain increases the acidity in the rumen of the cow, which encourages bacteria that can survive that acidity. The e-coli problem disappeared when they moved to an abattoir that only slaughters grass-fed animals.
Harold studied genetics at UBC, which he puts to good use in the family’s heirloom seed business. The Steves’ started B.C.’s first seed company around 1888. As we were leaving, Harold’s eyes lit up when he showed us his special variety of heirloom tomatoes called “Alpha tomatoes,” which ripen two weeks earlier than any other variety.
At UBC, he was exposed to two professors with completely opposite views on the future of agriculture. One warned that farmers who didn’t convert to chemical agriculture wouldn’t last. He chose to follow the advice of Professor McKenzie, who was bucking the trend and advocated the organic point of view. Interestingly, all his friends who went into chemical agriculture are no longer farming.
Harold is now a big proponent of regenerative agriculture. This is a farming method that regenerates soil fertility, improves water retention, fosters biodiversity, and sequesters carbon.
Harold recalls class discussions about climate change at UBC in 1959-60. The well-known climatologist, Dr. Peterson, had warned that within 50 years there would be very little ice in the Arctic. In Harold’s opinion, the climate has changed so much in the B.C. interior that we’re not going to get trees growing back and the big problem will be grass and underbrush fires.
Harold sees an important role for the holistic grazing approach as proposed by Allan Savory: moving large herds of herbivores to recycle the grass and brush, reducing of the risk of fire while rebuilding the fertility of the soil and its ability to infiltrate and store more water.
Harold has been a Richmond Councillor since 1977 and is a current member of the Metro Vancouver Board. The City of Richmond has worked in very creative ways to rescue what remains of its urban farmland. The land is used to develop incubator farms with Kwantlen University’s farm school program, set up allotment gardens, and establish a community garden where they grow food for the food bank.
Harold also brought us up to date on Richmond’s system for composting green yard waste. First, the city successfully banned the use of pesticides in residential areas and then it banned the growing of genetically modified crops (GMOs). Richmond Food and Fibre recycled the green waste in an anaerobic digester and the result was good enough to put on organic crops.
Unfortunately, the company was bought out by Harvest Power, which mixed the Richmond yard waste with food waste from elsewhere, thereby creating serious odour problems and material that could no longer be used for organic farming. In the last few months, Harvest Power shut down completely, leaving Richmond in limbo. Harold expressed the view that different streams of waste needed to be treated separately.
Come hear Harold’s Climate Conversation: Farmland Preservation & Revitalization on Sunday, October 6, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Municipal Hall.