When I arrive at Healing Farm, I have an overwhelming sense that I’ve come home. This 18-acre organic farm on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula is everything I love about this part of the world, where I grew up. There are fruit trees and blackberry vines and even 85 maples, that ultimate symbol of Canada, tapped each year for syrup. But what really gets me is the smell of the western red cedar, hemlock, and Sitka spruce.
I moved from Vancouver to Amsterdam six months ago, and walking into the forest that takes up half the farm’s land, standing under the 400-year old trees, I find myself almost paralyzed with nostalgia. Amsterdam has trees, of course, but not these towering sentries — and very few evergreens.
“I’m just going to stand here and smell this forest for a minute,” I say to my surprised Canadian companions, for whom these ancient trees are no big deal. I breathe deeply, filling my lungs with the smell of my childhood spent climbing trees just down the island in Victoria.
Despite the forest’s overwhelming pull, it’s not alone in making me feel connected to this place. When I meet Mike and Sharyn Romaine, the owners of the farm, I feel a strange sense of déjà vu.
Mike, with gray hair and a couple of days’ worth of stubble, is wearing baggy black pants, a white T-shirt, and wide black suspenders. As soon as I see him, I’m reminded of a black and white photo of my great-grandfather, Alexander Hesson, standing in front of his own Saanich fruit orchard, just an eight-minute drive from here. Like Mike and Sharyn, Alexander purchased land for an orchard and farm as a retirement project. For my great-grandfather, it was seeking a quieter life after hanging up his hat as the proprietor of a Victoria gold rush hotel and saloon.
Alexander had just four acres, where, like the Romaines, he grew apples, pears, walnuts, cherries, and berries, and raised chickens.
My great-grandfather died 24 years before I was born, but images of his farm were firmly planted in my memory through my father’s stories. My dad idolized his grandfather and spent much of his childhood playing and working on the farm. He’s got the mangled thumb to prove it, scarred from a mishap with an apple press. A few years ago, we finally visited the land where Alexander’s farm had been, now a community garden. My great-grandfather’s pear trees are still there, sprawling and gone to wild, stretching 20 feet tall.
The pear trees at Healing Farm, by contrast, are neat and orderly, part of an orchard that includes peaches, apricots, and 75 varieties of apples. There are mulberry trees to distract the birds from the plump red cherries. A colony of mason bees keeps the orchard pollinated, with honeybees taking up the slack.
Mike and Sharyn are not alone in their back-to-basics approach to modern farming on the Saanich Peninsula. The rolling hills, family farms, and even vineyards have seen this scenic area dubbed the Provence of British Columbia.
My group, out to explore some of the peninsula’s small farms, started our day in North Saanich at The Roost Vineyard Bistro & Farm Bakery. We breakfasted on fluffy cloud-like scones made from freshly picked blueberries and wheat grown and milled onsite at this second-generation family farm. From there, we darted up to Snowdon House, where Laura Waters has converted a former Christmas tree farm into a sustainable forest where she makes food products, like bread mix and fruit-infused vinegar, incorporating fresh Douglas Fir tips. I was skeptical when she put her blueberry and fir vinegar into an ice cream maker, but the resulting tart, dark purple sorbet made my mouth come alive.
After Healing Farm, we make our way to Sea Cider, where we sample three ciders made from the 50 varieties of apples grown on this 10-acre former sheep farm overlooking Haro Strait. I breathe in the sea air and feel, again, a deep connection to this place that four generations of my family have called home.
When I get back to Amsterdam, I dig out the photo of my great-grandfather. Rather than suspenders and a T-shirt, he’s wearing a tie and waistcoat—complete with a pocket watch. Instead of stubble, he’s got a bushy gray moustache. He’s standing straight-backed next to my great-grandmother, Amanda, her arm linked through his. The photo is dated 1942. By then, Alexander had been farming his Saanich plot for 21 years.
I think he’d be glad to know that small family farming is thriving on the Saanich Peninsula. I’d really love to be able to introduce him to Mike.