Filming calving season during Fool’s Spring

On March 28th, I crossed the Alberta border and gassed up at Lake Louise.  It was snowing.  Two hours later, I stopped in Cochrane for a Zoom meeting in sunny, 18° weather.  I was in Alberta to film calving season and a final interview with Susan at The Farm with The Good Food, and also to film Nathan shipping some peas.  I checked in to my motel feeling thankful that I wouldn’t have to worry about my battery freezing.

The next morning, it was -12°.  My starter motor turned over slowly, but thankfully the engine caught after a few seconds.  Welcome to Alberta in the spring.  It eventually warmed up to -10° while a heavy wind swept over the Rockies from the west.  I hunkered down with the herd, keeping an eye on a grey cow which Susan pointed out was ready to calf.  The moment I came near the paddock, all the cows turned their heads to me, wondering who the intruder was.  The expectant mother was in the distance, against the far fence of the paddock.  Slowly, she circled the perimeter, looking for a safe place to have her baby.

Being from the West Coast, I didn’t have proper winter clothes.  Instead, I made do with layers:  long underwear, jeans, and rain pants below, and a T-shirt, sweatshirt, fleece, motorcycle jacket, and a windbreaker for my torso.  I had a neckwarmer and a hand-knitted touque (thanks Mum!) from my ski gear, but gloves were a problem:  I could either keep my hands warm, or I could operate my camera.  I settled for the uninsulated pockets of my jacket, leaving the camera on a tripod as I waited; only taking my hands out for a few minutes at a time when I needed to film a shot.  Each shot meant my fingers went numb, and I’d get gradually less capable with my camera as I continued to roll.

The pregnant cow found a spot behind a windbreak, and lay down to have her calf.  The windbreak was much needed:  It was probably blowing 50 km/h.  I have learned the meaning of “wind chill”!  Unfortunately, the windbreak was also a visual break:  I could no longer see the cow through the camera.  I hiked around to find a better angle.  As soon as the cow was visible, she stood up and meandered away to find a safer place to give birth, away from suspicious humans who pointed strange plastic devices in her direction.  We played this game a few times until I gave up and retreated to a safe distance.

Eventually, Susan helped us find a truce:  She herded the mother-to-be into a calving shed that was out of the wind, and told me to keep my distance until the calf was well and truly on its way.  It wasn’t until this moment that I truly appreciated what Susan did as a farmer.  The feed hauling, pasturing, and driving the herd back home that I observed when I was around in the summer?  All of that was secondary to Susan’s role as mother cow and midwife to every cow in the herd.  She helps bring them into the world and keeps them safe in the freezing prairie where they are born.

A couple days later, a chinook blew in, the temperature rose, and by the time I left, it was 18° again.  I’d been warned that, coming to Alberta when I did, the weather would be completely unpredictable.  I can confirm:  As advertised.  I chose to arrive in Alberta during “Fool’s Spring”, as in, “don’t be fooled, it’s not spring”.  I felt bad for the calves.  Then again, it could have been -30°.

Up next:  Farming while I edit at O.U.R. Ecovillage

After departing Salt Spring Island for my trip to Alberta, I didn’t know where I would end up.  I had been made welcome for three months with my friends on Salt Spring, but it wasn’t a long-term plan, and I knew I had months of editing yet to come.  Not wanting to just rent an apartment, I put out a call, and Brandy Gallagher at O.U.R. Ecovillage answered:  They had a space where I could edit the documentary, and I could offer my labour on the farm instead of paying rent.  Perfect!

What makes the ecovillage special is they are a mixed farm:  They grow a bit of everything and don’t just focus on one type of crop.  They grow plants, raise animals, and do their best to create a full ecosystem.  The plants feed the animals, and the manure from the animals goes back into the soil to feed the plants.  Historically, this is how most farms worked until the efficiencies and ease of specialization led to the farming system we have today.  The ecovillage is romantic:  They have a couple dozen chickens, a few goats, eight sheep, maybe four cows, a vegetable garden, berry patches, fruit and nut trees, a food forest, etc.  The farm is dazzling in its richness and complexity.  With the exception of grains, they grow almost everything we need to survive.

It’s beautiful here.  It’s a place to learn and live the ideals that we only read about when we are in the city:  Local, organic, permaculture — the works!  Unfortunately, living these ideals comes with one large drawback:  The amount of work required to take care of the farm and the sheer complexity of managing it means the ecovillage probably won’t ever earn a profit on the basis of selling food alone.  As a farm, it’s not really a viable business.  Instead, it functions as a community and a school:  Its stubborn existence proves that the principles of permaculture work, and to the extent that it functions like a business, most of its revenues come from hosting workshops and teaching visitors permaculture.

But, to evaluate O.U.R. Ecovillage as a business isn’t really fair because it isn’t one.  Measuring its success on the basis of the profits it generates would be like judging a marriage by the size of the couple’s bank account.  It might get into trouble if it ignored money completely, but to worry about whether it is maximizing its profits would be to miss the point of it entirely.

In a way, that sums up my experience at every farm I visited this past year.  I set out to find out why farming is such a difficult business, and I ended up discovering that it’s the wrong question to ask.  The really difficult question is this:  How can our farmers grow food for the rest of us without being taken advantage of?

A tease of things to come

I have exciting news:  We’ve just finished a teaser, which we will use to showcase the project to funders, and hopefully find partners who can help the project reach a much broader audience — and raise awareness above and beyond the people I can share it with personally.  We are hoping to raise 15% of our budget — $60,000 — by June 3rd, which will make us eligible for the Canada Media Fund.  And, if that comes through, it would mean an additional 49% of our budget.  High stakes!  (BTW:  Know anyone who wants to invest in a better food system?  Send them my way!)

This teaser is NOT PUBLIC, and even though it showcases the documentary with a fair bit of polish, it’s describing the project as it exists in this moment, not the final result.  The project will change and evolve a lot before it is ready to go out into the world.  Enjoy it as a peek behind the curtain and a taste of things to come.  And, if you feel an urge to share it with someone else, please ask me first!

YouTube updates are back

Now that I’m settled at O.U.R. Ecovillage, I intend to get back into the habit of making YouTube updates.  I’ll be farming part time, so hopefully I won’t struggle so much to find something to say while the film is still nascent.  As the film progresses, I’ll be able to share a few more bits and pieces.  I’ve only been here a couple weeks, but I’ve made one to get (re)started:  Filming dairy cattle vs. filming beef cattle.

What’s next?

After a necessary but distracting stop in Vancouver, I’m now settling into my new environment, and getting back into the flow of editing.

  • I am finishing up reviewing all of the 40+ interviews that I filmed over the last year.
  • After that, I’ll start assembling the first skeleton cuts.  For now, I’m working farm by farm, in the order I visited them, so I’ll begin with Amara Farm.
  • Things are moving forward to raise money for the film.  Our current target:  The Canada Media Fund, which will fund up to 49% of the budget — if we can get commitments for 15% of the budget from outside sources by June 3rd.  The pressure is on!

How can I help?

  • Watch the teaser and talk about it with your friends.  If you find an especially interested friend, put me in touch and I’d love to share my experiences one-on-one!
  • Share the project with the rich and famous!  Specifically, the rich:  We are looking for investors to raise $60,000 by June 3rd.  If we can hit that deadline, we have a shot at getting another $200,000 from the Canada Media Fund.  So, talk to your great uncle who won the lottery and convince him that the livlihood of our farmers is a good cause — and a great investment!
  • We are laying the groundwork for a crowdfunding campaign to help fund a tour when the project launches.  We are looking for media partners:  Writers, industry groups, advocacy organizations, etc. who already talk about issues around farming, and who would be interested in using this project to further those conversations.  If that sounds like you or someone you know, e-mail me:
  • Watch the short film that got this project started:  The Hands that Feed Us:  Amara Farm is now streaming on The Green Channel, and mention the film when you sign up.  We get a tip if our film is mentioned in this way.