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Tractor trek highlights farmers' hard road

Sep 20 2012
John Varty and Molly Daley arrive at Mile Zero in Victoria. The pair traveled across the country in a tractor to raise awareness for the plight of farmers. 

John Varty and Molly Daley arrive at Mile Zero in Victoria. The pair traveled across the country in a tractor to raise awareness for the plight of farmers.

Photograph by: Lyle Stafford , Times Colonist

John Varty steered his shiny red Massey Ferguson tractor over the curb and onto the grass at Mile Zero on Wednesday to end his cross-country mission to remind Canadians that farms are worth supporting and saving.

But before Varty could start his press conference, he was kicked off the grass by a city official.

The tractor, towing a tiny house covered in 120-year-old barn wood, moved a couple of times and eventually parked on the street behind a tour bus. A group of local farmers was there to welcome them.

Varty and partner Molly Daley were treated to a farmers' feast of Saanich Peninsula berries and local bubbly after their 8,000-kilometre trip from Charlottetown, P.E.I., to Victoria. They started their Tractor Canada journey last summer, took a winter break at home in Hamilton, Ont., and resumed this year.

They travelled an average of 24 to 25 kilometres an hour and dealt with 38 flat tires and two dead batteries, Varty said.

The local bounty from family farms illustrated what Varty, an agriculture professor, wants us all to think about. Out ancestors used to talk about farming all the time - everyone had a garden and raised food - but that doesn't happen now, he said. "We need to talk about it in a real and meaningful way."

So far, the pair have collected 300 hours of video destined to become a documentary or a series to describe what's happening on farms from Saanich to the Maritimes. They plan to visit the Okanagan within a couple of months to talk to farmers there.

"We have something of a problem, I think," Varty said. "Eighty-five per cent of all income on farms comes from off farms." That means that farmers are working away from their land in order to make enough money to survive.

It should be a national embarrassment that our country has become wealthy while those producing food can be near the bottom of income brackets, Varty said.

And while some people only support local and organic farms, he urged Canadians not to turn their back on conventional farms.

"The transition into organic can be very difficult," he said. Varty is not a farmer but counts seven generations of farming in his family.

Despite the differences among Canadian farms, Varty said dissatisfaction with low incomes and with government regulations were common themes from coast to coast.

Varty and Daley arrived in Victoria on Friday and have been visiting farms.

"More than any other place I've been, there is way more creativity [here] in terms of coming up with ways to farm on small plots of land."

He called Bryce Rashleigh, who runs Saanichton Farm at 1947 Stelly's Cross Rd., the "model of new farming and the future of farming."

Rashleigh's farm is an example of diversity. A variety of crops, including lentils, are grown and livestock is raised on just over five acres. He also uses his combine to do custom haying and hires summer workers to offer a range of services.

Massey Ferguson donated the tractor, now for sale at $28,500, Varty said, adding that it's the only tractor with "all highway miles." They received meals and food from farmers, and other corporate donations as well. Varty said they spent $80,000 of their own money.

For more information, go to tractorcanada.com.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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