Imagine a work day where your morning commute finishes, before it even starts. Where working in your field means stepping into rows of delicious green leaves and vibrant patches of sun-ripened berries and plump vegetables. In this very co-operative environment, brilliant stalks of dazzling rainbow chard naturally network with a community of down-to-earth garlic and beets, and co-workers are quite happy to buzz busily from one growth project to another. Of course, all workplaces have their downsides, even an organic farm. The foot traffic can be pretty fowl at times, and in some enclaves, there’s barely any movement at all, as the amber lights from a substantial company of sunflowers urge a “slow down” all day. But the results of this farming work create a true grounding. The edible end-products are full of unquestionable good taste, naturally chemical-free, and always in universal demand. For Lantzville’s Dirk Becker, organically farming his land offers a lifestyle of health and sustainability, as well as an opportunity to be an inspiring example for a working re-education about the way we live.
Dirk owns 2.5 acres of land in rural Upper Lantzville. His farming began quietly enough, after many years spent as a vocal activist involved in numerous social, environmental and community groups. “I ended up getting really tired, and frustrated, and bitter,” he says, “because it’s very difficult to change systems and change others. So I began a quest of personal change, and I ended up buying this property and moving out of the city of Nanaimo. Naturally, because I was always interested in organic food and relying less on going to the store and the systems that exist, I ended up putting in a garden. A very dismal one that was quite laughable because I had no idea what I was doing.”
But as happens with many novice gardeners, Dirk discovered the joys of the natural process and began to let the plants reseed themselves. Over time, his garden kept expanding and soon he was supplying friends and neighbours with abundant fresh produce, which further evolved into selling large quantities of it through local farmer’s markets.
He realized his time away from activism was offering him some new perspectives on himself as a human being, and presenting him with a different opportunity for growth.
“I went to this more Ghandian-John Lennon-Nelson Mandela kind of place of, ‘be the change you want to see in the world,’ and what has come out of that, is, putting the vast majority of my time and energy into growing food and teaching others to do so. And, in the course of that, I also found some barrels on the beach after a storm, and set them up as rain barrels.”
Dirk began publicly promoting the saving of rainwater for use in gardens and yards through the sale of his rain barrels, at events such as Seedy Sundays in Nanaimo. And sales pitches began to lead to speeches on wide-ranging topics that drew people’s attention to the connections between the price of food, the conditions that it’s grown under and the people who grow it worldwide.
“My interests are very broad, and my goal in teaching is about much more than simply vegetables and organics.”
He cites examples of health and labour concerns for South Americans working on banana plantations and cheap food subsidies in the United States which see workers earning as little as $3.00 per day. And chemicals – pesticides and herbicides that are manufactured in the Western world, used on plants grown in other countries and which end up returning to us on the food we eat.
“The poison ends up in the water, in the fish, in the air – we end up breathing and drinking it. So now we have unprecedented increases in asthma, ADD and ADHD, and all kinds of other strange illnesses – chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia – because we’re taking in all these chemicals. Initially when I first became a vegetarian and spent some time as a vegan, I was always thinking about that I want to be healthier. But, selfishly, that’s not taking into account how other people and the earth is suffering from my desire to live a healthier life. So today, if I have a choice between buying organic soy grown in California, and beef grown in Nanaimo, even though I don’t typically eat beef, I would rather eat the locally grown beef, because that is actually a much more responsible food choice, especially if those cows are eating locally grown food. All our choices affect everything and everyone.”
Dirk respects and endorses David Suzuki’s ideas about permaculture, or permanent agriculture, as being the single most important thing anyone can be doing right now. He first heard Suzuki advocating sustainable growing two years ago as his own efforts were expanding, and now is pleased that the scientist is encouraging people to eat locally, rather than relying on food shipments from as far as 3,000 kilometres away.
“The lettuce in the store might be on sale for 39 cents. I can hardly bend down for 39 cents – my back hurts more than that after picking just one lettuce. So I refuse to sell it for less than $2.00. If people won’t buy it, I’ll either eat it myself, give it to the neighbours or feed it to the chickens. But what is a 39 cent lettuce really worth? I would suggest $5.00 to $10.00 because of subsidies, transportation and fossil fuel costs, etc. People don’t really think about that.”
Equally important in any organic farming is the taste of the food produced. With nutrient-depleted soils being the norm, Dirk’s research indicates that vital elements called ‘salvestrols,’ which are produced in plants as a group of natural fungicides and cause the bitter taste in vegetables, are measurable in quantities now that are half that found in the plants of one hundred years ago. Consequently, our food today tastes bland. The salvestrols are absolutely essential for human health and act as anti-cancer agents in the body. And Dirk says, with the prevalence of cancers today, it isn’t something he has to investigate at all, to know that 50 or more years of spraying herbicides and pesticides onto the earth is bad for the health of every living thing, including the soil.
Over the past month, Dirk has been speaking on several radio programs. He says his message is that it all comes down to choosing our lifestyle. He’s come to the conclusion that we’re a society that underemphasizes ‘the heart’ and simple activities involved with giving and sharing, and overemphasizes ‘the mind’ – the urgent pursuit of advanced education if it leads to a paper degree and a position with very high income. And once we have money, we become aggressive consumers, buying cars and houses and actively displaying our status – constantly trying to ‘get ahead’ of someone else.
“This is why I grow food and teach other people to grow food. In 1900, 90% of Canadians were involved in agriculture. Now it’s only 4.3%. Our societies used to be structured much differently, we were much more connected. People helped each other and knew each other – they worked, played and went to church together. My farming is really about connection. I think the only thing that will really turn things around, is if people realize how disconnected they’ve become from themselves, each other, the earth and the water and the air. My focus is being less against things and being more for things, and at this point, growing healthy, nourishing food that will make us stronger, happier, healthier and more peaceful, more balanced and able to assist others on their path. And I have been able to do that.”
Ultimately, it’s about seeing and accepting all the connections, he says. Connections with every living thing, including the overabundance of bugs currently populating his farm. And for that, he’s just acquired 18 downy ducklings who will soon be put to work on active bug patrol. Simple connections. Simple lifestyle. In the words of a very old Gershwin song, “Nice work if you can get it, and if you get it, won’t you tell me how?”