Farming for Change: introducing writer-farmer John Alpaugh

As a child I avoided eating vegetables as if they were toxic. The final scene of many dinners was a stand off between my parents and I over an untouched side of raw carrots. Eventually they surrendered, not willing to torture me or forego sleep to prove a nutritional point. For many years after these victories I avoided vegetables altogether. It is a strange turn of events that today I am working on a small organic vegetable farm.

Like many people in British Columbia, I am not from here. I have the indistinct story of being from Ontario. After graduating from Dalhousie University last spring, I moved back home to work for my parents and save some money. When the fall came around, I built a bed in my car and set off for a road trip through the United States. I had a ski pass and a National Parks pass, and I was going to see the natural splendour that is so celebrated.

As I approached the end of my trip and the bottom of my bank account in the early spring of 2020, I had to decide what to do next. Rounding the turn and heading north from California, BC appeared to be a natural conclusion. In the past, I had spent my summers working on golf courses. I wanted to continue working outside, this time putting my efforts towards work I felt was part of a solution, environmentally and physically. I went on, a jobsite connecting eco-minded workers with sustainable work.

One posting caught my eye: Laughing Crow Organics in Pemberton, working as a farmhand. I emailed Andrew Budgell and Kerry McCann, the owners and operators of the farm. A few days later, I had a Skype interview from the visitor’s centre in Yosemite Valley, and they offered me the job. I started looking for a place to live that would also be financially sustainable.

Kerry McCann, Laughing Crow Organics’ co-owner: “People need to eat.”

But soon after this, the world entered a pandemic, and suddenly every plan was on shaky foundation. No one had any idea what would be possible a week, a month, a year from now. I was in Lake Louise staying with a friend from home when COVID hit, planning to continue west. He had been laid off from his job at the hotel, and we both decided to head east and wait things out.

I got in touch with Kerry. Would there still be a job for me? People still need to eat, she said. “We will be growing plants and feeding people and we will need your help.” A month after my first cross country drive, I turned around and headed back west.

Immediately I knew I had made the right decision. Even in May, at the height of COVID confusion, Pemberton was a pocket of normalcy. The next month, when Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted across North America, the events of the world felt even further away. In both instances, I wondered what part I played in it all. What is my responsibility?

Farming was an attempt to answer this question. Our food systems are some of the most oppressive systems we have, environmentally, socially and economically. Like many others in the capitalist mindset, optimization has been focused on profits, rather than quality. As a result, large scale agriculture has sterilized the growing process in an effort to grow more food for less money. These costs do not evaporate. They are passed down the line onto the health, the environment, the worker, and the consumer.

When I was on the road, I did most of my shopping at Walmart. It was the cheapest option, and they let me sleep in the parking lot, so it was convenient, but I knew there was something wrong with this decision. By spending my money on cheaper food, I was inevitably supporting practices I do not believe in. Cheaper food is cheaper because it exploits workers, and abuses the environment.

Eating is a completely different experience on the farm, one I am very fortunate to have. The work is fair, the pay is honest, and our relationship with the land is respectful. We give it what it needs, and it repays in kind.

Unfortunately, there is an observed problem of access to good food, one that can often be drawn on lines of racial inequality. Buying organic is often out of reach, and Walmart or McDonald’s appears to be the best or only option. But when I go to market, and see what our customers get for $30, in quality and quantity, I cannot believe I shopped at Walmart. If I were a customer, which I have no doubt I will be in the future if I am not still an employee, I would be proud to be supporting better practices, and to be receiving a better product.

To be an activist does not necessarily mean you must be on the front lines with a picket sign. It can be as simple as making more informed choices at the grocery store. By supporting local, small scale sustainable agriculture, we are supporting the health of the earth, the health of ourselves, and the health of society. It is an act of liberation and solidarity. The more we choose to buy from farmers who are doing the right thing, the more this opportunity will be presented to others.

I needed to find myself on a farm before I truly grasped this, but awareness is free to anyone, and it is often the most powerful thing we can do.