Terry and Vern Michell own a farm with 30 different crops that are planted, watered, harvested and delivered. (Hugo Wong/Black Press)

Terry and Vern Michell own a farm with 30 different crops that are planted, watered, harvested and delivered. (Hugo Wong/Black Press)

Growing the South Island: Vern Michell, Michell Farms

“You’re doing a good job, you should get 35 cents an hour now!”

This is the third story in a six-part series chronicling farming on the South Island ahead of the 150th anniversary of the Saanich Fair. We talked to farmers both old and young, and asked them what has changed over the years and what makes them who they are today.

Check back each morning and afternoon for new stories between Aug. 29-31.

Part 1: Erin Bett, Fierce Love Farm

Part 2: Robin Tunnicliffe, Sea Bluff Farm

Part 3: Rob Galey, Galey Farms

Part 4: John Pendray, Pendray Farms

Part 5: Jack Mar, Mar Farms

——————

Vern Michell was born on the family farm and as a boy in the late 1930s worked a horse-drawn cultivator and raked up hay on a property roughly six or seven acres in size. At that time, small dairy and fruit farms dotted the Saanich Peninsula and each provided enough to support the family that lived on it.

“I would get 25 cents an hour to do that job,” said Vern, now 87 years old. “Until my boss said, ‘You’re doing a good job, you should get 35 cents an hour now!’”

His 60-year-old son Terry drives up and down almost 500 acres, ensuring the more than 30 different crops are being planted, watered, harvested and delivered at the right time.

“We can harvest a whole load of carrots in 20 minutes nowadays, where it would used to take half a day,” said Terry, a fifth generational member of the Michell family. The load of carrots he refers to: 12-14 tons.

Technological improvement changed every aspect of farming, replacing shovels with automated planters and overhead sprinklers with drip irrigation to minimize water waste.

“Every gallon of water is quite valuable to us farmers,” said Vern. “We put the water where it’s needed, around the plant.”

In Terry’s view, the biggest change has been the availability of land, which he says is in part because of development. As soil is replaced by impermeable surfaces like concrete or asphalt, water that could have been absorbed instead drains into the lowlands, where most fertile soil (and thus farms) is located. A small flood is enough to destroy a field’s worth of crops in a matter of hours.

Other challenges include distributing the product to large chain grocery stores, non-migratory geese, housing and labour availability. These days, around 40 employees plant, pick and pack the food grown on the farm, many of whom are professional migrant farm workers.

Both Michells’ said it was a challenge to meet the demand for local produce throughout the year.

“Our buyers are demanding a continuous supply of everything we grow,” said Vern, “whether it’s cabbage, lettuce, or cauliflower. They want a supply of those seven days a week. They don’t want one day without any and the next day with some.” Keeping a continuous supply when the weather might not cooperate for planting or harvesting the crops in time is challenging for them.

“You want a certain size, you want a certain quality so your customers are calling, wanting your product and you’re not trying to sell it to them,” said Terry.

Their wide range of crops means if the market price of one crop goes down, they might make up the difference in another crop and remain profitable. It also means daily delivery trucks can be full. Terry said some produce is picked in the morning, shipped to stores by lunch and sold out by the end of the day. The work is challenging for the family, but there are advantages. Family photos are everywhere in Vern and Dorothy’s living room, with several generations living on the farm together.

“We’re working for ourselves, which is nice,” said Terry. “Every day you’ve got a different challenge which keeps your full attention on the farm. You never know what comes next.”

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

SD62 bus driver Kerry Zado said it’s common to see drivers lose their patience and pass by his bus while he’s picking up students during the morning commute. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
School bus driver laments motorists who pass while red lights are flashing

All buses in Sooke School District outfitted with stop sign cameras

Victoria police are seeking home surveillance video and witnesses following a prowling incident in Esquimalt Jan. 20. (Black Press Media file photo)
Esquimalt prowler removes air conditioner, peers into person’s home

VicPD is seeking video footage, witnesses following Jan. 20 incident

A cyclist navigates the shoulder in traffic along Oak Bay Avenue in Victoria. (John Luton Photo)
Oak Bay council supports Fort Street bike lanes

Victoria bike lanes would connect to Cadboro Bay Road

(Black Press Media files)
Transport Canada not budging on enclosed deck rules, despite calls from BC Ferries union

There have been at least 23 cases of the U.K. variant detected in Canada, four of which are in B.C.

Victoria police are warning people of a continued rise in cybercrime. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)
Victoria police warn of rising cybercrime called spear phishing

Fraudsters continue to trick people out of large sums of money

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada, speaks at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
B.C. records 500 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, 14 deaths

Outbreak at Surrey Pretrial jail, two more in health care

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Jan. 19

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Rod Bitten of Union Bay won $500,000 in the Lotto Max draw on Jan. 15. Photo supplied
Vancouver Island electrician gets shocking surprise with $500K Extra win

Rod Bitten has been hard at work with home renovations, which is… Continue reading

Eighteen-year-old Aidan Webber died in a marine accident in 2019. He was a Canadian Junior BMX champion from Nanaimo. (Submitted)
Inadequate safety training a factor in teen BMX star’s workplace death in 2019

Aidan Webber was crushed by a barge at a fish farm near Port Hardy

Oyster River Fire Rescue members were called out to a suspicious fire in Black Creek. Two vehicles parked at a private residence were destroyed by fire. Photo courtesy Oyster River Fire Rescue
Suspicious fire destroys two vehicles at Vancouver Island residence

Oyster River Fire Rescue personnel were dispatched to a fire at a… Continue reading

Southern resident killer whales in B.C. waters. Research shows the population’s females are more negatively influenced by vessel traffic than males. (Photo supplied by Ocean Wise Conservation Association)
Female orcas less likely to feed in presence of vessel traffic: study

Research the southern resident population raises concerns over reproduction capacity

Seven streets in downtown Duncan, including Station Street, will soon have new native names added to their signage. (Submitted graphic)
New Duncan street signs will be in English and Hul’q’umi’num

Seven streets to get additional names in First Nations language

A woman writes a message on a memorial mural wall by street artist James “Smokey Devil” Hardy during a memorial to remember victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. paramedics respond to record-breaking number of overdose calls in 2020

On the front lines, COVID-19 has not only led to more calls, but increased the complexity

Most Read