Story by Kate Petrusa
Before starting his own farm, Andrew Arkesteyn-Vogler completed law school. He will tell you that he’s not actually a lawyer, because he didn’t write the bar exam, but there’s no denying he put in the grueling hours required from lawyers-in-training. It may sound unexpected, but many young people who take up organic farming these days usually do so during or after finishing some type of formal education. Joel Salatin, featured in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, recognizes this trend, and makes a candid claim: “I actually believe that we need professional farmers. Smart farmers. The best and the brightest. And to do that, farmers need to believe, first of all, that such a possibility exists.”
Born and raised in Abbotsford, BC, Andrew grew up immersed in the landscape of farming in the Fraser Valley. “When you grow up in Abbotsford, you know farmers. It’s not this mystical idea. We’re a city surrounded by farmland.” Andrew is only one generation removed from farming. His grandfather grew up on a dairy farm, which had been a family operation for generations. After the Second World War, his grandparents emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada, purchased their own land in Pitt Meadows in the 1960s to start their own dairy farm and their family. After 30 years of a successful dairy business, none of the children who grew up on the Arkesteyn dairy farm wanted to take it over, so the land was eventually sold and their children moved on.
While his immediate family wasn’t involved with farming, Andrew grew up gardening on a ¼-acre garden, complete with fruit trees, berries and grapes. He remembers being involved with the garden and really enjoying it, though says early on, “It had never crossed my mind to be a farmer.” After high school, Andrew completed a Fish, Wildlife and Recreation diploma from BCIT and an Environmental Science degree from Royal Roads University. With this training, he worked for private fishery companies, fishery education programs and worked hard outside and with his hands regularly. Slowly however, as a result of this career, Andrew began to realize that his original reasons for fisheries work – a love for recreational fishing and being down at the river – ironically were not being fulfilled in this line of work. He realized it was time to refocus in an area he had always known he wanted to pursue: law school.
“I knew I had the ability to go to law school, and it’s an area that people respect. I also quite like politics… After the first year though, it didn’t quite stick. It didn’t quite feel right. It was a strange thing for me. I felt a class difference there… All of a sudden, my classmates’ parents were Supreme Court justices, and they had always planned on being lawyers or doctors. All of these things just didn’t quite feel normal to me, for my life.”
In my own travels, as a farm-hand and graduate student, it is extremely common that my fellow farmers, particularly the organic ones, come to farming after getting their degree, and sometimes several. What’s more, the sheer number of formal education opportunities available in sustainable agriculture adds considerable and necessary steam to the local food movement, and also contributes to the education trend. Interestingly, Andrew pointed out to me that he has seen how education (among other factors) can contribute to a not-so-subtle divide between conventional and organic farmers, a divide which won’t help anyone in the long run: “Everyone is just trying to make a buck [farming], and it’s not easy for anyone. In speaking to many different farmers, conventional and organic, I definitely think there is a tension between the two types of farmers. Both have agriculture issues, one way or another, but of course there are differences too. Why not try to work together?”
After the first year of law school in 2007, Andrew took a month to camp and fish in the Chilcotin region of BC. Camping on the banks of the Chilcotin River was when he began to explore the idea of starting an organic farm. “The thing I really like about farming, sustainable farming, is that has the ability to touch a lot of areas that will help our society to improve. It helps the environment… I’m actually creating a product that improves people’s health and ideally improves my own health. Also, it’s really good for rural renewal… I think it brings a lot of life back into these communities in which people are leaving. We need people in communities all around BC… I think organic farming, small-scale farming, is a way for people to have a little bit more income in towns right across BC.”
After his brainwave on the riverbank, both of Andrew’s parents became catalysts for his new business idea – both for its inspiration and its execution. Since the 1990s, Andrew recalls his mother hoping to become involved again with farming. Also in 2007, his father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; if Andrew could farm with his mother, it would allow him to be back home and support the both his parents in different ways. “It seemed like the right thing to do.” After that first summer of law school, Andrew tentatively proposed the idea to his parents of buying land together, farming together and running the farm business together.
Andrew set to work preparing himself to see if this idea of family farming would really work for him. “When I was back in law school in second year, I tried to make sure all my courses were related to running a business. I took corporate law, tax law, insurance law.” During the second summer, he found work on a nearby organic farm in Aldergrove, at Fraser Common Farm.
“I had never worked on a farm, so I wasn’t really ready to say I was 100%, but that this was an idea. It’s not really something you should make a decision about in a month. It’s different if it was just me taking the summer off and working on a farm. But when you are asking your parents to move and put their life savings into a farm, you want to be pretty sure it’s a good idea.”
After Andrew’s summer season at Fraser Common Farm, he and his parents began looking for properties but decided it was wise to take their time with the decision through his final year of law school. “I went back and worked with Fraser Common Farm again the summer after graduation from law school. By that time, my parents and I were gung-ho about it, and it seemed like a good idea, so we agreed we would take the plunge.”
In 2010, Andrew and his parents purchased an 11-acre farm in Abbotsford. For the past 3 years, Andrew and his mother have been business partners for their organic farm business, Crisp Farm. Together they run a business that supplies 50 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes and attend 6 markets throughout the Lower Mainland. “You [farm] because it’s your raison d’être. As I farm more, I can’t really imagine doing something else.”
Does Andrew “use” his law degree while farming? Perhaps. Did he “need” to train to be a lawyer to become a farmer? Not at all. As more young professionals with training at post-secondary institutions establish organic farm operations, this demographic is changing the face of farming. The enthusiasm and cachet this demographic brings is expanding the limits of the industry, and will continue to do so, provided we work with all of the farmers in the community. Together, the farming community can further the groundwork for transforming the food system we know today, for the better.