by Jo Barnes –
Many years ago living on the Saanich Peninsula required people to draw their sustenance directly from the land upon which they lived. While most of us today rely on grocery markets and at best tend to backyard gardens, there are still those in our community for whom living off the land is a way of life.
This is the fifth in a Seaside series featuring local community members who all share the same passion for the land and love of what they do.
The scent of a fresh Douglas fir in the home at Christmas evokes powerful feelings of joy and good feelings.
But what if those Christmas trees weren’t cut down and their wonderful essence was made available all year round?
Such was the creative choice made by Laura Waters of Snowdon House in North Saanich, a local farm honoured to be the 2019 host site for “Feast of Fields.”
The fir trees planted in 2009 destined to become Christmas trees still stand today and the goodness from their branch tips is transformed into a delicious line of food products enjoyed by many.
“I was spending too much time mowing the grass around the trees. I knew the fir was edible, so I tossed a small branch into my pot of strawberries one day, and it tasted good,” shares Laura.
Laura lives off the land by creating from its by-products, in this, the flavour from the fir trees which is made into infused vinegars, dry blends and brie toppers. Her activities are founded on a deep-seated regard for the land and a drive towards sustainability.
“We make things out of the plants we have planted and keep adding new plants to the gardens. The trees assist with carbon fixing; they’re helping the environment,” says Laura. “I’m not your typical farmer.”
As you meander through her property, it becomes clear that a definitive value is placed on everything that grows here.
“I’m creative and I like to use as much as I can,” says Laura. “I don’t like waste; my staff will tell you that.”
The property sits on a high water table, so over 200 willow trees were planted. Not only do they thrive in these conditions and enhance the land usability, but they supply floral and wreath material. A small garden plot near the gift store is home to scarlet runner beans and sweet peas, both of which provide attractive ornamental flowers. Laura grows rugosa roses, a selection of edible flowers, elderflower, lavender and lemon verbena. There are also two healthy bee hives onsite and chickens that produce lovely eggs regularly. Even the resident birch trees provide a bounty that Laura can use in her creations.
“You see that wreath on the front door? All of that comes off the birch tree in wintertime; it flies all over the grass when the winds come. You pick it up and tie a wreath,” she smiles.
Laura and a staff of seven part-time people tend and harvest this four acre property. It takes energy and perseverance, something which Laura has in abundance. Unlike many farmers, she didn’t grow up on a farm but had to learn skills and practices all on her own. In the 1980s Laura moved from suburban Vancouver to remote Ootsa Lake in the Bulkley-Nechako region of northern B.C.
“It was my first introduction to a farm. You’re isolated. It’s not an easy way to live. I made my own butter and cheese, planted a huge vegetable garden, and was introduced to animal husbandry including goats, chickens, rabbits, and a dairy calf,” she shares. “I became self-sufficient.”
Laura’s discovery of her inner strength and adaptability would propel her forward in both life and business. Inspired by the pioneering spirit of her grandmother Snowdon for whom the business is named, Laura is herself a trailblazer as she has steered this unique farm to the success it is today.
She offers customers a marvellous menu of products, enabling them to prepare healthy and tasty meals. As well as numerous Douglas fir products, there are mixes for breads and dips, fruit-infused vinegars, soups, brie toppers and specialty gift packages.
“I think we have a really unique set of products that they’re not going to find anywhere else. We sell to over 40 stores now,” says Laura.
Over the years Laura has enjoyed sharing her cooking and gardening knowledge and experience with others. Her distinctive line of kitchen-tested recipe cards is a great example.
“People can come in, see the products and with the recipe cards, discover how they can use the vinegars,” says Laura. “You’re constantly trying to share what you do and your passion with people. I think that’s how you teach people.”
She might not be your typical farmer, and it certainly isn’t a typical farm, but this energetic woman cultivates curiousity, creativity and a respect for the land in her care that ultimately nourishes both her and the community.