Steve Bridger can’t count the number of times he’s had litter thrown on his award-winning garden in the last month.
Yesterday, as he tells it, a gleaming BMW stopped at the side of the road, a passenger opened a door and tossed out fast food wrappers.
“They didn’t see me pruning. When I hollered at them, they sped off in a spray of gravel, leaving me to clean up their mess,” he said.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, pedestrians, joggers, cyclists, and visitors in vehicles admire and photograph Bridger’s peaceful plot, set on farmland on the winding, rural, Finn Road. The garden surrounds his 1912 cottage, spilling across the road alongside Woodward’s Slough in an agricultural area of Richmond, a city 20 miles south of Vancouver.
Adrienne Moore, a local painter, has set up her easel. “What is that divine fragrance?” she asks, walking past beds of asters, hollyhocks, lilies, gardenias, honeysuckle, roses, and sweet William. “Oh, it’s the lavender,” Moore decides.
Bridger maneuvers his rake around clusters of violet lupines, unearthing soda cup lids and a child’s sock, mumbling about how he raked this last week, then using a gloved hand, wages war on cigarette butts permeating periwinkle ground cover.
In the three decades he has tended his garden, he’s seen littering escalate. When he first bought the place and started creating the beds, he’d pick up beer bottles and cans on Sunday mornings. “That was about it,” he said.
Over the years, candy bar wrappers and chip bags appeared. When a suburban mall was built a mile away, swathes of cardboard coffee cups and fast food containers materialized.
As fees at the local landfill have risen, so has dumping.
“We’ve seen couches, tables, chairs, televisions, mattresses and drywall dumped,” said Graham Price, a neighbor, pointing to the Woodward Slough, a much-needed habitat for frogs, bats, river otters and herons. “Anything that can be thrown out of a car or unloaded from a truck ends up here.”
Bridger recently heard a car door slam on a quiet afternoon and looked out to see a woman hauling an old computer monitor and processor out of her trunk and dumping it in his flowerbed. He stormed outside and told the woman to take it away.
“She had the gall to tell me it was a gift,” he said. “I had to threaten to phone the police before she would drag it back to her car. I know she offloaded it down the road,” said Bridger.
Price says he’s seen drivers of expensive vehicles with children in baby seats throw garbage out of their windows.
“I’ve seen couples stop, get out and casually unload garbage bags with styrofoam beside the road and then accelerate away,” said Price.
The neighbors agree fines are the solution. “We need to take photos of license plates and email them to Richmond’s by-law enforcement department. Then the City has to issue tickets so that litterers don’t come back here and ruin paradise,” said Bridger.
It’s a late-autumn evening and Gus Jacobson maneuvers his pickup truck down Dyke Road, a single lane access, past the net lofts and fishing shacks of the Village of Finn Slough.
Once the road ends just above the swirling eddies where the Fraser River meets the Pacific Ocean, he’ll loop around and follow the track back along Finn Slough where he’ll pull his pickup close to his shed and unload two tubs of salmon to sell the next day.
But tonight, a gleaming BMW idles in the dead end. Jacobson leans on the horn, and the driver responds with a middle finger. Jacobson eases his 78-year old frame out of his truck, and gripping a metal wrench to appear menacing, ambles toward the car.
The BMW jolts into motion, tires and gravel spinning. Then 30 feet away, it yanks to a stop. The driver opens his door, tosses out fast food wrappers, and yells profanity, including a word that riles Jacobson, “squatters.”
“We’re not squatters,” Jacobson hollers . “My grandfather was here in 1892, and we’re not going away.”
But, this is far from certain. Even if the ownership of Finn Slough is settled, it may be too late.
If the provincial government goes ahead with building a $4.5 billion, 10-lane, high-altitude bridge to replace an aging tunnel east of Finn Slough, the historic site and its inhabitants, and the surrounding farmland, river estuaries and their wildlife, will be put at risk.
“This is the last fishing village in all of Metro Vancouver and one of the last in BC,” said Finn Slough historian David Dorrington, who lives at the slough “If it goes, we’ll have lost an irreplaceable piece of our history.”
Finn slough is a 100-yard estuary that rises and falls with the tides parallel to the Fraser River.
The south bank is on Whitworth Island (also called Gilmour Island) which hugs the Fraser River and is reached by a foot bridge originally built in 1907.
As well as net sheds and fishing huts, tiny wooden homes perched on stilts or logs above the high tide mark dot the slough’s banks. The slough’s population of 25 lives here.
Jacobson, a burly, somber, 78-year old, is widely considered one of Finn Slough’s elder statesmen. He grew up here, playing in the tidal marshes and mud flats, learning to fish and make a living on the river.
Jacobson’s grandfather and other Finnish settlers immigrated to Canada in the 1890s to work in the booming fishing industry in fishing industry in Steveston, a village west along the Fraser River in Richmond, a city 20 miles south of Vancouver.
They bought acreages near the Fraser River to farm, and they built modest farm houses.
They also began tying up their fishing boats at a small, tidal estuary nearby.
To protect their boats and provide cover when mending nets, the Finns built shelters on stilts and log booms. Some built decks and small living quarters. The area became known as Finn Slough.
When they weren’t fishing, the Finns planted orchards, berry and vegetable fields, and raised families.
For generations, they docked their fishing boats at Finn Slough, mending their nets, repairing their shacks and staying overnight during salmon runs.
They heated with propane or wood. In the 1930s, the City of Richmond connected them to water. In the 1940s, electricity came.
Life continued peacefully for a century until 1993, when an Ontario developer, Steven Smith of Smith Prestige Properties, appeared with documents showing he had bought the title to Whitworth Island.
Smith aimed to submit plans to the City of Richmond to develop condominium towers and a marina on Finn Slough, according to Dorrington.
“He claimed we were squatters and he planned to evict us,” said Dorrington.
“We had to hire a lawyer which we couldn’t afford.”
To help fund the fight against eviction, the Finn Slough Heritage and Wetland Society was formed. Word spread that the unique community of ramshackle buildings and old boats was at risk of being destroyed.
Photographers, painters, historians, Sunday drivers and the media began turning up.
Suddenly Finn Slough was a destination, a haven of tranquility, hidden away at the edge of farmland. Although just a mile from a freeway and a major shopping mall, it felt like the back of the beyond.
Visitors were enchanted by the sense of connectivity to the past and the sight of history unfolding in front of them.
They eagerly watched the daily life of a working fishing village. This included the feats of Jacobson and his friend, Ray Galawan. The pair would take to the Fraser River in a dinghy to hook logs that had broken away from a boom and floated downstream for anyone to claim.
Like a ballet in slow motion, the men, muscled and fast, would hook a log as it swept past.
They would ride the current to help guide the slippery behemoth into Finn Slough. Then, with brute strength and using a system of pulleys only they understood, they would hang the log to dry alongside a shed.
Later, they would split and chop the log into firewood to use for heat or sell for cash.
Despite widespread support for Finn Slough, the struggle with Steven Smith continued. He said everyone on Whitworth Island was squatting.
“We disagreed. We believed we were on Crown land during most of the year, and during king tides, when homes and boat sheds are surrounded by water, we’re technically not on any land,” said Dorrington.
Smith said they had no right to be there.
“If we weren’t supposed to be here, why does Richmond provide us with water and garbage collection for a fee and also accept our annual donation in lieu of taxes?” asked Dorrington.
The fight dragged on and Smith got the federal port authority involved.
Finn Slough representatives asked the port authority to grant them a lease. But this was more complicated than expected.
As Dorrington explains, under riparian law, a landowner such as Smith has the right of access to their property. If a structure blocks the way, the landowner can ask for its removal.
The port authority refused to give the village a lease without Smith’s permission, even though Finn Slough predates the port authority.
“It was as though the Finnish history here didn’t exist,” said Dorrington.
In 2000, residents attended a City of Richmond meeting to try to resolve land tenure issues. Here, the jurisdictional levels were clarified.
City representatives explained that the highest level of government, the federal government through Port Metro Vancouver (PMV), controls land between the Fraser River’s (and its estuaries and sloughs) high and low water marks.
The provincial government controls and owns foreshore land. This meant Finn Slough is on Crown land.
The province also controls the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which protects five per cent of land in British Columbia for farming. Whitworth Island is in the ALR and condominiums and marinas are not a permitted use.
At the city meeting, Finn Slough villagers said since they were being called squatters, they were claiming squatters rights and could prove they had an association with the area going back to 1900.
They also asked if they could lease the dike under from the City of Richmond. The City referred them back to the port authority, which tabled the file.
Steven Smith gave up and went back to Ontario. Donations helped pay the Finn Slough’s $100,000 legal bill.
The villagers returned to their quiet, environmentally sustainable lifestyles, recycling, using composting toilets, and making their living off what the river brought them or on nearby farms or as artists or part-time care-givers or carpenter’s assistants.
Initially, the Premier claimed she had unilaterally decided to build the bridge to solve traffic problems caused by the aging George Massey Tunnel, which funnels commuters under the Fraser River heading north to Vancouver, and traffic south to and from the Canada – U.S. border crossing.
“Congestion at the tunnel is frustrating for families and stalling the economy,” the Premier said.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who learned about the bridge from a provincial government news release, disagreed.
“A more environmentally friendly option is to twin the tunnel,” Mayor Brodie said. “What the bridge is really about is the expansion of Port Metro Vancouver.”
With the tunnel gone, the Fraser River could be dredged. This would open up the river for deep-draft Panamax tankers to get upstream to the Fraser Surrey Docks.
PMV has been preparing for this expansion for years. In 2009, it secretly began buying farmland in the ALR near the Fraser River to use as a land bank for future industrial use related to shipping.
“This is Richmond’s most productive farmland but the Port can rezone it into industrial land without consulting the City of Richmond or local residents,” said Richmond City councillor and agrologist, Harold Steves who helped establish the ALR in 1973.
Its responsibilities have been turned over to PMV, whose board of directors is chosen by industry groups and then appointed by the federal government.
This is a conflict of interest according to Steves, who, along with Mayor Brodie opposes the building of the bridge, which will include a 28-lane, three-level interchange.
The community is concerned about noise and light pollution from the bridge and also pollution from tankers more than 1,000 feet long and 100 feet wide carrying toxic materials.
“Just one small spill would have serious implications,” said Steves.
Once again, the villagers of Finn Slough don’t have a say even though their lives could be turned upside down by the development.
“Thus has the potential to destroy the slough,” said Jacobson.
For the most part, the community is keeping quiet, trying to stay off the radar of PMV, which considers them squatters.
“Commerce is the port authority’s priority,” said Mayor Brodie, a supporter of saving farmland and the natural environment. Under his leadership, the City began referring to Finn Slough as a Heritage Area. This doesn’t confer any official status since PMV is a higher level of government.
Three’s at least one person willing to fight for official heritage status.
On a recent chilly evening, Gus Jacobson fired up his truck to head to his job as a part-time night watchman for the Steveston Harbour Authority. After a lifetime of working, he’s too poor to retire.
He’s also not backing down from the epic struggle to save Finn Slough.
“I’m going to apply to UNESCO to get world heritage status for Finn Slough. It costs $10,000 to apply and I think I can raise it,” Jacobson said.
On this autumn Saturday morning in 2019, while a hard wind howls off the Fraser River bringing stinging gusts of rain, there’s a festive feel in a lineup of about two dozen foodies, holding onto umbrellas at the edge of a small shopping plaza.
The draw is organically grown produce offered just once a week for sale at the Sweet Digz Farm stand.
“Our goal is to provide customers with healthy produce” says Kareno Hawbolt, who has farmed for more than a decade. With her life and business partner, Kimi Hendess, Hawbolt owns Sweet Digz Farm.
“Technically, we aren’t certified organic, but we plan to start the process,” said Hawbolt.
In the meantime, Hawbolt and Hendess follow organic farming principals and use farming methods that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment and optimize the agro-ecosystem. They don’t use chemicals of any type.
Their four-acre farm is on land leased from a wealthy landowner, a stone’s throw from their farm stand.
Here, in the growing season from March to October, the couple labor in greenhouses and fields up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We grow 50 vegetable crops including beans, cabbages, corn, cucumbers, kale, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsnips, potatoes, squash, tomatillos, tomatoes and zucchini,” said Hawbolt.
It’s backbreaking work. The couple doesn’t use leading-edge technology. They don’t own a tractor, produce sorter or cultivator. The costs would wipe out profits.
Instead, the only mechanized equipment are two small gas-powered rototillers and a utility pick-up truck. Most of the work is done by hand.
It’s why customers have an almost religious fervor about supporting them. If Sweet Digz closed, there are just a handful of local farms growing produce, and no-one else delivers.
“Each week from May-September, we harvest vegetables, pack them into boxes, and deliver them to about 90 customers who have prepaid for the season,” says Hawbolt. “They get what’s fresh from the field, which varies each week.”
Friday’s the couple pick and sort vegetables into boxes and bins, which they take to their Saturday farm stand to sell to about 100 regular customers.
Sweet Digz Farm is in the City of Richmond’s South Slough District, one of the few remaining large tracts of agricultural land, 20 miles south of Vancouver.
The district covers six square miles, running east from No. 2 Road to No. 5 Road and south from Steveston Highway to the Fraser River.
“Private farmland here is technically protected,” said Hawbolt.
Since 1973, the province has expanded permitted uses on protected farmland. Bed and breakfasts, churches, commercial nurseries, golf courses, gravel pits, horse stables, kennels, private schools, soil fill operations, storage facilities, timber production and wineries are allowed.
Of these, 102 farms are owned by sole proprietors, 62 are family farms and 35 are partnership farms, one of which is Sweet Digz.
Richmond’s farms employed 1,275 workers a decade ago. Now there are 680 workers, according to Statistics Canada.
“Those who are self-employed or work for farmers, may have second jobs, pushed by rising costs and low profits,” said Helmut Pastrick, chief economist for the Canadian credit union system, and a regular Sweet Digz customer.
This is true for Hendess and Hawbolt, who put their university degrees and other skills to use in winter months.
“To supplement farm income, we’ve taught at Kwantlen Polytechnic’s Farm School, and I’ve even worked as a nanny, said Hawbolt. Hendess is a certified carpenter and takes on projects during the winter.
“The world market is giving strong signals we are entering a period of dire food shortages,” said Newman.
“The drought in California and low Canadian dollar mean we can’t rely on importing vegetables from California. Sweet Digz fills an increasing need, especially for low-income neighbours.”
How long can they hang on?
“Land security is our biggest concern. There’s no guarantee our lease will be renewed or the land won’t be rezoned,” said Hawbolt. “We can’t afford to buy since farmland sells for more $500,000 an acre. We take it day by day.”
In the meantime, Hendess and Hawbolt are philosophically committed to taking care of their fertile farmland, although the odds are stacked against them.
Their customers are grateful for the delicious food. As they become more knowledgeable they’re telling the government, “hands off farmland.”
Industry would love to build on Bill McKinney’s long, straight rows of potatoes. They’d they’d love to build on Bob Wright’s zucchini patch and they’d love to build on Maria De Putter’s horse field.What’s standing in their way? The Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
The ALR was created through legislation in 1973 to protect valuable farmland, about five per cent of British Columbia’s land base.
Although ALR land in Metro Vancouver is, for the most part, Class 1 and 2 with the highest capacity for growing food, it’s seen as a land bank for development. Developers are continually coming up with ways to have land removed and they’re often successful.
In the last 20 years, in the South Slough area of Richmond, we’ve seen the most fertile farmland in the province removed for 1960s style sprawling one and two-story shopping malls, factories, warehouses and office buildings.
Now industry claims Metro Vancouver faces a serious shortage of vacant industrial land.
A forecast and analysis released by the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks (NAOIP) Vancouver chapter and a recent speech by Robin Silvester, CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, confirms the worst: within 11 years, Metro Vancouver will run out of industrial land.
Given that agriculture is also an industry, is this necessary?
“There’s no question, we’re running out of undeveloped industrial land,” said Helmut Pastrick, Central 1 Credit Union chief economist. “But there are far better, more efficient options than using ALR Land.”
Drive or cycle around industrial parks such as Ironwood in the South Slough area, and you’ll see that about fifty per cent of the buildings are for sale or lease.
“This already developed industrial land could be used much more efficiently,” Pastrick said.
Michael Goldberg, retired dean of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business, agrees.
“Half a dozen years ago, Vancouver feared downtown condo development would lead to a shortage of office space,” said Goldberg.
“The City of Vancouver banned condos from the core in favour of office space and most importantly significantly raised allowable densities.”
The result was a major increase in supply.
“As industrial land prices continue to increase through diminishing supply and rising demand, at some point, we will have to move to multi-storey industrial buildings to offset the high land costs,” said Goldberg.
“Fortunately, most industrial zones already permit higher density so this transition should be far easier and smoother than has been the case for residential densification,” Goldberg said.
Space for industrial activities can be significantly increased through densification while leaving farmland for its highest and best use.
A quick look at what’s for lease and for sale in a small industrial area in Richmond.