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Peninsula family reflects on 140 years of farming and what the future holds

Sluggett farm known for its amazing corn
Larry Sluggett shows off some freshly picked corn. (Photo by Tim Collins)

Tim Collins/Contributor

Drive down West Saanich Road and you’ll come across two large white tents erected in front of an old farmhouse. There’s a sign advertising fresh corn for sale and as one drives into the parking area, you can see the heaps of corn stacked on a series of tables.

It’s the latest crop from Sluggett Farms and the continuation of a family tradition dating back more than 140 years.

“I grew up in that house,” said Larry Sluggett, pointing to the house behind the produce tents.

“I guess I’ve been a part of this farm my whole life. Even though I worked as a forester for 30 years, I always came back to help my father on the farm over the years.

Sluggett, now 74 years old, inherited the farm along with his brother about 30 years ago and has carried on the family operation of the farm since that time.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the future though. Both my brother and I have children, but none of them seem interested in farming, so I guess we’ll see.”

Still, the family tradition of farming is amazing.

“My great-grandfather came from England as a pioneer, and he plowed up 1,000 acres of land. It was a lot of land and quite a job to clear it … they used oxen back then. I can’t even imagine how hard that was,” Sluggett said.

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The farm was so large that it stretched from where Brentwood Village stands today to halfway across the Peninsula.

“At one point, I guess right up to the 1920s, this area was called Sluggett Station,” Sluggett said.

But with each generation, the land was divided among the children and the once giant farm was sectioned off.

But Sluggett Farms is still a vibrant operation.

“We mostly do corn, pumpkins and squash now, and we employ about 10 people to help with the operation,” Sluggett said. “We start planting corn about mid-April and we’ll plant sections for about 13 weeks. That way we can harvest each section as it is ready and, that way, we have fresh corn right up to Halloween.”

Sluggett’s ability to follow that schedule is due, in part, to the fact that his land is irrigated with water from a 12-million-gallon pond that the family constructed on the property.

“I can’t imagine being a dry-land farmer, relying on the rain,” Sluggett said.

As Sluggett looked out at his fields of corn, he mused about the changes that he’s seen in his time as a farmer.

“Fifty years ago, Vancouver Island produced 80 per cent of what we consumed. These days it’s about seven per cent,” Sluggett said. “We’re losing a lot of farmlands to residential and to affluent people who want to move out to the rural areas to raise horses, or whatever. A while ago we had 10 acres come up for sale near here, but the price was pushed so high that no farmer could afford it. The Agricultural Land Reserve has helped to slow that down, thank goodness.”

Another change that appeared to be coming but hasn’t yet materialized was the move to organic farming.

“Twenty years ago, we were told by the Thrifty Foods people that farming would be 100-per-cent organic in a few years. That never happened, because the process is very onerous, and the produce is quite expensive,” Sluggett said. “Anyway, I tell people that I’ve eaten non-organic food for 74 years and it hasn’t hurt me a bit.”

That’s not to say that Sluggett’s operations haven’t seen some changes.

“We used to do strawberries, but I’m getting older, and they are a lot of work,” Sluggett said.

“And we used to plant a lot of lettuce, but we lost 90 per cent of our crop for three years in a row to Canada Geese so we gave that up. We’d have 600 of them hanging around our pond and feasting on what we grew, so no, we don’t do that anymore.”

Sluggett also talked about finding help on the farm.

“There was a time when we would hire high school students, but we can’t find any now who want the work. These days we have a lot of workers from the Philippines or Mexico. That’s fine, though. They are very hard workers and do a great job.”

But the biggest change in the area is the trend for more and more people wanting to move out to rural areas.

“Everything is becoming more citified now as people want to move out of the cities. It’s funny because, when I was young, it was the opposite. Young people in the country wanted to go to the cities.”

But perhaps that particular trend has always been a point of contention.

A little research revealed that back in 1880, when Sluggett’s great grandfather donated an acre of land to construct a school for the growing population in the area (there were five farms back then) one neighbour complained, saying: “The whole area’s getting overpopulated.” I’m moving up Island to get away from the crowd.”

But for Larry Sluggett, all the changes and challenges have left him undeterred.

“I guess that, at my age, I could be thinking about pulling the pin, but I love farming and I love this farm.”