Shawn Dirksen is not your typical farmer, as he happily resides in Fairfield while tending his farm in Saanich.
After four years growing food on a one-acre plot at Haliburton Farm, his business Northstar Organics is expanding with the purchase of a 10-acre farm on Bear Hill Road.
It’s a logical step forward, but it’s not a typical setup for a contemporary farmer. Not just because Dirksen lives downtown in a house he owns with his partner. But because land prices are so extreme, Dirksen is one of the few farmers entering the industry who are able to purchase land on the perennially productive South Island.
“I’m in a uniquely fortunate position that my family was able to help me with the purchase of this property,” Dirksen said.
A good portion of the Bear Hill farm has an established tract of blueberries which are currently producing and keeping Dirksen busy. He was already working up to 80 hours a week when he took over the Bear Hill blueberries six weeks ago. Again, Dirksen said he’s blessed as the blueberries came with a set schedule of buyers relying on their annual direct sales and pickup orders.
“There’s no middle man, the blueberries are a full-time job, I’m up to 15 people on the payroll at the moment,” Dirksen said.
At Haliburton, Dirksen is lauded for bringing the quality of land he inherited to an organic level considered ‘unimprovable’. He’s now started a similar path at Bear Hill, where it will take three years to earn the Island Organic Producers Association certification. Dan’s Farm, which has a popular outlet store at Oldfield Road and Bear Hill, used to farm the non-blueberry section of Northstar’s new plot.
In the meantime, the Northstar land at Bear Hill is in a transitional phase. Dirksen will continue to run the productive plot at Haliburton, which currently includes a greenhouse full to the brim with organic tomatoes. He’ll continue to harvest blueberries at Bear Hill as well.
“I will eventually grow a variety of produce here at Bear Hill just as I do at Haliburton,” Dirksen said.
The non-profit society that manages the Haliburton community farm leases the plots to seven different farms. Community farms are essential because they give the farmer a startup model.
Two other farms, New Mountain and The Littlest Acre, are also expanding from Haliburton into the Peninsula, through land leases.
“Growing is one thing, but getting established is a lot of work, so coming to Haliburton and having that market in place has been a huge benefit to me,” Dirksen said.
Northstar sells year round to Moss Street Market and seasonally at other markets, to restaurants such as Tre Fantastico and Foi Epi (and more), and to stores such as Lifestyle Markets and Planet Organic.
Before coming to Victoria, Dirksen farmed on Lasqueti Island. He’s been farming since he grew up in Saint Catherines, Ont., where his brother still manages a farm Dirksen started started with his dad. The University of B.C. brought Dirksen west, where he earned a biochemistry degree.
“I’ve been farming a long time. Since I’ve arrived here I’ve learned some things about farming, because you can always learn in farming, but it’s selling the food that is the big barrier.”