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COVER STORY: Borne of dirt, shaped by the land
Cracked and calloused, Dennis Kamlah’s hands tell the story of a life lived off the land - a living earned through toil and sweat.
Kamlah began farming on Westham Island 72 years ago, back when all the work was done by hand.
The 82-year-old remembers making hay with a dump rake pulled behind two horses.
“Then you’d gather it up by pitchfork and make haycocks in the field,” he says, chewing over old memories.
Little has changed on the island since Kamlah began working as a 10-year-old with his father Rudolph on their Tamboline Road farm in 1941.
But that pastoral way of life is at risk as the growth of the Lower Mainland puts pressure on agricultural land, and the economics of farming make it harder and harder for old-timers like Kamlah to stay in business.
Westham Island lies entirely in the Agricultural Land Reserve, and has been isolated from the progress and development elsewhere in Delta.
But when Kamlah visits Ladner these days it’s rare to see a familiar face.
“In the old days there was only a couple of shops and when you went shopping you knew everybody, including the guy that was running the store.”
Prior to 1959, when the Massey Tunnel brought in a tide of housing developments, Ladner between Westham Island and Highway 17 was all “farmland and buckbrush.”
Kamlah’s farming neighbour, 73-year-old Gordon Ellis, remembers how few people there were back then.
“Basically, when somebody drove down the road you wondered where they were going,” he says laughing. “They went to town two days ago, I wonder why they’re going back.”
If the family needed a new car, they’d go to New Westminster. And if they needed a fancy new appliance, they’d have to board the ferry to Vancouver.
Many of the farmers on Westham Island are descended from the settler families of Ladner. Ellis’s great-great-grandfather was John Kirkland, who at the height of his wealth owned about 600 hectares of land in Delta.
Although Ellis wasn’t alive to see it, he remembers his father Herbert talk about the Great Depression and how the family struggled to survive.
They had cows to sell milk to the dairy so they could buy sugar and flour and they lived off the land for food. Back in the ‘30s they were considered poor dirt farmers and the land was practically worthless.
Fourth generation farmer John Savage, 77, has nobody to take over his East Ladner
farm for him when he's gone.
Fourth-generation farmer John Savage, 77, says his grandfather had a 145-ha dairy farm on River Road, what is now Tilbury Industrial Park.
“There were some tough times,” he says, recalling stories his father told him about the so-called dirty thirties. “There used to be people come out from New Westminster, walk River Road and come to grandpa’s place to get milk or some potatoes and they would work for the food.”
He remembers his father talk about ploughing furrows with a team four horses. A farmer would plough from sun up until noon, and then switch the team of horses to give them a rest. The farmer didn’t get one though.
Like most farm boys, Savage was responsible for feeding calves when he was young. Their 70-ha family farm on Ladner Trunk Road and 72nd Avenue was bought in 1945 where they raised a dairy herd until 1964. As consumer demand changed, so did they, switching to beef until 1976, and now crop farming.
Savage remembers a time when neighbours would help each other bring in the harvest. Three or four farmers would help out, and then they’d move the thresher to the next field.
Kamlah misses those good old times.
“To tell you the truth the whole attitude of helping each other and working together, we’ve lost that pretty much,” he says. “It’s not that the neighbours aren’t good or anything, it’s just that the times have changed.”
Back in the old days a farmer passed on his knowledge, and then his farm, to his sons. But both Ellis and Kamlah had four daughters. That may be part of the reason they’ve never retired.
But Kamlah’s grandsons, Blake and Ryan Lundstrom, have joined him in growing potatoes.
“They’re trying to pick up farming and get into business, but it’s a tough go for them,” he says.
Last year was so dry that the potatoes bruised easily and the mud lumps were so hardened that the crop was damaged while trying to remove it.
The price of land is also getting so expensive that the land use is practically prohibitive to farming. Kamlah remembers his father buying land for $2,500 a hectare back in 1951. Farmland in Delta today goes for about $150,000 a hectare, and as high as $250,000 nearest areas under pressure from development.
Gordon Ellis, 73, is descended from one of the settler farming families of Delta, the Kirklands.
But even with the increased value in the land, farmers rarely get to cash in.
“Sure, we got all this equity but we don’t have any money,” says Ellis. “Any money we ever made farming we put back into the farm, so consequently it’s hard to retire.”
He sees the future of farming as small-scale organic operations selling straight to the public, like his daughter Sharon’s Westham Island Herb Farm.
“The demand now on farmland for uses other than farm is a little bit overbearing,” says Savage, adding only about three percent of the land in B.C. is arable today. “It would be very difficult for a young person now to get into the business.”
A former agriculture minister under the B.C. Social Credit Party, Savage wants to protect the remaining farmland in Delta. But encroachment by development is a constant threat. The new South Fraser Perimeter Road has carved up the edges of his farm, making it even more difficult to continue.
When Kamlah’s father sold all his land to retire, he bought 15 hectares from him—it was all he could afford. Although he’ll turn 83 soon, he has no intentions of ever hanging up his work clothes for good.
“I don’t golf, I don’t fish, I don’t have a hobby, farming’s my hobby,” he says, looking out at winter’s flooded fields. “Farming’s my life. I’ve been doing it since I was a little boy.”
Although Ellis has two daughters working with him on the farm, he doesn’t plan to retire either.
“My dad was working here on the tractor digging potatoes one day before he died,” he says. “That was what he wanted to do, he didn’t have to be doing that, but that was his retirement.”
Ellis says he wants to go the same way.
“It would be kind of nice to die on the dirt you worked on.”