Happy at Home on the Farm

Violane Mitchell and Tom Henry at Stillmeadow Farm

  • Feb. 1, 2019 10:00 a.m.

– Story by Sean McIntyre Photography by Don Denton

From West Shore Life + Style magazine

A large sign welcomes drivers to the municipality of Metchosin, but, aside from the warnings to watch out for tractors, horses and livestock, the notice is barely warranted. Within a few metres of leaving the manicured subdivisions of Colwood and Langford, wooden signs flanking the roadside advertise fresh farm eggs, Montessori School, Pilates courses and a U-pick flower patch. These are sure indicators that the surroundings have veered markedly towards the rural-rich Metchosin.

Sunday drivers can be forgiven for momentarily buying into the bucolic image of farm life. Yet that pastoral scene of sheep along grassy hillsides doesn’t just appear from nowhere; it takes hard work and constant vigilance, as the duo who own and run Metchosin’s Stillmeadow Farm are quick to point out.

“It’s lambing season, so there’s not a lot of sleep happening right now,” says Tom Henry. “Haying season is also very intense, the grain season and combining is intense — actually the whole summer is intense because of irrigation and issues like that — but this is the most 24-hours intense right now.”

Lambing season, when the farm’s 60 pregnant ewes must be checked every two and a half hours, day and night, until the deliveries are complete, is when Violaine Mitchell is in her element. She thinks nothing of waking up repeatedly during a damp and cold January night to check on her flock.

Tom Henry and Violane Mitchell with a newly born lamb on their Metchosin farm land. Photography by Don Denton

In her other life, Violaine is deputy director of vaccine delivery at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she also represents the foundation on the board of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations. It isn’t uncommon for her last international meeting of the year to coincide with the beginning of lambing season. After years of experience, she’s narrowed down her return to work to within about four hours of the final lamb’s birth.

“We sort of divvy the farm up. Vio manages the sheep and I manage the pigs. She’s more knowledgeable about treating health issues because of her work experience, and I’m a bit more of the marketing and machinery guy,” Tom says. “It wasn’t so much through head-butting, but more through gravitating to where our strengths are: we found that one sphere is kind of hers and the other is mine. At the end of the day, we both love farming — underlined, in italics and bolded.”

Stillmeadow Farm’s anchor products are pork, lamb, chicken and grain. The couple has a modest holly crop and farmers from near and far are always keen to chip away at the farm’s pile of steaming manure.

Tom says the mound represents the virtuous side of farming.

Tom Henry and Violane Mitchell walk on their Metchosin farm land. Photography by Don Denton

“You’ve got to have a strong sense of farming to appreciate this,” he says, inhaling deeply during a tour of the farm. “Farmers who don’t have livestock would kill for this because the only other option is chemical fertilizer, which is very productive but isn’t so good for the soil.”

Violaine’s family has been working this magnificent ocean-front acreage since the early 1950s. The view across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Peninsula has remained largely unchanged through the decades. It is a sight whose beauty remains undiminished by familiarity.

She spent much of her childhood “up-country” in Kenya, Africa, where she enjoyed the romantic aspects of being a young child growing up on a small farm. When Violaine moved to Metchosin in 1998, she took over the sheep and was grateful to neighbouring farmers who were generous with both knowledge and time.

Tom’s childhood was spent on a grain farm in northern British Columbia. He’s written for newspapers, hosted a weekly CBC Radio column called Country Life, delved into West Coast history and penned several award-winning books, including Dogless in Metchosin: The Ideal Dog and Other Delusions, but has never shaken his fondness for agriculture.

“Our stories share strong parallels,” he says. “Farming gets in your blood. Even though I was a boy, I think I learned things that made getting into farming a lot easier later on.”

It’s farming that eventually brought Tom and Vio together, although initially the duo had more farm than relationship interaction, mainly trading sheep and farm knowledge.

Tom says the romantic version of the story is that the sheep brought them together, but it was really a late night telephone conversation that joined their fates. Tom was lamenting the lack of any nation-wide farming resource that small-scale farmers could access to gain knowledge about running a small farm.

“She called back the following morning and said ‘Let’s do it’ and that was the beginning of Small Farm Canada.”

Since 2004, the publication owned by Tom, Vio and another partner, has evolved into the magazine of record for the country’s small-scale farmers. In an average workweek, Tom will spend his mornings working on the magazine and finish things off with a few hours across the lane back on the farm.

“My travel time is not much,” he says.

“Tom is the one-kilometre guy when it comes to commuting,” Violaine concedes.

Tom Henry and Violane Mitchell enjoy coffee and look over their magazines on the dining room table in their house on their Metchosin farm. Photography by Don Denton

Much of his time is spent in the farm’s newly constructed pig barn. What looks, from the exterior, to be a massive indoor tennis court, houses a cacophony of chittering personalities with the weight and energy to match. Hundreds of pigs of all sizes are divvied into pens depending on age, breed and gender. Within a minute of entering the barn, Tom spots a callus on the hind quarter of a younger pig, jostling with his brethren to stick his snout through the gate. Seconds later, Vio has spotted the injured animal and quickly applies a few shakes of antibiotic powder to thwart the possibility of infection or disease.

Constant vigilance and never-ending work are the stalwarts of farm life. The dozens of pens in the pig barn need to be fully cleaned out roughly every three days. The “works” get shovelled into the manure pile, the pads are washed down and a clean bed of straw is laid out. This rotation continues unabated year round, and neither Tom or Vio would have it any other way

“Farming is really about mucking out, about hotel service for livestock,” Vio says. “If you didn’t love it it would be terrible.”

Tom Henry and Violane Mitchell with piglets in the new pig barn. Photography by Don Denton

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