Just a way of life
by Ashley Gaudreault
Like many 26-year olds, Josh Mellor enjoys having a few with his buddies and spending time with his girlfriend. He doesn't get to kick back as much as he'd like, though. There just isn't enough time.
Mellor is a farmer. Duncan, B.C. born-and-raised, his commitment to the agri-industry may seem odd at a time when farming is in decline. Despite a lot of talk about the Italian-born Slow Food Movement and the 100-Mile Diet, not many young men and women want to hop on a tractor or trudge the fields these days. Nevertheless, Mellor has set his sights on taking over his family's farm – no matter how unfashionable or financially risky the idea may be.
He's certainly got the pedigree for the job. Mellor's family is farming crazy – especially the women. Eighty-eight year old Betty Mellor, his grandma, bought their 154-acre property just outside of Duncan in the 1930s. She co-owns it with her daughter Eileen, Josh's aunt. They have encouraged their spry chick's dreams of one day running the estate, but Mellor knows that first he'll have to prove he's up to the task. "That's why I'm trying to find a way to make it make money," he says. "I just got to figure out how do you make a farm make money."
Josh isn't sure how much the farm was purchased for back in the '30s, but guesses it's worth $1.5 million in today's market. Currently set up to raise beef cows, chickens, and turkeys, it also sells eggs and hay. "Wheat too," Mellor adds, while taking me on a tour of the property. "My grandma grinds it and sells it as flour or just as whole."
He points to a green tin roof tucked behind a grassy hill, all one can see of his grandmother's house. He admits she has had a huge influence on his decision to dedicate himself to farming. "She tells you stories about when they used to live just down the road here at Somenos Road and the [Trans Canada Highway] and she used to walk her cow for the 4-H Club from there and all the way to downtown Duncan. It took her something like four hours. Her and her two sisters would be going to the fair to show off their cows."
Mellor was born and raised on the farm, living in a house on the property with his parents and sister Sara. Mellor's mom, Jeannie, used to watch him head over to his grandma's place when he was only four years old. Betty would walk up to the top of the farm so she could see her grandson coming. Mellor passed through Betty's herd of Belgian draft horses, which each weigh on average slightly over 2,000 pounds, and the brown beasts would follow him the entire way.
He had lots of chores to do, of course. "There was some stuff I didn't like doing. When you're a kid, you hate doing it, but as you grow up you just have to do it. That's how it works." Even so, his friends envied him. "They always said they wished they lived on a farm. 'I can drive that tractor,' I would tell them." Mellor first hopped on a tractor when he was just three years old, "sitting on my dad's lap, steering. They used to let me drive and steer between the bales in the field and it was just put the tractor in low gear and drive while they were putting the hay bales on. That's what we did."
Even now, it's hard for him to conceal his excitement when he's showing off one of the family tractors. As soon as he's near the machine, his eyes begin to twinkle and his lips curl into a smile. Mellor's friends often stop by to see what he's up to, which means he doesn't have to leave the property a lot. They think it's a little odd he's so devoted to working on the farm, but they're curious about what he does.
Nowadays, he spends much of his time grease-deep in the workshop Mellor has a journeyman's ticket in heavy duty mechanics and owns a licensed mobile mechanic business. But while he spends most of his time working on other people's machines, because that's where the good money is, he still envisions raising his very own family on the farm. Each day at about midday he ventures down to his grandmother's and aunt's end of the property to help feed the cows. It's still just a walk across the field to grandma's.
The sun sneaks into Betty's kitchen as she and Eileen share their thoughts on farming. It's not an ordinary business, Eileen tells me: "It has to be in your heart."
"It's surprising what you can live on," Betty says. "We started out tight and we always made it. Dairy farming was our main source of income and it was a pretty small income." Most months they collected only $8 to $10 from cream.
Betty now spends much of her time taking care of her chickens. I ask her what the future of farming will be. "It's hard to say," she answers. Eileen's red healer cattle dogs Echo and Sapphire wait patiently at her feet for her to finish her reply. After a moment, Eileen steps in. "It's not really even a job," she says. "It's just life. You work to live."
But increasingly it's an old person's game. According to a study released in 2001, the average age of the 1,060 operators in the Cowichan Valley Regional District was 53-years old. Statistics Canada reports that the number of operators under 35 years of age has been plummeting for over a decade. On the other hand, the 55-and-over group increased by 10 per cent over the same period to 132,975 operators. Furthermore, while Quebec has the youngest average age at 49-years old, B.C., at 54, has the oldest.
Established farmers are feeling the crunch. Russell Stewart of Russell Farms in Chemainus B.C., just north of Duncan, says the Mellors are fortunate to have Josh. "It's getting pretty hard to get young people to come work. I guess there's just more other jobs out there." Founded in 1951, the Stewart estate has had the same crew of farm-hands for many years. All are now in the 60-70 age bracket.
Dairy isn't as profitable as it used to be either. Mellor may have to abandon his dream of operating the farm in the same way his grandparents did. As usual, though, he's undaunted. "I want to try grain," he says. "There are more people that want to eat stuff locally, stuff that's from here and I think there's a market there that needs to be fulfilled." Mellor says he's sure that the Cowichan area - Cowichan – meaning "Warm Land" in the area's First Nations tongue – is also great for growing grass. "You can get five crops of grass here no problem. I watch farmers do it every 28 days – knock it down, put it in the silo."
Mellor has also tried his hand farming in foreign lands. Over a year ago, he spent a year in Australia. "Everybody said to me, 'What do you want to do down there?' I said I want to go farm." Mellor admits people thought he was crazy. Farming down under, however, was so cool that his friends ended up envying him.
Australia was a revelation, especially to someone who'd grown up on cozy Vancouver Island. "You could drive around on the farms for days and not see anything," he says. "One place we worked on was 63 kilometres from the front to the back. It was 256,000 acres." Australian farming methods were also a lot different. "They just throw a lot of animals on a huge piece of land and [hope they] learn to survive. It's a different climate, a different way of everything growing. The food tastes different too."
Mellor admits he's one of a kind when it comes to his farming fervor. "That's just what I want to do. It was born in me." It's not his only enthusiasm, though. He's also been influenced by his father, Mark, who, besides owning an excavating company, is a die-hard antique tractor collector. Mellor guesses there are at least two dozen rusting in several of the family barns – tractors he loves tinkering with. Last summer he drove to the U.S. to purchase yet another for his father's birthday. Mellor surprised his dad by driving the tractor up to the patio party. Betty and Eileen were there too – three generations, united in family fun.
"It's nice that Josh is interested in the farm," Betty says. "It's good for him. He's a good worker."
Mellor figures the reason younger people are staying away from the farm, and his friends have deemed him one of a kind, is because it's simply too much work for the average 20-something. "I think the kids are looking at it and thinking 'Oh, wow that's a lot of work and I don't want to do that,'" he says. "It's just a lazier generation."
Not all of them, apparently.
Maybe it had something to do with the baking sun, but Josh Mellor first came up with the idea of taking over his family's farm on that trip to Australia. "I had some really cool guys I worked with. And there were a couple of guys who let their kids take over their farms." Suddenly, he saw his future. If more people his age could be convinced to pursue farming with the same single-minded passion, it might have a future after all. As it is, the Mellor family farm looks to be in good hands for at least another generation.