Janet Spicer is a spirited and inspirational certified organic vegetable grower in Nakusp, BC. Janet’s parents were pioneering farmers in the Nakusp area but most of their farm was expropriated and drowned when the Arrow Lakes were flooded as a result of the Columbia River Treaty. It has taken nearly to the end of Janet’s career to rebuild her farm to close to its previous size and vitality, including a small portion of her parents’ original farm. Now 66 years young, Janet still produces a staggering amount of nutritious food, with a passion for the soil that feeds her vegetables — and us all. She is also renowned for her advocacy around environmental issues and in particular the revitalization of the Columbia River Basin. I had the privilege of interviewing Janet to learn more about her, her advocacy, and her amazing True Local farm.
History of Spicer’s Farm
Janet inherited a love of farming from her parents Chris and Jean Spicer. “I wish you could have met my parents,” Janet told me, “they were perfectly extraordinary people.” A search for ideal farmland brought Chris Spicer to the thriving village of Nakusp in 1948. After serving in the British Airforce during World War II, Chris looked far and wide before he found the 60-acre farm in Nakusp, which was uniquely well suited to vegetable production. Spicer’s Farm had a moderated climate, the right soil, which had been built up by several previous generations of farmers, a warm (thermal) spring-fed water source, and the right sun exposure. In fact, during the years of controversy regarding the Columbia River Treaty a District Agronomist claimed, “there was no comparable farm in BC that had all the agricultural attributes of Spicer’s Farm.”*
In Jean, Chris found a great partner. Jean grew up in a farming family in Nakusp, and had a particular love of flowers. “Mom was brilliant,” Janet exclaimed. “She wrote entrance exams as a distance education student and got accepted into the University of British Columbia for a degree in Botany. It was only once Mom arrived in Vancouver that the university realized she was only 13 years old!”
UBC sent Jean away, but she returned two years later to complete her degree when she was only 15. After Chris and Jean married, they developed their farm into a thriving source of food, growing everything from cabbages and asparagus to peanuts, feeding the entire valley from Nakusp to Nelson. The farm consistently produced 60 tonnes of food or more per year. Amongst the farm’s thriving rows of crops, Jean planted the irrigation ditches with explosions of flowers. “Mom wanted Dad to have a beautiful place to rest,” Janet explained, “and the insect and bird life that thrived in those gardens controlled pests, pollinated the plants…the farm burst with life.”
Spicer’s Farm 1962, by John Osborn
But when the Arrow Lakes were flooded as part of the Columbia River Treaty, Chris and Jean, and their twin daughters, Janet and Crystal, saw much of their farm devastated. They lost their richest arable land below the reservoir and deeds for much of the remaining acreage were seized by BC Hydro for highway development and power transmission lines. While the BC government bought or expropriated the titles on all farms in the region, the Spicers refused, and fought to hold onto the legal title of the remaining 10 acres of their farm. Their 1880s farmhouse had a burn order placed on it that BC Hydro forced Chris to sign. According to the order, the farmhouse was to be burned upon Chris’s death. However, with a tenacity that Janet seems to have inherited, Chris became friends with the president of BC Hydro and convinced him to revoke the burn order shortly before he passed away. Janet lives in the original Spicer farmhouse and manages the remaining 10 acres of Spicer’s Farm to this day.
Return to the Arrow Lakes
After watching her parents’ life work devastated and having been traumatized by the environmental destruction the flooding caused, Janet actually “had resolved never to come back” to the Arrow Lakes area. She and her twin sister both left the area shortly after high school. However, Janet could not shake what she calls “this love of farming.” She traveled throughout Europe and the UK, working on farms all along the way, and earned a diploma in agriculture. Janet returned to the Arrow Lakes in 1985 when her parents could no longer manage the farm on their own. Chris and Jean had persevered, and they continued growing food and flowers for their community after the flooding, despite having to do so on as many as thirty five separate leased plots.
Upon her return Janet found that this place “was still home,” and she farmed alongside her father until his death in 1998. Janet has worked hard to consolidate her family’s farm and to re-establish some of its former size and productivity. She now owns three pieces of land, including the 10 acres her parents saved, having bought the third piece just this last summer. “It has taken me nearly until the end of my career” to re-consolidate the farm, Janet notes, “I am 66 now, and I can start to feel myself slowing a bit.” Janet alluded to the financial hurdle acquiring the farmland has imposed on her, but she insists it is worthwhile: “at least it gives me a sense of land security,” she says.
When Janet returned to Nakusp she also brought her memory and love for the Columbia River. She noted that she and her sister Crystal, who also returned to the area in 2007, “are some of the few people who remember the valley as it was before the flooding.” “It is night and day,” Janet explained, “this was a living river and a valley teaming with life.” While both sisters were devastated by the toll that the Columbia River Treaty took on human communities, they are even more concerned about the havoc that was wrought on the natural environment. “The hardship born by people like my parents was very sad, over 2,000 people were relocated for the flooding of the dams. But at least people were warned and moved. The non-human residents of these valleys, the old-growth forests, the moose, the bears, everything was drowned where they stood,” Janet explained.
Janet and her sister Crystal are renowned for spearheading the Columbia Basin Revitalization Coalition, a group whose mandate is to: “call for an improved dam management plan that will allow restoration and revitalization within the Columbia River Basin.” The sisters and other advocates hope to see better regulation of the river flow and a stabilization of reservoir levels. Right now the Columbia can rise and fall as much as 70 feet, and when the river is drawn down in early spring to make room for later run off, expansive mudflats are exposed. “The mudflats are sterile,” explained Janet, “nothing can survive the drying and dramatic draws on the river.” “I do not expect to see farmland reestablished in the draw zone, at least not in mine or many lifetimes,” admitted Janet, “the topsoil on that land took thousands of years to build and it has been sloughed off into the reservoir by over forty years of unnatural fills and draws on the river.” However, a more stable flow could allow a riparian zone to re-establish. “The riparian zone is critical to both the health of the river and the adjacent land,” Janet explained, “it feeds the juvenile fish, the insects, the wading birds, the insectivorous birds which naturally control pests, ensuring farm and forest health along the river.” “We can help the non-human populations that were overwhelmed by these reservoirs,” she said, “the earth wants to thrive again, if we will let it.”
In 2015 Crystal and Janet were awarded the Sierra Club’s Watershed Hero Award, for their significant contribution to protecting water for the common good. Read an engaging interview with Janet and Crystal about their work, by Eileen Delehanty Pearks, here.
Passion for the Soil and Respect for Nature
Informed by her relationship with the Columbia River, Janet approaches her farm with the philosophy that she can always learn from nature. She speaks of natural ecosystems with awe and respect: “we [humans] are probably the most clumsy and out of touch with the intricacies of nature of any species on the earth…I should think a slug knows more that we do,” Janet laughed. Janet’s explanation of her farm’s careful crop rotations, and the symbiotic relationships between her plants, the earth and the microbes that she manages, was staggeringly knowledgeable and filled with enduring wonder at the same time.
Janet’s passion and respect for her soils is particularly striking. When she was explaining to me how she has to careful with her spending after acquiring her third piece of farm land, she added with a smile that frugality will never apply when it comes to the soil. “It is impossible for me to be frugal and careful when it comes to the health of the soil,” she told me, “I just love feeding it with every sort of seaweed and things like that, and all my compost…I lavish everything I can on my soils.” Janet is extremely humble, and when I noted how well loved and eagerly anticipated her vegetables are, she attributed it all to the soil. I have watched co-workers at the Co-op snap up Spicer carrots and devour them like candy, and Janet agreed, “yes the carrots are quite a thing down there.” “But it is not to do with me,” she insisted, “I have a unique situation of growing them on this peat bog…and they love it up there. I grow the same varieties in other areas but they are not the same, so it is definitely the soil and conditions.” Janet explained, “the soil is so responsive to good care,” adding with a laugh, “though, it does tend to make things a bit large…my cabbages are always oversized!”
Why Local Food is Important
When I asked Janet why she felt growing and consuming food locally is important, her answer was also related to her respect for our local environment. “Local food is truly essential, for so many reasons,” she noted. “For one we cannot continue to ignore the pollution that results from transporting food from far afield…local food can have a gentler footprint, and we need to work to make our footprint on this earth smaller whenever we can.”
She also pointed out the need for greater local food security, “we cannot continue to rely on the US and California to grow our food, and the current droughts have brought this to greater public awareness.” With her personal experience of dams and flooded farmland, Janet also mentioned her grave concern about the impending Site C dam. “Site C is a staggering mistake,” she said. “The amount of farmland we will be losing is tragic from a food security perspective, and the water reservoir will create an enormous thermal hot water in the Peace…this is the last thing we need as our climate continues to change.”
Growing Food for the Kootenays
Closer to home, Janet feels optimistic about people’s appetite for local food. Janet works with small stores down the Slocan Valley and the Kootenay Co-op in Nelson to market her vegetables, and “the support from retailers and consumers here is incredible.” She noted her appreciation for the Co-op in particular, saying that the produce managers, Ben and Matt, “have been so good to me.” Janet noted that many local growers “very much depend on the Co-op,” thanking the Co-op’s supportive members and attributing our receptive market as vital to her success. Janet added, “of all the stores I deal with, and I deal with a lot, the Co-op seems to be the most caring and understanding of farmers. They do the very best they can for their producers, and that is so appreciated.” Janet often sells some of her product to larger distributors in Vancouver or the Okanagan, but this year she has barely shipped any food out of our region, due to the keen appetite of local people.
Janet also explained that it is very rewarding when her food is consumed locally. “I feel a bond with my customers,” she said, “really it is quite remarkable…it is an honour really…to know that your food is going onto your neighbours’ tables to feed their families. It is really a very touching thing.”
I did my utmost to express to Janet that the appreciation was mutual. I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to get to know Janet better and I am so grateful for her work to preserve our local environment and to bring us beautiful food. Her passion and knowledge are incredibly inspiring. Although I did not know it could be possible, I suspect that Spicer’s Farm vegetables are going to taste even sweeter now that I better understand the incredible woman, farm, and well-loved soils, which have brought them to my table.
-Nadine BenRabha, True Local Coordinator
References and further information:
*Watershed Heroes transcript interview, by Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, http://www.celp.org/programs/voices-for-water/crystal-spicer-and-janet-spicer/
Special thanks to Gail McMartin who shared her beautiful photos of Spicer’s Farm