Off-the-map farm tours are free for the taking in B.C.

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      Drive out to Agassiz, and farmer John Hoogendoorn is more than happy to show you where your Vancouver-bought dairy products come from. His 200 Holsteins produce Dairyland milk, Armstrong cheese, and Yoplait yogurt for the shelves of the city’s megastore groceries. But you won’t find Valedoorn Farms on the brochures for the Fraser Valley’s trendy Circle Farm Tour. Hoogendoorn said he dropped out for the first time this year after organizers asked him to pay a $400 fee to be included.

      “Maybe I’m being pigheaded,” the farmer said, chuckling, in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “It’s the principle. We’re the only farm on the tour that’s not selling anything. We’re just there for information. We’re a working farm.”¦All these other places, the goat place, they’re trying to sell a product. This is advertising for them.”

      Indeed, Circle Farm Tour ( ) bills itself on-line as “a road map that directs you to a variety of specialty farm-gate vendors, open air markets, charming eateries, heritage sites, fairs, and other special events”. They’re a blast if you want to feed plump chickens, shop for antiques, and smell the coffee in a circa-1919 flame roaster at the Back Porch, near Harrison Hot Springs. Or if you feel the need to stroll with fluffy alpacas and learn how their wool is graded, at Aldergrove’s Sterling Farms.

      For urban epicureans who just want to see the animals that produce their everyday food products, CFT is limited. Health scares, such as avian influenza and mad-cow disease, have helped sever city people from the commercial farms where the majority of our animal-based food comes from. No large commercial poultry farms are on the CFT, for example.

      Free-run egg farmer Jack Vaandrager grieves for the era when Vancouverites could observe his flock at Abbotsford’s Jaron Farms. In 2004, when avian flu spread through birds in the valley, his farm was in the “hot zone”. It was shut down for 18 months.

      “One evening, a truck comes on the yard, I’ll never forget it, and all your animals are destroyed,” he recalled during a phone interview with the Straight. “It took a lot out of us as far as financial is concerned, but it took even more out of us mentally.”¦Yeah, we’re locked down. We’re not hiding anything. It’s biosecurity.”

      Enterprising urbanites can still find off-the-tour-map farms willing to show and tell what they do. For example, the B.C. Milk Producers Association arranges farm tours for groups and individuals.

      “There’s nothing that we would appreciate more than people coming and realizing their milk doesn’t come from Safeway,” joked Paris Thomas, the BCMPA’s communications director. The tours are free and are as simple as a phone call to 604-294-3737
      ( ).

      Other resources for finding off-tour farms to visit include the B.C. Agriculture Council’s Web site ( ), which provides links to most industry associations, such as the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association.

      Even the executive director of the Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association, Bruce Johnson, said the benefits of hosting city people on farms are worth the risks. He encourages Vancouverites to approach farmers directly and ask for tours. Some poultry farms, he said, still host visitors.

      “Generally speaking, farmers are fairly willing to let the public know what they’re doing and how the foods are produced,” he told the Straight.

      “It’s a good thing that people from Vancouver get out and visit the farms, get a feel for the issues that farmers are dealing with,” he said.

      Why does Hoogendoorn host folks in Agassiz, with nothing to sell them?

      “The people who do show up”¦are always very surprised on how well the animals get treated.”¦It’s a real eye opener, when they come to the farm, to see how clean it is. We’re really proud of that fact and that’s why we never turn tours away.”