Vancouver's urban homesteaders go back to the land

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      Picture the scene: you arrive at someone’s home to find a selection of home-dried herbs in the kitchen, handmade soap in the bathroom, and home-brewed beer in the fridge. Venturing outside, you’re greeted by the gentle clucking of chickens and the industrious hum of bees. A garden of freshly planted vegetables completes the picture.

      You’re not in the Southlands, the Okanagan, or a farm-stay B & B on Vancouver Island. You’re in East Vancouver, and all of this is happening on a standard-size plot of land, just steps away from the Commercial Drive SkyTrain station.

      Surya Govender, an instructor with Capilano University’s community outreach and development department, shares just such a home—and its various poultry-related responsibilities—with her husband, Kelsy Heikoop, their four-year-old son, Jaya, and their 20-month-old daughter, Salila. She’s also far from an exception, as increasing numbers of Vancouverites are embracing the urban-homesteading lifestyle, eschewing superstore conveniences for back-to-the-land experiences.

      “We do a lot of making, and we like the idea of being closer to our food and being connected to the food-production process, with the kids, particularly,” Govender explains over a cup of tea in her living room. When the city passed a bylaw in 2010 allowing a maximum of four back-yard chickens, the family jumped onboard. “And it’s been super fun,” Govender insists. “For the first six months, at least, we would come out and one of our neighbours would be wandering around in the back yard like, ‘Hi! We just came to see the chickens!’ ”

      The bees are a more recent addition to the yard, acquired at the beginning of May when a beekeeper friend caught a swarm and was looking for someone to host a hive. “He’ll look after them and he’s going to teach us about doing it, and then we’ll get a little bit of honey if honey gets made,” Govender explains. “We want to support the bees in the city. I garden and so do a lot of my neighbours, so it’s great to have the pollinators around. It’s a fascinating process. It’s so neat to be able to watch and learn about their habits.”

      None of this story is unfamiliar to Rick Havlak, who opened Homesteader’s Emporium two years ago. Located at 649 East Hastings Street, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, the store acts as a one-stop shop for all your homesteading needs, with supplies for everything from gardening and beekeeping to cheese-making and brewing. The store also hosts events and workshops: upcoming topics include Handmade Soap and Rendering Tallow, Bee School, and Kombucha 101.

      “The business was conceived as being just a place where people could come in and get kind of unusual supplies for all sorts of different homesteading activities,” Havlak explains over the phone. “We’re still primarily a retail store, but because of what people demanded and needed, we’ve branched out into doing a lot of workshops.” Havlak—a self-confessed “serial hobbyist” who started out brewing beer before branching into beekeeping, coffee-roasting, and cheese-making—notes that, like many of his patrons, “I like to learn a little bit about a lot of different things.”

      His core group of customers, he says, “are maybe 20 to 35, people who live in the city that are just curious and maybe haven’t been exposed to gardening and living outside.…People use the word hipsters a lot, and I’d say that some of the people that come in belong to that category, but it really is pretty varied. We’re kind of oriented to people that live in the city and have a small amount of space and are trying to do as much as they can with a small patio or small back yard and a small kitchen.”

      When it comes to keeping chickens, the first name on Havlak’s list is Duncan Martin, designer and builder of the Vancooper chicken coop. Martin, an East Vancouver transplant from Vermont, builds the coops out of repurposed local cedar and sells them for $700. Since starting the business in 2010, Daily Eggs, Martin says, he’s been installing about two to three of them a month.

      “There’s a lot of young families who want their kids to know a thing or two about their food, and older people from another province or country who had chickens before and kind of miss it,” he observes by phone during his lunch break from his other job: installing solar panels for Vancouver Renewable Energy.

      Martin, 29, and his wife keep four chickens, not only as a source of food but also for enjoyment. “Being able to come home and sit back there and hear them clucking, it really does calm you right down,” he says. Their needs, he explains, are quite minimal. “Chickens just really need a place to scratch around on the ground, an elevated place to sleep at night, a perch, and a nest box,” he observes. “What I did, with that in mind, was just come up with something that would look good in most Vancouver back yards and that I could easily replicate.”

      His coop is a modular prefabricated structure that takes the needs of renters into account. “It can come apart within a half-hour or an hour, and you can take it with you if you have to move,” he explains. The Vancooper, he claims, is rot-resistant, bylaw-compliant, and raccoon-proof.

      That’s something Govender found out—the hard way—is an important consideration. A few months ago, one of her chickens (which are not housed in one of Martin’s coops) met its end at the hands of a local raccoon. The chicken has since been replaced, and the family enjoys up to four fresh eggs a day during the summer months.

      Although Martin insists that keeping chickens requires minimal work—a weekly cleaning, a daily egg collection, a bit of food and water—Govender says that whatever effort it takes is beside the point. “It’s just been a focus of ours to get as close as we can to the source of our food,” she stresses. “And when you make your own stuff, you’re in control of your own stuff. One of my favourite things that Jaya’s ever said is, when he wants something, like a remote-control car, ‘We should just make one!’ I love that that’s where his brain goes, that the first thing he thinks of is, ‘Let’s make it for ourselves.’ ”




      May 15, 2014 at 3:35pm

      I can't help it - I want to admire the hell out of "makers" and Kinfolk and artisanal pickles and Best Made's urban axes and whatnot - but all I see are smug characters straight out of Portlandia. Sorry.


      May 15, 2014 at 4:01pm

      FR, you really should meet Duncan then. Extremely nice, very humble and an awesome neighbour to have. not at all what I would associate with the pretentious-hipster image.


      May 16, 2014 at 11:19am

      Why would FR want to actually meet Duncan when he can just smear him online?


      May 16, 2014 at 3:56pm

      Did you know that it was Trish Kelly, current candidate in a nomination race for one of the Vision Vancouver Park Board seats, who drafted the initial guidelines for permitting backyard chickens in Vancouver? Please support her candidacy:


      May 16, 2014 at 10:54pm

      FR, I get it. I laugh at myself all the time. But the hipsterness of it doesn't make "making" any less satisfying at the end of the day. I still think it's (one of) the ways to make change happen in the direction I want it to happen in. If I'm "excessively proud" (ie. smug) of my ability not to blow myself up with the pressure cooker, it's a character flaw I'll live with.