Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ferries and Farming

      Living on an island is a little different from living on the mainland, primarily because of our reliance on the ferry system. A few years ago I visited Glen Alwin Farm in the Comox Valley. Their location gives them the opportunity to sell their beef and lamb at both the Courtenay and the Campbell River Farmers Markets.         
     When I asked where they process their livestock, they pointed and told me “About 5 minutes down the road”. I could see the meat shop’s sign just across the highway. They wouldn’t even need to load a truck…just walk the cows and sheep down there.
      Contrast that to most Gulf Island farms. Ferries to bring supplies in. Ferries to take our products off island. Sometimes ferries to take them off island to process, then back to our island to sell. It makes even more sense to have a local food economy in the Gulf Islands. Keep our growing, processing and marketing as local as possible.
     It is more than convenience that is at stake.  There is animal welfare to consider, as well as safety.  A big cattle truck came to our island to pick up cattle from three different farms which were to be shipped to Vancouver.  The ferry arrived late, so the driver had to rush to the first farm where several people worked up a sweat loading the uncooperative creatures.  Then the second farm to load some more.  Then our farm to load the last, and a dash back to the ferry to catch the 11:45.  The truck was just under the thirty minutes for priority loading and the ferry employee in the booth was not going to budge on the rule.  The driver was told that the next ferry would be at 3:10.  I followed the truck and pleaded with the ferry employees at the dock to please allow the truck to load because there were two bulls on the truck separated by just a metal gate.  I pointed at the truck, which was rocking back and forth from the bulls fighting.  I told them that this was a safety issue for the animals, and the ferry wasn't even in dock yet.  Fortunately, the ferry employee allowed the truck to load on the 11:45.  
     It isn't always this way.  Sometimes a truck of livestock will be asked to go in a separate lane to be loaded last, and sometimes the truck is forgotten or not enough space is left.  If connections are missed a truck may need to stay overnight at a ferry terminal with no food, water or fresh bedding for the stock.
      Last fall I took some lambs to Saturna Island to be processed – I caught an evening ferry, unloaded the sheep in the dark at Campbell Farm and then slept over. The next day we slaughtered, then back to Pender. Then a return trip the following week with another stay-over to pick up the meat. Not a simple five minute drive down the road, unless you have the good fortune to live on Saturna. Soon Salt Spring will have an operating abattoir as well, which will have the added feature of being mobile so that perhaps the abattoir can eventually come to the farms, instead of animals being transported.
      Many Gulf Island farmers with livestock have to do the dance with the ferry monster, which would involve the ferry trip and anywhere from one to two hours driving. Add in time gathering the stock and loading them so that you still have at least thirty minutes before the scheduled sailing to assure your place on the ferry. Right?
      Well, that depends. You see, in 2005 BC Ferries decided to do away with the “30 minute rule” for livestock on the major routes for the ferries. Instead, they require a reservation to assure the boarding of the livestock on the preferred sailing. “This can be a challenge, because it is an established fact that travelling with animals when they are not accustomed to is is stressful to the animals” says Cynthia Tupholme, a Salt Spring sheep producer who has had her experiences in dealing with the ferry system.
      “Try cancelling a reservation outside regular business hours when there is no one to pick up the phone at the BC Ferries office. Try making it to a reserved sailing time when travelling a long distance with a load of sheep, there is no rushing when travelling with livestock and there can be accidents on the road or road construction or any number of unforeseeable obstacles beyond the drivers control which delay the best laid plans to arrive at that reserved sailing time an hour before the sailing.”
      According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency “Every person responsible for transporting animals in Canada must ensure that the entire transportation process including loading, transit and unloading - does not cause injury or undue suffering to the animals. It is illegal to cause undue suffering to an animal at any point in the transportation process.”
      Tupholme and other farmers believe that BC Ferries has a responsibility to provide a transit service that will prevent undue suffering of all livestock. This was the main reason why in the past they gave assured loading to livestock of all kinds, and not just to live seafood. Extreme temperatures and weather conditions, and the stress of travelling itself are animal welfare issues. The BC Farm Animal Care Council is concerned as well and has requested that producers send their experiences to BCFACC, so that they can be presented to BC Ferries.
      Another sheep producer wrote in the recent BC Sheep N'Ewes, that one way around the stress of travelling with livestock is to book more than one reservation each way to assure that you will get on a ferry, and cancel the reservation you do not need. Margaret Sampson, who lives in Surrey and only occasionally travels by ferry with her livestock, did point out that she was shocked at the cost of ferry travel, and how it has increased through the years. This is especially noted by those who use trailers because the cost per foot has doubled. In 2009, the fare for Margaret and her sheep in truck and trailer 35' total was $92.25. In 2010, the fare had increased 48% to $136.65, one way. This year she paid $145.75.
      For Gulf Island residents, the Experience cards replacing the ticket books have created some unpleasant situations. Some have found that it is difficult, if not impossible, to transfer funds from card to card, and the minimum amount to put on the card changes as ferry rates increase. Currently it is $90 for car and driver. And it is different from a book of tickets where you can clearly see how many tickets are left, but you might not remember how much money was left on your card.
      As for Cynthia Tupholme, the frustrations of island farming and living have become too much. She is currently looking for a place in the Fraser Valley.


  1. I really sympathize with all of you on the outer Islands and also on V.I.
    It has become impossible for us to even think of exhibiting our sheep anywhere on the mainland.
    In 2005, on the way to the All Canada Classic in Chilliwack, we arrived 27 minutes before the Queen of Alberni was to leave. The lady at the ticket booth was rude and said she didn't have to put us on the ferry as we hadn't been there 30 mins. before sailing. The ferry was far from full, she made us wait in the sun with a full trailer of sheep for the next ferry. The next ferry was turned back to Tsawwasen with a someone with a heart attack occuring on board. We waited a total of 6 hours before we boarded. Other times they have put us to the side and not left room to load us--this has happened three times. Something's wrong, especially when the Arrow Lakes ferries are free.

  2. I had the bad luck to miss a ferry from Tsawwasen to the island. I was the only truck or car in the parking lot. When it came time to load for the next ferry I was the last one on the ferry. I thought that I wasn't going to be allowed to load. I think some of the workers think its a big joke that you have livestock and try to keep them comfortable. I now carry water jugs every time I travel as they even told me there wasn't water available for me to water the animals.