It’s just a muddy, 52-hectare field in the middle of Seabird Island First Nation, but in a couple of months, it will be lined with budding green hops as far as the eye can see.
“When we went out there and looked at the land, smelled the earth and examined some soil samples, we were speechless,” says Alex Blackwell, managing director at Fraser Valley Hop Farms.
“We immediately became convinced this was the best place for us to plant.”
The Stó:lō haven’t been widely known as tillers of soil, yet Seabird Island First Nation, on the Fraser River about 100 kilometres east of Vancouver, is embracing farming to make use of their most abundant resource: land.
“The area around the 49th parallel produces some of the best hops in the world,” says Blackwell.
In fact, the Fraser Valley used to be the largest hop-growing area in the British Commonwealth and many Stó:lō worked as hop pickers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, providing them with a seasonal income between the summer and fall salmon runs.
Prohibition, tax incentives south of the border and the popularity of low-hop beer caused the B.C. hop industry to dwindle. In 1936, hops sold for $1.98 per pound. By 1996, the price had only increased to $2.98.
But now hops is selling for $15-$20 per pound, thanks to the popularity of craft beer.
Fraser Valley Hop Farms is seeking to capitalize on soaring hops prices, but finding a place to raise the crop in the Lower Mainland isn’t easy. That’s where Seabird Island comes in.
‘Pristine’ agricultural land
The hop farm only occupies a small portion of Seabird Island’s 700 hectares of agricultural land, most of which is leased out to local farmers by the First Nation’s development corporation, Sqéwqel. The vision statement for Sqéwqel is to work to “rebuild the traditional skill and knowledge that empower them to become fully self-sufficient and self-reliant in today’s world.”
At a time when many reserves are starting to lease land out for residential development, Seabird plans to stick to agriculture.
“We are not interested in giving up arable land for subdivisions,” says Tyrone McNeil, vice-president of Stó:lō Tribal Council and director of Sqéwqel Development Corp.
“In our 50-year plan, we recognize that agricultural land is going to become worth considerably more than it is today in terms of its relation to residential land.”
This has been a point of contention, though, not only at Seabird, but in many Stó:lō communities.
The members of Yakweakwioose First Nation, about 30 kilometres southwest of Seabird Island, have different ideas about what to do with the 16-hectare farm that occupies about 80 per cent of their reserve.
“Some [band members] are trying to combine their acreage [of the farm] and get it…