This is our “just under” 2 acre piece of paradise. We are surrounded by our neighbours grapevines, which offer the truly obvious contrast between our properties. 10 years ago, Mikkel and I set on a path to build a legacy for our future family, honouring the history and magic of these unique properties. I have been cooking professionally for 27 years, and the last 10 of those years has been spent developing our dream business, focusing on integrating the table to our farm while striving to share an old world approach to the culture of dining. Although this may be a unique concept in our region, it is far from a new concept in the big world around us. The catalyst for pursuing entrepreneurship was a lifestyle choice, recognizing that my career, marriage and family deserved more than I had witnessed in the culinary industry to that point. The risk of uncertainty was overshadowed by the reality that the industry I am so passionate about needed to be adjusted to suit the needs of my family, farm and well being.
Turn the page to 2013, I was accepted into the Community Futures Program, to assist in developing my business plan. The learning was immense, as was the support for our unique start-up business. I got mentorship to channel my energy into a sound plan, leading to the launch of my catering business in June of 2013-also receiving a grant for funding to build our business . We built a health board approved production kitchen in our basement, and following a 5 year tenure at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery as Restaurant Chef, and Executive Chef, we were able to assess the next step in our future. The dream, and a big one, was a Farm to Table culinary experience in the lower farmhouse, for private bookings, allowing us to share the produce from our small farm, and ingredients from like minded local farming partners and producers. Family help allowed the purchase of “Backyard Farm”, where over 6 months, modest cosmetic renos to the farmhouse were finalized with a launch in June of 2014 (one year) after the original “leap of faith” into entrepreneurship. An untested idea was met with a mix of support, trepidation and uncertainty. At the forefront of it all was a belief that our ambition and ethics would be enough to make things work, if at the very least to support our lifestyle and family along with a family oriented hospitality team. The pros outweighed the cons, and the future was written shortly thereafter.
Turn the page a few years, and we enjoyed our efforts transpiring into a livelihood. Those that know, business growth is fraught with over thinking and adjustments-we have always done our best to assess it manageably while trying to keep the long term vision at the forefront. Time is very valuable, Mikkel and I recognize that balance isn’t easy to obtain, but certainly something to really make a priority. We figured that keeping our operation small and family oriented may help to circumvent the plague of short staffing in the hospitality industry in our region, while allowing us to pursue our quality minded approach to our agri-culinary experiences. Without a “template” for our unique agritourism business model, we researched and concluded that we coincided with the Official Community Plan, and adhered to the intent and spirit of the bylaws for our zoning designation in agriculture land.
Has it been stressful, yes. Costly in both finances and time spent ruminating about all the things…… So we have remained quiet, understanding that passionate public intervention can hinder reasonable deliberation, and with so much at stake for us and the future of our region, it is worth due process taking its course.
As righteous as it seemed, regrettably, perception muddled our business approach, leading to the recent situation and resolution this post is about. It should be asserted that we not only agree with the legislation developed to protect and preserve agriculture land. Fundamentally, our business was built upon it. The idea that nourishment is the most common factor in living is at the forefront of Backyard Farm. Who, where, why and how in food sourcing and preparation has built our reputation. If those who have the ability to make change or uphold these values aren’t representing this cause, food security and our food system would be easily lost. We believe in the need for this legislation, in fact, we live by these terms. I can’t surmise whether it is a problem stemming from a “once bitten twice shy” mentality, but it is a reality that there are those among us who pursue the grey area in order to exploit legislation put in place for good reason. We as a society need checks and balances to ensure responsible growth in our region, and it is a role that shouldn’t be taken lightly. We recognize and appreciate this need, as the future is dependent on these positions in local and provincial government. With this in mind, we are so grateful for the RDOS board of directors, tasked with deciding on our “non farm use” application be forward to the ALC. Simple terms, should the board not forward our application, we are finished. Full stop. They voted unanimously in favour to proceed, meaning they recognize our operation as viable and coinciding with the mandate of the local government pertaining to our business operations. They unanimously voted in favour of forwarding our application(corporate vote-15 members), vs, 8). The second step is the ALC reviewing and deliberating our application for “non Farm Use” on ALR land (agriculture land reserve). We received a decision after an online hearing, and site visit. Contrary to historical decisions, we have been approved for non farm use as an “Agriculinary Dining and Catering Operation”. The synopsis of the approval report is that the ALC recognized Backyard Farm as ancillary use to the farm, with this term being created for our unique entity. Historically, “food and beverage service establishments”(restaurants) have never been viewed as ancillary, unless accompanied by a winery, distillery or cidery- alcohol production on site. We have been steadfast in maintaining our stance as something very different than a restaurant, maintaining that we are a food and farm focused culinary experience. Without specific terminology representing the nature of Backyard Farm, it was obviously difficult to distinguish us for what we actually are. Here is a legal interpretation of the decision, recently posted by one of our many supporters, clients and advisors, Al Hudec:
Fantastic news today from the Agricultural Land Commission (Not often I say that!). The Commission today approved an application to allow the continued operation of Chef’s Table Backyard Farm on agricultural land as a ‘permitted non-farm use’.
Congratulations to Chef Chris Van Hooydonk and his wife Mikkel who have worked tirelessly since 2014 to create Backyard Farm as a very special and unique family business. Backyard Farm needs to be experienced to be fully understood. It is a highly enjoyable and educational agri-food experience. Serving only locally sourced foods, more than half of which are grown on the small two acre property, Chis and the young apprentices that he mentors tell the story not only of their culinary techniques but also of the farm and its produce, grown using organic and regenerative techniques.
The decision of the Commission to permit Chef’s Table Backyard Farm is predicated on the balance inherent in Chris’ business model. He farms his small acreage intensively and deliberately keeps his culinary operation small so as to not overshadow the farming. He operates only seasonally, with one seating per evening and a maximum of 20 guests. Over the years, Chris and Mikkel have expanded their farming beyond their heritage fruit trees to include raised bed gardens and ground crops – fruits, vegetables and herbs plus some heritage laying chickens and honey.
The mandate of the Agricultural Land Commission is to protect agricultural land, nothing more and nothing less. For better or worse it permits restaurants on agricultural land only in connection with wineries. This has allowed our wineries to broaden their attractiveness to visitors looking for a fine dining experience as part of their winery visit, but it has also lead to a proliferation of large multi-purpose tourist developments on prime agricultural land. It has always seemed odd to me that eating establishments are permitted only at wineries and not on other farm properties.
The ALC’s decision carefully limits its applicability so as to preclude it being used as a precedent to permit commercial restaurants on agricultural land. It applies only to Chris’ unique business model which at its core is rooted in the close proximity of the culinary experience (located in a 1940’s heritage farm house) to the agricultural land; and the connectivity of his guest’s experience to the farm and farming activity.
Congratulations to the Commissioners who took the time visit Backyard Farm and to see what a treasure it is to the South Okanagan community. Congratulations to Chef Chris, who remained true to his values and prevailed through a difficult time.
The recent approval from the Agricultural Land Commission not only offers a huge relief for us and our legacy, but very much in the broader picture of agri tourism in general. We appreciate the necessity for heavy considerations by the commission. We feel they made a concerted effort to educate themselves accordingly, following up our hearing with a site visit. We felt it was critical to get a sense of place, and we are grateful they made a point to tour the farm before deliberating our case. As we were not requesting exclusion from ALR regulations, a site visit was elective rather than mandatory. Truthfully, it has always been understood that ALC approval would be our biggest hurdle in our pursuit of compliance.
All this said, it is time for Mikkel and I to take a breath and celebrate this critical step forward. We are both invigorated and re-energized with the prospect of an open ended future raising our family, while farming and sharing our passion with our guests and clients on our land. We have 1 final phase in the pursuit of finally moving onward. We now have to acquire approval from the RDOS, and will be navigating this process with the hope of an expedient and positive outcome. With our confidence restored, we will continue to expand our food growing footprint at the farm, planting more trees, building more beds, planning for future harvests. This is an incredible victory indeed, and being recognized for our efforts in sustainable farming in cohesion with our culinary offerings.
Lastly, we want to offer our immense gratitude to so many who have supported us through this daunting pursuit. Our clients have kept us very busy, and obviously the interest in our business and bookings inspired us to push on. So many thoughtful messages, advice and accolades-it would be difficult for me to share them all. So many forms of media support have been so helpful in sharing the true depiction of what we have built. The unsolicited articles, videos and social media posts through the years were critically helpful in establishing our livelihood and success, while also showcasing our value within our region. The Chamber of Commerce, especially Denise, for being a great sounding board of support-not only about our cause, but for the bigger picture of agriculture and food culture in our community. Brad Elenko, our planning consultant has been critical for the successful outcomes thus far-we are so grateful for his ability and experience in navigating through this process. Al Hudec, Al Patton, Jim Wyse, Bill Eggert, Jim D’Andrea- lets call them our advisory committee. These gentlemen have offered much time, thoughtful insight and information since the very beginning of this process. Smiley Kyle, well obviously he has been instrumental for the success of our business-he has also provided so much support during my fluctuating temperament and time i needed to step out of the kitchen to focus on necessities-all while ensuring our guests always received the same attention to detail we have become known for. Our family has been a beacon of strength for us over the last few years. When it seemed so impossible, we were encouraged to continue onwards, with the collective understanding that we needed to stand up for what was right. So much at stake for everyone involved in this business, and most certainly there were times that that encouragement was necessary. Thank you Michael, Susie, Debbie for believing that the possible reward outweighed the risk of your investment in our dream business. Thanks to my Dad, Mom and sister for also helping me channel positivity through the thick of it. Quite a humbling list……..
Now we turn a page in our story. Renewed energy will be put towards another exciting season sharing our love of food, farm and wine culture in one of the most beautiful places in the world.