Who does that? Cowichan’s Brock McLeod, that’s who

Brock and Heather McLeod pioneers of organic farming in the Cowichan Valley

In June of 2007, Brock McLeod and Heather Walker abandoned their corporate jobs and upscale condo in Victoria, headed north over the Malahat and never looked back.

Their destination? The Cowichan Valley and Brock’s dream of being a farmer in his hometown.

They’d found 10 acres tucked away on Bench Road in Cowichan Bay and intended to create an organic farm there. The land was bare. It had been used as pasture for many years and the only structure around was a beat up old shed. It was a clean slate. It was a dream come true.

With what remained of that summer, the dynamic duo traded their business wear for coveralls and got to work bringing in hydro, a well pump and a septic system. They also constructed a future market stand, which they morphed into a family home while they worked to build up the farm.

In 2008 Brock and Heather planted a half-acre of strawberries and vegetables.

Makaria Farm was official.

They quickly found themselves selling out at the Duncan Farmers Market. They also fed seven families through a small Community Supported Agriculture program.

Lush Eco Lawns owner John Close got to know Brock in those early days when their businesses were both in their infancies. They initially bonded over soil biology. When neither man’s eyes glazed over talking about microorganisms and fungus, they knew it was a match.

“In the beginning it was very businesslike,” Close admitted. “But then we just clicked. Brock had a dream to step away and start an organic farm.

“Who has that dream? Who does that? ‘I’m getting paid extremely well right now, I might as well cash in and go farm.’ Nobody thinks that way.”

But Brock did. And it was worth it.

After that humble first year, Brock and Heather spent the next six and a half years, growing, researching, learning, teaching and expanding.

Cliché as it sounds, they were living the dream. And people were noticing.

Brock, many argue, made farmers feel more accessible in a time where the eating local movement was becoming a thing again.

“When you think of farmers you don’t think of that white collar professionalism but Brock brought that business savvy to farming which is why I think he did so well,” Close said. “They kind of made farming sexy in a way.”

Production was stepped up in 2009. Brock doubled their growing space to three acres and they added Sidney and Nanaimo to their farm market schedule.

That year they fed 28 families with their CSA program and opened their own farm gate stand.

The Island Grains project was also born in 2009. Participants attended workshops on small-scale grain growing and were welcomed to become farmers at Makaria farm and to cultivate small plots of grains of their own.

By 2010, six of the 10 acres were being planted. Blueberries, rhubarb, and asparagus, as well as an orchard were added to the roster.

Apprentices were hired, the CSA fed 66 families and the business was thriving.

It was that year that Makaria Farm began to supply the Community Farm Store with a variety of vegetables.

“He was a gentle giant of the organic produce world in the Valley,” said Annette Rosewich, the Community Farm Store’s produce manager. “He could grow anything and it all looked and tasted great, his carrots were the talk of the valley.”

Even so, Brock refined his growing practices, sowing six and a half acres in 2011.

“Brock really focused on efficiencies on our farm to make it viable and sustainable and that meant we researched and imported a lot of rare small-scale farm machinery,” Heather said.

Thinking outside the box was something he did really well and it transferred to his life off the farm.

“Brock always challenged the status quo at the committee level, even afterwards I would find out that he was in agreement with a recommendation he would have questioned it, turned it upside down and inside out just to ensure everyone was clear on all angles,” former North Cowichan councillor and egg farmer Jen Woike said. They sat on North Cowichan’s agricultural advisory committee together. “I would have loved the chance to have voted for Brock in a political role, he would have rocked it.”

His ability to analyze a subject was a quality revered by many, especially those closest to him.

“The biggest gift that Brock gave me personally is he recalibrated my thinking,” Close said. “He taught me to look at the angles of every issue. He’d ask those questions that’d stop you in your tracks and make you reconsider everything.”

By 2012, all of a sudden, it seemed, though it was really through their non-stop effort and timely gambles, the pair’s produce was a hot ticket item and they were supplying various grocery stores and restaurants in addition to their farm market and farm gate stands. Farm proceeds were enough to support both Brock and Heather full time.

“Brock and Heather in my opinion were the pioneers of the organic farming movement in Cowichan, always pushing boundaries and always taking risks,” Woike said.

They were in high demand but knew their priorities. Their relationship was also blossoming.

Brock and Heather married on April 9, 2012. Their son, Isaac was born Sept. 12, 2013. It was onward and upward personally and professionally for the couple.

Some six years into their farm life, they began to notice their small farm wasn’t so small anymore. All the viable land had been cultivated and they shopped for more so they could continue to expand.

Full fields and produce aplenty, Brock had ideas to match. They partnered with the Cowichan Recyclists to offer enviro-friendly bicycle delivery of their CSA bags.

“It’s not everyday you meet a farmer with the business sense and vision of Brock,” said former Cowichan Recyclists owner Aaron Bichard. “He knew it took partnerships and innovation to stand out and have his product differentiated from others. Having his CSA food delivered by bike through Cowichan Recyclists was one of those partnerships that worked to expand their customer-base and aligned with his values of creating a healthy community.”

The partnership left a lasting impression on Bichard, although he has since moved away from the community.

“It used to be when I saw a tractor or a farm stand, I’d think ‘there’s a tractor,’ or ‘there’s a farm stand.’ I can’t say for sure exactly when it happened, but now I immediately think of Brock and Heather,” he said. “They defined local farming for me, and that’s a pretty powerful impact to have.”

The McLeod family business was booming.

In 2014 the young farmers had signed a lease for 65 acres of prime growing land near Makaria Farm. Brock was planning another growth spurt to meet the demand for his crops. He had a goal to supply the new Whole Foods store in Victoria.

But that same year Brock was diagnosed with stage-four kidney cancer.

In 2015, they had 24 acres of organic crops in production and were delivering CSA goods to just over 300 families from Nanaimo to Victoria. Arguably at the height of their success, they made the crushing decision to sell the farm, and did so in late October 2015 to focus on family.

In the subsequent two years, they remained as active as they could in the community of which they’d become an integral part, but also spent as much family time together as was possible — including a 62-day cross-country trip as a trio in their beloved 1986 motorhome in the summer of 2016.

Brock died on Sept. 20, 2017 at the age of 38.

He leaves behind his wife Heather, four-year-old son Isaac and a lasting legacy, not just within the Cowichan farming community but well beyond.

“What he did was almost revolutionary for the Island. He loved the local agricultural community and I think he helped all the other farmers step up their game,” Close explained. “The amount of risk that he took on early on to start a farm — it’s not like he took over the family farm; he started it. From nothing. I remember their tiny little patch at the start and in the end he was looking for farmland. He couldn’t have enough.

“Hopefully this will inspire the next generation of people who love our community enough to take a chance on making it better. Brock’s endgame was to make the community better and his avenue to do that was organic vegetables, but ultimately it was to help us think better, to help us behave better. He was a guru of many kinds and he’ll be highly missed.”

Sarah

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