At five acres, Maplewood Farm is not particularly large, but on this late summer morning its heart beats loudly with life.
The weather helps of course. The sun is out but not yet hot, and dew coats grass and trees, highlighting cobwebs and the imminent arrival of fall.
The animals are out of the barn where they have spent the night and - depending on your point of view - are either enjoying an hour of peace and quiet or waiting for the first visitors at 10 a.m. Pot bellied pigs Peggy and Petunia seem to be snoozing in their pen, Mini the Shetland pony, possibly the oldest inhabitant of the farm at the age of 40, stands unmoving, as does Lima the five-year-old Jersey cow, ruminating quietly as she chews her cud.
The unmistakable smell of a farm and its sounds - the scream of a peacock, the honking of geese and the muffled footsteps of penned livestock - are more striking because of the incongruity of finding them within a few hundred metres of the rush hour traffic on Mount Seymour Parkway. Residents of the new townhomes planned in the immediate neighbourhood will need to adapt to roosters at dawn.
As I sit with farm manager Derek Palmer at a picnic table, we are slowly surrounded by a mixed flock of mallards and chickens. Geese and Indian runner ducks are part of the farm's stock, but a flock of mallards arrive at dawn
every day to share the pond - and the bird feed from visitors. They look fat to me. Suddenly, in an instant and at once, they hightail it to the pond. Palmer looks up and says, "There must be a bird of prey around. The crows are acting up too."
Palmer has been here for 30 years. He was hired straight out of high school by the manager he has replaced for the last two.
"At the time, it was a part-time job while I waited to get into vocational school to study mechanics. But it was a two-year wait, and in the meantime I discovered I just really enjoyed this. You hear people describe it as an oasis in the city. It's a nice place to come to work."
Plans are underway to make it nicer.
Last year, the federal government gave the District of North Vancouver - which owns and operates the farm - a Community Infrastructure Improvement Fund grant to help rehabilitate Maplewood Farm. The district has matched that grant, and will use the funds to make upgrades to the farm, including: ¦ the construction of an enclosed multi-purpose area added to the existing visitor's centre building; ¦ the construction of six new shelters by the animal viewing pens; ¦ replacement of existing washroom facilities; ¦ improvements to the goat playground area; and ¦ creation of interpretive signage.
But the federal money for the upgrades is conditional on the farm raising $25,000 itself - though it does not necessarily have to be all cash; construction material donations will count too.
The process of raising that money has only just begun. While the grant was confirmed in 2012, it has taken the majority of this year for the planning and building permit process (part of the municipal contribution) to work its way through district hall.
The intent is to increase attendance and revenue and eliminate the municipal subsidy that Palmer says is running around $180,000 annually. The farm generates $420,000 in annual revenue but costs $600,000 to run.
The farm is open seven days a week much of the year, only closing on Mondays from November through March. Typically there are two attendants working out on the farm and a cashier. But there are only two full-time employees, Palmer and one other, the rest are part-time or occasional workers. And Palmer is quick to thank his many volunteers who contribute in many ways to keep costs down.
The farm had approximately 103,000 visitors in 2012 and, according to a district staff report, was 16th on the list of Metro Vancouver tourism attractions. The report says the goal is to position the farm in the top 10.
That appears challenging on the farm's paltry $10,000 marketing budget - approximately the same as it spends on veterinary services. (Langley Animal Clinic and another horse specialist provide veterinary assistance. All the animals have a six-monthly health check.) A tight budget shows in other ways. Tom the Belgian draft horse is possibly the most popular animal at Maplewood. Palmer would like to see him "working," but the farm does not have the budget at present to buy equipment such as harness and a cart.
However, Palmer remains optimistic. "I've found over the years that variety in our animals is important because everybody has a different favourite. There are horse people and cow people and people who like parrots. The federal grant will allow us to diversify a little and present more interpretive and educational programs."
He hopes the covered interpretive areas will encourage more visitors in the quieter winter months when weather is a factor.
Palmer sees Maplewood's animals as his extended family and doesn't keep pets at his North Vancouver home. "I get my fill when I'm here." He says he does not have an overall favourite, but admits to favourites within each group of animals.
Sickness or quality of life issues, not old age, determine when a farm animal must be euthanized and Palmer says that is the toughest part of the job he loves. He hates the thought of Mini the Shetland pony or Roberto the donkey dying. They were farm residents before he began working here. He ruefully repeats the advice of a vet that used to work with the farm: "If you don't want to deal with dead stock, don't deal with livestock."
According to district records, Maplewood Farm has existed on the present site since at least 1914 and has been owned by three different families, the last of whom - the Smyths - purchased the dairy farm in 1944. Milk from the 25 head of dairy cattle was bottled and delivered to homes in Deep Cove, Seymour and Lynn Valley.
The district obtained the farm in a land swap in 1970 and rented it out, but in 1974 parks superintendent Dirk Oostindie proposed using the farm for children. His vision: "A farm that could compensate for the loss of the rural feeling and the increasing urbanization by showing some old things, and exposing children to basic things. .. the farm will provide a rudimentary education and provide experience for children they wouldn't normally have."
A visitor has only to watch young children at Maplewood Farm to know that Oostindie's vision was both correct and splendid.
Find out more about the farm at maplewoodfarm. bc.ca, including the $125 family membership option that allows unlimited visits in a year for mom, dad, all the kids, grandparents and a nanny.
© Copyright 2013