Community advocate, environmentalist, farmer and now patron of the city Craig Evans is dying of cancer, but he still manages to check in on his crops once or twice a week.
The 67-year-old spends most of his time these days lying down, but he’s able to climb in and out of a vehicle and make the walk over to the edge of the field at Cline farm.
“I knew this was happening, so I planted a huge area of over-wintering veggies, cauliflower and broccoli, that you plant in July and you harvest in February, March and April,” he said. “That was my field of dreams, if you know what I mean.”
Evans said he isn’t fearful about dying. He’s known people who died suddenly, and so comparatively, “it’s a blessing to know in advance” so he can set his affairs in order. When he spoke to the News Bulletin this week, he was in the process of sorting through his books and deciding which ones needed to be in the Growing Opportunities Farm Community Co-op’s library.
Growing Opportunities is one of numerous food security projects Evans has worked on in Nanaimo. He was a founder of Nanaimo Community Gardens in 1987, the Nanaimo Foodshare society in 1997 and the VIU Farmers Market and the Farmship Growers Co-op in 2013.
He’s contributed his “life’s energy” to advancing food security. Sometimes it’s felt like pushing a rock uphill, as he sees asparagus shipped from South America and so much produce come from areas of the United States where there are water-supply concerns.
“I know there’s lots of people who would like to help push that same rock, so I’m passing the torch to those who would like to help build a community food system and see an equitable and just society develop,” Evans said. “There’s a team that I’m working with who have come together to say, ‘we’re going to keep this going.’”
Even if the co-ops he’s been involved in eventually disappear, “it’s attempt after attempt until you get it right,” he said.
It’s an attitude he’s had since he came to Nanaimo as a young man in the late 1970s. Partway through a university program in his home province of Ontario, he hitchhiked across the country with a friend and then took a summer job developing film at the Nanaimo Museum. The day he swam in the Nanaimo River for the first time was the day he decided he was home.
“That was it…” he said. “It was like, how many summers do I get? I could stay here, swim in this river every summer, be a kid forever.”
But he didn’t mis-spend his youth in a carefree manner – he cared deeply. He was among a group of young people who started the Nanaimo Recycling Society in 1978, initially picking up newspapers and cardboard from 800 homes to bring back to the depot on Selby Street and fill containers to be shipped to recycling centres in southeast Asia. It wasn’t just because of youth and idealism that notions of filling up landfills and burning garbage didn’t sit right with him.
He won some battles, he lost some battles, and about the time the city was starting to take leadership on recycling, Evans was moving on to what became his life’s work.
He studied greenhouse gardening at Malaspina College, and though he rejected some of the teachings about agricultural business models and pesticide use, he was invigorated by the growing process and looking forward to the next harvest.
Over time, his community gardens project got to a point where it was sustainable, he said. It didn’t cost much to run, operated pretty well and produced a lot of food.
“That’s the key with agriculture. Few people can produce so much food, it’s just who’s going to get the food? You can try and sell it, but you’re competing against everything on the market,” he said.
Hence projects like Nanaimo Foodshare, created to expand access to nourishing food. Then Growing Opportunities, which has some of the same ideals and provides training and job opportunities to those with barriers to employment.
“That’s what I’ve always appreciated about Craig, is his commitment to making the world a better place, but making sure that nobody is left behind…” said Coun. Paul Manly. “He’s a real solutions-based person. He understands what the problems are [and] he’s always looking for ways to make things better.”
Evans had a chance to say some goodbyes at recent dinners at Vancouver Island University – where he was an instructor with the workplace essential skills and training program – and at Cavallotti Lodge. And he hopes people will support a legacy fund in his name set up by the Nanaimo Association for Community Living to help ensure continued inclusion of people with diverse abilities in building community food systems.
His recent patron of the city award means a lot, he said, considering he and the City of Nanaimo have sometimes been at odds over the years. He understands why certain decisions were made, even if he didn’t agree with them, and said he’s never been one to hold onto any bitterness.
“If you live a life of compassion and feel compassion in your heart and live a life of hope and dreams, in your brain, those neurons connected to that, they’re getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “That’s my belief, and in my case, it’s worked out.”
Evans doesn’t expect to live long enough to pick his patch of cauliflower and broccoli. But he intends to keep coming back to the farm as long as he can, to that place on the edge of his field of dreams.
“I can look and see how it’s developing and put my fist in the air and go, ‘you go for it, plants – you know exactly what to do,’” he said.