Hundreds of people from across Vancouver Island gathered at the Rusted Rake Farm on Sunday (Sept. 8) for the popular eatery’s final day in business.
The restaurant is closing its doors after a long battle with the Agricultural Land Commission over what the ALC deems “non-farm use” of their land.
The working farm is a 7.2-hectare parcel on Northwest Bay Road in Nanoose Bay, run by Jodie Lucas and Will Gemmell. In addition to the restaurant, they also raise barley and wheat, beef, mixed vegetables and fruit.
“It’s surreal. Heart-breaking,” said Lucas.
The owners weren’t the only ones feeling that way.
Nanoose Bay resident Bill Larner and his partner Helen said they come to the farm eatery three or four times a week. With the restaurant closing, they’re not sure what, if anything, will fill that gap.
“It’s very much a community meeting spot. There’s no other place,” said Larner.
“We were so happy when Jodie and Will opened the place, because there’s no other place to go for a coffee between Parksville and up in Nanaimo.”
Larner says he understands that the closure is due to Agricultural Land Reserve policy, but he wishes that the ALC would take into account the needs of the community.
“It’s always packed. People love this place. It’s unthinkable that the government wouldn’t take into account what this place means for the community,” said Larner.
Another couple from Duncan, Lorraine and John McWilliam, say that despite living over an hour away, they are frequent visitors.
“It’s just always a go-to place from the first time we walked in here. The quality of the building, everything that it represents. And the food is incredible. It’s just such a relaxed atmosphere. It’s just a nice pastoral setting,” said John McWilliam.
Visitors from Victoria also voiced their support. Bonnie Hoye and Amanda Crawford say they stop in to the restaurant every time they head up-Island to visit family or go on vacation. They prefer it to all other food available in the mid-Island.
“There’s nowhere to stop that has real food. Real, wholesome, hearty, nutritious food… this is a pretty special place. You can feel the energy,” said Crawford.
Parksville-Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell has also pledged support for the Rusted Rake, taking to social media with several posts backing the eatery.
She said she her office was being “inundated” with calls from people “devastated” by the news.
“Rather than simply closing down any business that doesn’t follow their strict rules to the letter, the ALC needs to take into account the unique context of applications, and work with owners and farmers to reach a resolution that best serves the local community,” said Stilwell in a release.
The struggle is nothing new for Lucas and Gemmell. The two had been contacted by the ALC back in October 2017 about their unauthorized non-farm use activity.
They were asked to seek approval from the commission for the operation of their restaurant.
In order to work around ALR rules, which allow for breweries and wineries, the couple poured more than $100,000 into supplies to start a brewery. Both applications, for a brewery and for their existing restaurant, were denied.
ALC rules are put in place to protect farmland in the province from being used for non-farm purposes.
The restaurant did not receive permits from the RDN before or after construction of the building and beginning operation of the restaurant, nor is the property zoned for commercial use.
“We feel that we’re being punished for the way that we went about doing business. That’s how it feels. It feels personal. It doesn’t feel professional,” said Lucas.
The couple had expected to be turned down for the restaurant, but not the brewery.
“We also need clarity… they had quite a large decision. It was still unclear about the brewery, why it really got turned down. That was kind of our ace in the hole to keep open,” said Gemmell.
Gemmell says he wishes there was some kind of middle ground that could be pursued, instead of a flat-out rejection of their business.
“It gives a farmer another avenue to make the farm viable and produce more income for the farm,” said Gemmell.
“The community is only going to buy so many onions and so many carrots. It needs to diversify.”
The two aren’t sure what their next step will be, other than taking some time off.
“Our next move right now is to take a break, and regroup, and to get some sleep, and once that’s done we’ll make a decision at that point. We’re not quite too sure what our next move is,” said Lucas.
Both are grateful for the outpouring of community support.
“We’re so thankful to live in such a great community. Oceanside and Nanoose in general – and to be part of such a great bunch of individuals who support our lifestyle, and support what we’re doing. It’s frustrating to have it taken away from us and taken away from our community as well. It’s not just us it’s impacting. It’s our community,” said Lucas.