It’s easy to get caught up in mudslinging when local politics get ugly. This is especially true when you witness a family whom you know to have the purest of intentions being dragged into a nightmare.
Today I am talking about Chris Van Hooydonk, his family and team at Backyard Farm and Artisan Culinary Concepts in Oliver.
Pre-Covid Prep for Private Event
Up front, let me state I have a couple of biases. I love good food and beverages. I love the people who create them for me to enjoy. They fascinate me. I am blown away by the sacrifices they make to become the artisans that enhance our culinary scene. I am a writer. I love to dig into their personal stories and share them with those willing to read my pieces or listen to me wax on about them. I care about the environment and strive to do a better job of stewarding it. I embrace the Slow Food movement and adopt the movement’s interconnected principles:
- GOOD: quality, flavorsome and healthy food
- CLEAN: production that does not harm the environment
- FAIR: accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers
Accordingly, my husband and I have become huge fans of Chef Chris, his family and entire team. I have written about Backyard Farm and raved about it through social media. I learned about how Chris got started in the culinary field, his progress from Okanagan College through exciting posts: Saucier, Holland America Line Cruises; Sous Chef, Chef Bernards Café; Saucier, Four Seasons Hotel Boston; and Executive Chef, Burrowing Owl Estate Winery. In talking with Chris, he always acknowledges his mentors and genuinely believes in the importance of being a mentor himself.
He could easily have gone the route of a celebratory chef devoting his entire being to food and beverage notoriety. Instead, he and his wife Mikkel chose to instill greater life/work balance and live a more traditional farmers’ lifestyle in raising their children.
Chris is a kind, good man and he has surrounded himself with those kinds of people. So, I am not quite sure of what went south to cause such a strange encounter with the Regional District of South Okanagan. Backyard Farm has been operating in plain sight – even if tucked off a side road on the south side of Oliver – for seven years in harmony with the intent of the Agriculture Land Commission. It has gone beyond to shine a light on the wonders of the Okanagan and given back to the community.
Like many operations amid the restrictions of the Covid pandemic, Backyard Farm suffered. Seeking solutions to bring that farming income back into balance, Backyard Farm proposed a patio that would allow seating for its private clients in keeping with the table distancing requirements. In many similar situations, local leaders have strived to assist operators rather than lose valuable assets to the community. For example, Kelowna and Penticton allowed expansion of patio areas and within proper guidelines, we can even take alcohol to the beach these days to enjoy with our takeout picnics!
When Chris complied with all protocols and RDOS staff examined his operation something went south. The staff, for some reason completely misinterpreted his business. I don’t know if worn out by the pandemic, Chris got short with the person(s). He is, after all, a chef not a diplomat.
Somehow, he got pulled into applying for a Temporary Use Permit that relates to a public eating and drinking establishment rather than confirming his agricultural holding remains in compliance. None of it makes sense to rational bystanders. Many local fans like me including Al Hudec, a lawyer, reacted to try to stress the differentiation between Backyard Farm and a public restaurant.
Commentary online at the Oliver Daily News (oliverdailynews.com) started out confrontational and evoked a barrage of reactions – some downright vile and inflammatory. At least one RDOS staff seem to have used a public forum to declare her position before allowing the Regional Board of Director the opportunity to examine all of the evidence yet to be presented at a hearing.
The malicious attack on Chris seemed so personal by this staff, it was hard not to drag the fight into the gutter. I had also been online for an information meeting in which another staff seemed quite abrupt and unable to attentively listen rather only wanted to declare her own point of view. The meeting used an older technology and folks trying to participate kept falling off line. (Made me wonder why Zoom wasn’t used when everyone has become so familiar with it through the Covid pandemic?)
It is my understanding in BC, “Board members as a whole or as a smaller sub-group participating in a service make collective decisions in the best interest of the region or communities within the region.” In properly functioning organizations, directors would not get directly involved in the day-to-day operations of the office, rather coach and provide advice. Theoretically, directors are selected to offer a broad and realistic perspective of what’s happening within the region and serve as a bridge to the community and as oversight – particularly as related to personal biases of staff.
Again, I don’t know the minute details of this situation. However, in administering the land use bylaws, standards and policies it seems the approach sometimes becomes more punitive rather than facilitative.
In fact, directors can be expected to serve as diplomats and role models for staff. In this situation where things seem to have spun out of hand along an entirely wrong route, I would hope that the Regional Board Directors have the leadership skills to hit pause and go back to the beginning.
Backyard Farm has never been a restaurant and has no aspirations to be one. It serves a beautiful role demonstrating how we can make an agricultural lifestyle work. How do we backtrack from here? How can the RDOS directors help staff save face and do what is right?
While a phrase’s meaning may become twisted over time, I like to go back to the essence of how I learned about it in school.
Take, for example, Portia’s plea in the William Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…”
For me, it is a reminder that showing kindness and understanding is a healthy way to approach life. It doesn’t matter what your religion and how you interpret heaven. If, in your heart, you care what’s best for the community and Mother Earth and strive to listen and fully comprehend a situation, you’ll be rewarded.
Of course, in this case I’m not talking about mercy to bend rules. That isn’t necessary if you take the time to go through Al Hudec’s legal analyses of the ALC and how it relates to Backyard Farm. Rather the mercy is suggested as an action to step back, forgive whatever little flare ups folks had in dealing with a sensitive issue and then examine the situation with clear, open minds.
Please folks, let’s wake up from this nightmare and show the quality of mercy to all involved. Let’s get this Okanagan asset out of the defense mode and back to living off the land and sharing its treasures.
Well said Roz, great job!
Perfect. You always explain things so well.
Thank-you for reading!
As one of the architects of the existing by-law, I too am as frustrated as most. As a committee, one of our mandates was to put forward recommendations for by-laws to prevent the encroachment of development on farm land. We were watching subdivisions, malls and small businesses slowly eat away at our farmland. We viewed restaurants as an encroachment. We spent hours going over as many scenarios that we could think of, and how the by-law should deal with them. At the time we never envisioned such a visionary coming along and passionately making the connection between food and culinary culture. How could we? That is what a visionary does!
One of our recommendations was meant to prevent the proliferation of restaurants. This was also ingrained in the Agricultural Land Reserve by-laws. We had witnessed the opening of a winery restaurant, and there were genuine concerns as to the future. Chris is actually doing what we all wanted to see happen. Maintain and make farmland profitable. Not with a restaurant, but with a series of catered events highlighting his connection with the land.
It has to be said that it was not staff that attacked Chris publicly. It was a senior, volunteer member of the APC (Area Planning Commission). You have to understand that the members of the APC are dealing, on a regular basis, with those that chose to flaunt the regulations and look for loopholes for their own profit. Sometimes frustration boils over. No, I’m not excusing the behavior. In fact I have formally asked for her to be removed from the APC.
It should also be said that staff has done nothing wrong. They have interpreted the by-law that has been given to them. The goal is to change their interpretation.
All that being said, we are all working towards convincing the directors of the board of the RDOS that Chris is in compliance with the spirit and the letter of the by-law in question. It is an uphill battle with many factors in play.
Thanks, Bill, that’s very helpful information. It’s encouraging that you and perhaps others recognize new factors can come into play such as the arrival of visionaries who are as protective of farm land as the intent of the bylaw.
The pressures of life amid Covid has brought out both the best and the worst of human reactions. My goal is never a “heads off with them” kind of resolution rather heads on with attentiveness and creativity for solutions not barriers.
Thank you for shining your light and putting things into perspective.
Thank-you for reading it and here’s hoping it is helpful.
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