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Rebecca Kneen & The Sunflower Field Epiphany

Rebecca Kneen & the Sunflower Field Epiphany

…or, how the right choices created Left Fields

Talk about ‘brand’, and the owners of Crannóg Ales get just a titch uneasy. The word has a connotation that isn’t aligned with their ethics; ‘marketing’ is not really a concept that leaps to the tongue when describing the operation that Rebecca Kneen and Brian MacIsaac have created. But they’re certainly willing to admit that they have a brand.

Since its debut at the turn of the millennium, the notion of Crannóg has occupied a singular space in the collective mindshare of BC craft beer fans. As one of those fans, my first exposure to their brand came filtered through the lens of an enthusiasts’ group—namely, my local CAMRA branch—during a decade when Crannóg, Phillips and Storm spent year after year trading the top three spots in our annual Brewery of the Year voting. I, and no doubt many others, came to understand Crannóg as ‘that weird brewery from the Interior that makes interesting beer and is distinctive and rare and therefore cool’.

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Rebecca with Carmack, their gigantic Irish wolfhound (of course)

When you walk down the organic aisle at your friendly neighbourhood megasupermarket, you see lots of things that look like they’re probably distinctive and rare and cool. But you probably keep walking. Feel free to take offence—if you’re a dedicated organic products fan, good on you—but I can assume from a statistical perspective that you’re not. It would be forgivable if the word “organic” instead brings to mind for you ‘alternative lifestyle choice’ with hints of ‘cost’ and ‘inconvenience’. We’re a long way yet from the day when food production returns closer to its pre-20th-century historical roots the way the craft movement has driven with, say, beer (or for a better example: craft cider, as related in another story in this issue). Because of all this, you might leave the aisle without picking up that jar of jam, reading the label and thinking about where it came from and what makes it compelling.

Similarly, over the years, I’d see Crannóg at beer events, take in their basic message of ‘beer from a farm’, but not really dig under the surface. Who has time at a beer festival to talk about farming and dirt? If it wasn’t for a recent effort my wife and I made to finally learn more about Rebecca and Brian by visiting their homestead and staying overnight, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything specific about what drives the message around and behind their sought-after beer (and I wouldn’t be able to tell you how much it personally annoys Brian when drinkers at festivals spend the entire day talking about nothing of more life importance than the taste of beer).

I mentioned Storm a moment ago. I always found it easy to compare that brewery with Crannóg. Storm’s owner James Walton always seemed offbeat in manner and dress in a way that was fun to compare and contrast with Brian’s persona. Not surprisingly, the Crannóg and Storm folks are kindred spirits and close friends. MacIsaac confirms that Walton himself acknowledged their shared distinctiveness; the man who is well known as the urban Mad Scientist of Beer would playfully refer to the Crannóg team as the ‘Gaelic Warrior Brewers’.

In my quest to ‘read the label’ and get to know more about what makes Crannóg tick, I decided to start with a reliable approach: get the female perspective. I looked past the kilted Gaelic male warrior, and instead reached out to his life partner. This story about Crannóg begins with the person whose agricultural background, family history and aptitude has complemented and enabled Brian’s vision, resulting in their creation, a farm named Left Fields.

Brewster begets brewster

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Cathleen and Brewster Kneen. Image: ramshorn.ca

Rebecca Kneen is a Maritimer. Well, not anymore, of course, but most of her youth was spent there, the result of a decision by her parents to settle in Nova Scotia and raise sheep. As a child, unlike you and me who may have had a cat or dog, she had large woolly animals as pets.

Those aforementioned parents are Brewster and Cathleen Kneen, who met in Ontario as 1960s student peaceniks and ultimately became partners for life at personal, professional and community levels. Once committed to the pastoral lifestyle, Brewster—American by birth—doubled down in his adopted homeland and took on leadership in his field (literally, sorry) as the Secretary of the Sheep Producers Association in Nova Scotia. In 1980 he and Cathleen founded a local newsletter, the Ram’s Horn, which grew into a lasting social and farming advocacy platform; he ultimately became a recognized author with a series of books.

Cathleen, a self-described feminist and by any measure a social activist and organizer, had spent some time working for the CBC before the move to the Atlantic, and would continue to do a bit of radio in Nova Scotia. She brought to her life partnership with Brewster a full commitment to making the world a better place, in the process founding a Women’s Centre and helping give birth to the People’s Food Policy Project. Later in life she took on the role of Chair with Food Secure Canada (2006-2011), Just Food Ottawa and the Ottawa Food Policy Council.

One look at Cathleen and you can see that Rebecca’s hop cone didn’t fall far from the bine. But the resemblance isn’t just cosmetic. Rebecca grew up well aware of her mother’s work; she describes Cathleen as having been highly organizational and a “huge person for linking people”. Although Cathleen sadly passed in February of this year, that work left a legacy.

It would be difficult to overstate how Cathleen and Brewster’s influence has guided Rebecca’s journey. She describes both herself and Brian as “fairly political animals”, and directly credits her parents’ role in developing her own thinking by saying that “I’ve piggybacked on what they’ve done”.

As a young Rebecca reached her late teens she had begun to strike out on her own. She undertook a gradual, unplanned cross-Canada migration, working (thanks to family connections) at various types of farms in the process. Her journey didn’t have a preset course, and Rebecca certainly wasn’t sure that farming was what she wanted to do with her life; like any normal youth, she made an attempt to break away from her family calling. As fate would have it, somewhere along the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific she would find her direction and confirm her purpose.

The call of the soil

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A guest at the farm enjoying the view

 

From early on, Rebecca had an inkling that there were different philosophies of farming. As she described to me over a beer on a warm July evening, she knew some potato farmers who grow for McCain’s in New Brunswick. Typically, a farmer will use their judgment regarding when to plant crops and harvest them. Because of the contract with the food company, their friends didn’t make the rules about what happened when; they were obligated to sow and reap during a preset annual window. Their contract dictated when they’d apply pesticide and when they’d apply herbicide, no matter what the weather was doing, including rain and wind—two things that help spread chemicals.

If, like me, you’ve ever reached the checkout at Home Depot with a bottle of weed killer, you’ve probably had the ‘use with caution’ spiel solemnly delivered by the appropriately trained cashier. Turns out that applying sprays to a large acreage is not like squirting the weeds in your backyard garden; rubber gloves don’t help much, because the poison tends to come from the sky. Rebecca acknowledges the skill it must take to pilot the crop dusters that fog the countryside when it’s spray day at a large conventional farm, but she’s also seen firsthand the price paid by the people living underneath the mist. No matter how careful the aerial delivery, resident farmers might end up washing their windows afterwards.

There was a time that people spoke quietly about cancer. Dying young was a reality, but an unacknowledged one; it was an inconvenient truth. Oddly, many farmhouses would keep a private garden for the resident family, leeward of the aerial spray direction. There was an obvious contradiction here; why spray food for other people, but not yourself? Clearly there was a better way.

Fast forward to some point in the 1990s, when our young, migrating heroine found herself near Brandon, Manitoba, standing on a stretch of rural road dividing two fields. In quasi-biblical fashion, this bit of bisected countryside had the makings of a parable—but only to one who could see its message. On one side of the road, a beautiful collection of sunflowers beckoned from an organic farm. The soil supporting these tall plants was rich with life: bugs crawled in it, worms wriggled through it. It held water; it was alive.

Rebecca turned and noticed a stark contrast with the non-organic field right across the road: there, the earth was powder. Countless sprayings had accelerated the leaching of nutrients. Bugs and worms were absent; the dirt was capable of supporting weeds, but was close to dead. Looking at the damaged soil, Rebecca came to a realization that would guide her choices as an adult: if she was to follow her parents’ path and work on the land, she couldn’t work this way.

Settling in Sorrento

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Hops are just one thing they grow

 

Rebecca’s journey eventually brought her to East Van, where she met Brian through mutual careers in social work. This part of the story has been told before by others; suffice to say that the sort of people that homebrewer Brian and former farmer Rebecca spent time with encouraged them to seriously pursue the idea of brewing and farming for a living. Brian eventually acquired a formal education around brewing, and worked a stint at Storm. But the vision of their own brewery began to take shape.

Once they set their minds to it, the pair began the search for a location; they worked for another organic farm for a year before finding their own. Being raised on an inland farm in Nova Scotia, Rebecca was just fine moving away from the Coast to the Interior; she describes her preference as “I like bumpy land, not flat land”. Their quest eventually led to the Shuswap and a 10-acre farm on unceded First Nations land (namely, Secwepemc territory). The spiritual connection sat well with the duo, as did the strong organic farming culture they found around Sorrento.

When Left Fields was set up in 1999, organic farming was a bit less well-known than it is today, and generating cash through organic brewing was tough. “The farm fed us for the first five years of our operation” admits Rebecca. A community network was essential, and for this, the Kneen pedigree has shone through. Since then, Rebecca has served as Chair of, and on the Certification Committee of, the North Okanagan Organic Association.

Left Fields at the Sorrento Farmers Market

Left Fields at the Sorrento Farmers Market

Brian also volunteers with the Association and is no slouch at community himself. As he says, “we don’t want to be self-sufficient”, meaning that he recognizes the importance of working with other people to do things he can’t do himself. Why learn to make cheese or clothing, when, as MacIsaac says, “I can trade for that” with someone who likes what he’s putting out—not hard to find, when you’re putting out Back Hand Of God.

No doubt building a network also helps with the burden of being chained to the lifestyle. While at their property, we were witness to the great team of helpers they have to draw from. Kneen points out that “When you’re farming, it’s a bit ludicrous to use the phrase ‘work/life balance’ because so much of your life is the farm”.

Left Fields is not large, but it’s a real honest-to-goodness farm. Crannóg’s long-time beer fans might know it as a place where hops grow, but there’s a lot more than that; I got up close and personal with some happy, filthy pigs (you have to wash your hands if you touch them) and a whole bunch of free-range chickens. Plus, of course, sheep. While there, I learned that a good livestock farmer cares about her animals just as much as she’d care about her kids (well, close enough).

Not that the hop growing is unimportant; see Chelsea McDowell’s story in this issue for more about the leadership role Crannóg took in establishing a hop farm in central BC. Rebecca’s aptitude has come in handy not just for Brian but also for numerous budding hop plant growers across BC, in the form of a Hops Production Manual she authored. Her parents’ leadership in publishing is echoed in the initiative she took to offer knowledge on this subject to other brewers and farmers.

After sheep farming for a decade and a half, Brewster and Cathleen Kneen moved to the Fraser Valley in the mid-1990s, and eventually lived at their daughter’s farm for a spell during its early years. There’s no doubt that they were proud of what their daughter had accomplished, and the partnership she had forged with her Canadian-Irish life partner, with whom she created Canada’s first certified-organic farm-based microbrewery.

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In Part II I’ll go farther into the brewery side of things, including Brian and Rebecca’s experience in setting up Canada’s first certified-organic farm-based microbrewery, and their philosophies on growth. Until then, have a pint of Gael’s Blood if you can find it, and if you can’t, head on up to the Okanagan where you’ll have a better chance. Visit the farm while you’re at it; it’s open to the public on Friday and Saturday afternoons throughout the summer season. To get the full experience, stay in the Bed & Breakfast at the house neighbouring the farm, known as The Ark. It’s a great way to kick off a tour of the Okanagan beer scene.

As a beer fan, you’ll want your visit to coincide with a tour of the brewery. This only happens on Fridays and Saturdays; book your tour at crannogales.com.

Rates at The Ark are extremely reasonable. For more info, contact Angela and David Colombe at

The Ark at Left Fields:
702 Elson Road, Sorrento BC
Tel: 250-833-8665
airbnb.ca/rooms/12990978

For more about what the farm produces:

  Issue:

Dave Smith

Editor of Beer Me BC and What's Brewing Magazine. Writing credits include The Publican, BC Ale Trail and the BC column for the Northwest Brewing News. Accredited Member of the BC Association of Travel Writers. Craft beer fan since the late 1990s, CAMRA BC member since 2004. Along with wife Ivana, he travels Cascadia as half of the beer duo BeerSeekers.


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