Forty-five years after Harold Steves’s first election to Richmond council, the legendary, perennial politician still relishes the whiff of the barn, the lure of the land.
Along with his wife, Kathy, he continues to farm what’s left of his family’s historic Steveston property, growing heirloom vegetables for the seeds and raising a dozen purebred Belted Galloway beef cattle.
Mr. Steves cleans out the barn every morning, and lately, for the first time in half a century or so, he’s been milking, too, forced to “empty” one of the cows that suddenly began producing too much milk.
“It’s fine,” he says, of his new daily chore, “as long as you’re agile enough to avoid the kicks, and you don’t get stuff on your shoes. We’ve come to enjoy having raw milk again for breakfast. I grew up on it.”
It’s all in a day’s work for the remarkable Mr. Steves. A fixture on council since 1968, broken only by a brief win-loss foray into provincial politics, he says he’s as busy now, at the age of 76, as he was back in his heady, activist days of the 1960s.
That’s when his greatest legacy took root. Without Harold Steves and a surreptitious municipal decision to zone his father’s dairy farm for housing, British Columbia might not have its cherished Agricultural Land Reserve, which has protected provincial farmland from development for the past 40 years.
It’s a story Mr. Steves never tires of telling. The residential rezoning meant his father could not get a permit to build the modernized barn he needed, and that was the end of the dairy farm. “It seems like yesterday. I’d just milked the cows and come in for breakfast. That’s when dad gave us the news.”
The calamity galvanized the young Steves. With houses already rising on rich farmland throughout the region, he began pressing his party, the NDP, to endorse the then radical idea of an agricultural land bank. It took three conventions. When the NDP took office in 1972, the basic thrust of Mr. Steves’s farmland preservation policy was implemented.
“I don’t think it would have happened without me getting angry when my dad was turned down for his barn,” he says.
All these years later, Mr. Steves’s passion for the land, for farming, and the environment is undiminished.
“I’m like Rip Van Winkle. I was an activist in the early days. Then, I had a very nice long nap. Now, I’ve woken up. I’ve become a re-activist.”
Mr. Steves keeps on chugging.
Besides his regular council duties, he is organizing an anti-Monsanto protest in October, he is in the forefront of the drive to restrict coal shipments along the Fraser River, he remains involved with the first university-based urban farm school in North America, centred in Richmond, and, for the past six years, he has spearheaded a regional food security strategy as chair of Metro Vancouver’s agricultural committee. “There’s still so much to do,” Mr. Steves says.
He is also forging new paths on the home front.
The Steves’s seed business began when they decided to recreate vegetables grown on their land 100 years earlier. Over time, however, many heritage seeds have disappeared. “Suddenly, what we’ve been doing for 30 years is in demand,” Mr. Steves says.
Their prize is a rare variety of tomato called Alpha. “We’ve got the only seed I know of on the entire planet.”
As for beef, the Steves have been raising grass-fed animals on their own patch of land and their son’s spread near Cache Creek for some time. They sell it directly from their home in Steveston. Orders are booked up until December, 2014. Their success is changing the marketing of produce in B.C., exults Mr. Steves.
His council tenure, meanwhile, is so lengthy, he’s one of the few municipal politicians to be bestowed not one, but two long service awards, as his career goes on and on. When Mr. Steves received his second notation, Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie marvelled that Mr. Steves’s electoral victories have now touched six separate decades.
Will he run for another three-year term? “Oh yeah,” Mr. Steves replies, in a flash. “If I just sat at home on the couch, I’d probably start to deteriorate.”