Early last December, Sarah and Carl Kistner packed a 20-foot U-Haul and a Ford Transit van with thousands of dahlia tubers and drove from Nelson, B.C. to Granville Ferry, N.S. It was a dicey move – the U-Haul didn’t have snow tires and they knew if sub-zero weather penetrated the vehicles it would spell certain death for their delicate bulbs.
But staying put was the biggest risk of all. They, like others who have recently left British Columbia, were running from climate change, which has contributed to devastating and increasingly frequent floods and wildfires in the province.
For seven years, the Kistners had run Stone Meadow Gardens, in B.C.’s West Kootenays. Their small flower farm had blossomed into a thriving business. They had four employees, a few wholesale buyers, a bouquet flower subscription serving 200 people a week and a seasonal farm stand where locals could swing by to pick up dahlias or mixed arrangements of tulips and ranunculus.
But as the years went by, the weather in the region became increasingly extreme and erratic. The annual wildfires had intensified to the point where smoke, heat and sleepless nights were a seasonal expectation. Late last June, temperatures in the Kootenays soared to almost 45 C, as what climate scientists described as a “heat dome” settled over the region like a lid on a pot.
The temperatures caused some of the Kistners’ flowers to wilt, droop or prematurely blossom, throwing bouquet orders out of whack. But Sarah was most concerned about their employees, who wore medical-grade masks in the fields to ward off the smoke.
“There was work to be done, and only so much of it could be done indoors, so our people were out there,” she said. “We have friends whose employees walked out. Everyone was on edge.”
At the end of September, once the weather had stabilized and most of the fires had been put out, the Kistners decided to take a trip to Nova Scotia. They had heard about other people who had gone to the province in search of fertile agricultural lands, and the couple was curious to see what life there could be like.
During their week on the East Coast, the Kistners drove around the Annapolis Valley – one of Canada’s top agricultural zones, located on the Bay of Fundy.
They did some sightseeing and tried to get a sense of whether switching provinces was the right move for them. The humid climate and the deciduous trees reminded Sarah of her native New Hampshire. For Carl, who grew up on Vancouver Island, the coastal region also had traces of home.
In early November, the couple put an offer on a house on a double lot near Annapolis Royal, N.S. It was a much smaller setup than what they had back home – just three-quarters of an acre, compared to their original farm’s 2.5 acres – but it was enough space to keep their dahlia stock going until they found a second piece of land. Plus, the smaller operation would mean improved work-life balance. They were excited to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty again.
“It felt like the bigger we grew, the farther away we drifted from where we started,” Sarah said about their life in B.C. “We spent more time than we would have wanted behind computers.”
Back in the Kootenays, the couple started clearing out their home. They sold their possessions, said goodbye to friends and marked their calendars: Dec. 1, moving day. They wanted to leave early in the month before the cold moved in.
In the weeks leading up to their departure, record-setting heavy rains battered parts of southern B.C., washing away highways and bridges and triggering mudslides.
The couple knew there was no escaping global warming – in Nova Scotia, they’d have to contend with the threat of hurricanes. But, by downsizing to a smaller farm and not having a mortgage, they thought they would have greater financial security if disaster were to strike.
When they arrived in the Annapolis Valley seven days later, the grass was green. They spent their first few days biking around and meeting their new neighbours.
Almost an hour and a half away, another B.C. farming couple had also put down fresh roots. Last fall, Jessica and René Miedema, who own a flower-growing operation called Little Flora Gem, sold their family farm just outside Enderby, in the North Okanagan, and purchased a plot of land in Kings County, N.S., which is located in a different part of the Annapolis Valley. They had been looking to move for a while, but last summer’s historic wildfire season had pushed them over the edge.
Jessica remembers the orange-black sky on Aug. 15. Ash was raining down from above, coating their delicate marigolds, zinnias and other flowers in layers of soot. In addition to their blossoms and vegetables, the family had dairy cows, which needed to be cared for – “so we couldn’t really evacuate,” Jessica said. She remembers running fans at full speed and taking videos of the overheating animals in case she needed proof for the family’s insurance company.
Initially, the family toyed with the idea of relocating to New Zealand, but the move was unrealistic during the pandemic. Then they looked at B.C.’s West Coast, where they were shocked to discover that a basic house without an acreage could cost upwards of a million dollars. Eventually, their search led them to the Annapolis Valley.
Jessica and René flew out in September and put an offer on the first place they saw: a former apple orchard just outside the town of Wolfville. The farm overlooked Minas Basin and had one remaining apple tree and fields of highbush blueberries. Jessica started fantasizing about converting the property’s three-storey barn into a workshop space where she could host flower arranging classes and other events.
As excited as the Miedemas were to start their new life, leaving B.C. wouldn’t be easy. René was the farm’s second-generation owner, and the couple had hoped their young children would take it over one day. They would have to sell the dairy business and all the animals – ponies, sheep, ewes, rams, calves – that the kids had cared for as pets.
When the family pulled out of their driveway for the last time last month, everyone was crying.
Now that the Miedemas have settled into their new home, Jessica and René are slowly getting acquainted with their new community. They are starting to work in their garden, planting tulips and tending to peonies and other blossoms. They are starting up their Little Flora Gem flower farm again, having transported a large shipping container full of supplies. Jessica is curious to see how the plants will take to their new environment.
She is hopeful the move will also sow the seeds for more quality family time. In B.C., she and René worked seven days a week. Family dinners were a rarity, and there was never enough time to shuttle the kids to and from extracurricular activities.
“This is a new beginning,” she said. “It’s a chance to start over and be present for each other and our kids.”
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