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On the heals of summer

Farm and gardens offer therapy for those with mental illness

Tucked inconspicuously between Cranberry Fire Hall and the pole line on Timberlane Avenue is an unpaved driveway, marked by a single round planter and a mailbox. Nothing in particular about it stands out or seems out of the ordinary—just a soil path leading into a seemingly mundane patch of alders and standard-issue Himalayan blackberries.

But there’s a noise. A baby crying? A broken air horn? Actually, it’s a goat, one of several on the property. In following the sound down the road, it becomes clear that the acreage at its end has much more to offer than just an August harvest of Rubus armeniacus.

The land is owned by Carol Battaglio, a new resident of Powell River who arrived a year ago with a vision and evidently a few garden tools as well. Making all of that noise is Angel, a three-month-old cashmere goat. Along with four alpacas, a mule and the other members of her family, Angel calls the farm home.

“I had two little cashmere goats in this little makeshift fence,” said Battaglio, running her fingers through the hair of one goat standing at her feet. “That’s how it started. And then, I started on the garden and over the spring I’ve been adding animals.”

“Maa,” cried the goat, seemingly in agreement. It was Angel. Battaglio picked her up and began cradling her in her arms.

“We now have four cashmere goats,” she continued. “You comb the cashmere out and we’re hoping to provide fibre for the weaving community.” Alpacas are kept on the farm for the same purpose.

Though not quite as noisy, alpacas like to communicate as well, though mostly just by humming away to themselves. Alpacas are, however, a bit of a conversation piece. The species in general has a reputation for launching the chewed contents of its mouth in the direction of those who come near, but Battaglio assured that her alpacas are “quite well tempered.” In fact, she drove the two youngest ones from Pemberton to Powell River in the back seat of her car.

While a road trip with two alpacas would certainly be an interesting one, so would one with Battaglio. A therapist by trade, with a PhD in counselling psychology, she recently retired from a school counselling position with Surrey school district. Helping others is clearly in her heart and is something that has crossed over into her retirement.

Though she purchased and funded the farm out of her own pocket, Battaglio had no intentions of keeping it to herself. When she bought the 30-acre property last June, she envisioned a place for people with mental illness to come and work, interact and relax. The Sunflower Wellness Society was established to steer the project toward its goals in that area.

“We haven’t got a totally finished vision,” said Battaglio. “We have a direction we want to go in to be a therapeutic environment and a helpful place for people with disabilities, especially mental health disabilities because mental health is so seriously underfunded.”

With the “if you build it, they will come” motto firmly embedded in its focus, both the society and the farm have really begun to take shape. The property is part petting zoo, part wool farm and part community garden. After the goats cleared a patch of land last fall, a new vegetable plantation has been producing impressive results because of gardeners like Chris Peterson.

Peterson was the first to cultivate a garden on the property, one of the most fertile areas of the local agricultural land reserve. After creating edging and adding enriched soil, he planted vegetables. “We used cardboard on top so we could cover the weeds and blackberries and then we put soil and dirt on top of that,” he said. Something about that combination must have worked, because Peterson’s plot is a thriving success.

The surrounding gardens are built using the same permaculture philosophy. No concrete planters, no fancy lumber work—just simple methods causing minimum disruption and disturbance of the natural landscape.

Battaglio has no intentions of disrupting or disturbing wildlife either. Her plan is to keep corridors for wild animals to pass through the property. “There are deer and bears that have probably been here for decades,” she said. “I want to make sure they still have a place to go.”

With 30 acres of property, there is plenty of room for both the wild and the domesticated, and enough space for the project to grow with new ideas as well. “We could certainly expand in any direction depending on the need,” said Battaglio. A network of trails winds through the farm and could easily lead to more gardens and pastures should the demand arise. In the meantime, they are frequently used for walking and many of the livestock are happy to come along for a stroll.

The society is currently working on obtaining official status to allow it to collect and offer credit for charitable donations. Pending approval, Battaglio intends to open the property for by-donation activities such as animal walks and bird watching. “We’ve got lots of interesting birds,” she said. Lewis’s woodpecker, American goldfinch and saw-whet owl can all be spotted with a keen eye.

The farm is extremely accessible with a bus stop just around the corner. “I’d been kind of looking for a spot…for a few years and one of my criteria was that it had to be accessible by bus,” said Battaglio. “Many people with disabilities don’t drive cars.”

Other visitors may prefer to arrive by bus as well. Seniors are particularly encouraged to come help with garden beds and work one-on-one with people with disabilities.

But what if they can’t find the driveway? After all, there is no signage, no split-rail fence and no fancy gate. Battaglio assures that none of that is a problem. Visitors are told to simply listen for the voice of an Angel.

The society will be holding a meeting on Sunday, September 11 at Cranberry Community Hall. Members are welcome to attend. Readers interested in offering donations of time or materials are encouraged to contact Battaglio at carol.battaglio@gmail.com or 604.223.2800.

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