The Old Avalon Dairy: A Glimpse at Vancouver's Agricultural History

avalon dairy farm

(HealthCastle.com) Last week, we joined a Vancouver Historical Society walking tour in South Vancouver to learn about the history of Avalon Dairy. When it closed in 2011, the South Vancouver Avalon location was the last operational farm in Vancouver and also the longest running - it started operating way back in 1906. Here’s what we learned about this important part of Vancouver’s agricultural heritage, and an update on the future of this historic site.

In the Beginning: Six Cows and the Interurban Railway

Jeremiah Crowley came to Vancouver from Newfoundland in the late 1890s to make his fortune in the gold rush. He didn’t find gold, but he did develop a love for BC, and relocated to Vancouver permanently in 1906, bringing his family. He bought a house on Wales Street in South Vancouver that came with six cows and launched what was then called the Avalon Ranch Dairy.

Having a hard time picturing a dairy ranch in South Vancouver? At the time, all of the land in that area was agricultural, divided into 1.5 acre plots. A couple of plots were enough to feed a family and produce some extra fruits and veggies to sell at market. Agricultural products from the area - including Avalon’s milk - were carried to market on the interurban railway, which connected Vancouver with New Westminster and Richmond on a literal “milk run."

avalon dairy cow board

Vancouver’s Agricultural Heyday: More than 50 Dairies in Town

Avalon is the oldest continuously operating dairy in BC (it’s still in full operation in Burnaby), but at one time it had plenty of local competition. Before milk was pasteurized (and before refrigerators were common), milk didn’t store well and had to be delivered every day. Milkmen roamed the city delivering milk - not in bottles, but using a ladle, pouring the desired amount for the day into whatever container the household had on hand.

At its peak, the Avalon Dairy site in South Vancouver was home to about 12-13 cows, with the rest of the milk brought in from elsewhere. To give you an idea of the small scale of dairy operations at the time, much of that milk was brought in from New Westminster by horse and buggy. Since dairies were much smaller -- nothing like the industrial operations we have today -- more of them were required to meet the city’s milk-processing needs.

In the 1920s, there were several hundred dairies in Vancouver. As of 1966, Avalon was the last. In 2011, it was the last to go.

avalon dairy today's special

2011 and Beyond: The End of an Era, and New Beginnings

Avalon’s last day of production at the South Vancouver location was June 30, 2011. Since then, all operations have taken place at the Burnaby location. So what’s next for this historic piece of Vancouver’s agricultural past? In the works (pending approval from City Hall) is a townhouse development that will preserve the old farmhouse in its current location and the old-growth trees that mark the front of the property. In a nod to the property’s past, the development will feature a community garden with plots for both development residents and neighbours.

Food for Thought

When James Crowley launched his Avalon Ranch, he could never have pictured the industrialized agriculture we have today. All agriculture was small-scale, local, and organic. As the population boomed in the 1950s, housing trumped agriculture, and all those small South Vancouver farms were squeezed out to make room for homes. Our visit to the old Avalon Dairy site and farmhouse was an important reminder that all food comes from farms -- not just from the store. The emerging values that place importance on local, sustainable, non-factory farming are not so new after all. They’re actually a return to our city’s agricultural past.

Photos provided by Christina Newberry

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