Why I Love the Seasons, But Still Struggle With Winter

A snowy winter’s morning on the farm.

I love the seasonality of farming. It is truly one of my favourite parts of this work. When you make a living from the land, you are tied intimately to the rhythms of the seasons, because they dictate everything you do.

The seasons dictate when the soil is warm or dry enough to plant in. They dictate which plants will grow, and how quickly they’ll grow. They dictate what your main tasks as a farmer will be (will it be seeding, weeding, harvest or planning?). They dictate when you will be flat out busy, and when you will have more time for rest and repose. When you will be working long days or able to snooze your alarm a few more times in the morning – or better yet (luxury of luxuries!), not set one.

Anyway, you get the idea. In farming the seasons are Queen, overseeing and dictating your days a lot more than you yourself do.

And while I love them all – spring, the season of anticipation, seeds, and seedlings, of life, lengthening days, and warming soils; summer, the hustle season – where it is all rush here and hurry there, when the crops and the weeds grow inches, seemingly overnight, when the sun is hot and the days are long, when you are starting to taste the fruits of your labors; or fall, the season of harvest and heavy morning dews, frosts, shortening days, carrots, potatoes, and beets, of sore, tired muscles, of mud, rot, and decay.

Seedlings ready for the spring soil!

Then there is winter. The season of snow or rain, depending on your region, and quiet. Short days, cold, the mental wind down from the hectic rush of what came before. Time for soup, tea indoors, fires in the woodstove, seed orders, and planning, dreaming, and planning some more for the growing season to come.

Don’t get me wrong. I love winter as much as I love the rest of the seasons. It’s a necessary and welcome season on any farm. I’m always full of anticipation for winter by the end of September, even as I’m enjoying the October harvest and the first winter squash. There are always times in winter where I panic, thinking it’s all going by too fast and spring will come too soon.

But – I also struggle with winter, still, after so many years as a farmer. Because there is something very challenging about slowing down after moving so fast, the challenge of taking pause after living inside a whirlwind for the previous seven, eight, or nine months.

And there’s another reason why I find winter challenging. An admission of sorts: it’s because I like being flat out busy. I don’t always mind being too busy to have to fully make all of my own decisions (if the work is never done, it’s easy to just keep working and opt out of the dinner party); too busy to focus wholly on the world outside my own life (if the farm is all-consuming, it’s easier to dismiss, or not be as worried by the concerning things I see going on in the world around me).

I started out as an activist at a young age, and the cause for activism has not lessened since those earlier days. Small scale, organic farming is a way for me to live my activism in a positive way where I see the tangible results of what I’ve done. But it is also a distraction from that which I can’t always bear to be a witness to.

But in the winter, with the return of time and space to think, to breathe – sometimes that’s when the weight of the world comes crashing back in. Sometimes that space and free time I have longed for all spring, summer, and fall hits me like a ton of bricks to the chest as that space fills up with anxiety and fears, instead of the novels and baking of pies that I had been dreaming of while I washed root crops with frozen fingers.

Not that I want to paint a horribly bleak picture. I just want to explain that, despite the joys I truly find in the slower season of winter, it is also that internal time, where, farmer or not, I descend into my own depths, as well as take stock of the world around me. And in both cases, sometimes there is a reckoning, things that need to be faced. Whether those are areas in my own life where personal growth is needed, or whether it’s something happening in the world that I need to address, or take action on. In the winter, I don’t have the convenient option to instead focus my attention on easier things – such as the carrots that need weeding, the employees that need direction, or the farmers market that needs attending. Instead I’m left to face what was there under the surface all along and through the busier seasons – problems, worries, insecurities and all.

Early fall view of the fields – a little worse for wear than in spring, but bursting with fullness as well.

But after winter, as always, comes spring. And so matter how challenging a winter – and this current COVID winter is definitely one for the books – there comes growth and new life, green things bursting valiantly and jubilantly from the earth. No matter how dark or bleak the winter days, after a winter of rest, reflection and inner work, the spring soil offers us sustenance, hope, and abundance once again.

And this is why I love the cyclical nature of seasons on a farm.


The Truth of Why I Farm

I find truth a hard thing to nail down. Because it’s different for everyone. Because our own truths change. Because I seem to have an inherent distrust in those that have The Answers, which feel like another version of The Truth – something which I don’t think can exist, because no one Truth would ring true for everyone. We all collect the bits and pieces of who we are, our experiences in the world, our choices, our circumstances, and create a truth for ourselves – which is like a blanket made of iridescent bird feathers – woven, shimmering, dancing, and changing in the changing light of our lives.

And yet, I’ve always felt fairly certain of my own truths, when I come across them, picking them up like particularly fetching stones on the beach, slipping them in my pocket so I can run my fingers over their smooth surfaces when I need reassurance or a reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing. Recognising, of course, the potential there is for those truths to change on me, as I learn, grow, and change myself.

Over the past decade or so, one thing has emerged as an inherent truth for me, one that has buoyed me up in a changing world, over changing circumstances, through times of uncertainty and into the unknown. This truth is that I am here on this earth, in this body, with relative health and strong muscles, to grow food for people, for communities. I am here to farm. I know this is true because when all else falls away, when I consciously try to take a step in another direction, I end up drawn, like a moth to flame, back to the land, to sinking my hands in the soil, to coaxing nourishing and delicious vegetables from it.

Beautiful head lettuce mid-harvest on Sweet Acres Farm, summer of 2020.

But nothing is ever quite so simple, is it?

For farming in this day and age, when you are young, landless, and more or less penniless, without a farming background, is not a simple task. Farming has never been an easy job or life, but if you don’t have access to that which is at the root of it all – land, soil, earth – you will not be able to farm.

And in the spirit of creativity and ingenuity, folks like myself – young, landless, and with a passion for farming – are turning to other arrangements. If you don’t inherit family land, have a high paying job or a partner with a high paying job who can fund your farming venture in the early days, or if you aren’t willing or able to take on a huge mortgage in order to purchase land – where does that leave you?

Winter squash, one of my all time favourite crops to grow!

It leaves you looking at leasing land – be it an urban plot, people’s unused lawns, or a larger piece of agricultural land. It leaves you looking at building relationships in order to farm, writing legal documents, sinking huge amounts of sweat equity and sometimes real financial capital into farming on land that is not yours, that you have little to no security on. In a world where farmers have always built their savings or retirement funds in the land itself, it leaves young farmers working themselves to the bone, sometimes with little or nothing to show for it after many years of toil. It will probably involve at least one move, one restart, as you look for that right situation to grow deeper roots into. In short, it takes an uncertain, challenging line of work, and adds several layers of difficulties and uncertainties on top.

And so why do I and others do it?

Because it is one of our truths. Or maybe that’s Truths, in this case. Maybe those things that you know deep in your bones, deep in the pit of your belly – maybe those are capital T Truths. Not for everyone, but for ourselves.

And in farming, this is what I’ve found. One of my capital T Truths. Something I love, and am good at, and that the world needs. And so, despite the uncertainties and the added challenges of trying to follow this life in my circumstances, I’ll keep doing it anyway, sometimes in a shaky and uncertain way, but in the best way I can. And I’ll keep doing so until this particular Truth is no longer true for me. Though I can honestly say I hope that this never happens and that I keep this particular stone of truth in my pocket until the day I die.

On the Balancing Acts of Farming, and Having (or Being) Enough, or Too Much

Farming is full of balancing acts, as well as a seemingly constant battle between not having enough and having too much. Seasons of epic bounty counterbalancing times of lean. And this goes for more then just the vegetables, or whatever it is you are harvesting.

This goes for the harvest, and also for your time, your energy, your cash flow.

In terms of the vegetables – the time of late winter and early spring can feel lean and tight. Nothing much to eat other than storage vegetables that have probably past their prime, and if you’re lucky, a few slim pickings of greens from a greenhouse or a field somewhere. There may be enough to glean for your own eating, but there won’t be much excess to share or to sell – and even for those farmers that practice year round growing, this is typically the leanest time of year – probably their customers will be clambering for anything they can get their hands on (or at least they should be).

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As crops start to come into season, the first always get snapped up – everyone seems hungry for new flavours, colours, textures and fresh things, after the long, dark winter.

But then, of course, things begin to flip. Zucchini start pumping out in epic proportions, as do cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, and so many other vegetables. And then you can quick find yourself with too much. When at first you had too little to satisfy the demands of your markets, then you have too much. Too many vegetables to sell, and too little time to process or preserve as much as you want to. So what do you do with it all? You trade, barter and sell, sell, sell. You pickle, you ferment, you dry, you freeze, and then, at some point (for me anyway) you simply give in to the flood of vegetables, and stop fighting it so much. And then you feed it to the pigs, you eat as much as you can, you feed your compost pile. You accept that you are in the thick of it, and if you have these problems, you have done your job at least half right.

And the funny thing, is that for me anyway, I am only fully satisfied with a season of farming when I have reached this point. When I have been fully and totally overwhelmed by too many vegetables. When I have stopped harvesting at least one crop (or planting of a crop) due to simply not needing it. When I feel that I have a wealth of vegetables to share with anyone and everyone around me. Then, and only then, do I feel I have succeeded. Because I think farming satisfies some need deep within me to to have enough. How much is enough? Why is it that it only seems to feel like enough when, in fact, I have too much? It’s hard to say exactly, but I think I have spent much of my life feeling that I am not enough (this on a deeper, subconscious level, not on a practical level), or worrying that I won’t have enough – for myself, but also to share with and care for those I love. Farming, and the season of bounty, helps to satisfy that need.

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And all of these vegetables lead to another balancing act in a farmers life: the elusive work/life balance. Which is hard when you make your livelihood in 6 months of year, more or less. It is hard to carve out a little time for yourself, your relationships, your other interests when you have the vegetables now, and you won’t have them later. It is hard to not to give everything over to the farm, which can feel like an overbearing boss who doesn’t ever want you to take a day off. Which, of course, is basically what it is.

But I have seen one too many farmers burn out over months or years of this farm-and-only-farm-first mentality. I have felt burnt out by it. I am guilty of putting the farm before many things in the thick of the season. And while I am continually striving for more balance within the farming season – to counter this burn out I have experienced and witnessed – I have also accepted that in running my own farm, it will never be a normal 9-5 job. It will never mean weekends off, at least not from May-October, the market and harvest season. It simply can’t when the nature of your work is dependant on the energy of the sun and the long daylight hours around the summer solstice.

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Instead, I try to look at the overall balance of my life – do the hectic, high energy, long days of the growing season balance out with the quiet, restful, rejuvenating days of winter? Am I able to take the time in a work day to enjoy a meal of home grown vegetables with someone dear to me? Am I able to share and enjoy this bounty with those I love? Am I able to shift my schedule enough to take a swim in the lake during the hottest days of the year, at least some of the time? Or a nap when I am in need of recharging? If I am answering yes to those questions, then at least at this point, I feel I am doing okay. It doesn’t mean I’m not striving for something better. It doesn’t mean I won’t strive for a regular day off a week during the season, or an 8-10 hour workday instead of a 12-14 hour one. But it does mean that I feel a sense of balance within my life overall. Like the vegetables, seasons of bounty alternate with seasons of lean.

And if sometimes it is too much and sometimes it is too little – the vegetables, your time, your energy – maybe the end result is that it is just simply enough.





Working in a Male Dominated Field and the Because I am a Girl Project

I have been wanting to write a piece along these lines for a while now, and have also held off, felt nervous about doing so, have not been quite sure what I was going to say. In short, however, I have been wanting to write about farming as a woman, working in a field that is still predominantly male dominated.

Well, kind of. Male dominated, that is. At least, the perception is still very much that it is male dominated. Even though it depends on what type of farming you are talking about, and what role on the farm you are speaking of. Because, to be honest, in the world of sustainable farming in North America at least, in recent years there has been an explosion of small farms owned and operated by women. Meaning they are woman-run, with women farmers making the decisions, and operating the tractors, and working in the field alongside their (oftentimes women) staff. And on farms that are run by men/women couples, many of the women are taking a much more active role in the day to day field management of the farm. They are less often filling only an administrative or domestic role on the farm – not that there is anything wrong with filling those important roles, should that be someone’s choice.

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The 2015, all woman, Rootdown Farm crew, happy if a bit tired, sporting our work rain gear.

Because that is the thing – women around the world, have historically and continue to this day, to be major food producers. Agriculture is powered in a big way by women. And in saying this, I in no way mean or intend to downplay the work men have always done and continue to do in farming. I know and recognise that men are a huge part of agriculture, and many of them are excellent, thoughtful farmers who love what they do. I only want to challenge the stereotype of the tall, male farmer in overalls and a plaid shirt as being the only type of farmer out there, and I also want to bring attention to the work done on so many farms, regardless of the gender of the head farmer, that is done by women.

This work includes the field work – the tractor work, the weeding, the planting and harvesting – that is done by countless women field hands, managers, and farm workers from Canada through the United States and Mexico as well as in overseas countries such as India, Thailand, or Nepal. I know this is true, because I have experienced it first hand – on farms from Thailand, to Ontario to British Columbia, I have worked alongside many strong women who often outnumber the men on these farms.

This also includes the behind the scenes office, marketing, and communications work that on many farms today, is done by women; as well as the work of maintaining the large household vegetable garden and all the cooking and preserving of that bounty that was traditionally done by women on small mixed family farms across North America.

Now let me try to explain why I have wanted or felt the need to write about this topic at all. In part it is because of all the times when I am selling my food at market and get comments along the lines of, “Oh, look at your hands,” in response to my dirt stained fingers, “it looks like you help in the garden too!” Why yes, I do. And in fact make the decisions on what gets planted, and when and where, and order the seed for it, and make sure it is properly irrigated and fertilised and weeded. And then I harvest it and bring it to market to sell it. And I am only one of many female farmers I know who are in that position today.

But I also want to write about this because, regardless of the gender of the head farmer, the hard manual labour that takes place in the fields of small to medium scale farms and is done in large part by women (and is often underpaid/low waged) needs to be recognised as extremely important to our agricultural systems across the globe.  It needs to be recognised as the valuable work that it is, and the women/men/trans/non-binary folks that do it need to be recognised as the valuable contributors to our food systems that they are.

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Two of my favourite women farmers both beginning and established – Naomi Martz of the horse-powered Four Beat Farm (top), and Robin Tunnicliffe of Sea Bluff Farm (bottom).

Which brings me to my recent decision for Sweet Acres Farm to become a monthly donor to the Because I am a Girl project run by Plan International. In short, this project focuses on ending gender inequality in 15 countries across the world – countries in which girls and woman still face incredible challenges and threats to their health and safety on a daily basis, many not even being granted a birth certificate at birth, therefore having no legal rights. It focuses, amongst other things, on giving girls and boys equal access to education, ending child marriage, and protecting the most vulnerable girls from abuse or exploitation.

I have decided to support this project because I am a woman working in a field where women are not expected to be found, or if they are, they aren’t expected to be found in a position of leadership. And I have been able to fulfil this dream, my dream, of running my own farm because I am incredibly lucky. To have been raised in the supportive family I was raised in, with many strong female role models showing me what was possible. Because I was born and raised in a progressive country and a progressive time. Not that there isn’t still much inequality and a very long way to go in Canada. There definitely is. But I recognise and am endlessly grateful for the rights and safety I do have, especially when compared with so many women in many other parts of the world. And so this is a very small way for me and my farm to give back, and to hopefully allow more girls to become women who can fulfil dreams of their own one day.

So here’s to everyone everywhere who is working to promote equal rights for all, helping everyone, regardless of their birth or chosen gender to fulfil their potential and to thrive. This woman farmer, who will soon be happily working in her (chosen) fields for another season, thanks you.


Farming as a Livelihood

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Offering up the bounty at one of our local farmers markets this past season.

As a young person who is starting out in farming – a young person who has yet to build equity, buy a home, accumulate any significant savings, or many worldly goods – I often get asked by people (often well meaning people, who believe in and support local agriculture), once they learn of my chosen vocation, “But can you make a living by farming?”

My response is always something along the lines of, “Yes, I believe so, as I’m seeing more examples of financially viable farms, and have worked for several farmers who are making their full time living by farming.”

What I usually want to say is more along the lines of, “Well if you want to keep eating, and you don’t want to grow it all yourself, you better hope I can, or else where will your food come from, for chrissakes – do you think grocery store shelves fill up on their own?” Because that is the thing – for any food to be available to us at all, if we aren’t producing it ourselves, and most of us aren’t producing much or any of our own food nowadays, we need farmers to be able to make a living by growing food. Whether it comes from a local farm near you or not: No farmers, no food.

And if we have a choice between supporting a local farm in our community, preferably one using sustainable and organic practices, then why wouldn’t we? This invests in our local economies, helps the environment, and in addition is better for our health and taste buds too.

However, regardless of the necessity of farmers to grow our food, I  still get asked this question often, and it bothers me each and every time. The above reasons not-withstanding, it bothers me because there seems to be a different standard that farms and farmers are held to, different from that of other businesses and business owners. The expectation seems to be that farmers will not make any money at it, and it is met with shock and awe when we say we do, or that we plan to. It is assumed that we do it for love, not money, and people seem to be ever so slightly disappointed to have their romantic notions of farming challenged, and to realise that farming, like any other job or business, must be economically viable in order to survive.

And while most farmers I know definitely do do what they do out of a deep love for the work and the land, profits preserve passion, as they say, and a farmer as well as the farmhands who do much of the field work, must be able to make a living at it in order to keep doing so. As one farmer I know who teaches workshops on business planning for farmers puts it: in what other job would you go to work and expect to lose money or not be paid? Not very many, and you wouldn’t be expected to stay at that job if that was the case.

And so, yes, farmers can make a living farming, and in fact they must be able to do so in order to keep growing food for their communities and the world. In order to do so, they will have to have good business sense, put in a whole lot of hard work and sometimes long hours, and deal with unexpected setbacks and challenges – all of this just like any other business owner. One difference between farming and many other businesses, however, is that we all need farms to survive, and so farmers and farm workers must make money doing it.

I write these thoughts after my first season farming for myself full time. I write these thoughts after many months of long days and with a tiredness that is so deep in my bones I think I could sleep for a week before it would abate in any way. I write these thoughts also, however, after a successful first season and first year in business for myself. I write this after receiving incredible support this year from the local community of eaters around me. I write all this feeling hopeful and bolstered about my future in farming.

Me and my excellent market and field help, Mariah, at the last Goldstream Farmers Market of 2018.

And so while farmers need to work hard like in any other business, all of us (because most farmers nowadays do not grow all their own food, and so need other food producers too), the eaters and consumers, must support them whenever possible. We all must make this a priority. We must choose local and sustainable over convenience. We must eat greens in the spring time, tomatoes and eggplant in the summer, and carrots, potatoes, and cabbage in the fall and winter. We must adjust our cooking practices and recipes to what we find at market or get in our CSA Shares. We must pay the prices farmers ask for sustainable vegetables and ethical meat. In short we must eat with the seasons and with our farmers, eating what they can grow, produce, or forage for us depending on the time of year. We owe this to ourselves, and to the world, now and for the years to come.

How Starting A Farm Helped Me to Overcome Fear and Learn to Grow (and Bunch) Good Radishes

I have never been good at growing radishes. In all the gardens I have had throughout my life (these as hobbies on the side of my farming work) radishes have stubbornly refused to grow well for me. They’ve bolted, gotten eaten by bugs, and generally been dismal. And then when I have worked on farms that have grown great radishes, I have always hated and been poor at harvesting them into bunches for sale. While I have long been fast, efficient and pretty darn good at harvesting most vegetables, radishes have eluded me. The roots would break off while I was bunching them. The resulting bunches would be floppy and messy looking. It would take me what felt like ages to get the required number. Not my favourite vegetable, to say the least.

And so it was with some trepidation that I worked several 50 foot plantings of radishes into my field plan and planting schedule last winter, on the eve of this season, the first year of running my own farm. “Why was I doing this?”, I wondered. I was a bad radish grower. And, miracle of miracles, if I happened to grow them, I would never be able to sufficiently bunch them to sell them. What was I thinking? I consoled myself with the fact that they were only one of over 40 different crops, and so if they failed completely as I mostly expected, I would not necessarily go broke. But still, these radishes weighed on me.

Now, as fall is rolling in, and the season is beginning to wind down, I can honestly say radishes have been one of the best crops for me this year. In terms of how well they grew, how well they sold at market, and in terms of how I can now bang out 30 gorgeous radish bunches in half an hour, less if the picking is good. When a woman told me emphatically at market a few weeks back that the radishes were the nicest she had ever seen in her life, it was music to my ears, and I felt disproportionately proud of this small accomplishment.

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Radish bunches, ready for market.

Now the thing is, I don’t think it’s really about the radishes. The radishes, and my long lasting struggle to grow them, are symbolic of something much bigger that I have learned this year through starting my own farm: I am beginning to learn how to face my fears.

There were a lot of unknowns for me this year. How would the soil, which had just been an acidic, peat bog of a hay field last year, perform? Would the vegetables grow well? Would I find markets for my crops if they did? Would I actually be able to do all those things I was planning, things I had never done before, like design, set up, and install an irrigation system, or put up a hoophouse? Would my crop plan work out? Would I be able to plant, manage, harvest and sell 3/4 of an acre of veggies on my own? Would I be able to manage the business side of the farm efficiently? Would I be able to grow radishes? I honestly didn’t know the answers to any of those questions going in, and I was quite terrified the answer to too many of them would be No.

But I went ahead anyway, forging onwards as though I wasn’t afraid, as though I knew what I was doing, as though I was certain it would all work out. But the thing is, I wasn’t. And when in life is anything guaranteed to work out? When is success a certainty? And this is what starting a farm has taught me in a very visceral way – that it’s okay to be afraid of failing, and uncertain about your abilities, and that it’s quite normal in fact, but that you have to take the risk anyway. And yes, you have to do the things you are afraid of doing, the things you think you’re bad at, the things that challenge you.

Maybe saying that farming has helped me to overcome fear is a slightly grandiose misnomer. Because that makes it sound as though I am no longer afraid, as though the fears I had at the beginning of the season are old history. But many of them aren’t, and those that are have been replaced with new fears, for future farming seasons, and future years and other areas of my life. But what starting a farm has helped me to do is become more comfortable with fear. It has helped me learn to look at my fears head on, and do the things that scare me regardless, with my fears right there beside me.

And through it I’ve also learned how to grow (and bunch) some mean radishes.

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Action shot of me washing bunched radishes in the spring.



The Seedling Dance

This time of yearly is truly all about seeds and seedlings. Flats of seed trays are being seeded for future plantings on a weekly schedule, and then the germinated seedlings are cared for, coddled, worried and fretted over, watered (but not too much), checked for slugs, and generally watched closely for any signs of trouble. And for a farm like mine, still in its beginning stages with some seriously lacking infrastructure, where the earliest or most cold sensitive seeds get their start on life in my kitchen, there is also a lot of constructing shaky seedling areas, and shuffling the young plants around due to temperature requirement and available space (or lack thereof). Then, certain crops need to be potted up into larger pots, so they can continue growing, getting a jump on shorter or cooler seasons – this is common in northern growing areas for heat loving crops such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

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Tomato seedlings, germinating in the warmth of the kitchen.

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Brassica seedlings, going for gold.

It can all feel a bit daunting, and, at times, annoying – these delicate seedlings can be so needy – they don’t want it too wet (this can cause fungal disease and a condition called “damping off” where seedlings rot at the base of the stem where it meets the soil), or too dry, they need a good and nutritious potting mix, and with temperatures fluctuating from frosty nights to the mid 40’s during a sunny day in the seedling greenhouse, it can be hard to get it just right. But still, any mixed veggie farmer I know will spend whatever energy necessary to try to meet the needs of their plant babies, as so much of the season to come (and our subsequent income for the year) hinges on getting this right.

And so this is why I have spent many a night for the past several weeks going out to the seedling greenhouse with a headlamp to check the temperature, tucking them in under additional cover and putting a heater on if necessary, and then doing it all in reverse each morning. This is why I sprayed unpasteurised milk (for the beneficial bacteria), and sprinkled cinnamon (for the anti-fungal properties) on my allium seedlings recently to halt the beginnings of damping off. It is because these little plants are important to me, extremely so.

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Allium seedlings after they were first moved out into the seedling greenhouse.

Despite sometimes feeling shackled to these trays of seedlings, it is also an exciting time of year, watching the uncurling of green from the seeds, the magic of growth and life they embody.  It also means that soon plants will be in the ground, and good food will be growing there for future harvests that will sustain me and my community. It can be hard to imagine looking at the fragile, delicate plants what they will become (if I, as a farmer get it right, and they make it to planting). Like so much in farming, this part of the year can feel a lot like taking a leap of faith (even though the schedule is set, and plans are laid) – to plant seeds before the ground is ready, to plant seeds when there are still killing frosts. But it is also awe-inspiring and beautiful to see the beginnings of another farming season unfurling right before your eyes.

New Beginnings – But First, In Memory and Thanks

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I did not get to where I am in farming – the beginning stages of running a mixed vegetable farm and business – on my own. Not by a long shot. I got here over years, with the help of many. I got here with much continued love and encouragement from friends and family, and also with the mentorship, guidance, and friendship of the farmers I have worked for over the years, and I would like to take a couple of moments to honour those inspiring and hard working farmers who have helped pave my way.

My farming journey began in earnest at Madrona Farm, working under the ever-energetic, funny, and fast talking Dave Chambers. I spent two seasons working with Dave and Nathalie, and this was the first time that I considered farming as a career option for myself. It was the first time that I realised I enjoyed picking spinach by hand in the cool mornings of spring (or the downright cold mornings of November) enough that I might want to get into this field long term. It was the first time I realised how much I loved being a part of connecting people to their food, and how the frosty mornings and sweltering afternoons only made that connection more meaningful. It was the first time I got hooked on amazing produce. Maybe it was the charisma of Farmer Dave and Nathalie, maybe it was the view from those upper fields of Madrona, maybe it was the carrots, but you could say that this is where I caught the farming bug that I’ve yet to shake.

Following my years at Madrona, I found myself at Makaria Farm, working for the incredible and hard working Brock and Heather McLeod. This is where I truly decided farming was something I wanted to do with my life – and not at some later date, years in the future, but right then, and that it was something I hoped I never stopped. Why did this revelation hit me at that time? I believe it’s because I worked harder than I ever had in my life at Makaria Farm, I was pushed and challenged, I cried, I worked until dark and beyond sometimes. And still, I loved my days more than I ever had. Because in addition to what was hard, there was laughter, there was camaraderie, there was encouragement, there were so many beautiful moments in each day. Brock and Heather believed in my abilities in a way that made me believe I was capable of more than I had ever thought possible. And isn’t it true that often it is the things that challenge us the most that, if we can rise to meet those challenges, shape us, and help us grow in unimaginable ways?

In September of 2017, Brock passed away after a multi year battle with kidney cancer. I miss him greatly, and can’t thank him and Heather enough for being such key people in my farming journey. When I left Makaria at the end of the 2014 season, my body and soul were weary from work, and I left for smaller pastures (Makaria was going on 20 acres or so of mixed vegetables at that time). I felt our farming visions were no longer as aligned as they had once seemed, though I never once received anything less than full support from Brock and Heather, and I am ever grateful to them for all they taught me, for the pub nights, and for their kind and generous hearts.

Makaria staff party to celebrate the year, 2013.

In 2015 and 2016 I worked at Rootdown Farm for the amazing Simone McIsaac and Sarah Stewart. I have written several earlier blog posts about Rootdown, and how important my time there felt. It was at Rootdown that I first experienced a size and scale of farming that really resonated with me (approximately 2 acres in production, some tractor work, but most things still done by hand), and learned much in the way of technique and style that I am now currently putting into practice. It was the first time I had worked on a farm owned and operated solely by women, and it was where I first glimpsed a work-life balance that had always seemed unattainable in farming. In many ways, Simone and Sarah restored my faith in my ability to keep farming long term, and instilled confidence in me that I could run my own farm

There are others, of course, fellow farmers and mentors who continue to support and inspire. There are too many to name really, and the list seems to always be growing, but Robin Tunnicliffe of Sea Bluff Farm, Naomi Martz of Four Beat Farm, Chelsea Abbott of Lenora Bee Apiary, Elia Zanon of Manna Farm, Alyssa and David of Plenty Wild Farms, Heather Ramsay of Umi Nami Farm – to name just a few – are part of the incredible support network I am so proud to be a part of.

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And it all leads to this: where a year ago today I was negotiating to sign a lease for 2 acres of land with Lohbrunner Community Farm Co-op just west of Victoria, BC. Now, I am a farming member of that co-op, helping to steward this farmland in a unique and innovative model of land management. I have developed friendships and supportive working relationships with other farmers and members here. My farm, Sweet Acres Farm, and Vitality Farm (also operating on leased land at Lohbrunner) are launching a joint CSA Harvest Share Program, and selling at Farmers Markets together. I truly feel I am rooting myself down in this community, in a way I have craved for years, and am part of something much bigger than me as an individual. I am here, the first seeds of 2018 have been started, the great wheels of another farming season are in motion, and I firmly believe I wouldn’t be here were it not for my personal farming giants, those whose shoulders I stand on, and who I thank, wholeheartedly.

Of High Summer, Abundance, and Transitions

Some of the abundant tomatoes ready to go in the over for an overnight slow roast. The result stores well in the freezer and is delicious during the cold winter months.
High summer on Vancouver Island smells like blackberries and dust. The former are ripening along roadsides and farm hedgerows everywhere; the latter is because we haven’t seen any real rain in two months now. High summer is also all about abundance on the farm. The plants are in high gear now, and food is everywhere. Vegetables of every description are available in almost unimaginable amounts, berries are ripening, and now, at the end of high summer and transitioning into fall, apples and pears are beginning to ripen. It’s only the early varieties ready now, but soon they will all be here in force.

For farmers (and others) who value their food, and also who offset the very seasonal nature of income on a farm by storing food from the summer for the winter, high season is also a time of trying to “put food by”, to use an old term. Blessed with electricity and freezers as we are, this often means freezing the abundance for later use, as it is the simplest and quickest way at a very busy time of year. However I always ferment some vegetables using my 6 gallon stoneware crock, as well as a number of glass mason jars; and I usually try to can a few things too. Whatever the method, these days I feel like almost every evening involves chopping, dicing, slicing, canning, or freezing some kind of fruit or vegetable for a rainy day (literally).

There is always a time, somewhere around mid-August where it all gets to feel like a bit too much. It is a time when I question if I really want to keep farming, if I can handle the imbalance of the season, the sheer full on nature of it. It is during these times that I try to remember that what is good and right is not always easy, and also when I try to learn to hold it all. Hold the abundance of the world, of the farm, of my life. I try to breath, I try to eat the food I’m growing, I try to get a good night’s sleep.

While this time of year can feel very overwhelming in its abundance, and the sheer amount of work there is to do on a farm and in the kitchen, it also doesn’t last. It often feels like it has hardly begun before you begin to sense the seasonal shift, the transition into fall. Fall doesn’t mean an end to the abundance, but it does mean the beginning of gearing down for the season. The days are getting shorter, the mornings and evenings cooler, and some of the other farm work (the late season plantings, the weeding, etc.) begins to lessen. It is a time I always welcome and truly relish. There is something about the azure blue colour of the sky, the crispness in the air, and the ripening of winter squash that fills me with the utmost joy.

As we shift from summer into fall, I also look forward to being able to begin reconnecting with friends and family who I have lost touch with during the busy-ness of summer. Because while I enjoy the work, enjoy the abundant food, and enjoy doing what I can to put it up for winter, I do neglect important people in my life, and when I do, I miss them dearly. Luckily, people seem to understand and forgive me each year for my seasonal disappearance into the fields. If they’re really smart, they’ve also figured out by now that the best way to see me, is simply to come find me on the farm or in the kitchen.

And so while high summer is not quite over, and fall not yet quite arrived, we are definitely in the transition phase between the two. There are still weeds that need weeding in the fields; the beans, tomatoes, and summer squash are pumping it out; but the winter squash, apples, and pears are ripening, and I can almost feel my whole body getting ready to exhale with satisfaction that another season has almost reached fruition.

This Apple Didn’t Fall Too Far From the (In More Ways Than One)

My Aunt Irena’s beautiful garden – an amazing mix of food and ornamental’s – is a true joy to be in.

When I say this apple didn’t fall too fall from the tree, I am referring to two things. One is the farmers and gardeners in my family, both historical and current. My grandparents were all farmers. My Dad’s parents both came from farming families in Poland, and once they immigrated to Ottawa, they continued to grow copious amounts of food to feed their family – both on a corner lot in the city that was practically within sight of Parliament Hill, and on a friend’s farm, out in the country. They even kept chickens in the attic of their (rented!) city house. My Dad, along with all of his siblings have quite a penchant for growing things, and more than your average green thumb. My Mom’s parents also grew up on farms in the Prairies, and continued to farm for much of their lives, and my one uncle on that side still has a farm north of Fort St. John – a beautiful, expansive acreage full of horses and big skies and hay bales that I loved visiting as a kid.

My Aunt Lu in her tomato forest in Ontario.

On top of that, my Dad had a big vegetable garden when I was small and we lived in Edmonton, and my sister and I were always given a bed to grow whatever we wanted in. I credit that with sparking my love of growing things, even if, at the age of four, I was only interested in growing pumpkins and poppies. I also have very fond memories of being a kid and going out into the garden to snack on carrots or peas, thinking I was being sneaky about it when, of course, I wasn’t (luckily, these subversive acts were considered a positive thing by my parents).

And so the fact that I have found farming, and love it so, probably has a lot to do with my history. My family is filled with farmers and gardeners of all kinds. Those that create beautiful havens out of their gardens (Irena, that’s you!); and those that grow food so that they can preserve it, and can it, and preserve some more (Aunt Lu!); and those who have so many verdant houseplants you can barely see the walls in some part of their house (Matt, that’s you!); and everyone else in between.

The second reason I say this apple didn’t fall too far from the tree is because I am finding myself, after all my nomadic, wandering ways of the last years, coming back to a place (well, almost), that, for many years was definitely home: Victoria.

I have found land to lease – two beautiful acres of it – on the Langford/Metchosin border, just northwest of Victoria. These two acres are on a larger property of about 13 acres that is owned and held in trust by Vancouver’s Farm Folk City Folk, and managed by the Lohbrunner Community Farm Co-op. As a farmer leasing land and growing my business on that property, I will be a Co-op member as well. I will therefore be contributing to the overall management of the property, though my farm business of the future will be it’s own independent entity. While operating my business as an individual, I will still get the privilege of being a part of the whole, a part of this community that is forming around a shared belief in protecting and stewarding land for food production for the future. It’s a pretty amazing place to find myself in.

This is a very unique situation, modeled after the few examples of land trusts around North America – but the basic idea is that an organisation (in this case Farm Folk City Folk) owns the land, and holds it in a legally binding trust (in this case mandating that the land in question continue to be farmed organically), and then lease it to another community partner organisation (in this case Lohbrunner Community Farm Co-op) or individual. My lease for two acres of land will be between myself and Lohbrunner Community Farm Co-op (LCFC).

The benefits to this type of land access situation are many fold. One main benefit of this type of arrangement is that it gives young and beginning farmers affordable access to land to farm on, while also offering stability – leases will be short term 5 year, roll-over leases, offered for up to 29 years as long as it is working for both parties. Of course, there are no guarantees things will continue to work for both parties, but such is life – there are no guarantees. And as far as stability goes within a lease holding situation, the likely ability to hold such a long term lease is a major bonus.

Another benefit is that I, as a farmer on this land, get the support of the other LCFC members. And that is huge. As a member of the Co-op, I will benefit from emotional support, camaraderie, skill sharing, and equipment sharing  with other members – I will also get to give back in these ways to my fellow Co-op members and fellow farmers leasing land at the farm.

There are also benefits to the surrounding community. This land will be held in trust, and will be kept as productive, organic farmland, and in an era of increasing food insecurity and with the cost of imported food very likely to rise in the not too distant future, this is a huge benefit! And so for folks that value local food production, who value local farmers, and who want both of those things in their communities, there are opportunities to become Co-op members themselves, supporting the Co-op financially (usually through the one time cost of a Membership Share, which has lifetime value). Individuals who join these types of farm co-ops as non-farming members do so primarily because they value and believe in local food production, and want to help enable farmers in their communities to do just that. If the arrangement works well, it will be mutually beneficial to both the farmers and the community it is within.

Of course, this arrangement is not without risk. I am not going into it blindly on that front. In fact, it is fraught with risk. For one Lohbrunner Community Farm Co-op is newly formed, and this whole arrangement for owning and managing land (holding it in trust) is still relatively new, and there are many details still to work out. There is the risk that the arrangement will not, in fact, work.

But I have decided that I will take that risk. I am doing so for several reasons. I am doing so because this ticked all the boxes for what I was looking for in a land lease (housing available on site, minimum two acres of farm-able land, land to be fenced and water available for irrigation, and – this is a biggie – a long term lease available) plus a few things. Further benefits include being close to a good market for organic produce (and many friends and family) in Victoria, as well as myself getting to be part of the new community forming around this effort.

And maybe more than anything, I am deciding to take this risk because of the character of the other Co-op members. So far, they have given me nothing other than the impression that they are hard working and dedicated, and care immensely about this project. They have also been hugely supportive of me joining in as a farmer. If this project does not succeed, it will not be for lack of trying on the part of those involved, which makes it a risk I am willing to take. Not to mention, life is hardly about avoiding risk, or about doing things because they will be easy.

And so. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And this spring finds me moving again (some have said it is best to used pencil to record the address’s of those in my family, but I think they were referring mostly to me), to the small farmhouse on the property, where I will hopefully hold a lease for many years to come, and will be able to sink down roots of all kinds.