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.

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.

IMG_3514 - Copy
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.

2017-06-04 10.53.53-1

2018-02-23 14.10.30
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.


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.

2018-04-11 07.04.33-1
Tomato seedlings, germinating in the warmth of the kitchen.

2018-04-08 11.38.13-1
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.

2018-03-25 12.29.08
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

farm panorama

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.

2017-12-06 15.23.27-1

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.

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.

Of Doubt and Inspiration

Tulsi basil growing at Rootdown, the ever present Mount Currie in the background.

I have been struggling a lot with doubt these days. Doubt about my choices to be pursuing a career in farming when everywhere I turn, farmers and non-farmers alike are more than happy to tell me how hard it will be to make a living this way. Doubt because I wonder if I have what it takes – not only to farm, but also to run a small business. Doubt because I wonder if my body will hold up to this career choice, and I wonder if my mind and emotional state will hold up to the challenges ahead. Doubt because I didn’t make myself rich in another business before I found farming (I probably should have done that), and so I am finding myself in the uncomfortable position of likely needing to take out a loan in order to buy some initial start up equipment, even on the small scale that I want to farm at. Doubt because, simply put, I wonder if I have what it takes to start my own farm.

And so on the brink of getting started on the set up of my own farm, while I mull over ideas and try to remember why I chose this path, it was particularly heartening to listen to episode 108 of the Farmer to Farmer podcast, with guest Michael Phillips of Lost Nation Orchard in Vermont. Not because I am planning on starting an orchard. Not because there was a lot of inspiring information in it on using mycorrhizal fungi in farm and orchard systems to build soil, and therefore plant health – though there was that, and I’d say this episode is worth the listen if you’re interested in such things. And not even because it assured me I would be successful in my farming endeavours – only time will tell on that.

Rather, the reason this podcast struck such a cord with me and left me feeling so inspired was because I was given the impression that here was a man who truly loved what he did, someone humble, who had great respect for the natural world around him, especially the soil beneath his feet. He struck me as a true land steward, someone who is committed to lifelong learning, who is in reverence of the work he does. He also does not claim to have all the answers, but rather encourages and implores the rest of us growing food to keep striving towards something better. He urges us to keep improving our systems, to take better care of our soil by tilling less, to feed our soil with mycorrhizal fungi, to do the best that we can given our situations and set ups, but nevertheless, to strive to learn and grow.

None of that, however, particularly explains why listening to this podcast left me feeling so emotional, with a lump in my throat. Maybe it’s simply that it reminded me that life is a process and a journey, that we never actually arrive at our destination, we simply (if we work at) get closer to our best selves. And for me, farming is the vehicle that I am choosing to help me along that path. Through the act of growing food for myself and my community, through the act of taking on things that feel way too big and hard for me as an individual (be that the mere running of a farm business, or the huge task of trying to find alternatives to the industrial food system), I am hoping I will continue to grow as a person. I am hoping that if I nourish my soil and steward a small patch of earth well enough, it will provide sustenance for myself, and for others. I am hoping that if I commit to observing and learning from a piece of land, that maybe I will also learn more about myself in the process, and get closer to the source of things.


Moving, and the Search for Land

Well, it’s been a while, and a lot has happened for this farmer. For starters, I moved from Pemberton, back to beautiful Vancouver Island – the part of the world that this nomad still thinks of as Home, in the ultimate, capital “H” sense. It’s where I hail from. It’s where I want my roots to grow, both in a figurative and literal sense. And while this may not be forever, it’s true for now, which has been confirmed since moving back. Simply put, I love it here.

But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t also grow to love Pemberton, and it doesn’t mean that leaving there wasn’t hard. Because it was. Leaving behind the mountains and the incredible natural beauty of that place, as well as the people there, was difficult. Over the nearly two years that I called Pemberton home, my life got to be filled with a lot of beauty. Beautiful people who became great friends. Beautiful meals cooked with those friends, made from beautiful food that we/they had grown. Beautiful skies, beautiful bike rides, beautiful hikes, beauty that hit me upside the face as soon as I stepped out the door. It’s not everywhere that your days get filled with so much to be grateful for. So thank you to Alyssa, David, Naomi, Lisa, Kate, Teresa, and the many more who made my time there so special.

Simone, showing off an early bunch of carrots in 2016.

Sarah and Buster sharing a kale snack in the field.

If saying goodbye to Pemberton as a whole was hard, saying goodbye to Rootdown, and Simone and Sarah – the hard working, kick ass women who put their hearts and souls into that farm, who breathe life into that place – was especially hard. Because that farm and the people surrounding it, gave me so much. After a couple of very challenging years farming, spending time at Rootdown helped restore my faith in farming as a livelihood. And working for Sarah and Simone helped me to realise (or remember?) that women could be at the helm of a farm, and they could do it incredibly well, despite not being 6 1/2 feet tall and weighing some 240 lbs. Working at Rootdown showed me a workable example for the scale of farm that I want – something I had a sense of, but had never experienced. I learned so much about the craft of farming from them, but of equal importance, I also learned a lot about communicating, and bettering myself as a person from two people who are very committed to all of those things. I feel incredibly lucky to now call Simone and Sarah friends and farming mentors. Thank you.

Rootdown pigs napping in their forested home in early summer.

However, despite the hard good byes, move I did. And now I am in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island and am searching for land to lease in order to start my own small farm in 2018. I am seeking land, and am also working on a farm plan, a business plan, and spending a lot of time researching and thinking about the type of farm I want. My days are surprisingly full. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. These things take time and effort.

There is unused farmland out there, for sure. It is more a case of finding the right fit between myself and a landowner. I am looking for somewhere I can lease 1-5 acres, ideally, for 2-3 years to start, with the likely chance of extending that lease for a much longer term so that my efforts in building the soil and managing weeds will not be wasted. I am looking for a piece of land that I can cultivate and steward, a piece of land where I can build a sustainable farm business, and support myself while feeding the community around me. I am looking for a piece of land where I can get some of these ideas that are bouncing around my head out of there, and into the soil. Where I can see if they will work, or if I need to revise them – there will be a lot of that, I’m sure. That is a part of what makes farming so interesting, after all!

Right now my options range from a plot of land under an acre, mostly deer-fenced and with some other positives; to a four acre piece of raw pasture with all the infrastructure set up to do; to a co-op community farm model seeking a farmer or farmers to set up shop; and a few other options in between.

Which means, in short, that I have a lot to think on and mull over these days. You can expect to hear more from me in the weeks and months to come, as all this transpires – so stay tuned!




Learning Something New

When I decided to grow medicinal herbs, as Wild Health Herbals, for Namasthé Tea this year, I knew I would be getting into new territory, as growing and drying medicinal herbs on a large-ish scale was not something I had experience with. And while the growing has had a few challenges so far (namely in the seeding stage, as some of these herbs are tricky to start from seed), the herbs I am growing are all fairly low maintenance and easy to grow. The part I was slightly, shall we say, unsure of from the beginning has been the drying process. It turns out that drying high quality herbs is not as easy as you might think. Especially in quantity. When you are making do with the space and materials at hand, and it is not really enough space.

And since I am planning on growing high quality medicinal herbs, I also want the finished product to be of the highest quality. So when the calendula really started to pump out the blossoms last week, and I also noticed my tulsi had, seemingly overnight nearly reached the prime time for harvesting it, I suddenly realised I needed to turn my attention to getting my drying shed in order.

For drying the herbs I am using the germination area in the greenhouse at Rootdown. At this time of year the majority of transplants are in the ground, and the remaining ones are outside, no longer needing the additional heat of the greenhouse. So using quarter inch wire screen, a staple gun, some baling twine, and some shade cloth kindly given to me by a neighbour of Rootdown’s, I turned the former germination room into a drying shed of sorts. The screen is obviously to support the herbs while still allowing air flow, and the shade cloth is actually to keep it from getting too hot in there, as many herbs, especially leafy ones, don’t dry to a high quality if they are dried at too high a temperature (or so I have read).

Once I had finished creating the drying shed, I couldn’t help myself – I harvested sweet-smelling tulsi amongst the plethora of bees (they have also been harvesting it!) until the drying racks were full, only harvesting just over half the tulsi! While I could have waited a few more days, I figured I may as well start using the shed, as the spearmint and then lemonbalm are coming on strong, and space will be my limiting factor for drying herbs.

While this is definitely a learning curve for me, that is the beauty of farming – there is always something new to learn, new crops to grow, new ways of doing things – and I’m enjoying this incredibly aromatic learning process to far.

A Few Words On Transplanting

There is a lot of transplanting that happens on organic veggie farms in spring and early summer. There are two main reasons for this. The first, which is more the case in more northern climates with cool and/or short growing seasons, is to get a head start on the season, having veggies readier to sell earlier. Sometimes, if your season is shorter or the crop a heat loving one, seeding into cell trays in a heated or unheated greenhouse and then transplanting out into the field can make the difference between having a crop, or not having one at all.

The second main reason is to beat the weeds. I have written about the struggles and pleasures (yes, pleasures!) of weeding on organic farms before, and I will likely do so again. But just because I do get enjoyment out of weeding doesn’t mean there isn’t good reason to do all we can to minimise weeds, because in all reality you’ll still have lots of them. Weeds are simply amazing plants, and their vitality and ability to propagate themselves is truly astounding. Which is why organic farmers who wish to have a marketable crop (especially in the case of annuals), need to spend a lot of time weeding, or at least managing weeds. And so when seeds are started in cell trays and then transplanted into weed free or mulched beds, they get a jump on weeds, which is beneficial to both plant and farmer.

Happy cucumber transplants in the ground in the greenhouse.

At Rootdown we have been doing a lot of transplanting these past few weeks. My first three days in May were almost 100% transplanting, and there has been significant chunks periodically since then. And while transplanting by hand (as all of Rootdown’s transplanting is) is somewhat hard on the body – think sore shoulders and back, and sometimes sore knees – it is also an activity I thoroughly enjoy. If you are transplanting with other people, it is a good chance to for conversation, and if you are transplanting alone it is meditative, contemplative work. I also love pressing the young plants into the soil, watching the inevitable wilt of transplant shock (plants in the brassica family suffer from transplant shock particularly hard, especially if it is a hot day), and then seeing them recover and take off as a result of having access to more nutrients, more space for their roots to grow, and ample water.

Healthy tulsi starts, ready to go into the fields.

On a Wild Health Herbals front, I transplanted tulsi basil this morning, 250 bed feet of it. Tulsi is the biggest crop I am growing for Namasthé this year, and in the last week or so the plants grew a huge amount and were looking green and beautiful and ready to go in the ground. Since the danger of frost has (I think) passed in Pemberton, I decided to take this slightly overcast morning to get them in the ground. I had a great time of it, spending a few hours listening to the birds and the breeze in the trees, and ruminating on life. I might have taken the time to catch up on a podcast or two (another great activity for solo transplanting), but I forgot my iPod at home. In the end, I was glad to have a chance to work in silence in the fresh air on the farm.