Farmer owned and operated: A thing of the past?
You may have read the dire headlines about the quickly “greying” Canadian agriculture sector, as farmers retire while their kids leave the family farm for job prospects and opportunity in cities. As I noted in my previous article about Saunders Strawberry farm, the average age of the Canadian farmer is now 54+. Add to this the challenges for small family-owned farms against bigger scale corporate competition and one might think the day of the family farm is nearly done.
However, in the last few years some other buzz words have been making agricultureheadlines as well: sustainable, organic, fair trade, and local. While massive corporate farms grow and harvest cheap produce for big box grocers across the country, concerns around health as well ecological sustainability has led to a growing market for healthy food alternatives grown and sold close to home.
Farming: A classic case of Dropping Out, Going Back to the Land, and Digging In
At the same time a new generation of young post-recession Canadians are looking for alternative, self-employed careers outside Canadian cities too expensive to imagine a home with more than a balcony for outdoor space; These “urban expats” have new ideas & business savvy not generally associated with “salt of the earth” farmer types, repopulating small communities across Canada and bringing business models that are smart, small-scale, flexible, and most importantly local, offering a personal relationship between buyers and the people behind their products.
Food is a sexy business for many young entrepreneurial Canadians.
From the burgeoning market garden and urban farming scene to the food truck boom epitomized by Creston’s Fork food truck, food is a sexy business for many young entrepreneurial Canadians. Simultaneously, organizations like Farm Folk City Folk and The Young Agrarians are helping these often ambitious but inexperienced entrepreneurs transition back into the hands-on world of farming. Lastly, the expanding network of Farmers’ Markets across Canada are acting as agriculture business incubators for these entrepreneurs, giving them the capacity to reach their target audience directly and affordably.
In the midst of all this, the Creston Valley has seen what some might call a “Young Farmer Revival”, with a small but notable growth in its young adult population in the last few years. With affordable land prices in comparison to the hot markets of the Okanagan and Lower mainland, a mild-temperature and long growing season, the 40+ vendors at Creston Valley Farmers’ Market, and a community surrounded by mountains and awash in outdoors lifestyles, Creston has become a small agricultural mecca for many young couples.
Girl meets boy, they wander the world together, and then buy a farm?
Thus, we arrive at the story of one such young couple, Laura Hannant & Nigel Francis, and the story that brought them to the Creston Valley, where they recently put down their wandering roots and settled in at Cartwheel Farm. I managed to pop into this idyllic 5-ish acre farm in Erickson at the end of a very smokey August afternoon to have a “working visit” with Nigel, who described the story that brought them here while he puttered around the farm in classic farmer-fashion.
Like many sweet hearts. Laura and Nigel met during high school on Vancouver Island and were seemingly bound for lives far from the Saskatchewan farm town that Nigel grew up in. After both finishing their Bachelor of Arts and Masters degrees, Nigel was preparing for law school at Uvic in 2009 when the coupled decided to take a break from their scholastic pursuits.
According to Francis, a quick search of winter house sitting opportunities directed them to the many vacant summer homes of Kootenay Lake, and they quickly found one to winter over in. It was during this sabbatical that Laura and Nigel fell in love with the Kootenay area, the idea of farming, and made the bold and unpredictable choice to drop their educational pursuits to stay.
While initially torn between Nelson and Creston, Nigel said that the choice was made easy be seeing the quality of farm land and climate in the Creston Valley in comparison to having to spend years of compoting & soil-building in Nelson’s cooler climate.
So Nigel and Laura moved to Creston in 2012 and would spend the next few years getting a fast-paced farm education in Creston; both working at the College of the Rockies’ Creston campus while spearheading the Kootenay chapter of the Young Agrarians and collaborating with Moe & Mikey Byrne on a small scale market garden venture in 2014.
Finally, after bidding their time, fortune smiled on Nigel and Laura and a small organic farm nestled in the heart of the orchard-filled Erickson area came up for sale and Cartwheel Farms was bought and born in December 2014.
Cartwheel Farm: An old farm learns some new tricks
Now it’s one thing to buy a farm, and another to make a living working on it. However, their experiences working in the college greenhouse and market gardening had yielded some pretty important lessons for the pair on what people were looking for , and one niche box had yet to be filled, literally.
Along with developing their own market garden this year to sell produce at the the Creston Valley Farmers’ Market, Nigel and Laura also took on the idea of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Box business to meet the untapped demand for consistent & high quality organic veggies.
“I don’t want to be growing the cheapest, I want to be growing the best”
For those of you scratching your head and asking “what is a CSA box?”, let me try and explain; rather than going through the traditional produce middle-man like a grocery store, customers buy a “share” in a market garden farm, usually an upfront investment of a couple hundred dollars. Then through the growing & harvest season these “shareholding customers” receive weekly deliveries of fresh seasonally-available produce. This model has been sprouting up across Canada and the U.S. with remarkable success, giving customers top quality food delivered right to their door, while allowing small scale organic farmers to make a decent living close to home.
In Cartwheel Farm’s case, customers were given the opportunity to buy a full box share for $500 or a half box for $300, receiving fresh seasonal produce for 6 months from June to November. Essentially this breaks down to getting a full box of produce for $25 a week or a half box for $15! With 40+ vegetable varieties from heirloom tomatoes to onions, the first season has offered customers a great selection of high-quality organic produce (Check out their Food Hub link here for the full list).
Even more impressively, Nigel and Laura recently shared a Facebook post on the Cartwheel Farm page comparing their produce to organic produce found in the grocery store. The post highlighted not only the superior quality of their produce, but also a competive and even cheaper price point!!! However, Nigel was insistent that its not the bottom-line that underpins the business, but quality; “I don’t want to be growing the cheapest, I want to be growing the best” he said.
The year in review: The ups and downs of being your own boss
So how has all this translated into business for Cartwheel Farms? While Nigel admits that his initial plan was to do 20 CSA Box orders this summer so he could focus on farmhouse renovations, demand quickly forced him to increase that to 30 orders, which is always a good sign in your first year of business.
Thus, with this year’s customers and another 30 orders wait-listed for next season, Nigel and Laura look like to be doubling their CSA orders in 2016. Here’s hoping Nigel finds time to finish work on the farmhouse this winter, because next spring is shaping up to be even busier.
Spitballin’ with a fresh farmer on the high and lows of farm livin’
Now almost halfway through their first season at Cartwheel Farm, I had to query Nigel for some perspective and wisdom after the decisions that brought him and Laura here, the challenges and lessons learned, and advice for other young and idealistic entrepreneurs.
Asked whether he regretted his decision to drop law school for farming, he remarked “I can imagine myself as lawyer, but I can’t imagine myself happy”. Being his own boss has brought a level of freedom that he enjoys. While he’s hoeing and weeding between the roes He can now pop a bluetooth ear piece on and chat with family or listen to an audio book; A far cry from a job at a busy job in a law firm.
However, Nigel also admits that while “Its nice to be your own boss you have to watch out for what type you are”. AKA It’s easy to be a task master on yourself and set crazy expectations that keep a farmer out until the sun goes down and out in the fields when it rises (or in his case, try to start a new business while renovating your home and do work off the farm too!)
Also, compared with mono-cropping farms, growing 40+ varieties of produce necessitates an encyclopedia’s worth of nformation on each one’s growing season, harvest season, pests, watering necessities, prime soil base, etc. Needless to say, according to Nigel there is a pretty steep learning curve.
First, before you aspiring young farmers quit your jobs, pack your car like the Clampetts, and move to Creston to start your first farm, get some hands on experience! Go woof for a summer, work on a farm, and feel out if its really something you enjoy or if its just a romantic idea that you got from watching Into The Wild (And you don’t want to end up like that). In his and Laura’s case, the year collaborating with Mikey and Moe Byrnes gave them the invaluable experience to know that it was something they wanted despite the challenges they sometimes faced.
The Creston Valley: Ripe for the Picking
However, beyond the general wisdom of a young farmer’s experiences, Nigel’s most poignant advice had to do with being a young entrepreneur in the Creston Valley itself. While it may not be the type of “place where you’ll be handed a job, if you’re creative and self starter,” said Nigel, “there is so much opportunity”. There’s great sense that the area is full of untapped potential just bubbling below the surface.
While It may not be the type of “place where you’ll be handed a job, if you’re creative and self starter,” said Nigel, “there is so much opportunity”
As another young person here I can’t help but echo many of the same sentiments that Nigel expressed. That Cartwheel Farms has been such a success is an awesome affirmation of the potential of this community. And with more and more young enthusiastic couples showing up in town every year, I just can’t wait to see what kind of bright ideas they’ll bring with them.
However, at the end of the day what makes Carthwheel Farm such a special place is that it’s more than just a farm or a business or a house; it’s the seed of two wonderful people who have decided to set down roots and call the Creston Valley “home”. In a time where so many young people are dislocated from that feeling by virtue of their work lives, it’s a refreshing thing to see.
I’ll look forward to supporting Laura and Nigel at Cartwheel Farm and enjoying the wonderful rewards of their labour for years to come! And hopefully I’ve done the same for a few readers out there too!
Cartwheel Farms is located at 734 35th Avenue North in Erickson, BC . For more information about the farm, its products, and CSA Box orders please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Cartwheel Farm Facebook Page.