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First time farmers: swap the suburbs for soil

Living
Long read

Georgina Wilson-Powell

9 November 2016

How often do you stare out the window imagining a life where you grow your own food, are your own boss and have a more natural, healthy way of living? Yeah, we feel you.

Farming then. I grew up in the country and went to school with kids who left at 16 to go into the family business of crops, dairy herds or pigs. Back then, that was pretty much the only way into a life that wasn’t seen as cool or organic or healthy. It looked like dull hard work. I spent a summer being stood up by a farmer’s son as he worked at the mercy of the weather, rushing to get crops in from dawn to dark, as I worked my way through local pubs testing my underage liver.

Farming is a daunting industry, full on and often more akin to an industrialised factory than the Old Macdonald scenario we dream about as kids. But neither this nor the lack of family business is putting off a whole swathe of first generation farmers, from the rolling hills of the west country in the UK to the Californian wine valleys and Canada’s bucolic east coast. We spoke to one young couple about what being a first time farmer is really like.

Having bought Broadfork Farm in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia, Canada in 2011, Shannon Jones and Bryan Dyck focus on growing organic vegetables, fruit and flowers. They run a sustainable and bee-friendly farm, providing produce to local markets, restaurants and the community.

“One of our main guiding philosophies on our farm is to promote health. Health of the soil, health of our community, health of the people eating our food and for ourselves,” says Jones. “For our own health we need nutritious food, clean water, clean air, sunshine and regular exercise. While farming is hard work, I think our bodies were meant to be moving about for much of the day."

Do you have what it takes to be a farmer?

First of their name: first time farmers Bryan Dyck and Shannon Jones at Broadfork Farm

It sounds pretty idyllic so far but don’t pack your wellies just yet. As first generation farmers Jones and Dyck spent years working as interns on various farms to learn their skills.

“If you can spend time on other farms, it’s an invaluable experience. It’s easy to romanticise the idea of having a farm and living off the land. Having some dirt under your fingernails and feeling the physical realities of farm work can help you decide if you are well suited to farming,” Jones says. “I worked for other farmers for six years."

Job for life

One of the key things to remember is farming is not a career or a job. It’s a life. There are few, if any, holidays (unless you can find a farm sitter).  It’s running your own business when you have no control over what determines your success – the weather.

“We are constantly making small mistakes, planting a crop too early or too late,” says Dyck. “But all the mistakes teach us something and so far none of them have been too expensive. I’m eternally grateful that we were both convinced by a farmer to take a farm business planning course before we started our own farm."

Geese guard the farm

Birds of a feather, flock together at Broadfork Farm

While it is a commitment and a whole different way of life, farming creates something real and tangible from all those hours put in. There are no fancy five word titles or days spent in a cubicle preparing drilled down data driven reports.

“The job market isn’t easy for many young people today so I think it makes sense to create our own jobs. It’s a misnomer that it’s not a viable career or that it has to be just a hobby,” explains Jones.

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Learn all you can

Farming is facing a knowledge crisis and as many independent farmers are near retirement age, farming is crying out for young minds and eager hands.

“We need young farmers to help keep our communities moving forward,” says Jones. “We’re at a pivotal point where a lot of that earned knowledge from experienced farmers is going to be lost if younger people don’t step up and pursue an interest in agriculture.”

Jones and Dyck go to sustainable farming conferences and work with local associations to learn about new skills and techniques. Farming is a lifelong lesson, where having a mentor is invaluable.

“Farmers are incredibly generous people who have to think long term to be sustainable,” explains Dyck. “Teaching the next generation how to farm is a long standing tradition and we were lucky to find great mentors. When a farmer offers you the opportunity to learn from her, or him, that’s a big deal. They’re offering their time and wisdom. You need to repay that by working hard, being enthusiastic and not complaining when the work sucks."

How do you start a farm?

Bryan gets to grips with his weeding

Create a farm that works for you

Jones and Dyck only use a few acres of their 15 acre farm for the crops that supply them with their income. They’ve planted 50 varieties of tomatoes, Asian greens, colourful heirloom species of carrots and peppers and spend each winter planning the next year and poring over seed catalogues. Like many small farms, Broadfork sells its produce at markets and also runs a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme to help connect with local consumers.

“Rather than get a pre-loaded weekly box of veggies, our members can come to our stall anytime and choose what they want. They might want lots of produce when they have visitors, or eat kale every day, or never at all,” explains Jones. “It also works better for us. After all the work growing it, we’d hate for produce to be going home with someone who doesn’t like what they’ve got. We like to know who we’re growing for and think of them when we’re deciding which crops to grow."

Broadfork Farm 2 Pebble Magazine

Broadfork Farm goes to market. Their closest is Dieppe, Nova Scotia, which is pretty supportive of independent farmers

Even on a veggie farm, there’s more to it than just the edible stuff. Jones and Dyck believe in a holistic organic process that helps cultivate bees, wildlife and improves the health of the land.

“We don’t want our farm just to be of value to humans, we’re just one of millions of species on the planet. We plant flowers that will bloom from early spring to late autumn and we leave wild beds of what are considered weeds for bees,” says Jones. “All pollinators have a value to humans but their value isn’t just in their benefit to us. We value them because they exist.”

Bryan and Shannon explain how they found their farm

NSAgriculture

Reap the rewards

So what about a work-life balance? Is it all dig, dig, dig?  “It’s hard work but you need to know what’s achievable” says Jones.

“There’s always a long ‘to do’ list and you can spend from sun up to sun down running around trying to keep on top of the list. We made a conscious effort to put emphasis on the importance of taking time for ourselves and our well-being. We want to farm for the rest of our lives so we need to be healthy and happy to make that a reality.”

And the best thing about being a farmer?

“We live in a pretty, peaceful quiet area with less light pollution than the cities we grew up in,” she says. “The beauty we get to see, hear and smell on a daily basis offers a type of nourishment you just don’t get elsewhere"

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