Short-season production comes with long days
by Myrna Stark Leader
100 MILE HOUSE – At 8 pm, Robin Hunt and her husband of almost two years, Johan Bos, are finishing washing and prepping their produce for the next day’s 20-minute drive to the South Cariboo farmers’ market in 100 Mile House. It’s hard work, but both say it’s satisfying to do a job that helps feed people and sustains the land.
Two years ago, the couple turned a half-acre of pasture in Forest Grove into a market garden producing vegetables, strawberries and other small fruit. They also raise heritage chickens for meat and eggs. A herd of pigs was also part of the mix but this year they’re focusing on the garden.
Both were on the coast working, she in film and photography and he as a lighting technician for concerts and other events. They met online but discovered they shared a common best friend. At the time, she lived above a horse barn in Squamish, had a couple horses and was already passionate about farming – for the lifestyle and personal fulfilment.
“The true passion started at 21. I built a 4×20-foot raised bed. It had everything – the tiniest little carrots. I learned lots and my gardens kept getting bigger,” Hunt recalls, saying she eventually convinced Bos to move to a rented farm in the Squamish valley where for two years they raised 30 chickens, boarded horses, had gardens, eggs and launched a small community-supported agriculture (CSA) venture.
“I always wanted to run my own business and did so as a freelancer, so I said let’s give it a shot,” says Bos who, along with Hunt, advise others to spend a year working for someone else on a farm to learn more.
They say they couldn’t have been farmers if they’d had to buy property in Squamish but when Hunt’s grandfather died in 2016 they moved to Forest Grove and Big Rock Ranch to be with her grandmother, Karen Smith. The 148 acres was named for the high rock point on the property that overlooks the house and surrounding countryside. Hunt’s grandparents were both teachers and over the years leased their land for cattle grazing to the neighbouring Pincott Ranches Ltd.
“Johan is in charge of the livestock, bookkeeping, accounting, website design, YouTube and construction and I’m more in charge of the vegetable production and sales, marketing to public, restaurants and businesses and social media,” Hunt explains.
Market gardening here is challenging. The last frost can be as late as June 1 and the first in mid-September. To beat the short season, they’ve constructed two greenhouses and will be doing a third next year to give more plants a head start.
Hunt has strong feelings that food should be raised sustainability, which for her means working towards organic certification.
“We add ladybugs and beneficial nematodes to the garden to deal with issues like wireworms and aphids. We deal with things as nature would,” she explains.
She worries that people don’t think enough about the hours it takes to produce their food or how it reaches them. When wildfires limited travel in and around Forest Grove last year, she was able to provide a measure of local food security with deliveries of produce and eggs from the ranch. It was a small contribution that made her feel good.
The couple are avid learners. They’ve borrowed great ideas to farm economically. Their cold storage, for example, is housed in an insulated shipping container cooled by a modified home air conditioner fitted with a CoolBot.
“It tricks the unit to go way cooler than it’s supposed to go. It’s a more affordable way to make a cool room and is way easier and cheaper to fix if something breaks,” Hunt says.
They’ve created a cleaning station for the produce that features an improvised air-bubbling system for washing greens. A washing machine has been retrofitted to spin-dry salad.
“The drying rack and the washing station is from Urban Farmer Curtis Stone and we want to build a germination chamber,” Bos says.
They bought a flame-weeder, a walk-behind tractor and attachments. YouTube videos taught them to build a tiny house that provides additional income as a vacation rental.
A mentorship engagement through Young Agrarians has been a key influence on their farming careers.
“Through meeting others, we began to see that this could be more than just a hobby, that it could be living for the two of us,” says Hunt. “We also obtained a mentor, Seann Dory, who met with us weekly for 30 hours. He started Sole Food Street Farms in Vancouver and is running Salt and Harrow Farm on [Vancouver] Island.”
Dory remains available to them, even though the formal mentorship is over.
“He said, ‘You guys are doing really good, even if you feel like the weeds are out of control and there’s too much work.’ He’s been really good at grounding us and showing us that we’re not alone,” says Bos.
“We usually call him around the burn-out point. … We say, ‘How do you guys do this in eight or 10-hour days?’ and he said, ‘We’re not. We’re doing 12-hour days just like you and it’s hard. It’s July but you will get to winter and have down time,’” Hunt adds. “We love it, but where’s the quality of life? We do try and find balance by taking Sundays off and away from the farm.”
Planning for profit
Recently, they submitted a one-minute video that saw them selected for a lifetime scholarship for The Market Gardener Master Class, an online learning forum for tools like crop plans from Quebec small-scale organic vegetable grower and author Jean-Martin Fortier. It’s a big win because Fortier promotes human-scale, ecological and – as importantly – profitable agriculture.
The couple’s future goal is for the farm to support themselves and a couple of employees. But for now, Bos will continue monthly contract lighting jobs and Hunt may do some film work in the off-season to supplement their farm income and pay back a small loan used mostly for equipment like their 2018 853 BCS Walk Behind Tractor.
“Part of the challenge right now is that we invested a lot,” says Hunt. “We’re seeing good sales, and our CSA members are happy, but it’s not easy. You have to start somewhere and ignite the interest in local farming, especially in a community like ours where people are still getting used to a profitable small-scale farm.”
To that end, she’s chair and he’s a director of the South Cariboo Farmers’ Market Society.
“We’ve talked to others who have reviewed our finances and what we’ve accomplished for a couple of people who just started this two years ago, [and] they say we are doing good,” adds Bos. “You have to set your financial goals and then work backwards. And it’s about determining the level of income you need or want.”
Vol. 104 Issue 9
STORIES IN THIS EDITION
Province boosts ag spending
It’s a draw!
Editorial: Vice grip
Back Forty: Snow days make good days for seed selection
Viewpoint: Farmers need to prepare for annual snow melt
Smooth start to season as foreign workers arrive
Sidebar: Province mulls piece rates
Late winter has some Okanagan growers on edge
Ag show attracts near-record attendance
Ag Briefs: Traceability funding available for producers
Ag Briefs: Cattlemen’s launches webinar series
Ag Briefs: Grant winner announced
Labour remains a priority for fruit growers
Dairy, aquaculture take home awards at gala
Farmers need to prepare for uncertainty
Ag critic listens to concerns at farmers’ institute
Growers are responsible for workers’ safety
Robotic milkers sized up during dairy tour
Safe, high-quality silage depends on preparation
Diversification makes orchard a landmark
Ranchers need to match forage with herd needs
Producers question new Indigenous rights law
Hosting TRU students a way to give back
Livestock co-op provides selling, buying options
Sidebar: Market set to stay steady
Research: Bluetongue outbreaks expected to increase
Filling a niche for gourmet mushrooms
Regulations, housing key issues in Langley
Sheep producers seeing value in genetic program
Above and beyond
Vegetation fundamental to farms, landscape
Studies continue on forage, corn crop pests
4-H BC leader singled out
Growers go with the grain of beer revival
Agri-tourism has plenty of room for growth
Rose stem girdler poses threat to cranberries
Site prep critical for healthy hazelnut orchards
Sidebar: BC renewal program opens up
Wannabe: Renewal comes with a new generation of farmers
Woodshed: Deborah and Doug McLeod turn up the heat
A good place to meet up
Jude’s Kitchen: Celebrate spring by eating outside