Hands-on experience critical for non-farmers to learn the ropes
by MYRNA STARK LEADER
KELOWNA – Lightfoot Farm owner Simon Answerth is the sole graduate of a three-year farm incubator program spearheaded by the Central Okanagan Community Farm Society and run in conjunction with Trinity Baptist Church in Kelowna.
Two years into the incubator program, he also completed a one-year business mentorship program organized by the Young Agrarians.
Together, the projects enabled him to learn to grow market garden vegetables
“It gave me the leg up I needed,” says Answerth who adds that the real-life experience, plus watching YouTube videos of people like Curtis Stone, taught him how to farm.
The former electrician is digging into one of two acres of irrigated land in the Glenmore neighbourhood of Kelowna that he’s leasing for $500 a year from a professor at UBC Okanagan. The owner used to have horses but was looking for someone to farm his property, which is already home to a mature cherry orchard and a newly planted high-density apple orchard.
Backed by 15 years’ experience in the construction sector, Answerth, who grew up in Australia, has divided the acreage into 45×45-foot sections. Part of the land will house two 100-foot-long hoop houses.
“I’ve ordered about 60 to 70 seed varieties,” he says, showing off new digs that include a frame greenhouse for a nursery. He’s in the midst of running power to it from the house and hand-digging the trench, a reality for penny-pinching producers keeping costs in check.
While he knows he’s ordered too many varieties, this is an experimental year to determine what grows best on unfamiliar ground. Last fall, he seeded garlic plus a cover crop of fall rye, peas and oats to prepare the soil for spring seeding. He’ll grow root veggies and lots of salad greens, keeping track of everything in a spreadsheet to determine the best growers and sellers. Lightfoot Farms isn’t certified organic, but Answerth will do what he can to be a low-input grower.
He’s converted a small, former tack room into a heated production area for microgreens such as pea, radish and sunflower shoots. Past experience has proven them to be good sellers in 10×20-inch flats.
“They’re a bit finicky to grow but this will be easier than growing them at home. I can grow them all year long here and the restaurants love ’em. During the summer, it’s a seven-day turnaround and you get $20 a flat,” he explains.
His market includes local restaurants and farmers’ markets in Lake Country, with Peachland and Kelowna possible this year. He loves the markets, but breaking in as new vendor when there are large, long-time sellers, is challenging. Shoppers have habitual stops so he thinks small markets where there is less competition for ongoing vegetable sales might be better venues.
He continues to pursue restaurants, including craft breweries that want unique foods to pair with their specialty beers. These businesses typically take larger bulk orders, which makes economic sense. He’s also sold wholesale to grocery stores. Diversifying his market is smart, and required.
“It’s easy enough to grow it; the issue is marketing,” claims Answerth who was initially surprised that cold calls didn’t result in more business. Despite strong interest in buying local, his CSA program didn’t take off. He believes it’s because people were weary of putting down money up front.
He’s also contemplating direct sales from the farm gate but he fears having to have staff on hand to service customers will be costly. He knows the operation needs to run lean to maximize profit.
“A lot of good farmers talk $100,000 an acre income,” he says. “If we can double what we made last year, seeing we’re on double the space we had last year, I think that’s quite achievable.”
Since the pilot program required him to have his own hand tools, he was able to bank some money. That, plus a bit of a nest egg, has enabled him to carry on farming. Yet without owning land, traditional financing, even for smaller purchases like a walk-behind tractor, is tough to secure.
Answerth is disappointed that more people didn’t graduate from the incubator program, which originally had nine people. Without such opportunities, it will be tougher for non-farmers like himself to enter agriculture.
“We’re lucky we could make the jump, but a lot of people can’t,” he says.
Vol. 105 Issue 3
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