KRESTOVA – Matthew Carr’s first memory of a job in agriculture is working alongside his grandmother processing poultry on her farm near Krestova, a community of about 200 at the mouth of the Slocan Valley. Carr was about 10. He gave up soccer to pull gizzards for 10 cents apiece.
“I now finally figured out it was because my hands were so small, they could get in inside the bird and do the job really well,” recalls Carr, now 26.
Today, he’s wrapping up the 2020 season at Linden Lane Farms, a four-acre certified organic farm located on his grandparent’s 150-acre property. The farm produces vegetables, small fruits, vegetable and herb transplants, sweet potato slips and seed garlic, as well as fruit trees and edible perennials. The operation began as his summer job while he played junior hockey from 2011-2015 and while attending the University of Saskatchewan.
Carr is fascinated by plants, an interest that likely started with a Grade 11 school propagation project. He was so interested he constructed a propagation table at home, growing mostly ornamental shrubs. A young entrepreneur, he sold them locally through word of mouth and online through Kijiji. He continued to scale up until it got too big for his parents’ backyard in Bonnington, east of Castlegar.
“My dad was tired of people showing up at our house all the time thinking we were a big wholesale nursery,” says Carr with a smile.
As a result, he relocated the business to his grandparent’s farm, about a 15-minute drive away. He was raising plants like willows, ninebarks and spirea as field-grown nursery stock. The same season, he capitalized on a local nursery’s end-of-season sell-off.
“They gave me a smoking deal, like $50 a truck bed-full,” explains Carr. “So, I filled my pickup three times with leftover seedlings, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and squash which my sister and I planted in a 100×100-foot garden on the farm,” says Carr.
The plants flourished. When he left for Fernie to play hockey that year, there was more than 1,000 pounds of tomatoes and lots of squash in the field. The produce was shared with family and neighbours, and Matthew’s grandmother made enough tomato sauce and juice to last a decade.
That winter, Matthew and his father discussed how the successful gardening project might be a way to utilize the farm in Krestova. In the early 2000s, new provincial regulations effectively shut down his grandmother’s
on-farm meat processing facility that served small-scale and backyard producers. The farm scaled back to a modest hobby farm, home to plenty of livestock, including goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys and Angus-Jersey-cross beef cattle.
But seeing Matthew’s growing interest, his grandparents created an opportunity – a land-match, if you will, before it was popular. It started as a one-acre lease, including access to water, utilities and equipment for Matthew to pursue his business. That same year, his school guidance councilor recognized his interest and enrolled Carr in the Prairie Horticulture Certificate Program at the University of Saskatchewan while he was still in Grade 12.
“There isn’t much for BC high school students interested in agriculture but I was able to take online university classes for high school credit,” explains Carr.
His grandparents urged him to pursue something other than farming, but he enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan and continued to learn about plants as he pursued a Bachelor of Science in horticulture. He spent his summers building up Linden Lane Farms, with help from his family. Graduating in 2019, he returned to farming full-time.
This was a good year at Linden Lane, with sales up 60% versus 2019. About 25% of the farm’s business came from selling nursery stock, 15% from an annual subscription-based CSA program that serves 74 families weekly, 15% from wholesale sales to Kootenay Co-op in Nelson and 45% from sales at Nelson’s twice-weekly farmer’s market. In addition to family, he employed eight people full-time at peak season.
Carr credits his post-secondary education for teaching him how to gather and analyze research data. This aids in plant growing and farm management decisions. He also built a valuable network of advisers and contacts.
“One of my profs when I was at school is one of the top plant breeders in the world. Being able to phone or text profs or researchers for advice has been invaluable. And my classmates all have specialties – horticulture therapy, floriculture, greenhouses, vegetables, cannabis. I can also call on them for advice, which is great,” says Carr, who remains inspired by plant physiology.
While he doesn’t believe farmers must have degrees, he hasn’t given up the idea of going back to school for post-graduate studies. But right now, in addition to farming, he’s working towards his professional agrologist designation with a focus on organic horticultural agronomy.
He says farming has rewards. He’s his own boss. The business continues to take shape and there’s pride in reinvigorating a farm that’s been in the family since 1978. Succession discussions with his grandparents, now in their 70s, are a work in progress.
“We’re building more and more infrastructure, so my grandparents are kind of nervous. They’ve been farming for years on the property so having me come and change up things a little … is a little difficult for them,” says Carr.
In the meantime, Linden Lane is expanding according to his strategic business plan. If he gets time before the end of the year, he’ll develop a half-acre for fruit production, mostly berries and some fruit trees, not only for market but also as an educational component.
“We’re one of the largest edible plant nurseries in our region but because we specialize strictly in edible products, the orchard will be an educational space where we can show people things like pruning or trellising methods, while trialing new cultivars for the region,” he explains.
The breadth of Linden Lane’s production is apparent in the more than 250 edible plant varieties its nursery produces. A website enables him to share information about each beyond what can be written on a tag. The site also allows customers to pre-order and place deposits, strengthening the farm’s cash flow in early spring. Carr says online shopping is growing, and that trend has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would say COVID had a lot to do with tripling our online nursery sales this year and we’re really hopeful those sales continues,” he says. “We had quite a few positive responses from people who liked being able to order their plants online, then pick them up in May.”
With less than 2% of food in the region produced locally, he’s confident there’s a market. He’s currently seeking CanadaGAP certification to open the door to grocery store sales. That in turn would aid his plan to grow Linden Lane to 10 to 15 acres. The additional cultivated area would allow for better and longer cover crop rotations and provide pasture for the family’s livestock to graze and help reinvigorate the sandy soil.
Carr says one of the challenges of expanding production will be developing an irrigation system to draw water from the Slocan River.
“Today when the cows come in, they suck that water right out of the trough and you can see the sprinklers just drop on the garden,” he says.
Finally, he thinks the size will be manageable from an employer perspective. After working the first few years himself for pennies per hour, he plans to continue to hire and expand his team. While it saddens him to shift from grower to farm manager, he looks forward to becoming more involved in industry and making a difference.