Fierce and free

Something we’ve done consistently through the year as a class is to visit and learn from growers who produce at varying scales, employ different operational focuses, and use distinctly individual methods to steer their farming. There’s value in seeing first-hand the points of commonality – in practice and philosophy – that guide the farm businesses, and to tie these back to permaculture concepts we learn in the classroom and apply to our own hands-on practical work.

We paid another visit to Mason Street City Farm in downtown Victoria recently (I wrote back in February about the farm’s history and role in the community), this time for a hang-out with J.J., the nursery manager there.

Materials prepped for a hot compost with Hatchet & Seed at a site in View Royal, Greater Victoria.

The tiny farm manages to feel frenetic and relaxed at the same time: J.J. looking laid back and cheery, but with eyes roving the plots, walking with practiced steps through a snarl of plant pots and baling twine; jackhammers and shouts sounding from the construction site across the road, steel toes and soupy grey cement water contrasting with the undulating rows of green starts waving gently on our side of the fence.

The sale season for a small nursery is short here in Victoria: really just April, May, and June, and so to run one, you have to be intuitive and on the ball. We’re standing facing a pair of greenhouses, their shoulders sagging slightly in that comfortably rickety way that suggests a history of hockey tape and bubblegum repairs. It turns out that they’re actually salvaged, repurposed carports – J.J. tells us later that they’re named Thelma and Louise – one oriented East-West and the other North-South to take advantage of specific shade patterns and microclimates on the site. We take a look inside the grand old dames now in the thick of nursery season.

The layered hot compost: carbonaceous material (‘browns’) alternated with nitrogen-rich cuttings (‘greens’), in a roughly 25-30:1 C:N ratio. Hot composting has the benefit of reaching an internal temperature sufficient to kill weed seeds and pathogens, and so a variety of materials unsuitable for cold composting can be added. This pile will be fully composted into rich, dark organic humus in 18 days.

DIY heat mats are rigged up inside: beds of sand with Canadian Tire de-icing cables running through them. J.J., who is juggling some 84 different crops for nursery sale this year, has cycled hot crops like peppers and tomatoes through a germination room in the basement of the neighbouring house and is now hardening them off by gradually moving them from the greenhouse to cloches outside for a few hours each day. This is a labour intensive step that’s not often practiced by larger nurseries, but it makes for hardier and better-adjusted starts.

Another advantage of the nursery’s small size is that J.J. can select and curate for regionally adapted plant varieties, dealing directly with small seed producers and taking into account the quirks of neighbourhood microclimates (a customer from the breezy, water-hugging James Bay neighbourhood might do well to select a different tomato variety than someone in hot and sunny North Park).

J.J., who lived and trained in permaculture on nearby Orcas Island, confesses to engaging in a certain amount of balancing and sawing-off: between what she’d like to grow versus what people want to buy; between the market pressure to grow ever-earlier in the year versus the attendant increase in plant disease susceptibility. Regionally adapted open pollinated varieties may provide better habitat and make for happier pollinators, but people have grown to expect hybrid vigour as a matter of course.

(L-R): Spring growth in the wetland at Haliburton Community Organic Farm; tools hanging shed-side at Haliburton Community Organic Farm; common camas (Camassia quamash) growing in the biodiversity meadow.

Knowing that she’s talking to a gang of permaculture kids, J.J. is forthright: we tend to put a lot of effort and resources into growing conventional annual food crops because it’s what we’re used to eating, but if we put the same kind of energy into acquainting ourselves (and our palates) with native perennials we’d have better ecological flow. But still, the productivity of this urban quarter-acre is undeniable – and the material benefit to people in the neighbourhood is immense. Life is a balancing act.

Later we visit another farm just outside of town, on the Haliburton Community Organic Farm site. At the turn of the millennium, Haliburton was scheduled for a date with the developer’s buzzsaw. The topsoil had already been stripped in some areas when a group of small-scale organic farmers stepped in and instead brokered the sale of the land to the District of Saanich, which now leases it as a specially-designated Rural Demonstration Farm zone within the Agricultural Land Reserve to the Haliburton Community Organic Farm Society.

At the moment there are six farms operating here (as well as Saanich Native Plants, the nursery business operated by our botany instructor Kristen); we’re here today to visit Erin Bett of Fierce Love Farm. Erin, who’s around my age, took over this farm site back in January. Because of Haliburton’s unique designation, the plots can be leased by a grower for four years before they need to change hands to a new lessee – a sort of incubator startup model of farming.

Sea blush (Plectritis congesta) and common camas (Camassia quamash) in bloom at the biodiversity meadow, Haliburton Community Organic Farm.

Erin has inherited the largest farm on the site, at nearly nine acres. It’s a beautiful piece of land, but has its own challenges: the previous farmer had grown only potatoes, and so there is a fair bit of pest pressure lurking. And it’s a solo operation, with Erin as the only farmer (with an extra set of hands helping after work in the evenings where they can). She tells us that for the moment, her focus is on sorting out weed and pest management, and irrigation.

Pests and weeds can pose a delicate challenge for small-scale organic farmers, as the aesthetics of one’s produce matter more for market sale than they might for one’s own table. Erin doesn’t till, but instead broadforks and flameweeds the rows, and plans to plant clover around the edges of the site and undersow it amongst some crops in order to attract beneficial insects. On the way into the farm, I’d noticed a patch of sea blush thick with bees – the farm’s proximity to Saanich Native Plants and to the Haliburton biodiversity wetland and meadow helps bring a diversity of natural pest predators to the area.

In this first year, she’s growing around fifteen or twenty crops, both for market and for the farm’s collaborative CSA box. Having grown for and worked the Moss Street Market in Victoria in past years, Erin says that she has a pretty good sense of what will sell, and what her capacity is. Fierce Love is stacked towards annuals – about ninety percent – save for some berries and rhubarb growing thick in a corner of the farmsite.

A patch of sea blush (Plectritis congesta), a native self-seeding annual, at Haliburton Community Organic Farm.

A science-minded farmer, Erin’s first order of business on taking over the lease was to have the soil tested. Results showed sandy, quick-draining soil with high organic matter content – ideal for growing. The greenhouse soil, however, showed higher readings for electrical conductivity, a sign of elevated salt levels. This isn’t uncommon in greenhouses, which don’t have rainwater to leach salt away; the chlorine in municipal water can exacerbate the problem.

To remedy it, Erin is planning to leave one greenhouse open each year, rotating until they’ve all been through the cycle so that the soil can remediated. It’s a hard commitment to make, especially for a farmer on a fixed four-year term (“It’s like a political cycle,” jokes Erin, “you want to get the most out of it”) – but the cooperative spirit of the place runs deep and there’s a sense of stewardship of the land that is palpable here, stretching further into the future than short-term individual profit imperatives. It’s another instance of a commonality we’re discovering between disparate farms, one a venerable old jewel wedged into a city plot and the other newly begun in the countryside: that of a permaculture land ethic.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.