From the Farm: 01
For our first ‘From the Farm’ series, we are excited to share the work of two small-scale, organic floriculturists based in Canada’s coastal provinces: British Columbia and Quebec. Here to start, Aubrey chats about growing up in the North Okanagan, establishing Moss + Mirth, and the beauty of family support, working outdoors, and cultivating diversity (including over 300 varieties of dahlias) on her 9 acres of farmland.
Words below by Aubrey.
‘It’s like a jigsaw that just barely fits every year.’
I have lived in Spallumcheen my whole life. In 2010, I was 18 and in need of a summer job. I had just finished my first year of university studying geography and environmental sciences, and I was inspired by sustainability and learning about the connections between climate change and food systems. Stepney Hills Farm was hiring; they brought me on mainly to weed their 30,000 heads of garlic and, although I didn’t get to do many other tasks, I was enchanted. I immediately wanted to have a garden of my own, one full of herbs. But at the end of the season I remember being asked if I would be interested in taking over a farm one day, and I believe I said, “No way!” Having to weed all that garlic was brutal. I craved diversity.
Fast forward to 2014: I did not want to sit and work inside anymore. Being outdoors made me feel much more alive and my many headaches lessen. My mom heard a news story about a farm making a living on just one acre of land and the idea slowly took hold. I began to attend organic farming meetings, local food gatherings, workshops and lectures, and to read books about small-scale farming practices. I knew that I would have to find a job on a farm that would really let me participate in every task (not just weeding), so I applied at Roots & Greens Farm in 2015, which is operated by a very dedicated German couple who know their stuff. I learned a lot, and was inspired to start my own farm — I just needed to find my perfect place to farm. Unbeknownst to me, my parents had been driving the back roads all over the valley, looking for a suitable, small property to purchase. I remember them coming home one day and saying that there was a nice property on a gorgeous back road. When we went to have a look, I remember thinking it was lovely but we were just browsing. A little while later my parents came home to tell me they had bought it, and I was going to be able to live there! So, I moved from my parents’ house, a mere 6 minutes away, to live on the farm.
A typical day on the farm sees me outside with the daylight — in the summer that means, first, doing tasks that require cooler temperatures right away: if it is a harvest day, I gather my buckets and head out to cut flowers early in the morning, bunching them and storing them in the cooler for the following day’s deliveries or market. In the afternoon, I weed and do regular maintenance like trellising vines. In the hottest part of the day, I retreat to my seeding greenhouse, a converted upper part of the barn to succession sow seed crops and start any perennials I would like to have for the following year. Evenings are for record keeping, client communication, and working in the greenhouse.
I wanted to grow anything that was tasty, hard to find, and vibrant. Last year, instead of eating my purple tomatoes, I stuck them in arrangements. They are now on my must-grow list forever. This year, I am very excited for my new Bombay celosias; the colours are iridescent and so absorbing, you can’t look away. I am lusting over Pepper Harrow Farm’s teaser picture of Chester Copperpot celosia, I am hoping they will release it soon! For food, from Honeoye strawberries in the spring, to Buena Mulata hot peppers in the depths of summer, and wrapping up with warted ornamental pumpkin and squash in the fall — these all make their way into my arrangements. I am always on the lookout for new varieties and for a good focal flower (filler is so important but without a good focal flower, arrangements have less impact). I am currently obsessed with dahlias. I have over 300 varieties and can never pass up a new one! I will be importing some of the harder to find varieties for next year. Everyone in Canada is jealous of the Floret tuber sale. I scour seed catalogues and Instagram for unusual delights, and I never fail to ask what a striking specimen is in someone’s garden.
Instagram is integral to a lot of businesses these days, especially ones that rely on beauty to sell their product. I live in a small town, business isn’t booming, but I am making reliable connections over Instagram to sell my product. However, social media really does influence tastes; I find many farmers are growing the exact same varieties in the exact same colour palette. Especially here in Canada, I really struggle to find seed sources that are unique and different from what everyone else is growing. I get a lot of requests for white and pink, for “beautiful,” “soft,” “romantic” colours. I naturally gravitate towards orange and deep reds — things with gravity. I try to find unique and exciting options, ones that people wouldn’t typically choose in their daily lives. I think if you have a good eye for things, people do end up appreciating what you create. Not everyone’s favourite colour can be white. Plus, white attracts bugs.
The farm is quite young and my land is new to me, but having lived in this area my whole life, it is very apparent that the climate is changing. One summer I nearly crisped from the heat, another I couldn’t get on the field until June because it was so saturated with water. Storms are becoming more erratic and violent. Every year you have to keep records to see how things change. Some years you get an early spring — do you start your seeds early and hope for an earlier crop? Or is that just a risk? The weather could change and all your hard work and investment could be taken in a frost. You try new things and hope for the best.
‘The farm is quite young and my land is new to me, but having lived in this area my whole life, it is very apparent that the climate is changing.’
Becoming a certified organic farm was never a question for me, and it really does inform most of my actions. I do not believe organic farming is perfect, it has many flaws, but when you are looking at the whole scope of our world, the interconnections between our actions, our health and the planet’s health, it’s easy to see that conventional agriculture isn’t helping anything. Plus, when is spraying anything with poison a great idea? Organic agriculture sees diversified crops and purposeful management of land and animal health — building soil, supporting beneficial insects, creating local food systems. Conventional agriculture sees a loss in seed and crop diversity, a loss of insect populations, and contributes to soil erosion. It subjects people, land, and animals to harmful chemicals. I am trying to provide the people in my community with flowers and food that are safe. To participate in a form of farming that does more good than harm.
It is difficult to manage such a variety of crops, and every single day is busy. You might have 25 things to do, but you simply have to decide which item is most pressing. I research and select seed varieties, sow the seeds, keep the baby plants alive, transplant them, weed them, pinch, fertilise, harvest, bunch, transport them, and market the final products. I have to answer clients, keep my website up-to-date, post pictures on Instagram, try to forge new connections with customers to sell more flowers. I have to prepare for my annual organic inspection.
I have standardised beds that allow me to calculate fit and spacing so, at the start of each season, I know exactly what I am working with. There are staples — for example, I know I need three, full, hundred-foot rows of zinnias to meet demands, so those beds are taken. I trial new things each year, so they each need a spot. After you figure this all out, you need to make a sowing schedule so that your blooms will be ready when you want them to be. You must stick to the schedule and not fall behind. Then the really tricky part comes: in organics I have to rotate crop families on a 3-year cycle. This way the same nutrients aren’t drawn from the soil, the same pests aren’t attracted, and disease doesn’t build up. It’s like a jigsaw that just barely fits every year, but it’s worth it.
We also invested in an attachment for the tractor this year that allows me to transplant 500 plants in 20 minutes. I am always on the lookout for things that help the business grow, provide some ease, and help me maintain a healthier body. Many people try to operate very low-tech on small farms. I find that works to a point, but I also want to have a life. New technology really helps me to get more done, sooner.
‘Someone once said that if you farm until you are 65 and start in your mid-20s, you only get 40 kicks at the can. That is always in the back of my mind.’
What has surprised me most since starting the Moss + Mirth? For anyone who knows where I live this will be hilarious because Spallumcheen’s motto is: “Where farming comes first” — but I cannot believe the amount of farms there are in my community! I remember seeing the sign, the fields and tractors, but it is easy to not notice when you are not intimately involved in agriculture yourself. Since starting the farm, I have met so many farmers, it seems like every week I am learning about a new small-scale flower or vegetable farm.
I think small-scale farming is becoming extremely popular because small farms offer diversity and local, seasonal, healthy food and blooms in a world that is becoming increasingly concerned with the proper management of our resources. I am hopeful for the future of small-scale farms; however, at the same time, I have not experienced a lot of support for farmers in my area. Small-scale farming is very costly and I fear that although many small farms are just beginning, not everyone is cut out to last if they don’t receive proper support. Co-operatives are an interesting way for small farmers to offer a diverse product range, while still specialising on their own farms, and enticing a large range of buyers. I think a huge shift in how people buy is required.
Owning and running a small-scale farm is daunting. Businesses, especially farms, have to adapt and evolve quickly. Be prepared to fail at something every single year. No two seasons will ever be the same. Do your research, read books, and most importantly, work a season for someone else who runs an admirable farm, growing what you want to grow, before you start. Make friends with the seasoned farmers in your area. They can tell you what that weird beetle is, or why you have unsightly blotches on your foliage. You will also need more money than you think. Don’t start before you have enough.
Now that the farm is becoming more established with better infrastructure and I have a bit of a rhythm, I am excited to expand in some unique directions. I am young, so I intend on taking full advantage of my energy resources! First, I would like to become a supplier of certified organic dahlia tubers in Canada. I would like to try my hand at breeding my very own variety! Seed-saving is also very important to me, so for some of the easy or single variety crops that I grow I intend to start saving seeds and supplying them to my local market. I have always dreamed of having my own store, and my dad and I are concocting a studio plan that could potentially house some artisan products. I also want to come up with a unique value-added product — I have been thinking about paper-making with my dried flowers pressed into it in funky designs… This is a big list though. We will see how much I can accomplish! Every season, I re-imagine what is going to happen with the farm, trial new varieties, nix ones that didn’t work, connect with new local businesses for collaboration. It is will be ever-changing I am sure.
Someone once said that if you farm until you are 65 and start in your mid-20s, you only get 40 kicks at the can. That is always in the back of my mind. If my 120 day crop flops this season, I have to wait a whole year before I get to try again. You have to learn fast. As overwhelming as farming can be, no one ever tells me when I can or can’t go make lemonade, sit, and admire my surroundings. That’s a beautiful thing. The failures are all mine, but if I succeed, that is all mine too.
Favourite way to start the day: Pure grapefruit juice and a walk around the farm.
Favourite tool of the trade: Weeding never ends. For tight spaces, I love the Lucko Wire Weeder from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
Recently inspired by: Deanna Kitchen of Twig and Vine started a Growing Kindness project, where you give people in your community blooms in an effort to foster kindness. Giving away flowers has always been more fun and fulfilling than selling them, so I really understand what she is trying to achieve.
Favourite local spot: The Starlight Drive-In. Pure magic.
Published on: 8 August 2019. Edited by Fields in Fields. All images courtesy of Aubrey; photography by Vanessa Morris. ■ Through summer, Aubrey offers custom arrangements, gate sales, and bridal buckets, and can also be found at the Revelstoke Farmers' Market. Dahlia tubers will be available from Spring 2020. For more, visit mossandmirthfarm.com