Tell us about your growing philosophy
Never stop learning...and don't give up! Every season there are new lessons and problems to solve. I've spent a lot of time making meticulous plans, yet in reality, things always seem to go their own way. Also, keep trying new systems/methods/plants/locations; if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. And holistic management/growing is constantly changing with seasonal/annual factors; because of this, there is never a dull moment on the farm!
Tell us about your place on Earth.
We are located in Southern Ontario, in Wellesley. According to the government as of 1996, we are zone 6, but locals consider us zone 5. We rent 9 acres from family friends, Wayne and Rosanna; 1 acre is planted test orchard named Oakley's Orchard after their son. Oakley has Cerebral Palsy and since Wayne can now work at home (he joined our team in 2020), Oakley loves coming out in gator rides to see what we are up to in the fields., and the remaining 8 acres are split into roughly 2 acre plots where we rotate the crop through over the years. My sister rears queens, and has several hives on site. We have added over 50 assorted bird houses in our various spaces for bluebirds, tree swallows, chickadees, wrens, owls, flickers, and whoever else happens to inhabit them.
In Amulree, about 15km to the SE, we have another 1 acre test orchard called the Tree Corner, planted in 2019, which is laid out in the N-A-P style described by Stephan Sobkowiak. We are constantly adding more plants to this repurposed triangular hay field, including edible perennials, native plants and mushrooms, and we are converting Oakley's Orchard to a more polyculture space as well. The river called Silver Creek divides the Tree Corner from the rest of my partner Zack's home farm, which was the river that went through the original location of Silver Creek Nursery (which is a couple farms down the road).
What draws you to growing fruit?
Food has always been very important to me; looking back at some childhood writings a few months ago, I had a good laugh at a scrap of paper with my wobbly penceled letters claiming: 'The three F's: Food, Family, Fun'. I guess I've always had a deep regard for how humans nourish themselves; all of my pre-nursery work involved food and kitchens, from fast food chains at the beginning, to fine dining, chef school (though I dropped out after a few months - it wasn't my kind of 'food'), and finally landing on prepared meals at a local farm store. After a few years there, I needed a change of pace, and had worked seasonally at my cousin's fruit tree nursery (my cousin Ken was the original owner here). I came on full time, and when Ken said he wanted to sell the business in 2018, I decided to take it over. I can think of no higher purpose than to grow food and nurture the life in the soil, water, and plants and animals we raise (just for ourselves mainly). So, that is what I do, accompanied by my life partner Zack, and two amazing employees, Wayne and Jade.
innovation most rocks your boat?
Not exactly an innovation, but we have begun intercropping as of last year, planting our garden herbs and veggies down the tree rows instead of keeping it scuffled and bare. So far it's been awesome! I can actually have a garden (no time when it's at home), and look after it. It fills me with joy to be able to grow such a beautiful 'mess' of plants, and actually make a living off of it! It's just so lovely! Last year we just did it with one row (we still have at least 25 squash in the basement...sigh), but this year I am planning to add bursts of sunflowers to the row ends, include more variety of veg, and increase production to a size that we can sell it at the roadside/to local markets. But we are keeping it to low maintenance plants like squash, cukes, peanuts, cabbage, and herbs; no green beans or greens that need regular picking (other than just a few for personal use)!
Share an “aha moment” that made you a better grower.
As I am relatively new at this, I have regular 'aha moments'! I began planning my first crop at the ripe old age of 23 in 2018, with no intention to farm beforehand, though I did grow up on one. Skills I never thought I'd pick up in my lifetime on earth: how to drive multiple tractors, use the forks, hook up implements correctly, and how to jimmy-rig things to get the job done, and that items almost always have more than one purpose, aside from the one it's most commonly used for.
These moments often invoke my surprise at how easy things are when you actually start doing them. I work them up in my head as these incredibly challenging tasks, but they are really very simple. After digging the nursery stock, we plow/or use the soil saver depending how bad the field is to level it out. In my head, thanks to my older brothers/dad, I had plowing worked up to be this intricate job that had to be done just-so. It turns out that it is actually very simple once you look at a few pictures to see how it's done. I ended up plowing solo one morning when the weather was right without any assistance; though I did have to call my brother (he's a tractor mechanic) to figure out how to turn the lights off on the tractor when I was done, much to my chagrin!
Now, as I enter my 3rd growing season, I must have had about 1000 'aha moments'. They are beginning to revolve more around the changes I observe over the years now though: the cause and effect I have on the land with certain practices; the value of weeds to hold the soil over winter; the value of adding livestock here and there; investing in quality equipment; the value of letting go of some stressors; the value of biodiversity in controlling pest pressures; the value in hiring (and paying fairly) solid, dependable, capable help; the value in asking for help when I'm at the brink of a meltdown (the pandemic has been special for us all to deal with, in many different ways); the value in planting the fence lines thicker and constantly adding to the test orchard; the value in healthy soil (made very clear when planting into the lovely rich untouched soil of the tree corner in Amulree vs. our soil at the nursery); the value in putting one foot in front of the other towards your goal, even if the path between you and your goal is completely blank and rather intimidating at the best of times.
What might you change if you could do one thing over again in your orchard?
I would plan for it to be bigger..I keep adding cultivars to our collection (I have 50+ in the nursery now) and I really am not sure where I will plant them! Because we are regularly adding, it is somewhat impossible to keep a very methodical orchard; but I'm ok with that. It makes it a more interesting layout, albeit one that takes several years to memorize! But I couldn't plan it perfectly even if I wanted to, since things change so steadily from year to year, and my end vision of both of our orchards is pretty...lush!
How do you go about marketing the good fruit?
Well, between employees, family and friends, we don't currently have much fruit to sell from our test orchards! But I think having a regular online presence can really help to generate new customers and keep your regulars in the loop. Embrace the social media (as taxing as that can be ;-) ) platforms, get a website, and keep them up to date. That's where I tend to look for things these days; having your info out there and accessible can be a very powerful way to create transparency about your growing philosophies to your customers, which is invaluable these days where the plethora of buzz words and labels (eg. certified organic) can lose their meaning to the customer.