Lessons from others in their journeys in sustainable agriculture

In February 2012 when the Nicole's Farm project got the first wave of great press in the Vancouver Sun, I ended up being contacted by another young mother of three with sustainable agriculture dreams.  Her name is Nicole Faires and she is a three time published writer and the female force behind Faires Farms.  As I ramp up to complete the site preparations at the proof of concept in Halfmoon Bay, I have looked back on many of the projects I originally followed last year to see if there may be any lessons I could learn or mistakes I could avoid.

Nicole makes an honest and detailed summary of her experience developing and launching Faires Farms during the 2012 growing season.  The main points from the blog post, Small Farms can be found below.  For regular posts about Nicole Faires and her ongoing projects visit: www.NicoleFaires.com.

Some farm stats:
  • We used 1,000 gallons of water per day in the summer. This was far less than most farms, and we were able to measure this because it all went into a large tank.
  • It took over 2,700 man hours to build the farm, grow the food, process it and deliver it from February to September.
  • Those hours did not include business management hours: advertising, marketing, accounting, and customer service. This was probably another 1,300 hours, for a total of 4,000 hours for the year.
  • Our farm covered about two acres with about 6,300 square feet of ground actually planted. The rest of that space was taken up with barns, paths, compost, tanks, etc.
  • We fed an estimated 225 people most of their veggies.
  • We purchased 700,000 organic seeds which cost $1,800.
We had an early and relatively successful harvest up until mid-July, when an aggressive buck destroyed our deer barrier and not only ate much of our high-value long-term crops, he contaminated almost everything. According to organic certification, raw manure cannot have contact with crops because of the high risk of e-coli.  This is a danger that is unique to organic farms, since conventional farmers don’t use manure as fertilizer.  The manure must be composted at a high temperature or rest for 90 days in order to be safe for use on food.  This meant that three months of growing was wiped out, effectively ending the CSA program for the year.
This is the kind of risk every small farmer faces. Because this buck could jump over nine feet, the fence we would need would be $4,000 or more, which was not only more than we could afford, it was investment in someone else’s land. We could shoot the buck, but the damage had already been done.  Other farms in our area faced similar risks; an inundation of rain slowed germination and growth, creating a shorter growing season and very little sun, cows escaped into someone’s market garden, and plants suffered unusually high mold and diseases because of the wet season.
Here are just a few of the problems that small farmers face:
  •  Land is too difficult to acquire. It is too expensive, and mortgages make it impossible to make a profit. Borrowing land is expensive as well, because there is no return on investment in improvements.
  • Farming without equipment is literally back-breaking. Our average unpaid intern burned out at 150 hours, working at no more than 40 hours per week.  The paid labor makes minimum wage, and motivation is difficult to maintain.
  • The minimum investment, without tractors and plows, is $20,000. This is for tools, processing equipment, refrigeration, etc. For young people, this is a lot.
  •  There is an inherent risk in every season that natural events will destroy the crop. Small farmers thrive in diversification, but there is a fine balance between diversity and specialization, and this is only found through trial and error. Education in how to manage this balance is lacking, and often a carefully guarded secret.
  • Credit and grants are not available to small farmers. Federal loans are only for conventional farms growing one crop.
Some of our solutions…
We found many creative ways to solve some of the inherent small farming problems.
  • We took control of distribution, creating a guaranteed income stream. Delivering to our customer’s doors cut out any middle men and put us in a position to distribute other things as well.
  • We became a marketing company that sold food, not a farm that tries to create marketing. Thinking about it the other way around made it easy to define what we wanted to do as a company.
  • We made our internship program as rewarding as possible. Many, many farm volunteer situations are little more than camping while working 10-12 hour days, without much education.  We tried to make it as educational, and relaxed and comfortable as possible. We had no shortage of interns and they all voiced that their experience was worth the work, and meanwhile we decreased our labor costs dramatically.
Managing risk:
When we started out, the number one concern was managing risk. We used plastic covers, greenhouses, and careful planting management to reduce loss from weather. We had very early crops because of this, and we were able to replant any loss from disease since we still had plenty of time in the year. When consulting other farms in the area, they had 5 or 6 foot fences. No one could have predicted this monster buck with the persistence of a Jedi. Risk management and prevention was my major task, and involved using at least two varieties of each type of food, planting in two different areas, and planting at least two different times. It also involved lots of compost, boosting plant immune systems.
To sum up…
Small farms are rarely profitable. They struggle with forces beyond their control. They are difficult to start. Very few young people have the ability to do so. These issues are solvable, but they need the support of people willing to provide open farm business information, open land access, and open education. Without debt, farms can be very profitable, and that is the key to preserving small farms and having a secure food supply in the future.

To purchase copies of Nicole Faires' books.

Also developing on the Sunshine Coast is

A new agricultural area plan!!!

Progress, innovation and collaboration can do wonderful things.

Check out the .pdf for draft plan HERE and some local press concerning the nuts and bolts of the plan as well as flagging agriculture as a potential growth sector for the region HERE.

It's been a mighty rainy winter and I look forward greatly to the change of season and prepping the greenhouse for another year of abundance like the one pictured below.

Some things I've been working on/with as of late

I joined the Sunshine Coast Regional District Agriculture Advisory Committee.

To find more about it go here ---->  http://www.scrd.ca/AAC

Some great folks are on the committee, including but not exclusive to Peter at Upland Consulting and Henry Reed Produce.

Post Bear Flock

I am officially finished incubating and hatching birds until I am able to upgrade and bear proof my outdoor brooding capabilities.  We have reinforced the entire aviary with plywood and 2x4s and put three bolts on the outside door to the coop.  Suffices to say that although the bear keeps coming around and tore the moulding off my car trying to get to a bag of chicken feed I had in the trunk, we have managed to fortify the bird habitat enough to keep the bears out.

As of yesterday afternoon, I have NO birds in my house, save for the occasional humming bird that comes in an open window and I am relieved to say the least.  Poultry are stinky, messy, high maintenance creatures and I would prefer to wait a little while before resuming my flock expansion.  Not all is lost however as you will see in the photos below three hens have diligently taken over the responsibility.

For those who supported the Nicole's Farm Indigogo campaign and would like to name a chicken,  here are the fruits of my labour.  The smallest of the chicks are six weeks old and examples of the silkie dominant breed that I am aiming to develop.  I do not know whether they are males or females yet, but when they mature the hens will lay blue eggs.

Hens in the coop.  The golden one with blue colouring has been sitting  on over a dozen eggs for some weeks now.  She is too small to cover the entire clutch.  The red faced hen tries to take her place every morning when she gets up for her few minutes to eat and drink.  Now they seem to be sharing the space which could turn out well as the second hen will take over any protruding eggs.
These three chicks are the first of my hatch.  They are mixed breeds and I believe the black one and the black and dark orange one are roosters.
My silkie chicks.  There are seven in total. Three white, two darker and two grey/tan.  I'm very happy about the tan coloured ones as we lost their mom to the bear a couple months ago.  Glad to see her line carried on.
The Alpha rooster in my flock. We've name him Bon Jovi. His breed is Polish Crested.  He stay pretty clear from people but has never displayed aggression towards us and keeps the flock in good order despite the abundance of lower tier roosters.
This is Bon Jovi's son and the first chick I hatched from our eggs.
This is the best mommy out of my hens. This is the second chick she has raised since arriving at Nicole's Farm. 
This is one of the other roosters.  He is HUGE and has a very deep crow.  I look forward to finding some  attractive black hens in the future and creating a line from his genes.
White Silkie Chicks
Grey and Tan Silkie Chick with great colouring on its face
Broody silkie momma.  She has hidden herself in the dark in the very back recesses of the coop. I tried to move her and her clutch of eggs into a more reasonable location with easier access to food and water but she wanted nothing of it and I find her back here the next morning.
The three pheasant chicks that made it to outdoor viability.  It looks like three females but I am not  going to know for sure until they fully reach maturity.
Proof you can off leash train a jack russell terrier.  Bongo killed a number of my birds when we first brought them home and hadn't fully reinforced the habitats.  I wouldn't trust him unsupervised but he has been trained to abstain.
The other chick that was successfully hatched by one of my hens. 
My favourite hen.  She rarely lays an egg, is tiny and brave beyond her size.  She escaped from the coop one afternoon late last year and Bongo got her and chomped her a couple times. I nursed her back to health in the house and she mothered Bon Jovi's son in returned when he was the only chick that made it through my first small hatch.  She is the first to jump out the door when I allow the chickens to free range and the last to go inside.
Silkie chicks
Tan Silkie Chick
The four quail chicks that made it to outdoor viability.  They will replace their parents who were all lost to the bears.
Brown silkie chick


I've been collecting all the eggs I can in hopes of growing our flock. My current project is to develop a silkie dominant breed with an araucana strain in the genetics so that they lay light blue eggs. I absolutely adore Silkie chickens as they are small, quiet and the roosters are protective of their ladies but docile with humans.

The Parents - Rooster in White
White silkie chick.  Pheasant chick at bottom right.
Eggs in the 'bator. Phesant in dark brown, silkie in blue, other chick in light/white.
Four silkie chicks.

Community Engagement and building brand

Since our family does not have to relocate to the eastern part of BC for work this spring, I have had the luxury of joining some local community organizations.  In 1998/99, I particpated in a Rotary Youth Exchange to Sweden and now 14 years later I have had the profound joy of joining the same club that sent me on that character building trip.  The folks in the Sechelt Rotary Club have proved welcoming and eager to make a change in our community.  The club has chosen to focus on youth and literacy, both topics rank very high on my personal priority list.

I have begun joining in on meetings with Voice on the Coast, Sunshine Coast Breakfast for Kids, Sunshine Coast Community Foundation - Vital Signs team and of course the Agriculture Advisory Committee at the good old Sunshine Coast Regional District.

Also of interest, I've been upping my participation in small business and social enterprise platforms and competitions.  At the end of May, I submitted my application for "The Challenge Contest" sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus.  They're offering a $100,000 grant and an invaluable round of great nation wide press!  Both would be tremendous game changers and launch platforms for Nicole's Farm, so keep your fingers crossed for it.

In addition, I have been working with the BC Ideas Team from Ashoka Changemakers.  You'll see me featured as a Thought Leader for the campaign.  I also helped host a #socentchat last week,  a guest post go live on their site in the next couple days, next week I'll be moderating a BC Ideas discussion piece and I have a little spot in their campaign video.

All in all, I've been working hard to hustle brand while hunting for seed funding for the proof of concept.  Dynamic is the life of the entrepreneur but I wouldn't change it for a thing.