Thoughts after a first year of commercial farming (oh, and Covid-19)

 

I wrote a few blog posts this year that I did not publish. I felt like so much was happening here, and people might be interested, but there was so much else going on in the world that it wasn’t worth to write about our farm.
Especially since, after all, we felt like we had the best year of our lives.

How can you write about that when people, including your own (step)children, are confined to an apartment for weeks on end?

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely broke down quite a few times this year. Because I didn’t get to spend the summer, or even see my wonderful step-daughters who I love so much (Rob did go to see them). Because having 2 small children can get overwhelming. Because it is lonely on a farm at certain times of the year and social distancing amplified that greatly. Because there was a forest fire burning up the hill from our house for a month. And, as with any year, there were things going on with my family and friends that I had to deal with.

But, the farming was amazing.
Growing herbs is amazing. Having animals and spending days with small children and no office to go to, while still having a remote job that can support us, is amazing. And, we had some pretty great WWOOFers (volunteer workers who work for room & board) that we will be friends with for a long time (another posting about WWOOFers).

   

If you are considering starting a farm. Do it! But, only if you have money.
One thing we learned this year is that our return on investment on our herb farm will be approximately 1000 years! (joking, I will calculate it but cannot bring myself to do it yet). If we were growing marijuana the ROI would be probably 1 year, but growing only 1 herb would be so boring. The thing is that herbs are cheap – and usually crappy quality. We have only received very positive feedback on our herbs, including quite a few “they are the best herbs I’ve ever tasted” comments, but we still cannot charge much for them. So, this year I think we made almost nothing on herb sales despite selling out (we do free shipping, nice packaging, and give a huge discount to our friends who sell large amounts through their butcher shop). It is a year to get our name out though and get feedback, and that was a success on our small scale.
We are growing at least 38 varieties of culinary and medicinal herbs. Learning about them and their uses and how to grow them is so interesting. Then there is the part about finding places to put them on our land and how to prepare that land – which animals to graze on it before – and learning about how to raise those animals! In the spring, we acquired 2 goats and 2 sheep. Another dog, named Midnight, to protect them, and some more chickens. Oh, and this year’s pigs: 3 pigs, so our family could share the 3rd pig and we’d still have enough to eat and feed our WWOOFers next year.

This fall we borrowed (or rented in exchange for herbs) a ram to impregnate our sheep. It was through a Zoom call with a friend living in Switzerland who did her PhD in the UK (in an unrelated subject – although, mad cow was involved!) that I learned that we should have put some kind of dye on the ram’s underside. Then, after he mounted the sheep we would know if they had been mounted or not. But, let’s face it, we only have 2 sheep. If they are impregnated or not, it will not make a difference to their fate. They are here to graze the tall grass covering most of the land here and to eventually provide us with an alternative to pork. If they don’t, that’s ok. If they do, I might transform myself into a cheese maker. Won’t have enough to sell but halloumi, feta and Roquefort are some of my favourite cheeses and I would love to make those! Rob would love cream cheese too and I assume that is much easier to make than my favourites.

   

Another thing I learned is that I need childcare. My firstborn started full-time daycare when she was 4-months old. That was nuts but normal in Switzerland. My second child is 19months old and still have not spend a day in daycare – and in the valley we live in, that is very normal. But, I cannot raise 2 kids without daycare and work remotely, and run a farm with my partner, and build a herb business – oh, and do my many art projects that I like to dream about. So, Mom guilt aside, we have decided to put both kids in daycare 2-3 days a week. They are so social that they will/do love it and we can actually get some work done during daylight hours (well now and I writing during daylight but have 2 children climbing on me/feeding me pretend cake/taking decorations off the Christmas tree/harassing our poor dog taking a nap by the fire). Can you tell by my sporadic writing? Ha!
Daycare is only possible though because we live in Canada. We could never have done any of this in Switzerland. Yes, we are practically giving a way our herbs and make a fraction of what we earned there in our office jobs, but here childcare is subsidized when you need it. Healthcare is free (and I had a cancer scare this year so that would have been very beneficial) and I assume we will soon get childcare allowances again. Not to mention covid relief funding. This has made a huge difference to us and allowed us to keep going. I am so grateful my parents immigrated to Canada and I was able to sponsor my partner to come here – great people, great weather, beautiful surroundings, and important support for small businesses.

 

Our plans for next year? Passing the last hurdle to be certified organic. Building a processing/drying facility for herbs next to our house with our covid relief loan. We wanted to get that money back into other small businesses in the area ASAP. And, cultivating pretty much double the amount of varieties and quantity next year. Oh, and hopefully learning to raise lambs. Let’s all hope covid lets the rest go according to our hopes.

My happy place: the Greenhouse

My happy place: the Greenhouse

Hopefully this won’t jinx the whole thing but I am starting this post before we finish the greenhouse – since it is taking so long!!!

I really cannot think of anyone who would dislike greenhouses but for me, greenhouses are my happy place and this greenhouse has been in the works since we bought the house. After purchase we asked my brother-in-law to check out the part of the garden/house where we wanted so we could build the greenhouse before we had even arrived in Canada. Fortunately, he told us to wait until we arrived since it would be complicated, and he was right. 

Originally, we wanted a greenhouse attached to the house. We were in contact with BC Greenhouse and they designed one for us based on our specifications. BC Greenhouse delivers greenhouses into kits and you assemble them yourself. The greenhouses are $15’000 for a basic model and can get much more expensive. The attached greenhouse was expensive but that isn’t why we had to scap the idea, there ended up being regulations restricting building a roof under where the electricity cables attach to the house, and the south side of the house is where our electricity cables attach to the house.  

We had the option of putting an electricity pole in the middle of our vegetable garden and then running the cables underground to the house, thereby removing the part of the roof where the cables attach, but that would have added an extra $10’000 to the budget. Also, I didn’t really want a pole in the middle of the garden. So we decided to buy a traditional model and put it the required distance from the house. 

Things did not get easier though. We wanted to place the greenhouse the permitted distance away from the house but in the same location but we already had a peach tree there which produced the most delicious peaches. Alternate locations were in front of the house (didn’t work because of the septic tank + field), or in the corner (didn’t work because of the same power lines), or on the edge (didn’t work because we needed a buffer between the property line and the structure). After many exchanges with the district and our contractors, we finally decided to go where the peach tree was. We then applied for the permit and settled on the second contractor we spoke to (the first just stopped e-mailing after sending us the quote…)

Now came the first fun part, moving the peach tree. I called 4 landscapers/tree care companies and none would move a tree. One said he would think about it for $500 but I should just do it myself with a digging machine and it would be easy. Well, instead, I watched a few YouTube videos and tried myself with Rob. I dug a huge hole where we wanted to put the peach tree, watered the peach tree for a couple of hours and then started digging around the peach tree. You can look at the pictures to figure out the rest! Surprisingly, however, the tree is doing well months later. We will prune off all flowers next year, as suggested by our neighbour Gerald to Rob, to make sure the tree puts all its energy into the roots and survives future years.

Then came the wait for the permit, the inspector’s visit and the foundation work. We loved our contractors, Trust in Trades, they helped with advice, getting the permit, and are generally great people. We’ll even use them for other projects like changing the siding on the house that also needs to be done soon.

There were so many steps to building a foundation. I hadn’t realized. The initial digging, making the forms for the footing, pouring the concrete for the footing, building the forms for the walls, pouring of the concrete for the walls, removing the forms and, finally, the backfill.

We had the option of paying a little more for parts of the greenhouse to be pre-assembled in the factory, and to have someone come to our place for 10hrs to guide us in building. Money well spent!!! Within 10hrs, Rob, the helper (who turned out to be the son of the owner of the company and had already built 1000’s of greenhouses) and my sister’s boyfriend, Kirk, built the whole thing in the 10hrs. Without getting those extra steps it would have taken us weeks to figure that kit out.

Then the concrete truck had to come back a third time for the pouring of the slab. We poured the slab after the greenhouse was built because of the weather conditions. It was never going to dry in November covered in snow. This meant that it had to be poured by 4 people carting wheelbarrows full of concrete from the truck to the greenhouse. It took a day and they sloped the slab on our request for drainage – there is a pipe from the middle of the greenhouse that drains to outside. Rob had stayed home every step of the construction to watch over things and help out but on that last day he came out with us. When we got home we all put our hand prints in the concrete 🙂

When the concrete dried we needed an electrician to come and hook everything up. In a couple of visits, an electrician sent to us by our contractors had the sub-panel, lights and 4 outlets installed. The outlets power 2 heaters/fans that we run in there. We hesitated between propane, a wood stove, heated flooring, solar panels or electric heaters for heating and settled on the electric heaters. There isn’t enough sun in our valley for solar panels and we couldn’t keep a wood stove running 24/7 for months, not to mention how hard it would be to control the temperature. Electric is also cheaper than propane so we chose electric. When nothing is growing but we don’t want the plants to die we keep the minimum temperature 5-7°C in there, and when we will start to grow we will increase the temperature a bit and heat the soil with mats (since the temperature of the soil is what matters). The lights are also very bright and sufficient for seedlings, so we will not make a germination chamber for seedlings. We will just grown on our tables and see how it goes.

If Monty Don has taught us anything about work in the garden, it is that a finished project needs to be celebrated. We also love our neighbours and it was an excuse to have people over. So we invited 12 neighbours over for drinks and food after completion. Sixteen of us fit comfortably inside and we stayed in there late into the night talking. A perfect way to pass from finishing the building to the PLANTING!! Oh, but first Rob needs to build a ton of tables of different heights and shelving for the 50 seed trays we will have growing in there. Good luck with the tables Rob and thanks for the greenhouse.

Canning, the silent killer

Canning, the silent killer

I wrote this post & title in harvest season but never posted it as I thought it was too negative. After reflection, it isn’t that bad and even if it was, I should be transparent about life here.

Well I totally and completely underestimated that part of farm living. It almost defeated me but I am still standing!

As I write this there are still plums in the fridge laughing at me, well they’ve been laughing for quite a long while, but I’ll get around to them, I hope.

Actually, when we made the big mistake of picking all the hundreds of peaches at the same time and a huge part of them went mouldy in the unplugged fridge in the basement (not sure how that happened) at first we were upset and afterwards I was quite relieved. We had already canned 20 jars, made jam, frozen bags and bags and given boxes away. Problem with peaches is that you have to peel them like tomatoes. They are so tasty and we were so incredibly lucky to have them but they were small and so more work to process. One thing I learned is that we should have been pruning the flowers/small peaches so that the other peaches would get bigger. Something to note for next year. 

Harvesting and freezing and canning is a constant stress on your mind. You pick the veggies/fruit and the canning book says that you need to preserve them immediately. How? Everything is getting ripe at the same time! And, it is still nice enough in late-summer/early autumn to enjoy the last days outside in the sun. Why would I want to spend 5 hours a day in front of a hot stove and getting all sticky with hot jam? And burning my hand repeatedly in the boiling jar water, then getting a huge wif of hot vinegar fumes and finally just being generally so stressed in the situation running from the jars to the veggies to the recipe and back in double-time. 

We ended up spending at least an evening a week, usually more, for the past 7 weeks, canning. We ended up with about 88 jars. At the beginning we did it together but now it’s just become work so we alternate. Rob is in charge of jams since I am in charge of bread. I mostly do the pickling. I screwed up that one a little since I have to make bread every few days all year and jams are only in harvest times… However, contrary to canning, bread is getting more fun to make now that it looks and tastes like actual artisanal bread and not loaf after loaf of accidental flat bread.

So what do we do next year when the harvest in the veggie garden is actually good? Not to mention having all the herbs process that we need to make a business with. After we put in the manure in the veggie bed I hope we will have more than this year’s stunted growth. Apparently the Douhkabours all get together and can in huge groups. My sister also told me her friend gets a WWOOFer to take care of the children during the day and she does canning marathons by herself. Well, neither of those sound like much more fun.

Then there is the question, how are we supposed to eat all these pickles?? It’s like, we have enough pickled peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, onions, etc. to have a can a week for the next year. Don’t get me wrong, we also canned tomato sauce, grape juice, tons of jams, plum sauce, etc. but there  is a very large quantity of pickled veggies. Are we supposed to change our diet to include more vinegar soaked veggies? Currently we eat pickled veggies at lunch with eggs and bread, any more than that and I think I’d get a hole in my stomach. We gave tons of jars away but we are trying to be self-sufficient here so the objective is to live on what we produce. 

The alternative to pickling is freezing of course, or drying, or storing without freezing. Storing without freezing is way too hard. Living in Switzerland we lost way too many veggies to mould when we didn’t store properly. The carrots in sand actually disappeared. Did mice eat them? Did they disintegrate? It was very strange. For veggies, freezing is the only viable alternative and with blanching and laying things on sheets to freeze properly, it’s almost as much work as canning. Drying is going to become life now with all the herbs and luckily I don’t mind that as much. It has to be a sunny day to pick herbs but I’ll need to make a nice processing table.

Anyway, I am happy we had such a good harvest but I’m especially happy canning, freezing and drying season is DONE!! Whoop whoop! (let’s just forget about those plums in the fridge, oh, and the ones still on the tree!)

Money.

Money.

You can dress it up as much as you want, “financing” or “funding” but it all comes down to the same thing. How are you buying your farm, buying all the many supplies and packaging and seeds and greenhouse and sustaining your life? Where is the money coming from?

So far we have been incredibly lucky. I spent the past 10 years saving a third of my paycheck in Switzerland (even when I really didn’t want to!) and Rob got an awesome consulting contract when Klara was born for a year, so that helped us tremendously. In addition, my old employer gave me a consulting contract when I left. It has been a few hours a week for 8 months but since it is a Swiss salary, it has been really helping.  Despite all that though, when I just put in all our receipts in excel I saw that we have already spent $96’000 here! That is only receipts that can be linked to the business!! Not including food, 1-2 times per week daycare, dental bills (there were a lot this year) or even including Sam’s birth that we paid for. I know it is normal starting a farm, especially with a greenhouse with a proper foundation and permit and a brand new walk-behind tractor, but I am still blown away.

How long will it take to get a return on these purchases?

But then I think. We didn’t come here to make money. We came here to get away from the 45 hour work-weeks and commuting and never seeing our family. We came here to reduce our footprint, eat better and help others eat better. We came here for so many reasons and none were linked to money. It’s hard though, it is very hard to spend your savings and pension (I was given my pension in cash when leaving Switzerland).

 And now I have applied for a temporary contract over the winter to give us a little extra income. It’s just 60% for 3 months, an easy job to learn Canadian Health & Safety legislation and practices, but it is really hard to think about getting it. Although, I am still in shock by our spending, I do not want to go back to work. Driving 40 min each way and not being able to invest all my free time (when children are sleeping or at daycare) in developing this business is hard to think about. This is winter though and there is very little to do outside on the farm, I need to take whatever work I can get.

Rob still cannot work or study in Canada. His permanent visa application is progressing but he still hasn’t had any confirmation and he is taking this very seriously. I have suggested an online FoodSafe course, since we need that anyway, and he won’t do it. I do understand though, if something screws up and he doesn’t get that permanent visa, our whole dream is gone before we’ve really started.

Another option is grants, normally you are not supposed to spend your own money on your business, this is a big mistake we might be making. I’ve looked around and haven’t found any grants that would apply for us. Even to fund our organic certification. However, there are surely some. How do other people start farms when they don’t have their pensions to help?

The reassuring part of it all is that if we don’t make a dime, if we lose our savings (I won’t spend all my pension!) then at least we can go back to work. We will just move back to a city and get normal jobs again. What a glorious time that would be! Need to stay positive so that never happens!!!

ADDITION: I got the job and I’ve just had my first day. The working days in this union job are 8am to 3:30pm so my working day is still in no way comparable to what I was doing before. Phew!

Goodbye piggies, see you on my plate

Goodbye piggies, see you on my plate

Well today was the day of slaughter for Billy and Bobby. It took weeks of searching to finally find someone who would come and kill them for us. We could and maybe should have done it ourselves, but we were in office jobs only months ago! This is a big step. Normally the “Kill Billies” do the killing around here but they retired. We were getting scared and Rob started looking up how to do it ourselves (meaning we’d have to borrow a gun) when our neighbours who are the local butchers gave us someone to contact. That person put us in contact with a young guy who used to work in a slaughterhouse and now wanted to make this a business. So he came over and did it for the first time privately, meaning he came with no equipment other than a rope, bar, knives and a gun.

So you might be interested in how it went in case you want to do this yourself, or are just curious. If you aren’t then you probably don’t want to read this post.
Paul (I’ll give him that name as I don’t think this guy is registered as a business yet), came over this morning at 7:50am just as Rob was putting the final touches on a 9-foot high A-frame hoist he made (in a bit of a panic I must say as it was a bit wobbly). We asked around for a tractor with a bucket on it that could lift to 9-feet but couldn’t find one so had to build the frame. We weren’t supposed to feed the pigs for 24hrs before to have their stomachs empty, but Rob gave them some hog grower pellet food soaked in half a bottle of brandy just before anyway, to calm them down. Other things we needed were a hose nearby, a place to put the guts/skin/head (which was put in our compost and covered with considerable horse manure that we had gotten from a neighbour), and the truck beside ready to go. Rob also setup the walk-behind tractor to use with the hoist to pull up the pig.

I went to help finish the wobbly A-frame as Klara watched some cartoons and then when I was back inside, at 8:39am, I heard the gunshot. It took them an hour and a half to drain the blood on the field, drag the pig from the pen across a patch of grass and down to the truck, hoist it up (the walk-behind only helped a tiny bit) and cut it up. The second (bigger) pig waited in the field. No screaming or even anything from that pig. Maybe that was due to the brandy.

When I returned from dropping Klara at preschool, with Sam sleeping in the back of the car on this cool autumn day, I wandered down to help. Paul was sawing the pig in half and bagging each half in a white cloth.

They told me they’d need help with the second pig as it was too big. Paul even asked me to call the butcher and ask if we could bring it whole dead pig there and use their hoist as the three of us + tractor wouldn’t be able to pull it up. Even if it did, would our wobbly A-frame hoist support the weight? When I was walking to the house to make the call (which was fine with the butcher in the end, they are good friends to have!), Rob called out and asked if I wanted to see them kill the second pig. I said yes.
When I returned Rob was scattering pellets on the ground and Paul was taking aim with the rifle. He made a mental X between the ears and eyes (do not shoot between the eyes he said) and shot. With one shot in the brain it was obvious the pig was dead immediately. How awful to watch. It was a first for me and quite a shock. I pictured the life leaving the pig as it twisted and turned on the ground for a good few minutes. After 2minutes Paul put a knee on the neck of the pig, facing away from me. I thought he must be tender at heart after all as he was holding the shaking pig down. Rob even followed and held the back down. I came closer and walked around the pig and realized Paul hadn’t been holding it down but slitting its throat, there was a large pool of blood forming around the big slit.

After a few more minutes it was time to drag the pig. They each took a foot and told me to grab the ear. We needed to drag it headfirst to avoid pulling against the grain of the hair, as it would make the dragging harder. Rob could hardly get a handle on the ear on the first pig so before I grabbed it Paul poked a hole in the ear and told me to put my finger through to use it as a handle!!! No way. I said there was no way I was putting my finger through a hole in the pig’s ear. Definitely not after the shock of seeing my first animal killed. So Rob did it. He was also a little shocked I think but he had to kill chickens and rabbits, etc. during survival camp in the military. I guess just the fact that he was in the military helps. When I was dragging the pig by the foot the skin felt so human. When they stopped for a break I just held on to the foot for a while, it was so strange. Then we very awkwardly lifted it into the back of the truck using the wheelbarrow and off they went to the butcher.

At the butcher, they had to wait a while. Another man and family showed up at the same time with a dead elk in the back of their truck. They had gutted it and skinned it before – not sure where. Paul and Rob were able to use a proper hoist though and did what they needed before putting the half-pigs in a large freezer containing a cow, sheep, and now elks and pigs. We have to wait 10 days for the cuts, they seem to have good business!

Rob returned with the innards/skin for the compost as the butcher didn’t want to put those in his garbage, we kept the feet for the dogs. We had three pages of possible cuts of meat to choose from so Rob just chose a variety. 3 hams in one side, bacon, various kinds of sausages, etc. Now we wait.

I will miss the piggies. I will miss putting any and all food waste in the pig bucket in the kitchen (except bones and citrus pretty much) and having to go feed them twice a day. I’ll miss them escaping all the time and seeing Rob flip out whenever they break through the fence. I’ll miss worrying about them in the night and hearing them smash into the metal fencing as they fight. But, I’ll enjoy them in my plate and I know for sure we’ll get more some day. They did do a fantastic job of digging up and fertilizing the field we put them in. Goodbye piggies.

Fitting in, in the Slocan Valley

Fitting in, in the Slocan Valley

Slocan Lake, as seen from Idaho Peak

Most of my postings make it sound like we are completely isolated here. I did enjoy having time as a family when we arrived but we are by no means alone. The valley in which we live, the town, even the neighbourhood, are all full of very interesting people and things to do. The thing is, everybody is so very different from each other.

I’ve been trying to learn more about the area, reading about the Doukhobors (Russian pacifists who were exiled and setup communities in the valley where we live), the Sons of Freedom (a sect of the Doukhobors who set fire to their own homes while standing naked in protest to the government, had their children taken away to residential schools and who made terror attacks), also reading about the Japanese interment camps that were setup to take Japanese during WWII (but the Japanese had to build their own homes with no insulation and had little food the first winter). This valley has a lot of history and I don’t remember learning about it in school.

One thing I don’t know much about is aboriginal people. So when my sister sent me the link for a free 8-week program learning about aboriginal culture I jumped at it. Topics to be discussed were herbal baths and ethnobotanical education, perfect! I signed up without another thought. Two weeks later I looked up the dates to put them in my calendar and came across another part of their website. It reads, “Who: self-identified Indigenous cis women and their families, as well as other marginalized populations such as trans, 2 spirited and intersex women.” Apparently, the course is about learning to deal with trauma. This is about the trauma the aboriginal people faced in their lives or past generations. While I am very glad this workshop exists, I am also very glad that I didn’t show up there the first day as unaware as I was! How embarrassed I would have been to be selfishly there just to learn about herbs in their culture.

Some of the people around are very different to those that I’ve met before, especially in Europe. I love Europeans (why I lived there for 11 years and live with one here!) and I am Canadian and grew up in Canada, but these are not Europeans or Vancouverites. There are real hippies here, many people who grew weed for years and years to sell (and who think our herbs are weed despite our explanations), others who take drugs for spiritual journeys, and those who arrived here buying a section of forest and did absolutely everything themselves by hand. Some people live in Nelson and see others every day; some live on their remote land and see others only when absolutely necessary.
I’ve had people tell me I look different, maybe that’s my Belgian heritage, and maybe some think our commercial approach is be boring, but we are having no issues making friends and really like and respect our new friends and neighbours.

The thing about life here in the Slocan Valley and the Kootenays is that because people are so different, as long as you respect them and their history and differences, it seems that you can live together and appreciate each other.

Little Slocan Lake, where a family with 100 sheep, etc. lived in isolation for decades

As for selling herbs, no matter their background, most people respect their bodies and mental health. Therefore, for people here and elsewhere, we need to find out which herbs help people instead of just what is easiest to grow.

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