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Young farmers collaborate, form community through Maritime Small Farms Co-op

Happy members of the Maritime Small Farms Co-op include: Adam and Courtney Webster, left, Jocelyn Durston, and Anne and Joel Huntley with baby Connor.
Happy members of the Maritime Small Farms Co-op include: Adam and Courtney Webster, left, Jocelyn Durston, and Anne and Joel Huntley with baby Connor.

A growing sector in Valley agriculture is peopled by down-to-earth, social-media savvy millennials.  

Sarah Pittoello and her son, Llewyn, gaze at the growth in the greenhouse earlier this season.

Not raised as farmers, they often set out to farm as a new way of life. Here is a portrait of four such couples — Anne and Joel Huntley, Courtney and Adam Webster, Sarah and Joey Pittoello, and Jocelyn and Chris Durston.
Every week these farmers display beautiful produce at their collective booth at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market. That’s because they are a cooperative.
The Maritime Small Farms Co-op began this past winter and is farmer led.
Their other big initiative, started more recently, is involvement in the Wolfville Farmers’ Market WFM2go project. They also run a community shared agriculture (CSA) program that feeds city dwellers, and make weekly visits to the Tantallon Farm Market.
The women co-op members all agreed to respond to some questions about how they got involved in farming and what benefits they’ve discovered.

Joel Huntley is shown working with his draft horse Queenie at Moon Tide Farm in Scott’s Bay.

Did you grow up on a farm?
Neither of the Huntleys grew up on a farm, but “both of us were exposed to farm life from an early age.”
Joel Huntley spent his childhood down the road from the family farm and ‘helped’ with the fall butchering, while Ann Huntley's grandparents ran an 85-acre mixed livestock and grain crop-sharing farm near the small town where she grew up. She spent a lot of time there as a child.
Neither Sarah nor Joey Pittoello, of Rerooted Farm in Hortonville, grew up in farming families. Joey Pittoello had a close friend who was a dairy farmer and helped him a little when he grew up, and Sarah Pittoello spent time helping in her grandmother’s garden.
Jocelyn Durston, of Seven Acres Farm near Canning, was not a farm kid. She says she grew up in both urban and suburban environments.
Courtney Webster, of Old Furrow Farm in Port Williams, grew up in suburban Florida, but says her first experience with “where food came from” was in Grade 2 as the school had a garden.
“The kids were all shown what to pick if they wanted a snack during recess or lunch, which were both outside. I picked a green pepper and bit into it and something about it felt like complete magic!”
Her husband, Adam Webster, grew up next to his grandmother’s farm, which is the land they farm now. He spent most days after school with her and his siblings. His parents always grew a large garden of veggies and had some livestock.

Port Williams farmer Adam Webster has found even his dogs like to eat veggies.

What is the attraction in growing food?
The Huntleys began growing the food they wanted to eat. Moon Tide Farm was established in 2009.
They offer a variety of vegetables, canned and fermented foods, free-range chickens, pastured GMO-free eggs and pastured pork.
“As our skills improved, we knew we could feed more people the healthy foods we were enjoying, so we grew more. Nourishing our community is important to us as well as the personal politics of being the change you'd like to see in the world,” says Huntley.
“No one grows food on a small scale for fortune and fame — there is neither,” she adds. “It is more that we are positively contributing to the whole; educating our customers about real food, and staying (mostly) healthy in the process.”
The Pittoellos say they came to growing food on their 14-acres partially from an environmental activist perspective. That intent was augmented living on a small rural Japanese island for a few years where everyone grew their own food.
“When we returned to Canada,” says Pittoello, “Joey began to apprentice with an extraordinary organic farmer and everything grew from there.”
Webster says “so many things” attracted her about growing food.
“Being able to grow varieties from the 1800’s which more times than not have much more flavour and have a higher nutritional quality.”
She adds that, “food connects us all— to each other and to the land. Having access to good quality food, gives you a sense of freedom.”
In her early 20s, Durston became aware of the politics surrounding modern agriculture, the inequalities related to it, and the unhealthy way (for the planet and everything on it) that food was being produced.
She says, she “first began growing food in order to have full control over where my food was coming from and how it was grown.”

Grace Huntley looks that the GMO-free pigs her parents are raising.

Is farming harder than you thought it would be? What is the best part?
Farming was a harder lifestyle than the Huntleys thought it would be.
Huntley acknowledges, that it “is a real struggle to make a living in this business as our culture is used to cheap food that is subsidized, ultra-convenient and not healthy.”
She notes that the best parts “are the calm of hands in the dirt, watching spring animals on pasture after a long winter, and the privilege of us working hard from our home and farm while our children are very young.”
Deeply committed to organics, Pittoello doesn’t recall they had any preconceptions that farming would be easy.
“I think the hardest piece is doing work you feel is important, and others say is important, and yet it’s so hard to make a living at it.”
She easily lists the best parts of farming: “being outside on cool mornings with a touque and a cup of tea and harvesting, engaging with the community at the farmers market, pulling beautiful food out of the ground, trellising and weaving tomatoes.”
For Durston, farming under the North Mountain, pests are her biggest challenge, especially when mosquitos are attacking.
There are the pests that “attack the crops I grow, but also mosquitoes, which are terrible in the summer on our farm. It’s hard to farm well if pests keep you from wanting to go outside,” she says.
The Durstons grow mixed vegetables, cut flowers, and make fermented products including sauerkrauts, kimchis and beverages.
Webster initially thought the sheer physicality of farming would be so much harder.
“I doubted that I would be able to endure, but your body is amazing in how it adapts and strengthens,” she says.
“The part that was much harder was finding a balance — something we still struggle with. There is one part of you that says work till you drop and the other saying take it easy and you never really know which part to listen to.”
For her the best part of being a farmer is “the self-growth, working with the land, being part of a bigger picture. Essentially through enriching ourselves, we are able to enrich the land and the people that surround it.”

Jocelyn Durston harvested garlic scapes off Seven Acres Farm near Canning.

Increased viability was found in banding together. Do you plan crops ahead of the growing season?
“We banded our businesses together to compliment each other rather than compete for similar markets, share our overhead expenses and time by consolidating many tasks under one roof, and to realize cost savings with bulk supplies purchasing,” Huntley says.
However, we also receive moral and emotional support in a rather isolating line of work, she adds, from colleagues who can truly empathize.
The co-op offers “a sense of back-up which we have never really had, and we have pushed each other to better our individual businesses and polish the kinks smooth.”
They did group crop planning this season as they are offering the CSA program together. In January, they gathered and listed all of the crops that they normally grew and then they each picked their top 10.
“We have all been growing food for more than five years, so we know what we do well. From there, we filled in the holes willingly,” says Huntley. “For us, it means not struggling with tomatoes, eggplants, and melons in Scott’s Bay this year and being able to focus on broccoli, cabbage, potatoes (and more).”
Courtney Webster notes that a rotating schedule between Tantallon and Wolfville markets is possible due to the co-op.
She adds that they are also able to direct extra CSA members to other co-op members.
“Every year our CSA fills up and everyone is not able to sign up. Also, the CSA shares are able to have a higher diversity of veggies, fruit and herbs from a farm that grows them really well. This is the part of the co-op we are most excited about,” Webster says.
“None of our farms use any chemicals.”
One chronic problem has been solved because planning reduces the number of varieties they have to grow, which helps in terms of sustainability for small farmers.
“We find that our market table looks amazing with all the variety of produce and other items available,” says Webster.
Olde Furrow is comprised of 140 acres of family land, but only a small percentage is actively farmed. They specialize in spray-free unusual veggie varieties, says Webster.
So far, says Pitteollo, the “best thing about the co-op has been having a tribe of support. It’s awfully hard to get farmers all in one place, but we all know how important it is to have active relationships with others who have the same commitments and are facing similar challenges.”
“I think that as we begin to set the framework for the co-op, there is so much potential for simplifying our own work and farms, sharing costs and administrative work, being able to serve larger markets without having to sacrifice our environmental commitments.”
And there’s just more support, she adds, along with the ability to do small things to increase the quality of their lives — including having the occasional weekend off.
Durston values the co-op because she’s been able to access more sales opportunities as “each of the farms brings previous buyers to the table that we weren’t all connected to individually.”
For Seven Acres Farm, the co-op gives them “the ability to sell produce through a CSA. We’re a small farm and don’t have the capacity to offer our own full CSA at this point, so being part of a multi-farm CSA means that we can still contribute without the overhead pressures of trying it to do it all ourselves.”
They specialize in heirloom tomatoes and are ripening over 50 varieties.


SIDEBAR
Growing young farmers
The Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network, also known as ACORN, has a new Grow-a-Farmer program. It lines up apprenticeship opportunities for participants.
ACORN-generated statistics indicate 77 per cent of farm operators have either a post-secondary degree or diploma.
Former Kings County farmer, David Greenberg, of Abundant Acres farm in Hants County, takes apprentices through the New Growers Program, which was initiated by the Sisters of Saint Martha in Antigonish. The program began four years ago.
According to results from the Nova Scotia Agricultural Department's Barrier to Growth survey in 2015, 76 per cent of farms that started up in the previous five years were on land purchased new, while only seven per cent took over family farms.
The survey indicated nearly half of new farmers — 45 per cent — are aged between 18 and 40. That compares to 44 per cent between 41 and 60, and 11 per cent over 60.
While the Saint Martha’s program is the only official mentorship program in Nova Scotia, there are numerous other informal situations where experienced farmers are mentoring novices.
A Statistics Canada study found the average age of Canadian farmers had reached 55 as of last year. There were also more farmers over the age of 70 than there were under 35.
The statistics agency also found that the number of farmers in the under-35 demographic rose to almost 25,000 between 2011 and 2016, representing the first increase in that category in nearly three decades.
That figure also includes a significant number of farms operated by young women. The increasing interest among younger people in organic and local food movements is spurring this growth.

Go online
Learn more about farming by visiting: Maritimesmallfarms.ca

 

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