Susan Moore tells me she is an “above average” farmer. “Meaning I’m older than the average age of farmer,” she laughed. I laughed too, but the aging farming population is a growing concern. The average age of farmers in BC is fifty-eight now.
“I look at the farms around me and there’s a guy who just turned sixty-five. At the next nearest, the couple is in their late sixties or seventies. The youngest nearby farmer is forty-five. We’re all getting on,” she says.
Getting young people interested in farming is a challenge, but even for those who are keen, it is getting harder and harder for them to access land and get the training they need. But this experienced farmer has been sharing her wisdom and her land with young farmers for more than a quarter century.
Susan farmed in Mission, BC for twelve years before moving to Sorrento, a small rural community between Kamloops and Salmon Arm. With the help of her son and daughter-in-law, she grows a line of vegetables: onions, turnips, parsnips, carrots, beets, squash; some medicinals and flowers on about fifteen acres of the 126 acre farm she now calls home. She sells the produce at the local Sorrento Farmers Market; to Urban Harvest, an Okanagan produce delivery service; and to Biovia, a Vancouver-based organic wholesale distributor that caters to restaurants. Notch Hill Organics is certified by North Okanagan Organic Association (NOOA); they’re one of only three produce vendors at the Sorrento market and all of them are certified organic.
So what does she do with the rest of the land? She grows some hay, raises a few head of cattle, and cultivates all her own starts and bedding plants in on-site greenhouses. “We have far more land than we can use,” Susan says. But that’s also where the mentoring comes in. She has hosted WWOOFers (willing workers on organic farms) and other apprentices over the years. “Lisa and David [of Urban Harvest] wwoofed with us one year,” she said. Rebecca Kneen interned there too. She and her partner now run Crannóg Ales, a certified organic farmhouse microbrewery in the area. One year, a young fellow named Patrick Steiner leased some land from her to grow seed. Steiner now has the successful Stellar Seeds that also operated out of Sorrento for many years. Steiner has just relocated to the Kootenays. The relationship launched a nice sideline for Susan too.
“It was getting harder for me to lug around a fifty pound tote of potatoes or squash,” said Susan. “Seeds aren’t that heavy!”
So now she also harvests seed from her vegetable crops. She selects the best of the best for her seed, continuously improving the strains for size, shape and speed of growth. Notch Hill Organics is in the middle of dairy country with very few vegetable farms around, so cross pollination is not an issue, an ideal scenario for seed growers. All of the seed is sold to Stellar.
“Selling seed gives me income at a time of year when I wouldn’t normally have any,” she says. She also feels strongly that farmers should know how to save some of their own seeds. “The seed industry has become scary,” she says. “Monsanto is buying up all the seed companies. If I want to buy gypsy pepper seed now, I have to buy from a company that is owned by them.” Monsanto is a biotech company known for genetically modifying seeds to make them compatible with their own fertilizers and pesticides. They have sued farmers for growing their patented seed without purchasing it. Monsanto’s most famous court case involved Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser and the Round-up Ready Canola seed that blew on to his land.
Many farmers feel the need to take back control of the seed supply and have started banking some of the rare and heritage varieties. Dan Jason, a seed supplier on Salt Spring Island maintains the Seed and Plant Sanctuary. He has also written an excellent book detailing how to save your own seed, called Saving Seeds As If Our Lives Depended On It. The Shuswap Seedsavers maintain an open-access, public seed bank in Enderby. The group also hosts a “Seedy Saturday” where local gardeners and farmers exchange seeds. Seedy events take place throughout North America and Europe now, usually in February and March.
Sowing seeds for the next generation of farmers is clearly very important to Susan. “We want to leave the farm in good hands, we want to protect it,” she tells me. Over the next five years, they plan to turn the farm into a co-operative. In the meantime, they’re also looking for apprentices for the 2011 season, which runs from May to late October. They invite inquiries for both opportunities.
For information on the Shuswap Seedsavers and the Enderby Seed Bank, contact: June Griswold, firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in BC Organic Grower, Volume 14, Winter 2011 Issue.