As you might suspect, the name, Three Sisters Farm, was inspired by the Mayan (and other indigenous peoples) tradition of planting corn, squash and beans together. The three companions nourish and support each other. The beans wind their way up the tall corn stalks, stabilizing the corn plants and fixing nitrogen in the soil. The squash sprawl contently at their sisters’ feet, serving as a living mulch, preserving moisture and deterring weeds and pests. It was Katy Latham’s sister who came up with the name and yes, there are three sisters in the family. Family and friends have all pitched in to get this farm up and running, but the every day farm hands are Katy, her boyfriend David Cox, and her mom Joan Fallis. Three Sisters Farm is certified by the Pacific Agriculture Certification Society (PACS).
In 2004, Katy graduated from McGill’s school of environment in ecological agriculture and then worked on a number of organic farms in BC, Alberta and overseas. Five years later, she enrolled in UBC Farm’s eight-month practicum in sustainable agriculture. She and her family had been looking for property in BC while she was at school, and the moment she finished the farm program, they moved to the wooded three-acre property they had purchased in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast.
When it came to clearing the land, the trio got some much needed help from their resident dairy goats. They made a very conscious decision to raise goats rather than sheep. “Goats eat the local forage,” said Katy, “sheep don’t.” Apparently, goats love blackberries and salmonberries, which means the animals help to keep the forest from creeping into the planted areas, a mix of vegetables, berries, herbs and edible flowers. The goats also provide milk for the family’s personal use. There is an apple orchard on the drawing board, but the goats haven’t cleared the land yet!
It’s not only the goats that help with clearing, the chickens feed on local forage too. “All those greens make their yolks really orange,” said Katy. It increases the quality of the eggs and makes them less reliant on expensive grain feed. The eggs are a real draw. “People come for the eggs and then they buy other things,” said Katy. The 70 hens lay five dozen eggs a day and every day they sell out. Joan is in charge of the flock. Her qualifications? Katy claims she’s a natural, but her mom did grow up on a farm with chickens in rural Manitoba. When the hens reach the end of their laying days, David handles the slaughtering side of the business. The farm has an on-site slaughtering license. He also tends two beehives. “We don’t sell honey yet,” said Katy, “But the bees are awesome pollinators!”
During the summer months, loyal patrons flock to the stand set up at the end of the driveway. As is the custom in many rural locations, these farmers get paid on the honor system. Customers select their fresh produce and eggs, then drop their payment into the coin box. They also sell their goods at three farmers markets on the Sunshine coast. In addition, Katy is a founding member of the Gibsons Farm Collective; the three partner farms provide an on-line ordering service. Each week, regular customers receive a fresh sheet. They submit their custom order and then pick up their box at the farm during designated hours. Katy’s customers prefer that option in the winter months. Through the collective, Katy is able to offer a wider selection of items and it lightens the paperwork load for all. With all of these marketing options, Katy doesn’t have to go off the Sunshine Coast to sell her product.
Selling or sourcing materials off the coast is a real consideration when it comes to the bottom line. “There’s real value in getting things nearby,” says Katy. They do buy their hay, straw and feed from the Fraser Valley. “Even a few dollars a bag in shipping costs can really add up.” Gas and ferry rides are expensive too, so they try to keep their trips off the coast to a minimum. Instead, the farmers work creatively with the materials at hand. For example, they constructed their greenhouses from scrap metal. They find many reusable items at Gibsons Recycling Depot.
So far, the debt load is low because they haven’t made any large investments in the farm. Thanks to Environmental Farm Plan funding, they did install a kilometre of temporary electric fencing, so they can move the chickens into new foraging areas. They aren’t in a hurry to scale up. Katy supplements her farm income by working part time at a neighbouring farm.
Katy and her family love living in this idyllic setting, at the foot of Mount Elphinstone. But having a forest at your back door also means frequent visits from wildlife: bears, bobcats and cougars. Thanks to their three dogs there have been no incidents yet, but the clever ravens have figured out how to get into the chicken coop.
Finally, I had to ask: so do you grow corn, beans and squash? “Yes, a large patch every year,” Katy laughs. She grows a selection of pumpkins, like Rouge Vif D’ Etampes and New England Pie, as well as acorns, buttercup, sweet dumpling, red kuri and hubbards. “I cure the squash to sell with the eggs and a few greens during the winter,” Katy says. She finds the dried beans work best, fresh are too hard to pick in a dense cornfield. Words of wisdom, from one of three sisters.
This article first appeared in BC Organic Grower, winter 2013, volume 16, issue 1.