PICTOU COUNTY, N.S. – While he always admired his parents’ agricultural lifestyle, 32-year-old Justin Smith readily admits he wanted to get away from the farm as soon as he was able.
“I went to college in Ontario and then took a job in California upon graduating,” said the successful garlic producer. “It wasn’t until I got away from the farming world that I gained a new perspective about it. I began to be inspired to return to that way of living.
“I met my wife (Corey) while I was living out west and together we decided to move back to Nova Scotia and try our hand at farming.”
Although he had no formal agricultural education, he obtained a degree in geology and worked in that field for five years. Today, in addition to the garlic operation, he also works as a sales representative in the sporting goods industry to supplement the income from their farming pursuits.
The garlic is grown on his parents’ land, with commercial sales of the product beginning five years ago. They operate under the parents’ farm name – Lansdowne Horse Logging. Of the 700 acres of family land, only 15 are worked as fields, pasture and garden space.
Justin, Corey and his parents work on the garlic operation, with occasional help from neighbours and friends during the particularly labour intensive steps – harvest time, cleaning and sorting the bulbs once they have been cured.
As for why he decided on garlic, he explains, “I saw an opportunity in garlic as a profitable crop to grow and was encouraged by a close family friend Lenny Levine, who pioneered the variety of garlic grown in Nova Scotia. Garlic is a unique compact crop with high value in the marketplace as well as long storage potential.
“The start-up costs were manageable enough, so we didn’t need any assistance. The biggest cost was for the seed. We have gradually built up our seed stock each year from the crop that has grown, so it was the only initial investment that was high. We use all organic farming methods – horse manure, wood ash and green manure crops to improve the soil health.
“We also use a team of draft horses to get the ground ready for planting – they plough, disc, harrow, spread manure, till and even make the raised beds for us.”
There’s no question farming is in his blood. He grew up on an organic farm that also operates as a horse logging outfit through the cold season, a strong indicator that his parents always endeavoured to be self-sufficient by living off the land.
While no heavy equipment is needed, Justin says you need to be able to cultivate and till your garden beds. The horses are a big help with that because of the scale of the operation.
“Garlic is truly a hands-on crop although I have been brainstorming ideas to mechanize some parts of the process,” he adds. “Garlic stays in the ground longer than most vegetable crops, planted in the fall and not harvested until the following summer. There are nine months of growing and three to five months of curing, cleaning and selling.
“About 15-20 per cent of our time is spent marketing. More time was required when we started out but now that we have established markets and repeat sales, most of our energy can be put into other aspects of the farm. We have sold in farmers’ markets, small green grocers, specialty shops and food co-ops.”
As for short and long-term goals, he says they take it one growing season at a time, looking to the gradual expansion of the garlic operation by a few hundred pounds a year. The objective is a successful crop but he adds that becomes more of a challenge with diseases like white rot as a real threat in their area.
“We want to eventually provide our customers with a year-round supply of local garlic,” he explains. “Our five to 10 year plan is to diversify. Besides growing garlic, we also keep bees and hope to grow our colonies enough to offer honey for sale.
“In the last year we have started a small goat dairy and would like to generate products and income using the goat milk. We also want to continue the family tradition of horse logging during the winter months.”
So exactly what advice does Justin have for other new/beginning farmers looking to agriculture as a career?
“Come into it with an open mind,” he says. “Be willing to work hard, be creative and be willing to ask questions and learn from the people within your farming community who have the experience. As young farmers, we have felt like there is an opportunity and support out there for us.
“There is a great deal of reward from planting a seed and helping its growth into a useful food product. It is also very tenuous because a lot depends on factors you can’t control, like the weather. That can make for stressful times and unpredictable results. You have to be ready for all outcomes in this great industry.
“In the end it is very special to be part of the agricultural process.”