BATTERSEA, ON – It wasn’t until Ian Stutt headed off to university – where he got his degree in development studies – that he began to consider a career in agriculture.
“I grew up in the west island of Montreal in suburban Beaconsfield, not in a rural area,” he explains. “My grandparents had a farm where they raised highland cattle, chickens and hay in Brome, Quebec and I would often do some gardening with my mom. I planted trees for a couple of years and worked in an arboretum. So the interest of working outdoors with soil was always there.
“But it wasn’t until university that I started to see the subject from more of an intellectual perspective, seeing its importance and relevance to everybody. There it was – this world that just popped up in front of me while I was studying. It was a world I wanted to learn more about it and get involved in.”
From there he moved on to the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary in Kingston, where he met with Carol and Robert Mouck. They had helped to establish the sanctuary in 1999, working with about 400 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs they had grown and saved from Foxfire Farm in Nappanee, Ontario since 1974.
A position had opened up for seed saving in gardening. Ian took the opportunity, got involved and learned a great deal from the experienced older couple. He worked with them through 2004, dealing with vegetable, herb and flower seed saving, all the while learning about vegetable gardening. Then he met Megan Joslin, who had just started a farm called Patchwork Gardens near Battersea, about 20 minutes north of Kingston.
They got married and had a little boy Sam. He got involved in the business in 2006. Now they work alongside co-owner Eric Williams, his wife Julie and their two boys Liam and Colin. The farm is on Eric’s 120-acre property, where he and Julie live. Ian and Megan reside about five kilometres away.
Of the total acreage, 12 acres is dedicated to certified organic production. About 1/3 of the produce goes to their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model, another 1/3 to the farmers market in Kingston and the remaining 1/3 to area restaurants and retailers like Tara Natural Foods, Old Farm Fine Foods and a host of others.
“Business is growing steadily every year,” says Ian. “I believe the appeal is the freshness, taste and quality of truly local produce and that identification factor. There is a real connection to something unique, a story that includes the excitement of having those relationships between us at the farm and other businesses.
“This season it’s now a year-round operation with a winter CSA, in addition to the weekly pickups. There are 80 households that pick up box of veggies. That goes on to mid-March and then we start the next season. All of our products are grown, cultivated and harvested on our land and we start many of our seedlings initially in the greenhouse.
“We also have certain crops like tomatoes and basil growing in the greenhouse through the main season and use it to hold on to some crops like kale and chard, greens and spinach that we pick now for the next CSA pickup. In addition to vegetable storage, we have put a new focus on growing late season root crops and building our cold storage capacity to hold those things right through the winter. All of our produce is certified under Ecocert Canada.”
Ecocert Canada started its activities in 1995 under the name Garantie Bio. The founding members, Jean Marc Aubé and France Gravel, from the organic sector of Quebec, had high-quality expertise in organic certification.
“I was always keen on the work load,” continues Ian. “I knew from the start it would be hard but what I found surprising and still do is the enthusiasm and passion of new farmers, who are attracted to the kind of work involved.
Value of workshops
“You find out quickly that you have to develop a sense of how to run a business and how to make the venture worthwhile and financially viable. That’s been the big need. The work can consume you. There is not a lot of room for anything else so you need to make sure this all adds up in the end.”
In addition to the work on the farm, he says they all realize the need for and value of workshops, seminars, courses and continuing education to keep them on top of current trends and the ever-changing demands of their chosen profession.
“In the last four or five years there have been seminars on business planning available, dealing with everything from spreadsheets and budgeting to cash flow,” Ian explains. “These are instrumental for new farmers to help plan for a business, monitor progress through a season, to understand the cost of production and how this reflects on your pricing.
“This represents a series of steps you need to move ahead and sustain your business over time. Organizations like the National Farmers Union, FarmStart, Canadian Organic Growers and the Ecological Farmers of Ontario have worked hard to make these kinds of programs and workshops available to new farmers. Without them, it would be quite a messy picture.”
As for agriculture still being a viable industry for new farmers, Ian qualifies his answer by saying it is not an absolute yes for all those who decide they would like to become farmers.
“In many cases it’s not yes,” he says. “You see there is the need for some sort of a foothold during the first 10 years and when I say foothold, I mean like a partner who works off farm to help with the costs (Megan works three or four months during the winter at Tara Natural Foods and Julie is a nurse), family support or even starting an enterprise on an established family farm. Without any of these, the chances of actually succeeding are quite low.
“We had family support because the land was from Eric’s family. That was vitally important. We also have this unique and wonderful partnership with two families. That is our biggest strength, as we all share the management of different aspects of the farm like production, staffing, marketing, financing and planning.
“Quite often you see a single family where only one or two people are trying keep up with all these dimensions. It can often be too much. It takes time to develop a system of trust but we have a vision. We see ourselves now as being in a stronger position because there are more of us and we’re not individually swamped or overwhelmed by everything.”
On the financial side, Ian credits the assistance of Communities Future Development Corporation which gave them two zero percent interest loans to help develop their operation’s infrastructure. Beyond that, they use a percentage of their annual income to cover equipment costs.
“That is great challenge for new farmers,” Ian adds. “Just when your income is probably at its smallest stage, you still have to invest in your infrastructure. You need a good sense of how to manage this situation and that is not easy to learn or even to be taught. This can make or break a situation, essentially how to get to that magical 10th year without putting yourself over the edge.
Feel more confident
“I’ve never felt better about it. There are still some major questions about direction but we generally feel more confident. Patchwork is going into its 10th season. I joined in the second year with some things already in place like production methods, markets and reputation of brand. It’s somewhat less hectic now.”
In terms of goals, he wants to get to the point where they can make the choice of farming full-time. With this his first winter where he did not have to take on an off-farm job, he would like to say in two years that option is no longer necessary. Currently they hire four to eight seasonal employees.
“For me this was sort of my leap of faith winter but I would love to see year-round job opportunities here at the farm,” Ian says. “If we can evolve the business into a position where we can have at least one or two positions year round, it would be a huge advantage to the farm. We could move things forward.
“Our children working on the farm …maybe down the road. Their children are three and one while Sam is now five. They’re learning and having fun. We’ll see if they want to become new farmers further along.”
“Right now we are helping develop a vibrant local food system. This is central to our vision, so we host many workshops on the essentials of growing, processing and preserving locally grown food. We encourage our customers to be involved in our CSA by working and learning in the gardens with us on one of our CSA member work-bees, and by getting a sense of how your food is grown by coming out to our open house and workshops. It’s a unique adventure.”
For those interested in learning more about Patchwork Gardens, log on to http://www.patchworkgardens.ca/.