B.C. Business Mentorship Network – Clutch Farm

Posted by Melanie Buffel on May 10, 2022

Young Agrarians is celebrating the eighth year of the Business Mentorship Network (BMN) program. The BMN offers business mentorships  to a diverse array of new and young farmers across BC. Through one-on-one mentorship and peer networks, young farmers develop the skills necessary to operate ecologically sustainable and financially viable farm businesses.

The 2022 Mentee Cohort have been working and planning with the support of their Mentors and we are  thrilled to profile them and wish them lots of success for the year ahead!

Watch out for applications to open again in fall of 2022!

Hi, I’m Mel Weston, part of Clutch Farm alongside my partner Angela French. My mentor is Ann Wilby from Settle Down Farm in Grand Forks.

Where do you farm? Please include the traditional territory acknowledgement if you know it. 

We farm in the area now known as Salmo, on the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc, Sinixt, Syilx people.

What do you farm?

Our main focus on the farm is mixed vegetable production to sell via our CSA veggie box program, at local farmers markets, and our farm stand. We have a few beds in perennial production with some raspberries and asparagus, but mostly annuals in both field and high tunnel production. We also have a flock of laying hens and a few goats, which is what Angela manages as a “side hustle” from her full-time job off-farm.

What inspired you to get into farming?

I grew up on a hobby farm in South Eastern Australia where we had a good sized veggie garden, small orchard, laying hens, sheep, ducks, and occasionally pigs, so it’s been in my life since I was young. I really came to be inspired by farming during Univsersity studying courses centered on sustainable agriculture and international development. It really opened my mind to the issues and potential of food production on various scales and developed a bit of a dream to one day have a farm.

What did you do to learn how to farm?

I’m very much still learning to farm and always will be. There’s a lot to learn! However, I started out being involved in growing with community gardens and volunteered on a few farms via WWOOFing programs in Nepal and Canada. When COVID hit and I didn’t have work anymore we decided to jump into this farming thing, but I didn’t really have a great deal of experience. An opportunity came up to volunteer with a local farm here in Salmo and that then turned into paid part time work which I did alongside building up our farm for the first two seasons. 2022 will be my first year working full-time on our farm and I am super excited about it.

What types of ecological farm practices do you use?

We practice minimal tillage. We do an initial till to turn sod and build beds then we try to minimise soil disturbance from that point on. We are still learning methods to really bring the best out of this, including incorporating amendments and prepping beds for seeding but we’ll continue to develop this practice. We don’t own a tractor or even BCS and don’t really want to, at least not for market garden purposes. 

We try to leave most root mass in beds after we’ve finished harvesting, snipping stalks at/just below soil level and working around them for subsequent plantings, to help sequester carbon and feed soil biology.

Our between bed pathways are covered in woodchips to help with weed suppression, moisture retention, fungal relationships, etc.

We try to keep either something green growing in beds as much as possible or keep them covered. While we haven’t really gotten into cover crops yet as it’s something we are learning about and trying to figure out how to fit into our schedule with such a small space, but we do use tarps to protect the ground in lieu of cover crops.

We are dabbling in some inter-planting, more common partners like tomatoes and basil, but also peas and pole beans with roots or greens along the side, and in 2022 we’ll do more in order to fit everything in and try to get the best benefits possible. We try to ensure we have good beneficial plants including herbs and flowers for attracting beneficial insects and deterring pests. Sometimes these are planted directly into beds, others into pots and placed around the garden.

We’re working on rotating our laying hens around our pasture in a regenerative rotation, as with the horse which will now be back on the property. We are also seeking out more local sources for grains for the goats and hens to minimise the distance grains are shipped.

Although we aren’t certified organic, we abide by the organic standards and may become certified in future if we determine that it’s necessary, but as yet it seems folks trust us enough.

Plastic is also a big focus and a complicated issue. I worked in sustainability previously and worked in several outreach roles around waste, recycling, and food waste and find that it’s very challenging to manage competing concerns. Sometimes there are choices we need to make between using a plastic product or an alternative that has its own downsides and trying to balance the least bad of the two. We reduce plastic where we can, but food waste and food security across all seasons are also such big issues for society and our community so we balance reducing food waste and increasing production against some of the pitfalls of using plastic.

We have a composting program where we pick up food scraps from connections in Salmo and Nelson and combine it with manure, carbon, and greens either from our farm or local arborists to try to minimise the carbon footprint of the compost we use. It also helps with “closing the loop” from farm to table to farm for some CSA members.

What type of business structure is your farm?

We are a partnership.

How much land is under production on your farm?

We have just over a third of an acre in vegetables and fruit, that’s actual blocks and tunnels, not really the surrounding larger paths and green space. We have a further 2.5-ish acres that are used for the hens, goats, and a horse. The remainder of the property is riparian forest back onto the Salmo river – who knows what we might be able to do back there!

What is your land tenure? Are there special relationships that enabled this (family, BCLMP)? 

Angela owns the property. We feel very fortunate to have access to land we own and were able to secure at a relatively affordable rate as this is obviously a huge challenge for a lot of people.

Why did you apply for business mentorship?

I applied because I know I need to hone my skills around the business side of farming (and everything!) and felt some mentorship would be really beneficial. We’re focussing on growing the CSA side of our business, so I was keen for some extra knowledge and support in order to set that up as efficiently as possible. Going into my first year of full-time work on the farm I knew I needed to make sure that I upped my game in planning and organising. We’re determined to have a successful farm business, in the sense that it can provide a decent living and financially sustain itself while being environmentally positive, and a key way to ensure this is to utilise as many resources as possible, and the mentorship program being a really great way to do that.

What is the greatest business challenge you face as a new farmer? What is your primary business goal for the season? 

My greatest challenge is transitioning to full time work on the farm and being able to be financially successful – in our view of financial success – and try to have some semblance of work/life balance. We don’t want to be driven by money (frugal is my middle name), but, at the end of the day, if we can’t make the farm work financially it’s not going to be able to help the community or environment more broadly. This is really the main goal. We will measure our success largely by the volume we produce from our space, the income generated by that volume, and how that relates to my ability to pay myself for farming for the first time and be able to get our business into a sustainable financial position for future years.

What business tools could you not live without?

Right now, Wave and Airtable. Ann recommended Airtable for production and CSA planning and I can really see the potential there. I need to build my skills to get the best from it, but I am enjoying the functionality, plus it’s integrated with our CSA signup survey and streamlines that process for me. We’ve been using Wave, although I know bookkeepers aren’t as impressed, I like things that are functional and preferably free, so Wave has been great. So far it serves our purposes, it’s certainly made invoicing and follow-ups so incredibly easy I don’t know what I’d have done this year while selling our CSA subscriptions without it.

A tool I think I wouldn’t be able to live without when I actually get it finished and use it will be a cash flow analysis. I can see how this will be able to bring detail to farm finances over the course of the year, and help us to manage our cash flow effectively to literally be able to live.

If you had a farming robot what would it be?

Someone to do my bookkeeping. But I don’t need a robot for that, I just need to bite the bullet and hire someone as a treat to myself take some pressure off. It’s also tax time so that’s really front of mind right now! Otherwise, maybe something to make delicious meals for us. One of the ironies of farming is that although we love good food we often don’t make the time to make meals with love. We eat lots of healthy, flavourful food, but not always things we’ve put the effort into, particularly in the height of the busy season.

How can we find out more about you, your farm, and its products? 

Find us @clutchfarmsalmo on Instagram or search Clutch Farm Salmo on Facebook.

This program is made possible with the generous funding support of Vancity and Columbia Basin Trust.