B.C. Business Mentorship Network – Gibsons Farm Produce

Posted by Melanie Buffel on April 20, 2022 2 Comments

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!

My name is Alisha M’Lot, and I farm with my partner Evan Goh. Together we make Gibsons Farm Produce, our farm business housed on the larger Gibsons Farm. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have Robin Tunicliffe of Sea Bluff Farm as our mentor through the Business Mentorship Network. 

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

We farm on unceded Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory on the Sunshine Coast, named by settlers as Gibsons, BC. We are nestled under Mt. Elphinstone, waking to loud clouds that cling to moody douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar high on the mountain, and giving thanks to the fertile, clay-rich soils that were once, we’ve been told, a lake bottom. Here, amid the ever-present crackles and calls of the resident ravens, we grow about 50 different types of annual vegetables, doing our best to provide a holistic offering to our community, supporting both the human and the non-human with which we share this land. Evan and I grow as one part of the larger Gibsons Farm, owned by Robin Friesen and Jordan Maynard, which encompasses a myriad of coming together: farm-based children’s education camps, weddings, events and workshops, The ShortCut food truck, perennial blueberries and strawberries, as well as hazelnut and fruit orchards.

While Gibsons Farm Produce may tangibly farm vegetables, our hopes are that in the background, we are able to grow the intangible too – a chance for folks to come together over the land, to reconnect with the world around them, to delight in simple abundance, to learn the strength and capacity of their own two hands when sharing in partnership with their environment, and to offer daily celebration in the beauty of the everyday, whether that’s finding that juicy, sundrenched tomatoes have come into season, waking to a green new being sprouted from the soil, or breathing in the fresh scent of a long-awaited rain, bring new life to both the plants and oneself.

What inspired you to get into farming?

For as long as I can remember I have been in love with the natural world around me. I went around trying to save starfish at low tides from preying seagulls, writing poetry with calls to action for climate change, and reading every book I could find about whales. Yet I had never been to a farm beyond a pumpkin patch, didn’t know a single farmer, and had no inkling of the idea that growing food for a living was a real thing.

I always love being able to reflect and pinpoint particular moments or people who went into the making of who I am today, and the person who first brought inspiration to the world of farming was my ethnobotany professor, Fiona Chambers. Food systems were a large part of an environmental studies degree at UVic, however she brought those food systems to life, brought us out into nature to handle plants, to her farm, had us plant seeds and learn about traditional ways of living alongside plants. I became fascinated with the reality of farming, and for all we learned in the classroom, I yearned for real life experience, to meet and learn from folks who were active participants in the world, outside the constraints of classroom walls.

I took a year off of my schooling to WWOOF in New Zealand, and there met such a plethora of farmers living beautiful lives, working hard and relishing in the fruits of their labours. They were single handedly the most generous and welcoming people I’d met, not just to myself, but to every person who crossed their doorstep. Clare Belcik, in particular, I have so much to thank for her sharing of knowledge and spirit in those early days of getting to know what it meant to farm. I knew I had found my people – this, this spirit that came from kinship with the land, from knowing abundance even when life was simple, from being able to see the efforts of your hands and heart, literally blooming before your eyes – this was what I wanted. I fell in love with the way my body felt with physical labour, the way my muscles ached and recovered, the way I felt at home in my body for the first time. Farming in New Zealand brought me to a beautiful community of people and ideas, but it also brought me to myself.

Farming provided that impossible trifecta for me – the opportunity to spend my days in a way that feels meaningful for our shared planet, the fact that I actually relish in, and gloriously adore the work, and the final clinch, that it turns out I actually can earn my living this way.

And so I find myself here, endlessly wrapped in inspiration to farm. I pick thick, perfectly scalloped romano beans from trellises that tower over me in a jungle of green, and my heart skips about 12 beats. I pause a moment to watch a fuzzy bottomed bumble bee investigate my colourful shirt in the fields and enjoy that they’ve momentarily thought me a flower. I share laughs and exclamations of joy with equally adoring customers, as we gaze in awe over brightly coloured tomatoes and wildly striped eggplants. I nod quiet thanks to earthworms I pass in our soil, spend my days ensconced in birdsong, and take life lessons from every stage of seasonality we move through. I will wax romantic about farming because for me, quite honestly, it is, utterly so. There is beauty in the bloom, just as much as in the compost heap. The struggle and hard work makes my blood pump, feel every bit as alive as this farm around me. There is so much to fight for, advocate for, so much to work on and grow and change in this world of ours, and farming for me, feels like one small step into that beautiful world that I see possible.     

What did you do to learn how to farm?

We both came from a background of constant learning about nature, our environment, and food systems, partially from our academic backgrounds (mine, in environmental studies at UVic, his in biology at UBC), and partially from the fact that we were both kids fascinated with watching tiny wildflowers dancing, and endlessly reading all we could soak up. Evan was bolstered by the knowledge of plant biology that he learned in school, and I had gotten my toes wet WWOOFing, learning the basics of moving around a farm. However, Evan and I both have UBC Farm to thank for the majority of our learning.

I came to the farm through the UBC Farm Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture, spending April to October learning both theory and hands-on farming practices, worming my way into a job as CSA Assistant while still in the program. Evan joined the farm in the same year, coming to the team as Perennial and Volunteer Assistant. The following season I was hired on full time as Practicum Field Mentor & Brassica Lead, and Evan and I continued there until March of 2022, four years later. We had the opportunity to work with incredible farmers there, with enormous thanks to learning under folks like Hannah Lewis & Mel Sylvestre who now own Grounded Acres Farm, Katherine Hastie who now manages Tsawwassen First Nations Farm, and Mike Millar, who now co-owns Brave Child Farm. Our foundational farming skills came so much from these incredible folks. Evan and I were also given the opportunity to quickly take on responsibility at UBC Farm, as he became leader of the perennials, volunteers, seed program, and specialty crops, and I co-taught the practicum program I once took myself, additionally leading our brassica fields, hoop houses, and tunnels.

That all being said, we continue to learn to farm everyday. This is perhaps, partially what calls us both to farming. We are constantly asking questions, calling up our farm friends, thanking our lucky stars to have been matched up with our mentor Robin, reading new books, noting where water runs in our fields, what bushes are blooming when, and picking up handfuls of soil everywhere we go, a gentle caress of appreciation for the diversity and complexity of this moving world around us.

What types of ecological farm practices do you use?

We are farming very low-till here, working primarily with hand tools, a trusty broadfork, and favourite collinear hoe. Evan and I come from a background of organic farming at UBC Farm, where we learnt the practices of using cover crop, rotating crops by plant families rotations to prevent pests and diseases, and employing integrated pest management strategies. Gibsons Farm is not certified organic, however Evan and I are continuing the practices we learned previously, using organic-approved substances in our growing, working to build healthy soils, and create systems that self-mitigate pests and diseases.

What type of business structure is your farm?

Our farm is a sole-proprietorship, owned by Evan and myself. We have a lease at Gibsons Farm, which operates as a profit share model between ourselves and the owners. 

How much land is under production on your farm?

We have 0.46 acres under production.

What is your land tenure? Are there special relationships that enabled this?

We have a yearly lease at Gibsons Farm that is paid out as a profit share, with 70% going to Evan and myself, and 30% to the owners. In this relationship we also receive housing. I originally reached out to Gibsons Farm when a couple different farm friends who knew them let me know they were looking for someone to farm on their site, purely through word of mouth. We have been so grateful to have the help of Darcy through the B.C. Land Matching Program which we signed up for after having already agreed to enter into a contractual relationship. Darcy was able to help guide us with important questions and topics to cover, as well as turn our afternoon-written contract into a much more robust document that supports both the land-owners and growers much better. We are so grateful! I had also been accepted into the Business Mentorship Network, and Melanie was the one who originally set us up with Darcy, also providing a wonderful amount of support and help through this new process. Furthermore, we had the advice and knowledgeable ear of our Mentor Robin to ask us the big questions and share her insight along the way.

Why did you apply for business mentorship?

I have known of Young Agrarians for a long while, and we would often have Sara Dent come present to our practicum students, so I’ve often heard about the program. Our friends at Grounded Acres participated in 2021, and highly recommended I apply as well. And I’m so glad that I did! I really cannot express the number of times I’ve exclaimed aloud to Evan how incredibly helpful this program has been. Both of my sisters have started their own businesses, and I knew how intricate of a world it can be. Going into this new venture, I was in a place where I didn’t want to try halfway, keeping my foot in a paid job elsewhere, or trying to do it on the side. I’ve been thinking of farming on my own since 2013, and I was at a place where that no longer felt like a dream, but rather a practical reality.

Having such a wide network of farm-folks through UBC Farm, seeing the ins and outs of folks trying to start farms in various different ways as I taught, I felt incredibly committed to doing everything I could to make sure this worked for us, and the Business Mentorship Program sounded a perfect addition to our toolbelt. The personalized pairing of a mentor to you and your farm in particular felt like it would be a huge help. There is a never ending list of questions, decisions, and thoughts for you to work through in starting and running a farm, and having some who is fairly compensated and there for the specific task of mentoring you is an incredible gift.

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

I’ve never been one for a straight answer, and as any farmer will tell you to most questions – it depends. Surely, the greatest business challenge we face as new farmers lies between land access and finances. In truth, this has been less of a challenge for us at this particular moment in our lives, because we chose to lease land, and have whats more, entered this entire, ‘let’s move to the Sunshine Coast to farm’ conversation with plans of being extremely flexible, trusting in my roots of family and friends on the coast to help us figure out a way to grow once we got here. Instead, we happened upon Gibsons Farm, and the rest followed. We also are not facing having to invest in large infrastructure upfront, as much has already been established on the property and is included in our lease.

Leasing, of course, is a tricky subject in farming, and I hope that I do not do the farming community a disservice in saying that we actually do not want to own land right now. Absolutely, farmers need affordable land they can trust in and know isn’t going to be sold out from under them. They need landlords willing to provide long-term leases and true support of what farming looks like on their property. We need folks who understand a farmer on your property is much more than a tax-break, and that an empty patch of ground does not make a farm alone. However, for Evan and I right now, we are glad for a one year lease that allows us to get to know this land and see if it truly does make sense for our farm goals. In reality, our biggest business challenge right now feels like our very small scale, and the question of whether the two of us can sustain our livelihood by farming on 0.46 of an acre. This perhaps, does bring us back to the age-old land access question, farming forever, so intrinsically linked to land and place.

Our primary goal for this business season is to bring the land into solid footing, build our systems and develop strong processes that we feel confident in. This includes gaining a better, first hand understanding of our community and sales channels, so that when we finish this season we can confidently evaluate whether we think this site does indeed hold a place for us to continue to dig in, or whether realistically we need to look elsewhere. 

What business tools could you not live without?

Excel and Google Sheets? Working with Organic Certification and the huge number of site users at UBC Farm taught us extremely good record keeping and excel skills, which we now find is our go-to for just about everything. Name a record, we’ve got it!

If you had a farming robot what would it be?

If I could clone myself into a farm robot that had no farm skills whatsoever, but simply existed to answer my calls and emails, I’d be pretty thrilled. Evan, on the other hand, claims a money printing robot would mean we simply get to farm and give free food away, which sounds pretty ideal to me!

How can we find out more about you, your farm, and its products? (website, FB, insta, twitter handles)

You can follow us on Instagram @Gibsons.Farm.Produce and learn more about our whole site at www.gibsonsfarm.ca

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

2 thoughts on “B.C. Business Mentorship Network – Gibsons Farm Produce

  1. Just curious… re: Alisha M’Lot. Are we related in some way? My father was John M’Lot and I am Gale M’Lot. His brothers were Walter M’Lot, Henry M’Lot, Eugene M’Lot, and Teddy M’Lot, all deceased. Perhaps you are the daughter of Greg or Jocelyn, my cousins. Just guessing.

    As it is a highly unusual last name, particularly with that pesky apostrophe, I was just wondering.

    Kind regards,
    Gale M’Lot

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