Young Agrarians is celebrating the seventh 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 2021 Mentee Cohort are hard at work planning for the season ahead and we are thrilled to profile them and celebrate their efforts!
My name is Hannah Lewis and I farm at Grounded Acres Organic Farm. My mentors are Ione Smith (Upland Agricultural Consulting) and Lydia Ryall (Cropthorne Farm).
Where do you farm?
We farm on unceded Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory in Gibsons, BC on the Sunshine Coast, a 40-minute ferry ride from Vancouver. The ferry makes it feel like we’re on an island but we’re actually on the mainland, just separated from the city by a big fjord and some epic mountains.
What do you farm?
We’re growing 40 varieties of mixed vegetables and strawberries, doing smaller quantities of seed and cut flower production and raspberries, and raising a flock of 100 laying hens. We plan to add another acre and a half in the next few years and eventually establish blueberries and tree fruits as well. We have dreams of integrating educational programming once we have a better sense of our land and the needs of our community, and will be expanding the seed production we already do (with the BC Eco Seed Coop) to produce a larger quantity of seed crops for BC farmers.
What inspired you to get into farming?
Food and place are at the intersection of so much oppression and healing – amongst us and with the natural world. I have been lucky to work with land-based urban and Indigenous programs focused on growing food as medicine, and in the last six years I found a real passion for small-scale organic farming while at UBC Farm: growing a lot of food to feed my community, in ways that walk gently on the land and work to restore ecosystems and support food justice work. It feels so good in my body, too! I love working outdoors, being so aware of bird song, the life cycles of plants, and the changing of seasons around me while I work.
What did you do to learn how to farm?
I started dating my farm mentor! But I also took the UBC Farm Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture, which was so valuable for giving me a solid theoretical and practical base for farming and giving me lots of resources and a network to reach out to for support that I’m still using today, 6 years later. After that, I worked as a field assistant for multiple seasons at UBC Farm and found that was an important part of my learning process, giving me the chance to learn from my supervisors and grow my level of responsibility a bit each year. I feel strongly that farming is a trade, like carpentry: there are a lot of concepts to learn but you also need to spend a few years working alongside mentors and experts to gain the experience to have a more successful start to your own farm.
What types of ecological farm practices do you use?
We are part of the BC Organic Program, as transitional to organic, and our produce and eggs should be fully certified organic by next season. We’re closely following the organic standards (my girlfriend is an Organic Verification Officer so she gets pretty nerdy and excited about them!). We also incorporate principles of regenerative agriculture and low-tillage methods as much as possible, and are always reading and joining workshops to learn more. Lots of great research is always emerging to help us better understand how to farm to mitigate climate change and our impact on our ecosystems so we have lots to learn still!
What type of business structure is your farm?
My girlfriend and I are co-owners, so our business is a partnership. We hear stories of success and struggle when couples start a farm together, so we’re trying our best to communicate lots, make time for ourselves outside of the business, and divide up tasks when we can! We try not to talk about the chickens when we lie in bed at night, but we’re not succeeding at that so far…
How much land is under production on your farm?
We are about to open 1.5 acres, of which 1 will be in mixed vegetables and strawberries and 0.5 will be in cover crop for the first year. Our chickens are on 0.1 acres of pasture. The land has been in pasture for a long time so we are hoping to get it out of grass and start managing the wireworm population as soon as we can.
What is your land tenure?
We are incredibly privileged that my mum sold her home in Vancouver to buy this property and lives here in the house with us. We will inherit the land from her eventually and in the meantime we have a lease agreement set up for our business to pay for the use of the land. We know how hard it can be for farmers in our region to access long-term land tenure so we hope to use ours to steward this land well and build a healthy farm ecosystem for decades to come!
Why did you apply for YA business mentorship?
We have so much to learn! While my partner and I have a decent amount of farming experience between us, we were less comfortable with the financial side and we need financing to start our business. This mentorship has been hugely helpful to enable us to put together a really robust business plan with the financial statements and projections that the banks want to see and that will help us track and manage our finances better. We also found some of the things we thought we knew about financial management were wrong, and we now have a great toolkit to start tracking and record-keeping right from the start in ways that will help our business long-term. Our production mentor was fantastic at keeping our vision realistic and appropriate for our region and our market, helping us tailor our crop plans to what we can actually manage and sell in our first year.
What is the greatest business challenge you face as a new farmer?
Access to start-up financing, either in the form of grants or subsidies or as loans with low interest rates and a long repayment period. It seems that in general financiers see farms as pretty risky, and are less familiar with the fact that farm business require many years of investment before they start making good profits.
What is your primary business goal for the season?
Provide food for the Sunshine Coast! Our region grows less than 3% of the food it consumes, and the mountainous topography of this seaside community means not a lot of it is well suited to farming. We want to grow as much nutritious, sustainably-produced food as we can and see it end up in the hands of our neighbours and community members.
What business tools could you not live without?
Our spreadsheets! Our seeding plan/log is a masterpiece of formulas and filters and guides us through the entire season, while providing such helpful information about the year once it’s over. We also rely a lot on spreadsheets to manage our to-do list (which is always longer than is physically possible to complete) and in the last few years I’ve honed my skills at navigating spreadsheets on my tiny phone screen with dirty fingers when I’m out in the field. Technology can be frustrating but having a spreadsheet in your pocket is pretty great! In the field, I couldn’t live without my colinear hoe: “thumbs up, blades down,” as we say, and such an efficient and satisfying way to weed if we manage to get to the weeds when they’re small enough. Maybe I love the colinear hoe even more for what it represents: the (perhaps unrealistic) dream that we’ll catch all the weeds when they’re small and never have to deal with pulling them on our hands and knees!
If you had a farming robot what would it be?
A documentary robot! I love the platforms social media and newsletters provide for story-sharing and building connection between us as farmers and the people who eat our food, but it’s so hard to stay on top of taking pictures and documenting what happens in the field when the season is underway. Maybe the robot can just buzz around in the background getting sound bites and well-lit photos!
How can we find out more about you, your farm, and its products?
Find out more about the Business Mentorship Program here.
This program is made possible with the generous funding support of Vancity and Columbia Basin Trust.