B.C. Business Mentorship Network – Thimble Hill Orchard and Nursery

Posted by Melanie Buffel on September 10, 2019 2 Comments

Kim Watt in the greenhouse at Thimble Hill Orchard and Nursery

What is your name, where do you farm, and who are your mentors?

My name is Kim Watt and I run Thimble Hill Orchard and Nursery, just outside Nelson B.C. My business mentor is Chris Bodnar of Close to Home Organics in Abbotsford, and my production mentor is Richard Walker of Silver Moon Food Forest in Osoyoos.

What do you farm?

I grow edible and useful perennial plants through my nursery, and will be selling produce from the orchard once our young trees come into production.

The orchard includes nut trees, fruit trees, berries, herbs, and perennial vegetables that are being planted on just over one acre. It has familiar crops such as pear, mulberry, walnut, and apricot, as well as some more experimental for this region, such as jujube, persimmon, northern passionfruit, and pine nut. The orchard acts as the genetic library for the nursery, providing propagation material of hard-to-find perennial crops. I’m focussing mostly on species and varieties that are hardy, deep-rooted, disease-resistant, delicious, and not common in commercial production or in conventional nurseries. Rather than having a large yield of a few main crops all at once, the orchard is designed to produce a diversity of smaller harvests over a very long window in order to feed our family and supply a small future CSA box program.

This year I am focusing most of my energy on the nursery, which carries grafted fruit and nut trees, berries, medicinal and culinary herbs, flowers for beneficial insects, and perennial vegetable starts to be sold locally in the Kootenays. As this is the nursery’s first season and many of these perennials take several years, I have a more limited selection of plants available than I will in the future. 

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What type of business structure is your farm?

Sole Proprietorship

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

My partner and I own the land

What inspired you to get into farming?

I was fortunate to grow up in a family that really appreciated food, both in the garden and in the kitchen. My parents were organic berry farmers on the gulf islands before I came along, so homegrown seasonal food was a big part of our diet. When I was a teen, my older brother took a Permaculture Design Course and let me tag along with his friends on their plant studies and design projects, which really influenced me and got me hooked on regenerative agriculture. After leaving home, I started taking farming workshops, volunteering on farms, and growing my own gardens. In university I did an interdisciplinary degree with a focus on agroecology and food systems. Learning about the resource consumption, environmental destruction, corporate control, and social injustices of industrial agriculture fuelled me to get more hands-on skills and focus on the grassroots solutions out there.  

I attended the Linnaea Farm Ecological Gardening Program on Cortes Island in 2008, which was an amazing eight-month residential farming crash course that covered organic market gardening, animal husbandry, permaculture design, food preservation, and everything related to rural homesteading. The land and farmers at Linnaea were hugely inspiring, as were the other students in the program. That experience confirmed for me that I want a livelihood where I can work with plants and soil every day.  After the program I worked for various farms and orchards, a compost education centre, a community food centre, and other agriculture and food security organizations. Working in a variety of settings, visiting regenerative farms, and doing self-directed learning in plant propagation and agroforestry helped me refine my plans on what type of farm business I want to create.

My grandmother used to say that your purpose in life is where your greatest passion meets one of the world’s greatest needs. For me, perennial agriculture is where it is at. A diversified orchard, even on a small scale, has the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon, build and conserve a living soil, filter and store water, create a vibrant ecosystem, consume minimal resources, withstand shifts in weather and climate, and continue to produce food for generations. The more land we have in resilient perennial crops, the better. Growing trees and propagating plants also happen to be incredibly fun, with no end of things to learn – I can’t think of a better way to spend my days. 

Kim Watt in the greenhouse at Thimble Hill Orchard and Nursery
Kim Watt in the greenhouse at Thimble Hill Orchard and Nursery.

Why did you apply for business mentorship?

I have very limited business skills or knowledge to draw on, so starting up a farm-based business was a daunting process. It’s one thing to be able to grow food, but it requires a very different skill set and mindset to be able to make a living off of it. I wanted outside input on my plans and help identifying the gaps in my knowledge and what information and resources I should be seeking out. Having mentors to ask questions to, webinars to explain the basics of bookkeeping and business planning, and other new growers at a similar stage in the process to connect with has been really valuable.

What is the greatest business challenge you face as a young farmer?

At this stage of life, my greatest challenge is juggling a new business with everything that is involved with having young children and working solo. My partner works full time off-farm, so my goal is to create a business that I can manage mostly on my own, is compatible with young kids at home, and that can fit around my other part-time work for the first few years.  I can’t jump in and give myself fully to the business as much as I sometimes want to, and have to be strategic in how I use my limited time. I’ve also learned in these first few years that I’m not someone who likes working alone, so finding ways to incorporate community, hire help, and bring more people onto projects will be important for long-term personal sustainability.

Farming and family!
Farming and family!

What is your primary business goal for the season?

Set up nursery infrastructure and propagate plant stock for next years’ sales, as well as continue expanding and filling in the layers of the orchard.

What business tools could you not live without?

Oddly enough, the internet and social media. There are so many great online forums and groups dedicated to plant propagation and uncommon fruits. I have been able to learn a huge amount from other growers and to source cuttings and plant material that would otherwise be very hard to find. It has helped in the sometimes isolating early stages of a farm business to have an online community of peers willing to share their knowledge of growing rare plants and running a small nursery and orchard.

If you had a farming robot what would it be?

A tidy-bot would be great. Some puttering little hovercraft that picks up abandoned pots, labels, tools, kids toys, and all the random junk of a farm and puts them away in the right place so everything is where I need it so this place looks a bit more presentable for when people drop by. 

Where can I find out more?

My website is www.thimblehillnursery.com. On there you can find a current nursery plant list, info on the varieties we have in the orchard, and a small blog on ecological gardening. You can also find me on facebook ( https://www.facebook.com/thimblehill/), instagram (https://www.instagram.com/thimblehillnursery/) and can reach me via email at thimblehillnursery@gmail.com.

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Funding for the Young Agrarians Business Mentorship Network in 2019 has been provided by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, Vancity and Columbia Basin Trust. Young Agrarians generously thanks our funders!

2 thoughts on “B.C. Business Mentorship Network – Thimble Hill Orchard and Nursery

  1. Good insights into a start up. Recognizing the need for business skills is an insight that will do you well in the long term.

    Best of luck
    retired P.Ag.

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