On July 26, YA and Willow Springs Organic Farm co-hosted a (stellar) farm tour and potluck.
I first meet farmer Willy Fuder about a year ago, working on a small-scale agriculture education project. After hearing about the project, Willy reaches out. He wants in on helping to equip and support new farmers. Five years into his own farm journey, he is bursting to share his knowledge and experience with others. From the first, his passion for growing synergy among our region’s food system builders is plain. A year later, working with YA, I cross my fingers that Willy will be up for having young agrarians out to his farm. His yes is a windfall.
When Willy sends me his address, I plug it straight into Google maps to get a better sense of where exactly he lives and farms. Whenever we have spoken about his spot before, he’s made comments along the lines of, “I guess I’m a little tucked away,” or “Well, we’re down there by the border… sort of.” His invitations to visit have been many and enthusiastic. But, at this point, the closest I have come to Willow Springs Organic Farm is admiring photos of the year-round market gardens and of alternative energy setups at Willy’s off-grid homestead. What I have seen evokes a quintessentially Kootenay dream – an enchanting, secluded, piece of mountainside where people live lightly with the land.
That Google rejects the address seems only fitting and Willy’s response feels even more so. “It doesn’t surprise me,” he writes, when I ask for directions, “that we are not on your map.” His phrasing suggests a parallel universe of maps that do feature the farm (and maybe leave other kinds of places out). In the short time that I have known Willy, I have come to cherish this capacity for playfully dismissing the status quo and dwelling instead in a world rich in possibility. It is contagious, and my hope has been that inviting the Young Agrarians network to visit Willy, his sweetheart Les, and their farm will help to spread that optimism around.
Getting ready for the event, Willy shares a long list of projects on the go at Willow Springs. Among the many things that he and Les have been working on are a four season off-grid greenhouse, a new Walipini underground greenhouse, a gravity-fed woodshed, a pivoting solar tower, a spring-fed trout pond with over-shot water wheel, permaculture beds of various designs, soil solarisation in various stages, and garlic bulbil propagation in all stages. Not on the list are other endeavours that I know they will also want to share, like advocating a local diet and crafting a low-money lifestyle. In my mind these two farmers are indefatigable – they’ll host us all within a couple of hours of wrapping up their Saturday farmers’ market.
On the day of the potluck and farm tour, the sun is shining and the air is hot. I head to Willow Springs with my partner and a farmer friend. We follow Willy’s directions, taking a sharp turn away from the US-Canada border crossing at Nelway and venturing into the Pend D’Oreille valley. We count kilometres down the dirt road, also grazing cows and people fishing the Salmo River. Eventually, cows and people peter out and we start tracking the pail top signs that Willy has nailed up for the YA crew. The farther we drive, the closer I feel to a place that Willy would call home. When we crest the last hill, there is no doubt we have arrived.
Looking around, I match the beauty I see with the photographs I know. Willow bough arches, the living roof over the water wheel, soaring quinoa plants, thriving tobacco, a whole slew of smiling faces. Here, solar panels. There, remnants of an ancient orchard – for as far off today’s beaten path as we may be, Willow Springs used to be a stop along the Dewdney Trail, and the fruit trees on the site are at least 150 years-old. The whole scene seems at once to embrace the past and lean eagerly into a kinder future.
While Les dances quietly around setting out food and sorting out last minute details, Willy welcomes everyone who shows up as old friends. His hug is close and firm. His smile is broad. He wears camo shorts and a shirt with sleeves cut off, long hair, a baseball cap, and a sweet goatee. His wiry frame is cut by the work he does. Willy hums with an energy all his own – simultaneously laid back and raring to go. About a second after the event is slated to start, he shepherds his guests and takes off. He launches right into the tour and already people’s eyes are reflecting his sparkle.
Walking the farm, we stalk Willy’s barefoot tracks. He gestures as he talks, pointing out what is growing where, and how, and how well. The language is colourful and free flowing. The way he tells the farm’s story, it is sweeping, elaborate, and intimate, too. The characters include plants and animals, family members and friends, former residents and grow-op neighbours, market customers and fellow gardeners. He gives credit to farmer-authors like Eliot Coleman and Jean-Martin Fortier who provide him with tested ways of doing things as points of departure. In speaking about others he is grateful and considerate, loving without being sentimental. In describing his own role, he is humble. Again and again he comes back to how simple getting started in farming can be.
Willy is full of practical advice. He offers strategies for gleaning free and low-cost supplies and explains how he has used readily salvaged materials to make his farm systems work. He recommends tools and equipment that have served him, warns against practices that have failed. He talks about his choice to take a stand against a local farmers’ market policy that he feels advantages producers and re-sellers from outside the region. He brings permaculture design principles to life. Asked about pest issues, he is quick to recommend squirrels for their taste and nutritional value, and he isn’t just joking around: the problem is the solution.
As Willy preaches the small farm gospel, one YAer films for the record, beaming behind her smart phone. She found her own sweetheart at the Young Agrarians Mixer in Crawford Bay this spring. Since, the two have bought property and gotten engaged. Their dream is an off-grid, carbon-neutral, farming community and what Willy and Les are creating is clearly kindling her own vision. Watching her watch Willy reminds me what the YA network is all about.
Before we dig into a potluck feast that stars a Willow Springs ham, we gather in circle and each say a little bit about who we are and why we made the winding trip to the farm. Willy opens with more words of welcome. I remind people about YA resources available to support young farmers. A couple of agriculture students from Washington State University explain why they are keen to talk about alternative land access strategies. A pair who farm in Renfrew, Ontario trace their Kootenay roots. Nearby blueberry growers share some of their early challenges on the land and offer hundreds of black plastic pots to the group. The friend we travelled out with lets people know that she wants to talk permaculture over the meal. Les is heartfelt in saying how contented and satisfied she is with life at Willow Springs. Willy’s parents, here for a visit, wish that all parents were supportive of young people wanting to farm.
There are moments when the shadow of a corporate, industrial food system retreats from my view, when a food culture that honours people and place feels especially alive and vibrant, and when the role that YA is playing in growing a new agrarianism is easy to see. Last week’s visit to Willow Springs was one of those moments. Infinite gratitude to Willy and Les for making it happen and for being so generous of spirit.
There are more YA events happening in the Kootenays (and in other parts) this season. Check ‘em out!
Also, it’s not too late to host an event at your Kootenay farm. Interested? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.