Matt and Molly were two names that popped up frequently as I began asking around about who the young farmers were in the Okanagan. My visit to their farm confirmed everything I had ever read or heard about the hospitality of folks who work the land and have the fruits of their labour to share.
When I arrived, Molly was in the midst of preparing a red kuri squash soup (see recipe at end of post) for an unexpected lunch, an apron jauntily tied around her pregnant belly. While stirring and blending and tasting, she told me the story of how her and her partner, Matt, came to live in the “big house” on an organic orchard, tending to pears and about 30 varieties of heritage apples, peaches, apricots, and plums.
Planting the Seeds
The couple met in Ontario at the University of Guelph, where they were both completing degrees in agronomy. After graduating, they spent eight months in Alberta, receiving another kind of education in the vast fields of conventionally grown canola. They were married in the summer of 2005 and decided to head back to Kelowna, where Molly had grown up and had family. At this point, Matt was working as a landscaper and Molly was working with the Central Okanagan Community Gardens Society.
The Community Gardens Society is where they met what has become the old guard of organic agriculture and gardening in Kelowna, folks like Bob and Sharon McCoubrey (of McCoubrey Farms, later Claremont Ranch Organics), Ruth Mellor (founder of the Community Gardens Society) and Lisa McIntosh and David Nelson (owners of Urban Harvest Organic Delivery). Over the next couple of years they nurtured these relationships until, in 2007, they decided to lease the McCoubrey’s farm for the coming season, adding a market garden onto the existing orchard. And so into the “small house” they moved, living next door to the larger heritage house where Bob and Sharon lived.
Time to Reflect
Bob offered to sell the farm to them at the end of this first season, but the couple wasn’t so sure that the farming lifestyle was for them. They wondered if they would resent the non-negotiable early nights and weekends spent working while their peers were taking summer holidays and leaving their work at the office. They decided to take a year off and bought a house in Kelowna, giving themselves the time and space to reflect and decide if committing to a piece of land was really what they wanted to do.
The Thurstons found they missed farming pretty quickly, and asked Bob if they could lease an acre of his land to market garden again. They spent the season selling to restaurants and hosting tailgate markets in the driveway of their Kelowna home. Tailgate markets are exactly what they sound like: each Sunday Molly and Matt would set out their produce on the back of their truck and folks from around the neighbourhood would soon fill their driveway, admiring Molly’s garden and swapping recipes while purchasing their veggies for the week. For the next three years, the McCoubreys and Thurstons worked alongside each other this way, until the subject of sale came up again in 2010.
It took a year for an agreement to be reached that all parties were happy with and that would make it possible for Matt and Molly to afford to buy the land. They split the value of the farm into two mortgage agreements: one with the bank which they pay regular interest on and the other with the McCoubreys which is interest-free for the first four years then paid back at the same interest rate as the mortgage with the bank. This way they are not trapped into paying the maximum amount of interest on the full market value of the land, an amount that would be impossible for most young farmers to pay or that would place many in a never-ending cycle of debt. The Thurstons are able to put some of their profits back into the running of their farm rather than all into mortgage payments.
Fruits of Their Labour
Matt and Molly hosted the 2012 Okanagan Feast of Fields, an event that placed them squarely in the public eye. But they had been invested in this particular piece of land, and the relationship with the McCoubreys, for five years previous to that. Molly emphasized that the time they took to try out market farming and then step back and decide if they wanted to take over the whole orchard was integral to their contentment with their current situation.
Because Claremont Ranch is an orchard, it allows both Matt and Molly to have full-time, off-farm employment. The couple has transitioned away from market farming due to the large amounts of time and labour it requires. They still supply some restaurants, like Waterfront Wines, with produce, but most of their farm income now comes from the orchard. Matt works for Farm Credit Canada and Molly is a horticulturalist with the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative. With their dual incomes and the income from the fruit, they are looking forward to supporting their growing family: baby Angus was born on December 18, 2012 at the farm.
Claremont Ranch Organics sells from the farm gate and supplies Urban Harvest, Waterfront Wines and several other local restaurants with fruit. Check out their Facebook page for more info!
Molly’s Red Kuri Squash Soup
1 red curry squash
1 can coconut milk
1L chicken/vegetable stock
2 tblsp. curry powder
2 cloves garlic
1 small onion
salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350o. Cut squash into quarters, lightly coat with olive oil. Roast in oven until soft when pricked with a fork.
Sauté onions and garlic in large pot.
Scoop squash flesh into the pot, add stock and puree with hand blender.
Add coconut milk, curry powder and salt. Warm on stove until heated throughout.
Serving suggestions: wilt arugula or micro-greens in the hot soup and serve with crusty bread and sharp cheddar cheese!