The Long Haul
Farmer Tam’s Blog January, 2021
Seven acres of broccoli is a lot of broccoli. A lot to harvest. Ambitious and naïve. It was 1987 and our first year of growing vegetables on a large scale. We had decided that our twenty five acre farm should be able to support us with a living wage by growing food on the land.
We had committed to growing seasons’ worth of broccoli as a pilot for a new farmer’s collaborative – Sunfresh Farms. Sunfresh Farms, was the Alberta Produce Wholesale Company, which incorporated in February 1997, and was started by a small group of passionate farmers who were invested in local supply chains.
To harvest all of the broccoli for Sunfresh, we woke up at 3:30 am every morning and were out in the field, cutting broccoli by 4:00am – the first light of dawn. Long eighteen hour days. With 7 acres of broccoli ahead.
The broccoli had to be picked while it was cold, dripping with the morning dew. We were soaked to the skin. Step, stoop, cut, pack in the box. Step, stoop, cut, pack in the box. Endlessly repeated. The boxes had a set time for delivery at our communal icing machine, which was set up as a pilot project at the Alberta Tree Nursery in north Edmonton, by 8:00 am. We were young, passionate and truly novices in the vegetable industry. It was difficult to break into established supply chains. Some boxes sold. We were elated. Some didn’t. We were discouraged. But we learned. We were determined.
We were in for the long haul.
Our farm has evolved in many ways since those early days cutting broccoli. We’ve made adjustments. We still grow broccoli, but as one of many crops. Instead of growing for the wholesale market, we added crop mazes, chef’s dinners and farm weddings as ways of diversifying revenue streams for the farm, following my Mum’s advice: “Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket.” We diversified.
We were in for the long haul.
I’ve now been on the land for thirty seven years. This season was different from all others. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until a cold October day – the Tuesday after the Thanksgiving weekend – that I realized the pandemic would change our operations for the foreseeable future.
We were going to be in this new world for the long haul – masks, virtual connections, physical distancing, limited gatherings, and frequent hand washing. It seems obvious now with how many provinces were already talking about the second wave, but at the time it was a revelation for me. Things would be different going forward.
If we were in for the long haul – not a few months, but years – the question is: How do we stay resilient?
Love your people. In times of crisis, it is easy to revert to scarcity thinking. I know for me scarcity thinking is triggered when I feel like I am going to fail at something – something big. Our instincts say that in order to fend off disaster, we must hunker down. COVID-19 has laid this bare for all of us – whether it is in organizations or our personal lives. So many of us have gone into a form of survival mode, trying to limit our exposure to the crisis. While it is so easy to fall into this reactive type of behaviour, it is our relationship with loved ones, our supporters, our CSA families, our staff, our interns, and our community is what has actually sustained us through the pandemic.
At the farm, we spent the first six months of the pandemic deepening our commitment to taking care of each other and our greater community, and we plan on continuing that commitment into 2021. While relationships take effort, at the end of the day, they are all we really have. We will not get through this time without each other.
What is resilience? Whether it’s our family, the farm, or society, we believe that resilience starts with clarity of vision. In early March, in the first crash of pandemic crisis, I distinctly recall feeling like I was standing on railway tracks like a deer in the headlights of a freight train. Our agri-tourism operations had ended. Our beautiful longtable dinners, weddings and farm festivals were cancelled. Two years of planning, bookings and revenue – gone, in less than a week. It seemed as though our 2020 season had been completely gutted, but a phone call from a CSA member bounced me back to our true purpose. Farming and growing food. We started filling flats with soil. Seeding greens, cabbage, winter squash and lettuce. It became easier to get out of bed in the morning. We weren’t under the train. We were moving forward. We found refuge doing what we are passionate about, growing food.
During the last six months at the farm, we have realigned our vision and purpose. The pandemic has given us the chance to catch up with ourselves, reaffirming our vision of being resilient, self-sufficient and living from the land. Our purpose has supported our decision-making over the pandemic. When faced with the reality of curtailing our agri-tourism operations, our team decided to dig in, stay the course, and continue to grow our twenty five acres of market gardens. By July, U-Pick strawberries were ready, and we opened the patch. We worked out how to conduct garden walks and behind the scenes chicken tours safely. Our new farm interns arrived, and the field work and weeding began in earnest. The summer CSA program slowly came to life, despite the incredibly wet spring. I am so glad that we “stayed calm and farmed on”, because we learned so much about what it means to operate in the time of COVID, and it gave us the fuel to keep going when the times were rough.
One of the hardest parts about this year was having things not go as planned. Throughout the entirety of our first season during a global pandemic, I remember thinking, “But, I had a plan.” The disruption caused by COVID-19 was really hard on operations. We went down to a core of only five team members. My daughter Laurel, Gilbert, Robbie, Lori and I. But we managed, using our 1918 cabbage planter, to plant hundreds of rows veggies, in spite of the challenges.
The COVID crisis has illuminated a fact that many of us spend our entire lives trying to avoid: there is very little outside ourselves (and sometimes even inside ourselves) that we can control. Societies are established with foundational norms and rules to create a sense of control, but when something as disruptive as COVID strikes, we are quickly reminded that control, and all of our plans, are an illusion.
As farmers, this is a lesson repeated every season. Mother Nature is the usual disrupter. And this year, of all years, she stepped in with style. It rained and rained all spring and most of the summer. The little “un-named creek” which kindly fills our ponds with spring snow melt, became a river that wouldn’t quit. We dubbed it: “The River That Runs Through It”. At times, it was eighteen feet wide and two feet deep. It became a lake over the leek field. Water sat shimmering between the rows of cauliflower. The cultivation could not begin. Low-lying fields had to be abandoned; they were literally under water. Crops were lost. It didn’t dry up enough to get to the leek field until September. The orange and purple cauliflower made tiny two-inch wide button sized heads. We picked them anyway. There was nothing else that could be done. It was beyond our control. It’s farming!
Over the past six months, we have had to apply even more flexibility to our planning – ‘we will do this, if that happens, and we will do that, if this happens.’ We seeded extra zucchini and kohlrabi. We planted the onions on top of the hill. Good decisions. These crops were brilliant. We had the best onions ever, and zucchini until the cows came home! We are still enjoying the kohlrabi.
Flexibility is necessary for survival during these times, and it can be a challenge. So many times this year, I felt the urge to say, “Alright, we’re doing this,” only to have the situation change completely the following week. As we move forward, we are holding flexibility as a key piece of our work. Will there ever be a “regular” season at the farm again? I am not sure, but we are approaching the question with open minds.
As I approach our planning for the next year, with only so much we can predict – from gathering and travel restrictions, to health and safety requirements, to the nature of our climate change – I am comforted by these guiding principles: I believe that investing in people, maintaining purpose, and adapting with flexibility to support our farm, my team, and the communities we are a part of, in building long-term resilience.
We are excited to be working on our 2021 plan. We are heading to higher ground this spring, with a tremendous renewed sense of purpose. The seeds have been ordered. The tomatoes have been planted. We have a new model in mind for our CSA that introduces flexibility and choice!
2021 will bring new challenges and new rewards. We are looking forward to it!
Truly, we are in for the long haul.