I’ve started this blog to share more about the story of Sycamore Farm, our core values, and some of the projects happening around the farm. I hope to help readers understand more about the type of farming we do and to share helpful information with those getting started. For my first post, I’m going to introduce myself by describing how I got here.
I grew up in Petrolia, Ontario, a rural town with a population of around 4000 (circa 1990s). We lived in a new development and though there was very little nature around us, I was fascinated by the natural environment from an early age. My parents both have an appreciation for nature, each in their own way- my dad is a hiker and my mom is a gardener- and I think that had a big influence on me. I played a lot in my mom's flower garden when I was little and as I got older, she gave me a section of my own that I turned into a native prairie garden. I have many memories of driving out to local garden centers as a child- it's still one of my favourite things to do on a day off!
As I went through high school, I felt very uncertain about which career path to take. It's hard to know what you want to do when you're 18 and haven't spent much time outside of your small town! I knew I cared about the environment and that I wanted to work outdoors- so I decided to go to the University of Guelph to study Environmental Sciences.
I went into this program with hopes of someday managing a natural area or working somewhere in natural resources. In my second year, I had a prof that did research in agroforestry. Agroforestry is the practice of integrating trees into farming systems. Dr. Gordon's research plots at the University had rows of trees every hundred feet or so and cash crops were planted annually in between them. The trees had an economic value (e.g. timber, biofuel, nut trees) and they provided some microclimate benefits to the cash crop. The course he taught was one of our core environmental courses, but he used his research as illustrations for the concepts we were learning. I started to think about the potential agriculture had to make positive environmental change.
As I continued through school, I took the 'Aggie' electives whenever I could; courses like Soil and Water Conservation, Integrated Pest Management, Agro-ecology and others. There were some concepts I learned in these courses that I never fully understood at the time(as I didn't have the agriculture background or context in which to place them), but they were fascinating enough that they stuck in my brain and often resurface when I'm making management decisions for Sycamore Farm. Throughout this time I thought a lot about Lambton County. The primary land use is agriculture and the natural cover is around 9%, well below the recommended 30% for healthy waterways. Lambton County is also home to many rare species and habitats in dire need of protection. I began to wonder how some of the concepts I was learning about ecological farming could be applied at home to solve some of these problems.
I never thought I would end up in Lambton County, but I started to feel a pull to come back. The realization really hit me one day driving to Guelph from a visit home: I was looking out the window at the trilliums in the woodlands along the 402 (there are some really spectacular patches in the section from Reeces corners to Watford) and I felt this strong conviction that I should come back to Lambton County to try to protect these types of habitat. I've seen trilliums hundreds of times, but this moment really stands out in my mind. I wasn't sure where this would lead, but I started looking for opportunities closer to home.
The following spring, I started volunteering with Lambton Wildlife, a local nature group. There I met my husband, Justin. We had an amazing amount of things in common and really connected over our mutual love of plants. He had a little vegetable plot at his dad's farm that I started to help with. We had lots of crop failures, but a few bumper crops that inspired us to keep going. A friend recommended Jean-Martin Fortier's The Market Gardener to us, a book that outlines a very successful 1.5 acre vegetable farm. We were intrigued by the possibility of this, but felt like we had a lot to learn before we could depend on it for our income.
We continued growing vegetables part time and selling at a roadside stand and a farmer's market. Through this we learned how to grow a few crops really well and started building up a customer base. I was starting to feel confident that this could be a profitable business.
In 2019, I was expecting our son. That fall Australia was facing terrible forest fires and there was a lot of talk about the effects of climate change. We started to really reflect on what we were doing with our lives and what kind of legacy we wanted for our son. We strongly felt that ecological farming (for us that is grazing our highland cows and small-scale vegetable growing) was the best thing we could do for the environment.
I have found that growing vegetables has been a really practical and meaningful way to put my education to use and to make a tangible difference for the environment.
These are some of the ways we feel we are making a positive impact:
1. Providing a local food source. We market our produce within a 25 minute drive of the farm, meaning our food does not travel far to get to your plate! This greatly reducing the carbon footprint of your food.
2. Soil building. We do a lot of soil building practices that store carbon in the soil. An example would be planting a 'cover crop' through the winter. We plant rye in the fall that will provide protection for the soil through the winter and the biomass of this plant (i.e.carbon) is incorporated back into the soil in the spring.
3. Habitat Creation. We are able to implement projects that create wildlife habitat like tree planting on the field borders and perennial plantings within the garden system.
4. Rotational grazing. Grasslands are powerhouses for storing carbon. The deep perennial roots of grasses store carbon far down the soil profile. Pastures also provide habitat for a number of species at risk birds in our area. Our newer pasture, a retired cash crop field with very poor drainage, has an abundance of tree swallows, bluebirds and various grassland sparrows that I haven't taken the time to ID.
5. Chemical free. We do not use any chemcial herbicides or pesticides to grow our crops. This creates an insect-friendly environment and eliminates the risk of contaminating natural areas with chemicals.
And more! In the future, I plan on going into more detail about the environmental work we are doing on the farm.
So, in 2020, I started full time working on the farm, often with our son, Silvan, strapped to my back! This coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the surge in demand for local products. We did an expansion to our growing are in 2021, adding a CSA and a second market. I'm very excited for what 2022 holds and I hope to keep this blog updated as we continue to grow!