You don’t need to be young to succeed as a new farmer, as this intrepid pair from the Columbia Valley are proving.“There is just so much shale in the field, we’re always picking up rocks – so there you have it: “Shalefield Farm” was born!” explains Yolanda Versterre when I ask her about the name of the farm in Lindell Beach, BC she owns with her partner Brian Patterson.
The story of Yolanda and Brian’s entry into farming puts a fresh twist on the new farmer tale: as Yolanda puts it, “we are old young farmers.” While discussions of the aging farmer base and the challenges faced by young entrants into farming are a frequent theme in farming news, its not often we hear about people embarking on farming careers later in life.
“There is just so much shale in the field, we’re always picking up rocks – so there you have it: “Shalefield Farm” was born!”
Brian has owned the 10-acre property south of Chilliwack, near Cultus Lake, for many years, but Shalefield Organic Gardens only started taking off in 2005, when Brian began his professional life as a farmer — at the ripe young age of 55! He had been laid off from his job as a printer, as new mechanization and technology made his job of 35 years obsolete. It was an opportunity for a new start, and Brian began growing blueberries, raspberries and garlic — no longer as a hobby, but with an eye towards making money.
Inevitably, there were challenges in the transition from hobby farmer to professional grower. As Yolanda describes it, “Brian had been growing one row, so then he just started growing 10 rows! But of course, everything changes with scale, doesn’t it?”
While Brian had years of experience growing vegetables for family and friends, Yolanda was completely new to farming. She had moved to BC after working as an operating room nurse in Holland, and met Brian while they were both enjoying their other hobby – trail running. Did this athletic training prepare them to be the successful farmers they are now? Certainly farming requires stamina: “It’s a LOT of work,” Yolanda sighs, noting that they’ve given up trail running, along with tennis, since farming provides all the exercise they have time or energy for!
Today, Yolanda and Brian and their dedicated staff have nine acres in production, growing strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and a variety of field crops. They have a few experimental crops, such as ginger, which they source certified organic from Hawaii; it’s done very well this year, and it’s a hit with market customers. Sprouts are another Shalefield specialty crop, one they started to develop a source of farm income throughout the winter months. Their sprout blends, which they create using over 10 types of sprouts, are a customer favourite at the market.
Using Technology to Build Customer Loyalty
Yolanda explains that they mostly sell at farmers markets, and have started using a market share program to help retain customers. Customers can purchase a market share for either $500 or $250 and then receive a gift card for the amount, which they bring to the market with them. Yolanda scans the card with an iphone app, which subtracts the amount of their purchase and sends an email to the customer to let them know how much credit they have left on their card.
This year they are expanding into a CSA program and they are determined to provide a veggie box to a family in need. They’ll need to attract 50 CSA box customers to attain this goal, and are well on the way there. As Yolanda notes, “how many times do you just have the one bunch of carrots left that didn’t sell, just because it’s that last bunch of carrots? I’ve asked for a lot of help from other people to get to this stage of farming and I am so, so very grateful for what I get to do in my life, because farming allows me to eat so healthy and live well. And I really want to help someone else access that.”
Yolanda and Brian’s experiences starting their farming business at Shalefield Organic Gardens makes it clear that, whatever age you begin farming, a willingness to learn new things and take chances is the first requirement.
A Biodynamic Commitment
Growing up in Holland, Yolanda became familiar early on with the use of homeopathics for healing. Today, she and Brian practice biodynamic agriculture at Shalefield, and Yolanda feels the philosophy behind biodynamics fits with the ethic of healing holistically. Following biodynamic cycles can be challenging given the tight rotations of market growing, but the pair are committed to making it work for their operation. Yolanda and Brian’s experiences starting their farming business at Shalefield Organic Gardens makes it clear that, whatever age you begin farming, a willingness to learn new things and take chances is the first requirement. Add a big measure of love and commitment to the job and you’ve got a recipe for success: “We just love what we are doing. We are so excited about the fact that we are still here. We made it! It’s do-able. You can do it. You can make it happen.”
Hannah Roessler has farmed in Nicaragua, Washington, and BC, on permaculture farms, polyculture cafetals, organic market farms and a biodynamic vineyard. She has an MA in Environmental Studies and her research is focused on climate change and small-scale organic farming. She currently farms on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island.