When we were deciding where to settle down and put our long-term farm dreams into action, we thought about it long and hard. We looked at a myriad of possibilities in both Canada and New Zealand and weighed the relative pros and cons of each place. We considered climate, soil quality, water sources, the cost of land and living, our impressions of the local community, and the proximity and size of markets, among others.

For us, Cape Breton came out on top. After three years here, we’re more confident in our decision than ever. And we’re not just excited about what the future holds for us in Cape Breton, we’re excited about the possibilities for other new farmers like us.

Let me tell you a little bit about why.

  • Cape Breton is an affordable place to live and farm. It is possible to live in Cape Breton on a modest budget. The cost of land here puts buying a farm within reach for many young farmers who simply wouldn’t be able to make it happen in southwestern Ontario (or New Zealand…). We’ve also found a culture of sharing resources, lending neighbours a hand, and trading. There is a lot of great entrepreneurial activity and creativity in Cape Breton and a lot of people figuring out how to do more with less. We’re taking some lessons from these folks and learning that you can accomplish a lot without spending a lot.
  • Cape Breton has a strong history of food production. Growing food here is not a new concept. Not by any stretch. Historical records shed some light on the early agricultural activity in Cape Breton and just how much was produced here in the past. Inverness County, where we live, was once a net exporter of food. It’s not today, but maybe it can be again.
  • There is a fabulous local food movement in Cape Breton. And there are some very exciting initiatives underway helping the local food movement along. There are great organizations like the Pan Cape Breton Local Food Hub, ACAP Cape Breton, the Ecology Action Centre and its Our Food Project, and the Island Food Network. There are several fantastic farmers’ markets (including our beloved Mabou!) and a brilliant Up!Skilling Food Festival takes place annually in Sydney. And there are so many other great farms and farmers here too. We had no idea that the local food community in Cape Breton would be as vibrant and supportive as it has been – and we love getting to be part of it.
  • People want to buy (and are buying!) local food. They’re not just talking about the merits of a strong local food system, people are actively shopping for local food. That means that we can sell what we grow at Patchwood and know that we can support ourselves financially with the work that we’re doing here. While we’re not able to derive 100% of our family’s income from the farm yet, this doesn’t feel like an unrealistic long-term possibility either.
  • Did I mention the Cabot Trail? Cape Breton Highlands National Park? The beaches? The hiking trails? The lobster? The music? The stargazing? People come from all over the world to experience Cape Breton and we get to live here. All the time. Our “commute” to the farmers’ market involves winding our way over hills and around Lake Ainslie. We can take an afternoon break from the garden to pop over to the beach. Or go and catch some world-class fiddle music at a local pub. Or go for a hike in the national park. This is an incredible place to live.

There’s so much more to say about why I think Cape Breton holds a great deal of potential for folks who want to farm here. But that’s a start.

Time flies, just like they say it does!

In a few weeks, we’ll be celebrating three years since our move to Cape Breton. It’s a good time for reflection. So much of our time is focused on our various To Do lists and plans for the future, that we sometimes have to make a conscious effort to look back at what we’ve done up to now. In moments when we feel like we’re only accomplishing a tiny fraction of everything we’d like to do here, it’s really refreshing to remember what we’ve achieved already and to see that it’s actually a lot!

Our first season here was focused on getting to know the basic features of the land, expanding existing gardens, becoming familiar with the local community and markets, raising pigs, and setting up some basic infrastructure.

IMG_4309In year two, we started selling our vegetables at the Mabou Farmers’ Market, began selling pork, and added chickens to the farm. We even brought in a big mulching machine to help clear land for future pastures and orchards. In two days we had four and a half acres mulched and ready to plant!

 

Year three was about learning how to farm with a new baby in the family! Simplicity and balance were the name of the game. We continued to expand our gardens, renovated the barn, and began planning for a new off-grid house on the property.

In our first three seasons here, we hosted 26 on-farm volunteers from 9 countries (learn more about the WWOOF program here!). Not only have we benefited immensely from the hard work of these people and their enthusiasm for organic agriculture – we’ve formed some wonderful friendships too.

Looking ahead, we’re really excited about the projects planned for this season. We’re planning to add ducks to the farm system, plant more perennials, improve our wash station, experiment with some new low tunnels in the gardens, and so much more.

And we’re going to try to remember to look back now and then and reflect on past seasons, the work that’s been done here, and the value of an Accomplished! list.

Farming makes us weather watchers. Particularly once springtime arrives, we pay close attention to historic trends, short- and long-term forecasts, and our on-farm weather station. Like so much of farming, this sort of observation represents a life-long learning process. And the learning is amplified when you begin gardening on the opposite side of the planet.

We left New Zealand, and our gardens there, in 2013 with our sights set on Cape Breton. While we had both farmed in Canada before, that experience was in Ontario – not in Nova Scotia. Our move to Cape Breton, and the establishment of our farm here, has challenged us to learn about its particular climate and how to work within it.

Our very best source of climate-related information: the people who live near us. Weather patterns in Cape Breton tend to be extremely localized, making our neighbours and their decades of experience in this place an invaluable resource.

We are keeping our own records too. When the first robins appear on our front lawn in spring, we take note. If 22cm of snow falls on January 30th, we write it down. If we dig up the parsnips on April 15th, we record it. We’re still refining our recording systems, but its the practice of observation that we feel is most important in teaching us about the place we live and making us better farmers.

IMG_4144In practical terms, our understanding of the climate we live in helps us to make decisions about what to do (and when) in our gardens. What grows best here? When should we plant it? How long will it take to grow? Are there ways to extend the season? How can we store what we produce? Every year, our timing gets better. But every year is different too. Farming keeps us on our toes and teaches us to maintain flexibility and to guard ourselves against unforeseen weather events.

On a planet with a changing climate, we believe that these sorts of observations are important for everyone to be making, in their own ways. In our case, weather patterns have very direct implications for our day-to-day lives – and our livelihood.

So on we go, learning from our neighbours, other farmers, and our notebooks. Working to grow the best food we can in this Cape Breton climate.

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A snapshot from one of our (many!) garden planning spreadsheets.

A snapshot from one of our many garden planning spreadsheets.