Passionate practicality: Family farming’s deadliest combination

Posted by: | April 27, 2012

Cropthorne Farm Family. Photo: Cropthorne Farm

Cropthorne Farm Family. Photo: Cropthorne Farm

Story by Kate Petrusa

Lydia and Rachel Ryall are two sisters who come from a long, unbroken line of farmers on both sides of their family. With such a wealth of family knowledge to draw on and their imbued passion for growing food, together they are continuing their family’s farming lineage by running their own organic mixed vegetable farm, complete with chickens. Cropthorne Farm is a 5-acre swath of fertile farmland in Ladner BC, and a real anomaly amid hundreds of acres of large-scale farming operations and greenhouse growers in the area, bordered by the industrial seaport infrastructure that snakes along the coast of Delta and Tsawwassen.

The land in Ladner and the Fraser River floodplain is much flatter than the undulating and mountainous terrain in most of the Lower Mainland. As such, from Cropthorne Farm, it is easy to see the extent of farmland nearby and several long, blueish glass greenhouses glinting in the afternoon sun. Cropthorne Farm is about 50 meters from an 18-acre greenhouse, on a 75-acre farm that was previously run by Lydia and Rachel’s parents until 2011. “It’s a nice big piece and so they rented out the back 40 to a neighbour. Their thing was just the greenhouse,” Lydia says.

For over 40 years, their parents specialized in growing tomatoes hydroponically in the greenhouse, which is a method for growing plants without soil. Instead of soil, the plants grow in water or an inert medium like sawdust, and the plant is fed a mineral nutrient solution. “With Mom and Dad’s place, there was ton of off-farm inputs, coming from all over the world. They grew into coconut husks, the pulverized husk fibers, or sawdust-looking stuff that comes from Sri Lanka that was sent here right of the port here in Delta. Then they shipped their tomatoes from here all they way to Atlanta! But, they could produce a product at a decent price and it was consistently the same. They were feeding people. I’m not against what they did. But for me, I have a hard time understanding it.”

The Cropthorne farmers enjoying winter sunshine amidst a day of weeding in the greenhouse. Photo: Cropthorne Farm

The Cropthorne farmers enjoying winter sunshine amidst a day of weeding in the greenhouse. Photo: Cropthorne Farm

While Lydia and Rachel haven’t always agreed with their parents’ farming methodologies, they do see how these methods come from an ardent and longstanding enjoyment of growing food. On their dad’s side, Lydia and Rachel’s grandparents were farmers, and their grandfather completed an agriculture degree at UBC. On their mother’s side, their great-grandfather was a well-known and accomplished greenhouse grower whose family had been farming as far back as one could go in the family tree. And Lydia recalls, “As kids, our parents took us camping a lot, and the natural environment became important to us. I think we know it’s important to tread lightly [on the environment] and things like that. With our upbringing, I think that has sunk in.”

Lydia and Rachel get a lot of support for their farming business from their parents. For the past four years, they have had access to parents’ land, making for a reliable and long-term lease situation. “Our dad is very enthusiastic about our stuff. We grew melons one year and we had people come up to us saying ‘Oh, your dad was talking about the melons you grow and how great they are,’” says Lydia. Similarly, “my mom has been helping us this year to set up the books better. And now that she is semi-retired, she is going to be taking on that stuff, so it’s really exciting. It’s super nice, and I certainly don’t expect it, but it frees me up, especially for the next couple of years while we are expanding.”

Lydia Ryall has found that despite their focus on larger-scale, conventional agriculture, neighbours are often enormously supportive of her and her sister's endeavours. Photo: David Tanner

Lydia Ryall has found that despite their focus on larger-scale, conventional agriculture, neighbours are often enormously supportive of her and her sister's endeavours. Photo: David Tanner

The Cropthorne girls also get a lot of farming support from their larger-scale farming neighbours, too. Lydia attends the Delta Farmers’ Institute meetings, where she keeps the company of farmers with up to 400 acres in agricultural production. “Sometimes I felt pressure at these meetings just because I was so different. I’m a woman, I’m young and naïve, with all these like 50 year old guys who have had farms passed down. These families have been doing it since forever. But listen, these neighbours of ours, it’s not like they are looking down at us and what we are doing as wrong or silly or anything like that. Our next door neighbour has been helping us with negotiating deals on tractors and pointing out things we need in a tractor, like setting wheel spacing. Everyone I have talked to has been more than willing to help us out. I think everyone sees there’s an issue with not a lot of young people farming. They are just happy to see that the land is being farmed.”

Ten-month-old Adelaide works closely on the farm with her mom, Rachel Ryall. Photo: Cropthorne Farm

Ten-month-old Adelaide works closely on the farm with her mom, Rachel Ryall. Photo: Cropthorne Farm

Contributing even further to the family focus at Cropthorne Farm, Rachel and her two children, 3-year-old Isla and 10-month-old Adelaide, are at work with their mom and aunt all day farming. To do this, Rachel and Lydia divide their labour based loosely on childcare needs. Lydia, with the help of an apprentice, does the jobs related to crop production, including planning, seeding, transplanting, tractor work and harvesting. In the height of the season, Rachel does most of the post-harvest tasks, as well as most of the markets, which includes bagging, weighing, and washing vegetables for market. She remains relatively stationary during these tasks in order to be available for Isla’s bathroom breaks, cuddles and energy level, and also to avoid disrupting naps taken by Adelaide on her back in the carrier. When chores can’t be divided neatly, they include the children in work as best they can. As Isla gets older, she wants to help out more and more. She helped with carrot harvest last season and will often pick up a hoe when others are weeding, to show her symbolic solidarity!

From Lydia’s perspective, the arrangement has offered a desirable middle-road to the common tension between child-minding and other work. “That’s one of the nice things about family working together, where it’s not an ‘employee’ leaving to do childcare, we are taking care of my niece. And if one of us wants a break and something needs doing, the other can go and do it. It’s worked out really well. Rachel and I get along really well. Our temperaments are very different. We balance out. I’m pretty fiery, Rachel is very even-keel and very diplomatic, thoughtful and very focused. Adds Rachel, “I can put up with Lydia’s stuff and she can put up with mine. It works.”

Lydia preparing the soil for a fresh suite of crops. Photo: Cropthorne Farm

Lydia preparing the soil for a fresh suite of crops. Photo: Cropthorne Farm

What stands out most clearly about Lydia and Rachel is the passion that they express for farming. Lydia comments that in trying to understand her soil better, it almost makes her want to eat it: “You want to get a feel for it, get a taste for something.” On a purposeful walk back to the barn, she stops suddenly in mid-sentence and her eyes soften. Then she exclaims, “I get excited this time of year – I thought I just heard a tractor! Yesterday one of the neighbours drove by with a manure spreader, and I said to myself: ‘It’s starting!’”

Their passion stands out in many ways, but in particular, their discussion of the ways they will ensure they are farming for the long haul is particularly telling. “Efficiencies are huge, if you want this [farming] as a career. Listen, it has to be [efficient]! If I can have 10 spare minutes in my day in the summertime to do some stretching or read a book, I really appreciate it. I love what I do, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. But if I can find a little bit of time to focus on something else, or just go for a walk, I’m grateful for the balance.”

Lydia had lots of ideas about how to make things easier for them, to reduce the amount of effort expended, and to avoid burn out. “Seed things at the right levels. Don’t lift things from the wrong heights. I can’t lift 60 pounds of potatoes continuously, so have things in smaller bins. These things will help you become more efficient, in a sense, because you aren’t going to get tired out. And at the end of the day, I think you have to make sure you are paying yourself appropriately as a farmer. Like most businesses, it takes a while to get there, but it’s so important. You shouldn’t be scratching or begging for that. That should be your wage.”

“A lot of that comes from my parents though. They’ve been farming for 40 years and at such a large scale, they have had to find ways to become more efficient. My mom can tell you what exact costs are, so they have to find efficiencies because at their scale, there is so much competition. They have hammered home the importance of efficiency to me.”

Amidst exciting plans for expansion, Rachel and her sister are quickly become versed in techniques for working efficiently on an organic farm. Photo: Cropthorne Farm

Amidst exciting plans for expansion, Rachel and her sister are quickly become versed in techniques for working efficiently on an organic farm. Photo: Cropthorne Farm

And efficient they will need to be. This coming growing season, this farming family is transitioning to a new 50-acre property on Westham Island this May, while managing their existing farm until December. From their existing farm, Lydia, Rachel and their two little helpers will be providing a 40-share Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program to South Delta, North Vancouver and Vancouver and attending 5 markets in the Lower Mainland this summer. Simultaneously, Cropthorne Farm will be building barns, establishing a chicken pasture, preparing 3 acres of soil for planting , and building a propagation greenhouse at their new Westham Island farm. Their parents will be involved with the vegetable production on this new land, as well as beginning organic grain and sheep production operation of their own. As Cropthorne Farm expands their operation, the passion Lydia, Rachel and their family bring will continue to generate methods that make farming more energy efficient, easier on the body and financially feasible. It is this practical passion that will make small-scale organic farming ultimately more sustainable in the long run.

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6 Responses to “Passionate practicality: Family farming’s deadliest combination”

  1. [...] Petrusa wrote a great article about our farm and has featured us along with lots of other great, young farmers in the Fraser [...]

  2. [...] Your Local Food Pedalers Ilana Labow Fresh Roots on the Cutting Edge Rachel & Lydia  Passionate Practicality Related content: Fresh Roots Urban Farm – [...]

  3. George says:

    Doesn’t surprise me that UBC is working with coconut husks, it is a very rare occasion that something useful happens there. Those goofs should be working with something practical for our area, the concept of shipping the husks here is mind boggling, USE LOCALLY AVAILABLE BIOMASS!

    A while back I wrote an article about why their “organic farm” should be shut down before it does more harm. It puts inspired people in debt and then can prevent them from actually being on a farm. And most of what they learn there is useless on a real farm anyway.

    Coconut husks in BC, what’s next?

    If anyone wants to read the article, let me know.

  4. ubcLFS says:

    Hi George,

    Thanks for your feedback. To be clear, this article is about Cropthorne Farm, and not UBC.

    I am sorry to hear that you’ve had less-than-positive experience with the Farm. If you would like to discuss your concerns, feel free to send me an email at ethan.perriccioli@ubc.ca.

    We’re always interested in ways to improve the relevancy of the Farm’s programming for community and industry.

    Ethan Perriccioli
    Web Communications Coordinator, UBC Land and Food Systems

  5. George says:

    Hi Ethan,

    I was told about UBC working with
    coconut husks, so my confusion is the result of being refereed to the above article. But the article that I wrote about the problems with the UBC “organic farm” is
    correct, the first person to read it was a farmer who was initially
    involved with it. When I saw him after he read it he looked heavy and
    sad, I thought that I went too far, that I mortally wounded him because
    it was a project close to his heart. When I asked what was wrong, he
    said that I hit the nail on the head, and that he agreed with every
    point that I made. I did not want to hear that, I hoped I was wrong and
    that he would set me straight. He than shared his disappointment with me about what it had turned into.

    Since I wrote it a goofy student threw charcoal on some beds at a local farm, in the name of researching biochar,
    Obviously she paid a lot of money for tuition, but no one bothered to
    tell her that raw charcoal absorbs stuff, and the crop plants were
    stunted. Furthermore the presentation she was part of at Fraser Common
    Farm was a sales pitch for machines that make a ton of charcoal an hour
    from dry sawdust. Why spam about that on the organic listserve? That
    machine is totally useless to a farmer who needs to char waste biomass,
    why waste farmer’s time on that? I went to exchange experiences with
    using charcoal, no one knew anything about it except me, even though
    there was a lot of research published at the time.

    What made the situation even more ridiculous is they never told us the price of the machine. Tens of thousand obviously, I
    guessed out loud. Your student proved that she, and UBC are out of
    touch with reality, when she said that several farmers can pitch in and
    buy it. And then what? How am I supposed to turn my waste biomass into
    dry sawdust?

    She had plans for a useless design for a
    kiln made out of a barrel that has been circulating around on the
    internet. What surprised me is that she was not interested in mine, that
    makes charcoal out of wet hunks of wood with no smoke, is a continuous
    process, is on a skid, took one afternoon to make and cost less than
    $100 for materials. I have never seen the design for mine on the net.

    What
    further adds to UBC’s shame is that a professor who specializes in
    sustainable agriculture and travels the world is interested in my
    innovations and wants me to go teach in China. He said that there they
    are desperate to learn about permaculture, while all the permaculture
    farms that I used to visit around here have been shut down, and mine is
    being trashed now. The professor has already taken a prototype soil block maker I made to China with the intent to manufacture, I gave it to him because I gave up trying to get it made here.

    My
    counter offer to the professor is that I will teach using virtual
    telepresence, while living in a paradise like place that is off the grid
    but has cheap wireless. They will never have power or phone lines
    there, the whole place is like a permaculture food forest, and the
    government built a biodiesel plant.

    I have enough
    equipment for a permaculture eco village, but whatever we can’t take
    will get scrapped, all the permaculture eco villages that I have been in
    contact with are aiming at survival, they are suffering from lack of
    participation. None are thriving and looking for farm or food processing equipment.

    Now that permaculture has been made illegal and impossible, it is time to go where the government supports it.

    George

  6. […] October. For more information, visit bcfma.com. You can also check out the four farmers’ stories: Lydia, Sarah & Simone, Andrew and […]

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