Passionate practicality: Family farming’s deadliest combination

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.