Kaleigh Barton wasn’t planning on becoming a farmer. The reason she came to Ruckle Farm on Salt Spring from her hometown of Port Alberni was to learn about wool.
“At the time I was taking a degree in textile arts. My big interest was wool and I wanted to know where it came from,” she explained. “I’d learned lots about yarn and how to spin it and weave it and do all these kinds of hand skills so I was curious to see how the sheep were raised, how they were shorn and what the wool is like when it’s on the sheep.”
However, most of the work she did on the farm took place in the vegetable garden.
Now, Barton runs Heavenly Roots Farm with her husband, Ben Corno, working a five-acre property leased to them by the Salt Spring Island Farmland Trust, selling their produce at the Tuesday and Saturday Markets in the summer. They are also beginning to sell their produce into local grocery stores. Although neither of them have a family background in farming, the idea of growing organic and sustainable food appealed to them, and set them on an unexpected career path as young farmers.
Barton is not alone in this decision to farm. She is part of a growing movement of young people drawn to the honest work of providing food for people. This young generation of farmers combines the ideas of permaculture, resilience, conservancy and food production to make a whole new way of feeding ourselves.
“We see different things crumbling around us and we want to prop them back up and create something beautiful . . . Once that’s started, [we] realize how healing and grounding it is to be involved in those natural cycles and to be aware of when the rain is coming and be excited about it. Having dirt under the fingernails all the time is a pretty good feeling,” said Milo Stuart, another young farmer working on the island.
Stuart grew up in Oakland, Calif. and was introduced to farming in Hawaii when he got a job at a work trade farm.
“I was just completely blown away by that concept. You have a place to stay, and you have to take care of some animals and plant some food. I was like ‘OK! Sign me up.’ I had no idea that that was even a thing and it completely opened my world,” he said.
Stuart farms at multiple locations on the island. He is a full-time farmer for Salt Spring Island Community Services’ Harvest program, and has begun a nursery and landscape design company that gives people the chance to learn how to create productive food-generating landscapes. For him, the goal is to create a sustainable food system, through building food forests or incorporating less impactful practices into his farming.
“Right now farming is heavy heavy input. Even organic manual vegetable market gardening is extremely input heavy,” he said. “You’re having to baby these really spoiled brats into yielding these vegetables. You can’t just go and throw seeds into the ground and watch them grow . . . I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying there’s definitely a balance to be struck.”
The movement of young people back to the land is growing. However, young farmers are fighting an uphill battle. While young farmers are facing multiple hurdles like high land costs, they also are able to access a wide variety of resources that were not available to previous generations. Social media is a big tool for new farmers, both as a marketing tool and as a source of inspiration.
“It’s super fun for me as a farmer to be able to see what’s happening on farms all over the world via Instagram,” Stuart said. “You’re getting ready to get going for the season and somewhere in Australia they are fully into it and doing something completely different. You almost get to go back and forth in time that way. There’s a camaraderie in it and it is super inspiring to see the movement happening actively.”
Barton uses social media more as a way to document the growth of her farm.
“I do a little bit of blogging, especially about seed saving because that’s one of my biggest interests,” she added. “I don’t know how interested people are in it, but I like to do that because it shows that I am thinking a lot about what I’m doing.”
Stuart explained that the internet has allowed him to get inspiration from people who are pushing the envelope when it comes to their farms.
“As a younger generation, we’re realizing that the way farming has been done is not sustainable,” he said. “It’s not regenerative and we’re willing to experiment. We’re willing to try all sorts of crazy stuff and a lot of the time it falls flat. When it does work it is super exciting and we want to share it with the world.”
When she came to Salt Spring, Kaleigh Barton wasn’t planning on becoming a farmer. She wasn’t planning on the work, on hammering in fence posts around a five-acre plot, on getting her hands dirty, or on having her hopes dashed by a disease or a cold snap.
“When I look at it, I’m most proud of the big things. I see the whole yard that’s fenced and I remember pounding all of the posts and that gives me a lot of pride. I never knew how to do that, and I never even thought of how a person would put up a fence. It kind of amazes me that we did that,” she said.
“I think I’m a farmer now.”