I’m always interested in the circuitous path that leads folks to their present lives. In Aaron and Jessica’s case it’s been a bit of a long and winding road working towards their dream of self-sufficiency.
They grew up in Saskatoon and met in high school. When he was 19 he worked on a commercial chicken farm – you know the kind: massive barns with 10,000 birds. His rather unpleasant task each morning was to clear the floor of hens that had died overnight – day after day. That experience was a bit of an eye-opener for him about how large-scale animal farming is done. The next year, he was employed on Jessica’s family farm where they had horses and grew pulses, grains and cereals.
Both of them went to the University of Saskatchewan: Aaron for social work and Jessica trained as a teacher. It was Aaron’s dream to visit the Yukon, but on a 1999 road trip they only got as far as Bella Coola before having to head back home for the start of another year of university.
The following year they headed off to Quebec to learn French and then worked in England for a year, which they used as a base for traveling in Europe, Egypt, South-East Asia. But the dream of visiting Canada’s North remained constant. In the summer of 2002, they packed up their car and pulled a small trailer to Whitehorse for a one year’s adventure.
One year stretched into two. Whitehorse (pop. 25,000) was too big for them so they relocated to Dawson City, which lasted another eight years. It’s funny how time flies: their one year adventure morphed into ten.
By 2011, Jess had gone back to work after a maternity leave and Aaron was a stay-at-home dad. Aaron had read “The Self-Sufficient Life And How To Live It” which further fueled his dream. They’d always been interested in hunting and gathering their own food and had a decent size garden. The problem with northern living is the intense, but short, growing season. The Yukon isn’t exactly farming country but he always like to grow things and hankered after a different kind of lifestyle.
Aaron, who worked as a carpenter before and after doing social work, had just built his dream home, but with a toddler and newborn, they felt they were living too far from their families.
Aaron had read Trauma Farm by Brian Brett of Salt Spring Island – it sounded like a wonderful life and they began plans to move there.
A whirlwind trip to Salt Spring was in order, looking for potential farm property only to find what was available was both expensive and not within walking distance of the ferry or town core. The most populated of the Gulf Islands, Salt Spring is a busy place with a permanent population of 11,000, swelling to greater numbers in the summer. They had rented a cabin on a farm that would have made a great dream property. The owners’ invited them to stay on and work the farm with the idea of taking over when they retired. Nice offer, but it meant working on someone else’s dream and delaying their own.
Aaron and Jessica had heard about Gabriola Island and made a quick day visit here. The realtor was unavailable to show the only property they really wanted to see, so they took the initiative to knock on the door and introduce themselves to the vendors. By that night it was theirs. And serendipitously, friends of theirs offered to buy their house in Dawson City. All that good luck coming together so quickly could be interpreted as things were meant to work out as they did. Not only did they find a great piece of property, walking distance to the village and ferry, it was close to a university where Jessica could do graduate work.
The 6.5 acre property already had a house and rental accommodation, but they’ve done the hard graft of putting in fencing, greenhouses, seed starter and storage buildings, and housing for their chickens and alpacas.
Aaron gave me a tour of all the buildings and a quick overview of how they do things. The starter building is where seeds are planted in transplant trays in the spring, then hardened off before they are planted in poly tunnels or in the beds. It seems labour intensive – and it is – but the idea is plants are hardier without competition from weeds than if they were directly sown in the ground.
Everything is organic, which is the healthier option, but sometimes makes for more work. It’s this idealism which has carried over into other aspects of production: like having bees for pollination and fencing sections of the property, and not its entirety, to allow for wildlife corridors. Doing things the easy way isn’t in Aaron’s vocabulary. He did relent and get a tractor to turn manure after he realized doing everything by hand was an arduous task.
They’ve put in extensive gardens for annuals and perennials – all the things they like to eat and are able to sell: salad greens, potatoes, brassicas, peppers, peas, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant. They’ve also got 15 varieties of fruit (plum, peach, apple, cherry, kiwi, haskap, currant, and raspberry) and each year plant 3000 bulbs of garlic.
Every October, they purchase 150 day old ISA Brown or Sex-Sal-Link chicks that are raised in a heated barn. When they’re fully feathered and able to withstand the elements they start to venture outside. In the spring, most of them are sold to new homes. The remaining 50-60 are moved down to a large fenced garden to scratch through the weeds and compost, fertilize the soil and lay eggs.
In the beginning they purchased manure and quickly realized that was a costly proposition so they added four alpacas, who live with the chickens. The ‘geriatric’ chickens – those older than 18 months – are moved to another pen. Some of them still lay occasionally but their main job is to turn compost and fertilize the soil until the time comes to be made into stewing hens.
Another source of income is their B&B, The Garden Bed, which is a popular summer destination, especially for families wanting to give their kids a rural, farm experience with animals. The alpacas are a big hit serving triple duty: tourist attraction, contributors of manure and producers of great fibre, which they send out to be cleaned, carded and made into socks for sale.
Aaron is the primary farmer. After moving to Gabriola, Jessica completed her Masters degree in Special Education and is now working on another degree in Teacher Librarianship through UBC. She works full-time as an elementary school teacher, coincidentally at the same school as Karen.
“Though we still have weeding and pruning ‘dates’ and she loves us growing our own food, she is also passionate about teaching.”
Good thing they have some helping hands: his family comes to stay each April and September to help out. His mum likes to wash eggs and paint signs, while his dad likes to do anything with the tractor, rototiller and compost. He’s handy with building and fixing things. Jessica’s family lives part of the year on a sailboat in Ladysmith so are able to visit frequently. They pitch in taking care of Leo and Seb, aged 10 and 8, and her farmer dad, fixes mechanic things.
Lots of folks grumble about the cost of local organic food but when you realize how much work – 365 days a year – goes into producing it you’ll have new appreciation for what it takes to grow the food we eat.
If you’re wanting to support their hard work: check out the Garden Bed farm stand, open year round, where they sell produce, eggs, and roasting chickens or their table at the Gabriola Farmer’s Market on Saturdays from May-October.
“We have been overwhelmed with the support and gratitude of the community towards our farm. It brings real joy to open the money box and find thank you notes from happy customers. We couldn’t have accomplished this dream without them.” – Aaron
Additional photos courtesy of Aaron and Jessica