Nigel and Laura Francis in the greenhouse at Cartwheel Farm in Erickson. (Photo credit Lorne Eckersley)

Cartwheel Farm turns dreams to reality

This year’s fifth crop at Cartwheel Farm they have already survived longer in the business than an estimated 80 per cent of similar startups.

Laura and Nigel Francis are bucking the odds in their efforts to succeed in market gardening. But with this year’s fifth crop at Cartwheel Farm they have already survived longer in the business than an estimated 80 percent of similar startups.

This year, the couple expects to deliver groceries to 100 families from Canyon to Riondel from June to mid-November this year – all participants in what they describe as community-supported agriculture.

“We grow on a small scale with joy and attention to detail,” Laura said on Monday. “We farm to cultivate health, justice, freedom, beauty and contentment.”

Her lofty description is significant. Nigel and Laura fell in love 16 years ago and farming could not have been further from their minds. They travelled the world, pursued their education and looked to be on a path of academia and international development. And then a vacation in the Kootenays from their home in Ontario changed everything.

With a Master’s degree in philosophy, Nigel was planning to move toward Environmental Law and Laura could pretty much write her own job description, but the Kootenays tugged at them in a way they could not fully understand.

They made a connection with Beth Penny, an artist in Boswell, who offered them a housesitting opportunity while she wintered in Mexico.

“Almost before we knew it, three years had passed,” Laura said. “We made a circle of friends that included long-time East Shore residents like Luanne Armstrong, and every time we needed a new place to stay they just found us one.”

After those three years of adapting to Kootenay life, they chose to settle in Creston, eventually purchasing Merv Schloss’s Erickson 6-acre property, which had been certified organic for two decades.

“We didn’t really expect to find a certified organic property,” Nigel said. “There aren’t many in the Creston Valley, and it allowed us to get a quicker start down the path we wanted to be on.”

Farming wasn’t part of their life experience, but they had become avid gardeners in their time on the East Shore. They set to work planning a market garden and soon became a familiar site at the Creston Valley Farmers’ Market (Laura kept her day job to help pay the bills), and then they came across the concept of community-supported agriculture, where customers pay in the spring for a weekly delivery of fresh, seasonal produce.

Those deliveries are accompanied by a recipe to inspire the use of products that might be unfamiliar to local residents. Japanese salad turnips? “I like them I and I like to grow them,” Nigel said. Japanese sweet snacking peppers? “We were the first in the Valley to grow them,” Laura added.

Those weekly deliveries often include Asian vegetables that grow well here, but “things our customers haven’t seen before,” Laura said. Perhaps not surprisingly, they occasionally discover edible weeds that they turn into crops—the use of indigenous plants takes the concept of local food to an entirely different level.

Nigel credits the Farmers’ Market for helping to build the Cartwheel Farm business.

“People increasingly want to make a connection between the food on their table and the people who grow it,” he said. “And word of mouth is our best form of advertising.”

This year marks the first full season for their heated greenhouse, which lengthens the growing season by at least a month. Across the driveway, Laura points to the field that now provides three seasonal jobs, describing it as “One hundred 100-foot rows.” Crops are rotated and some rows are cover-cropped each year to allow the land to rejuvenate.

Asked if there was a particular moment of inspiration that led to his passion for growing food, Nigel thinks a for a moment and then refers to a book he read by Quebec “micro-farmer” and educator Jean-Martin Fortier. That book, How to Make a Living From a 1.5 Acre Market Garden, with its emphasis on ecological, human-scale and economically viable, sustainable agriculture, convinced him that gardening was a viable and important endeavor.

It is quite possible that readers have enjoyed Cartwheel Farm produce without knowing it. In addition to the weekly home deliveries and Farmers’ Market, restaurants have become valued customers, too. Yahk Mountain Café, The Bistro at Skimmerhorn Winery, Black Salt Café, Boccalino, Kootenay Cabin Restaurant and Red’s Bakery are all customers, as is “the very supportive” Yasodhara Ashram.

Surprisingly, young families make up the bulk of subscribers. Perhaps they are more adventurous in the kitchen, but the discovery that locally grown food is competitively priced and far fresher than imported produce is also a key.

“People want to feel connected to their community, and food can play an important role in filling that need,” Laura said.

Like any startup business owners, Laura and Nigel, are quick to admit there are struggles. In the year that their son, Callum, was born, farming became even more challenging when smoke from wildfires filled the Creston Valley, obliterating the sun and keeping many indoors.

“We really questioned what we were doing,” Laura said.

This year, Nigel points out a dry shallow spot near the greenhouse that is usually overflowing with water at this time of year. Spring water that often runs across the driveway during freshet has not appeared. Climate change might allow for the growth of crops that would not have thrived here a few decades ago, but a shortage of water fills farmers everywhere with fear.

On balance, though, Laura describes the venture into market gardening as “a pretty feel-good story,” one illustrated with images of a energetic and imaginative couple thrilled at the notion that their child loves being out in the dirt among the plants, and with the belief that producing nutritious, organic, locally grown food is an honourable and important endeavor.

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