On Solid Ground: Shalefield Organic Gardens

Words: Desiree Nielsen
Images: Melissa Quantz

On a rainy spring morning that was quintessentially Vancouver, Melissa and I headed for the Columbia Valley to see what was growing at Shalefield Organic Gardens. In a season where the only thing that usually grows is the mud puddles, hidden within rows of greenhouses and under grow lights was a bounty of spring produce.

Shalefield Organic Gardens came into being seven years ago, a true labour of love between Brian Patterson and Yolanda Versterre. Over hot cups of tea and homemade muffins, Yolanda told us of the farm’s origins.

Brian had owned the land since 1984 as his family home and hobby farm. It gets its name from the shale-rich earth, which is still visible around the property. A printer, who found himself without work thanks to a shift in publishing technology, Brian began selling garlic at the farmer’s market in 2007. However, a recent marital separation had left Brian wondering if he should sell the farm.

Yolanda met Brian through their shared love of running – and she too was looking for a new path. Trained as a nurse in the Netherlands, she found herself unable to work in Canada. When contemplating the decision to leave the land, Yolanda gifted Brian a book on soil, with the suggestion that they could try to farm the land together. Her rationale: if you sell now, you can never get it back… but if you try farming and it doesn't work, you can always sell the farm. And so it began.

What makes Brian and Yolanda unique as farmers is that they were not trained in agriculture – nor did they apprentice in farming. When the time came, they simply dove in feet first, at a time when some might contemplate early retirement.

Looking back on those early years, Yolanda remarks that they learned “a lot of valuable lessons”. Which is to be expected when you adopt farming as your new profession – but what makes their success all the more intriguing is the decision of these novice farmers to go biodynamic.

Biodynamic agriculture, with its esoteric rules and conventions, might not seem like the natural choice for newbie farmers. It was actually Mary Forstbauer who convinced Brian that it was the way to go, as they spent many a Saturday as market neighbours. The first blueberry bushes at Shalefield came from the Forstbauers, as do the biodynamic preparations and year old manure. For Brian, biodynamic agriculture resonated as he liked the idea of not using a lot of external inputs, even organic ones. He notes that even mushroom manure is full of chemicals.

While organic is a household term these days, awareness of biodynamic farming practices remains elusive. Biodynamic philosophy is based on the work of Dr Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher who imagined a farm that is like a living, breathing organism of its own, in harmony with the natural rhythms of the cosmos. One that is self-sustaining and not reliant on outside inputs of energy. Planting, applying biodynamic preparations and harvesting are done in harmony with astral bodies according to the lunar cycle.

Biodynamic agriculture shares roots with homeopathy: one of the distinguishing practices is the usage of fermented preparations said to restore the vital life forces of the farm. These preparations are often not made on site, as they are very time consuming for farmers to make. There are six preparations: yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion and valerian. Most of these are fermented in animal tissue, and buried in the ground for a period of time. What results is a compost-looking material, except the valerian, which turns liquid. The preparations are thought to affect the fermentation of compost and nourish the soils.

In practice, using these preparations takes patience and quite a bit of strength. Small amounts of preparation are stirred into water warmed by the sun, for an hour. You have to create vortexes by stirring in one direction and then against the flow of water to create tension.

Watching Yolanda stir, I could hardly expect that I would last more than about five minutes…let alone an hour. Says Yolanda, “At one point, you don’t know what to think about anymore so you count the swirls.”

Organic agriculture is the foundation for biodynamics, which takes the philosophy a few steps farther. Biodynamic agriculture discourages the use of many organic-approved chemical applications, in favour of integrated pest management and natural inputs. Nurturing the soil is the primary method of deterring pests and weeds. At Shalefield, they use plastic cover a great deal. 

Creating a year-round supply of fresh biodynamic produce is no small feat in Canada, even on the temperate west coast. Much of the magic of Shalefield’s abundance relies on greenhouses to control for temperature and inclement weather. Even though we were visiting early in the spring, a mild winter meant that strawberries were already on their way…strawberries that, if you get to market early enough, you can buy right now. And you might just want to say thank you, since kneeling down to pick all those jewel-like strawberries is pretty hard on the knees. Their gorgeous rhubarb is also up for grabs, tended throughout the winter by careful cover.

“Farming is muscle memory; no one else has your land.”

Over the years, Shalefield has grown significantly. There are no longer animals on Shalefield, both due to the extra work required and to provide more room for their growing operations. Shalefield produces beautiful sprouts and micro greens year round to keep the freshness of spring alive, even in December. Fine restaurants such as Farmer’s Apprentice use their wares and Shalefield produce can be found at farmer’s markets in Vancouver every single week. Of course, with growth comes new challenges. “Planning is the biggest challenge. With full time employees, (our) biggest stress is knowing that other families depend on our success,” according to Yolanda. And surprisingly, connecting to the local community has not been as organic as you might expect. Little of their produce is found in their neighboring community of Chilliwack. For this reason, Brian and Yolanda created a community supported agriculture program – which is actually an idea born of the biodynamic movement - to connect with families locally. 

“The hardest part is that you never have enough. When berries are ready, getting enough pickers is really challenging. It takes a long time to grow enough volume and enough variety, to get enough land. We might have enough now, I hope.”

There is also the challenge of planning for the future. Brian and Yolanda’s love for their land and their work is evident…but it doesn’t mean that Brian wants to continue forever. He is 65 now and hoping to find someone to take over the farm. As he says, “I’ve read all the Elliot Coleman books. I am farmed out.”

For now, though, it is farming as usual for Brian and Yolanda. And their dedication and passion for the soil means all the more deliciousness for us.