When a computer engineer and a nurse start out on a life path, farming might not be where you’d expect them to end up.
But that is what Dan Edmond and Piotr Majkowski are doing, thanks to a three-year lease of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s incubator farm at the foot of Gilbert Road.
As an engineer, Edmond is used to working toward perfection, but as a farmer, he’s had to settle for a little less. Like when they planted melons this year thinking the soil was ready and found the plants infested with root maggots three days later.
Nothing is perfect in farming, especially organic, Edmond explained, because there is a biological component to the process.
“Nature will decide how perfect it will be,” he added.
South Richmond soil a 'gift'
A few years ago, Edmond completed a practicum in sustainable agriculture at the UBC farm, and was inspired to start a market garden.
Normally, the KPU incubator farms — in south Richmond and in Tsawwassen — are designated for students from the Kwantlen farm school program. But when the incubator farm was on a hiatus as the farm school was being redesigned a few years ago, Edmond and Majkowski lucked out to secure the lease and started their farm business, Fractal Farm.
They have about three-quarters of an acre under cultivation, with three large growing tunnels and one smaller one at the farm.
Fractal Farm uses its beds very intensively, Edmond explained, with three to four plantings per bed per year. As soon as one crop is harvested, they will plant a new crop on the same bed.
South Richmond has a great micro-climate, slightly warmer than elsewhere in the area, which is good for farming, Edmond said. But the land is what really makes it ideal for agriculture. Edmond calls the soil a “gift.”
“The river delta we’re on probably has some of the best agricultural potential in our world,” he said.
The soil is nutrient dense and it grows great produce that tastes amazing, something Edmond thinks people in the area sometimes take for granted.
“Good soil makes for great veggies that taste really good,” he said.
Strong community base
Fractal Farm is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprise, which means their customers buy into the program at the beginning of the season and then receive a weekly box of produce from the farm.
Farming is hard work and dependent on external factors, like the weather, which can wreak havoc, especially if one has customers waiting for their weekly vegetables.
“Every year, you encounter multiple breakdowns in the spring where you’re not sure you’re going to get done everything you have to get done — it’s incredibly overwhelming at times,” Edmond said.
This can produce an “unrelenting pressure” to provide for one’s customers.
“The growing season just flies by and it doesn’t wait for anyone,” Edmond said.
But the relationships with customers and the ability of to produce food to feed people can also bring great satisfaction.
Last year, one of Fractal Farm’s customers was pregnant and she was feeding her unborn baby with their produce. This year, her baby is enjoying their peas — it’s this relationship with their customers that is so important to Edmond.
“That’s a huge part of doing this — supporting our community, and they support us,” Edmond said.
Lessons are learned every year, and farmers need to learn from their mistakes and strategize on how to do better next season, Edmond said. But to really get good at farming and to have continuity from year to year, farmers need a secure land situation, to plan crops and establish farming systems.
This is the last year Edmond and Majkowski have the lease on the incubator farm, and they are actively looking to find another piece of land to lease.
“We’d like to continue our business in whatever way we can – we don’t know what that looks like,” he said. They hope to find something in the peri-urban area, within a half hour drive of Vancouver where there’s a big customer base.
Edmond believes farming is meaningful work, is good for the community and provides good food for people. He would like to see this small-scale market garden model of farming expanded many-fold.
“Do you really need thousands-of-acre farms run by a few people that are highly mechanized?” he said. “That’s certainly part of our food system now, and it’s an important part of our food system, but we can rethink this.”
He acknowledges getting established in farming and earning a living is challenging.
“It’s not easy for someone to come into this for the very first time, make all the investments, and expect it to be making a good income on their farm right away,” he said.
“I’ve heard from many farmers you’re not making great money until your fifth to seventh year.”
Edmond pointed out that he and Majkowski are especially privileged to have the incubator farm opportunity and also have a foot in their previous careers, but even still, they are having challenges making a go of it.
“I hope we can get to a point where this is sustainable,” he said.