Good morning, West Kootenays! I’m not sure what time you’re reading this, but at the time of writing, it’s morning. We’re six weeks into social isolation (or thereabouts), and I’m sitting at my kitchen table eating delicious eggs with the brightest yellow yolks from our two chickens on homemade bread, with homemade muffins in a container to my left, soil tests on the windowsill in front of me, and seed packets, garden plans, and notes from recent gardening webinars strewn across the table to my right.

Our new chicks chirp away in the next room, staying warm beside our four shelves of starters illuminated in all their new growth glory by our new grow lights. All of this was really born from both the uncertainty and opportunity provided by COVID-19. Wait, are we a country COVID cliché? Panic buying flour, seeds, chickens, and gardening like our lives depend on it?

I do know we’re extremely privileged to be able to do what we are doing and that not everyone can for a whole range of reasons. Not all of this is within everyone’s interests, needs, or capacity. This post is an insight into what we’ve been turning our attention to in these crazy times.

I’m Mel, I’ve recently moved in with my partner Angela on her property in Salmo. We are volunteering with the EcoSociety on the 100% Renewable Kootenays campaign, hoping our little village will commit to achieving this goal by 2050. We’ve also got Ang’s dad Don with us, and Clutch, Ang’s dog, who is part of the inspiration for the name of the little farm we’ve launched ourselves into as a result of the COVID crisis. Ang is fortunate that she can continue working full time in her profession and works on the property in her time off, whilst I have thrown myself into trying to grow food for us, our friends, and our community (if we can grow enough surplus!) in these uncertain and potentially food-insecure times.

What exactly have we done these past six weeks? Committing to taking the plunge was a last minute decision, so we’ve approached it by prioritising projects largely based on plant needs and production stages.

  1. We needed a space to germinate and grow starters. Don built shelving in the most insulated room in our chilly little old miner’s cottage, and we installed grow lights for our new plants. We’ve started lots of different types of vegetables and have been more successful thus far than either of us have in the past, so that’s a positive start – grow lights for the win!
  2. Next, we need somewhere to transition starts and for our succession plantings in the coming weeks and months. Don has almost completed a little nursery/greenhouse for this purpose. We placed it close to our house and will include some plant beds so that we can try to extend the growing season for our personal veggies as long as possible.
  3. We also need another larger, warmer space for growing heat loving varieties. We sourced a second hand portable car shelter and converted this into a high tunnel/hoop house. We’ve just finished putting the poly over it and enclosing the end – getting poly taut is harder than it looks!
  4. Possibly the biggest project of all: we need beds to plant. This is still underway. We rototilled some beds late last year and have continued preparing some of these. We’re ultimately aiming to minimise tilling, meaning we are trying to avoid using a rototiller or tractor to turn and prepare our rows. Minimising tilling helps to regenerate soil as it maintains soil structure, keeps soil microbes happy, reduces erosion, helps to store carbon via organic matter, and avoids the carbon emissions associated with driving fossil fuel powered machinery. However, we don’t quite have the inputs needed for the scale we’re trying to plant and the timeframe isn’t ideal, so we have to compromise at times. We’ve found challenges finding certain inputs affordably and/or locally and have faced moral conundrums around whether to source organic inputs from distant locations with high transportation emissions or utilise local materials and minimise our impact in that way. We’re sourcing cardboard to help suppress weeds (we have a lot of knapweed to manage) and are finding materials to layer to build beds with composted manure, compost, and soil for plants that will grow ok in this.
  5. We moved our chicken run. We had to shift it to the side of the barn to make way for more garden beds, and now our chickens have some lovely trees to roost in and dust bathe under. Our two adult chickens, Kenny Rogers and Parsley, seem to enjoy it. The gate to their new run faces outside the soon-to-be-enclosed vegetable area, so they will be able to continue to free range when we are home without them digging up all our veggies. We are also trying to train them to come when we call them. Having them run towards us when we call them over to eat kitchen scraps is probably a highlight of the day – I’m sure you’re aware that a chicken waddle/run is ridiculously adorable.
  6. Compost piles. We used pallets to make two new compost bays. We’ve filled one with manure, kitchen scraps, and carbon material collected from around the farm (mostly preparing the space for Don’s fifth wheel home-away-from-home) and are currently filling the other. This is likely for later season bed prep or next year; we’ll see how successful it is.
  7. We got 18 new baby chickens! This is probably the cutest and most exciting part of this journey thus far. They’re almost a week old now and although we lost one, they seem to be doing well.
  8. We sorted out the barn. This was a bit of a mess, and despite it still being a little messy, it’s a more organised mess with homes for most tools. It’s quite satisfying organising your barn, who knew!?!

We are also trying to ensure that our values are evident throughout the project. We want to minimise our impact and be more regenerative than extractive. We’re focussing on sourcing as much as we can locally, use as many second hand/used/upcycled materials as we can find, and organic materials and principles as far as feasible.

We’re also very aware that much of the environmental impact of our food comes from production stages, so we want to minimise the use of fossil fuels and increase our efficiency.

This is part of the reason why we’re involved in the 100% Renewable Kootenays campaign. How great would it be if all of the energy we use to produce food was from renewable sources? Locally produced green power for our grow lights, to cool our produce, to heat and circulate air in our greenhouses, and maybe even to power our trucks and tractors!

We also want to try to replant cedar in the back of the property, in part to try to carbon offset our production and distribution, and to restore part of the property that was previously harvested back to some semblance of its former glory.

This is all very much “fake it ‘til you make it” farming. Or, at least I hope we make it if making it is being able to successfully grow food – we’ll see! Has it been all smooth sailing, an idyllic dalliance into rurality? Not quite. The recent dramatic changes have triggered anxiety and stress at times, plus the additional challenges of social distancing, altered supply chains, financial considerations associated with underemployment, decisions around the scale of this hairbrained idea, and more.

It’s been quite a ride, but we have enjoyed it both as an escape and an exciting new challenge. Sure, we don’t have a great deal of experience; rather we seem to have the sheer foolishness framed as tenacity to try. We’re devouring loads of resources as we learn while doing. A silver lining of the COVID situation is there are many webinars and educational channels available, and we certainly appreciate the opportunities the EcoSociety has provided so far. Did you catch the mushroom identification or vermicomposting webinars? Or the gardening and other chats? They’ve been great. Check them out! 

There are lots of negatives that have come from the COVID crisis, and I empathise with all those impacted. Yet there are also positives in our renewed sense of community, interest in local food and self-sustenance, and push for a sustainable new “normal”. I hope we can carry these positives forward into the future!

If you’d like to see whether our little COVID crisis induced farm can actually grow food, constructively compost, or generally just enjoy our frequent chick baby-spam and dog posts, you can find Clutch Farm Salmo on Instagram and Facebook. There’s a Clutch Farms in Florida – follow us, not them. 😉