Aaron Armstrong is a farmer now, but he wasn’t born into it. He chose his new life, and it really is new, in Prince Edward County. Aaron took possession of his property in April and is starting small, but already he sells produce to twelve County restaurants and shops. We talked to him as he worked with his team at Blue Wheelbarrow Farm.
“I started as a wwoofer six years ago. Wwoof stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms or we also say Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It’s like a help exchange that connects volunteers with sustainable growers all over the world. I did nine months in Europe and worked on 12 different farms – everything from dairy sheep farms to cider orchards, I worked with bakers and onion farmers but the ones I really got into were vegetable farms.
I came back to Canada wondering if I could farm full time? When you volunteer you do three weeks in each place. Could I devote myself to farming? More important could I do it on my own? I got hired on a farm near Abbotsford in the Fraser Valley for a season. Then I did an internship in Hawaii on a lettuce farm. That was hard. Having to live in Hawaii for five months and go paddle boarding after work and roast marshmallows over flowing lava on my birthday! I’m kidding. It was fantastic. I worked on a sprouts farm back on Vancouver Island, and then I heard about The County.
I wanted to work for Vicki Emlaw but instead I was hired by Fiddlehead Farms in the Northeast of The County and I completely fell in love with the place. I wanted to have my own place, but I was waiting. I thought I needed a business partner. But then I came to the point where I thought, I am READY. This property is one of the first I saw when I started looking in 2014 and it was fantastic, the barn and the house and all this land. But I couldn’t afford it, so I leased land, and, when that fell through, this land came up again and I couldn’t say no. With the help of my family, who live in British Columbia, I managed to put together a down payment.
See that treeline? That divides the property down the middle and I rent half my land to Donnie Williams, he’s from a very old farming family and has a dairy operation. He’s been farming this land with cash crops for 10 years, and I really wanted it to continue being used. I won’t be able to work it myself yet, so Don hays the land and we put in a pea, oat and barley cover crop to keep the soil healthy. My idea is to expand year after year, but seeing how busy I am after three months working one acre, I won’t be expanding next year. I’m very aware of my limitations in time and efficiency and some things have to be sacrificed. Like my onions! I won’t be putting them into the ground because I won’t have the time to maintain them this year. You have to take care of your stuff, do it to the best of your ability, especially with new soil. And this is GREAT soil, I’m so grateful and lucky to be here.”
Aaron broke off to talk with Jay and Chad and a little further on with Nigel and Jeremie. They’re young and strong and friendly. Aaron talks about how the old timers knew exactly how to place trees for maximum shade and light in summer and winter. He showed us his cold cellar and the small, precious refrigeration unit for his market stand. We asked how he has already secured commercial customers.
“I approached them! I sell to nine restaurants and three shops. I want to focus on local organic agriculture, and I needed a place to sell. I don’t want to go to Toronto. Kingston is even a bit far for me! I want to sell here, focus on local demand. It’s such a foodie community, people come and check out the farm stand and I’m happy to give farm tours if they want to walk around and see how it’s done. I can’t always take the time out but somebody will be available, and I really like being part of the community. I want to celebrate the harvest with people here. Keep it local.
It’s really social here. People just say hello, and you make connections easily, it’s that type of community. The people are the reason I chose to settle here. I have never lived in a place where I felt such a strong sense of belonging, and I’ve lived lots of places.
I’ve found in The County, and everybody tells me, people are really connected, they have your back. Old timers help you out, newcomers are excited about other people’s businesses. There’s a lot of support, business and personal and it’s genuine, authentic support.
Am I organic? Yes I am, but I’m not certified. I use organic seed, certified seed, and organic methods and I am debating whether to go toward certification, but it’s not that important to me. I’m more concerned about the quality and using good methods. I like people coming to see the farm. It’s good for people to engage with farms and build trust with the farmers. If you know the grower you don’t need to see a certificate to prove they’re NOT doing something, like using chemicals. Of course I put the best-looking stuff on the stand, but people are getting used to the idea that natural arugula will have some holes in it. We’re getting away from perfectionism in supermarket aisles. For restaurants it’s a bit different, because there’s a theatrical element there, but if you’re cooking at home you just want a great tasting meal and you want to know it’s been grown just with love and a ridiculous amount of hard work! I call it Holy Arugula – blessed by the flea beetle which doesn’t diminish the taste one little bit.
I just missed out on the young entrepreneur start-up help because I’m 32! Yes, I know I look young, I still get ID’d at the liquor store, it’s because I’ve got my mum’s good genes. So I didn’t get any grants or anything. I’ve done it by my bootstraps, with a lot of help from family and friends. My brother was essential to my starting, he really loves it here, in fact he’s moving back from B.C.
Jeremie is from Scarborough and has been farming for four years. He starts work at Vicki’s Veggies in August. Nigel is from England. I met him through my friend Rebecca, he’s married to Natalie who works with Rebecca’s Picnic food truck. I met Zach and Leah through my friend Angie Braun. They’re off to University in the Netherlands next year and needed work this summer. And my friend Jay had a farm in B.C. but he’s on hiatus, on a road trip so he’s helping me out. Chad is a wwoofer from New York State who was visiting family in Kingston and wanted to do farm work.
There’s really a whole lot of people interested in coming here, interested in The County and in being part of the agricultural scene. I love being part of the community, growing stuff for people. I’m going to make this work.”
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.