“What’s your day-to-day look like?” is a question I’ve been asked by a handful of people in the past couple of months so here’s an itemized analysis to blanket the response.
to sow – to plant a seed; meal – organic material ground to powder; to till – to mechanically loosen and mix soil; a bed – a strip of prepared ground; kale – a delicious hipster plant
The first thing to remember is that we’re apprenticing. If we were working our own land, we’d tack on at least an extra 4+ hours to our day of tidying and organization. (Still, Jodi made a spot-on observation as we were admiring our respectively bronzed farmer’s tans: “I haven’t spent this much time outside since I was a kid”) Anyway, the time we arrive at Ferme Alva Farm every morning, Eva and Alain have already cased the place, opening up overly hot or humid greenhouses, watering seedlings and transplants (the first of 2-4 times a day), and righting anything that may have gone awry in the night. Once the farm is stabilized, for lack of a better term, Jodi and I meet up with the master farmers for the day’s instructions.
Sowing seeds in a climatized environment is an ongoing chore on the farm. Sometimes it involves, filtering large material from potting soil, adding compost, or a meal fertilizer. Sometimes it’s all of the above. We’ll plant several hundred seeds, water them and wait for Lady Nature to bring forth life. It seems on a daily basis, previously sown seeds have sprouted enough to be either transplanted into larger pots, moved into another greenhouse to make room for new seed trays, “hardened” in a buffer zone between greenhouses and the outside, or directly planted into previously prepared beds in the fields.
The 30”x100’ (76cm x 30.5m) beds outside are prepared in several ways. Either a huge tarp covers several at once, allowing weeds to germinate in the nice microclimate (then die from lack of sunlight), or we use our sexy BCS 732 walk-behind tractor to uniformly tear everything up (and maybe tarp it afterwards). Once the newly tilled bed has spent a day or two drying in the sun, we will, depending on the plant variety, add organic compost and/or fertilizer to be tilled in again. A day or so later, we’ll transplant the aforementioned sprouts or directly seed something that doesn’t transplant well.
Some beds are laid with drip irrigation and then mulched with plastic to keep weeding to a minimum. Holes are cut into the plastic at appropriate spacings and little soil-clumped sprouts fill ‘em back up. Other beds will be straddled by wire hoops every few feet and covered with a gauzy “row cover” to protect the plants from insects, heat, wind, etc.
Watering is done by hand in the nursery, by drip irrigation on certain beds, or by a mobile sprinkler system that is disassembled and relocated every season as crops are rotated.
That’s that. I’ll get to harvest, storage, and sales as we experience it.
It may seem easy-peasy, but imagine holding to your chest a wet and muddy tree stump full of worms, beetles, and spiders. Widen your stance by about three feet to straddle a bed, then lean forward a bit; now, lift the stump over your head; bring it back down without setting it down; pass it between your legs like a basketball; take a few mud-sucking steps forward then backward, then pivot on one foot without stepping onto the bed you’re straddling; raise the stump back over your head; shake out a few insects into your hair while simultaneously allowing dirt and mud to fall into your eyes, ears, mouth and whatever folds and openings you have in your clothing; now, throw it as far as your trembling body is able to.
That’s why your goddamned kale’s so expensive.
Sussex, New Brunswick (cat-sitting Saturday at Jodi’s sister’s)
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It’s been a few weeks since our last post. Busy, busy. The last riveting entry left our heroes (me ‘n’ Jodi) watching Netflix and tossing flower petals at each other in Elora, Ontario. Jodi’s since driven us 19 hours across Canada to Saint-Maurice, New Brunswick. I couldn’t renew my Texas driver’s license due to being a complex and layered international man of mystery (legally homeless), but shed not a single tear for Jodi’s travel burden, for my road contribution was an endless well of rational, though white-knuckled and sometimes explosive backseat driving.
Shopping on Kijiji saved us more than 2k.
While we weren’t so successful loading up on essential tools in the Toronto area, a fortuitous bargain awaited us in Kingston, ON in the form of a new, used BCS 732 walk-behind tractor and other attachments. Shopping secondhand on Kijiji saved us more than 2k over a new one. The previous owner was kind enough to give us a crash course on how it operates, helped load it, and let us pollute her driveway with an hour and a half of our presence as we repacked the truck to accommodate our new addition. She’d even read the same bio-intensive farm “Bible” that our Ferme Alva Farm mentors had recommended while we were still living in Prague: The Market Gardener by Canada’s own Jean-Martin Fortier. Man, that guy’s figured it out. Anyway, we smuggled our travel-traumatized cats into a motel and stayed the night outside Quebec City.
The next few days were spent with Jodi’s sister’s generous family over the Easter holiday in Sussex, New Brunswick. We dandled Jodi’s niece and nephew, stored a few things in their garage, repacked the truck, and then puttered an hour northeast to Ferme Alva Farm just outside of Bouctouche . . . which is near Moncton, NB . . . which, if you’re not familiar with the Canadian Maritimes, is a place.
The past three-ish weeks has found us holding our coats against winter flurries in snow-covered fields and playing Agricola, a farm-themed board game that Eva and Alain patiently taught us to play in a wax-on, wax-off, Mr. Miyagi-style pedagogical method. The cats aren’t horrified with two big dogs (both named Dexter) snorting hot air on them nor are they terribly aggressive with the resident cat already here. At a Homo sapiens level, Jodi and I are getting along with Eva’s mother and partner, whom we’ve barnacled to for accommodations, and Eva and Alain themselves have been welcoming, easygoing, and a relievingly comfortable mesh.
There won’t be a heck of a lot for us to do until the snow thaws, but with the help of Eva and Alain, we’ve been driving by properties and trying to get a general feel for the area. Lots of French, snow, plaid, camo, and beauty. There will be plenty to say on the work we’ve been doing since we’ve arrived, the headaches of property-hunting, and other Maritime observations, but for now, this is it.
Saint-Maurice, New Brunswick
Our first season of actual farming on our own land will begin, cross your fingers, in the spring of 2019. As mentioned in our first post, we’ll be apprenticing at Ferme Alva Farm. (Serendipitously, the lady half of Ferme Alva Farm is Jodi’s Czech-Canadian childhood friend Eva. She and her partner Alain moved to New Brunswick many years ago and started their farm and family, doing precisely what we’re wanting to do. (Only, they’re formally qualified to do so) Like their parents, Eva and Alain’s children are on their way to becoming trilingual: French, Czech, and English, which means that even after leaving the Czech Republic, my inexcusable and disrespectful ignorance of the country’s impossible language will continue to gracelessly display itself for at least another six months. U-S-A! U-S-A!) I won’t speculate on what exactly we will learn at Ferme Alva Farm, but we both look forward to all the bubbles that will swell and all that will burst in the attendance of reality.
“An apprentice is given room and board . . . and a hands-on education in agriculture. The exchange is labor.”
Jodi and I didn’t even know that apprenticing was a thing until we started researching all the what’s and who’s of farming. In short, an apprentice is generally given room and board, sometimes a small stipend, and most importantly, a hands-on education in agriculture. The exchange is labor. There’s no uniformity in expectations from either side, but ideally, the dependency of one party checks the dependency of the other into ready civility. While the apprentice needs the master for food, shelter, and knowledge, the latter has calculated a season to include an extra set of hands. Both participants would suffer some level of hardship should one or the other douche out.
We’ll be leaving the Toronto area for New Brunswick next week. We expect to work up a sweat at Ferme Alva Farm, while simultaneously viewing land in the surrounding countryside. If all goes as scheduled, we’ll be Lord and Lady of property by October. (More on purchasing land as the pressure mounts) It’s a snug timetable, made even more close-fitting by the winter that will be approaching. We’ll need to scratch up the land after sampling the soil; amend it with compost-y elements such as N, P, K, Ca, Mg, S* and/or whatever other inputs a soil test reveals to be lacking; insulate our prepared growing beds with straw so that all the beneficial microorganisms present don’t die over winter; and finally, endure the bone-chilling New Brunswick winter without choking each other out (or the cats). Sigh.
*nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulphur. I only knew, like, two of these periodic symbols, but writing them out makes me feel like a boss.
One of the lasting takeaways Jodi and I have carried from our time in Europe is that you can’t hurry entrepreneurial success. So many of our business endeavors were born out of necessity but then organized and held idling in the RAM of our own fat heads, which only led to a permanent lack of structure and an oversimplified “plan” for realistic growth. Coupling a concrete financial stake with a burning desire to construct a tangible “immortality project,” as terror management psychologists would call it, we’ve spent the last half year slaving over a comprehensive business plan for our future farm.
“[A business plan] needs to primarily make sense to its author.”
Neither Jodi nor I are accomplished capitalists nor qualified advisers for business planning, but all of my research has led me to believe that an effective business plan is completely subjective and needs to primarily make sense to its author. Chris Bash, co-founder of Exercise & Excess (and a friend), was kind enough to let me dissect the business plan for his thriving Austin company, Yomosas, an enterprise that blends the popularity of Yoga with the popularity of the alcohol in mimosas. I was floored by its simple yet sophisticated brevity and because I am an expert in overthinking and can entirely convolute even a goddamned pizza order, we attempted monkeying his minimalism in our own plan.
And therein lies the subjectivity. Chris planned his entire wedding, assigning designated responsibilities to all participants, printed and sleeved in plastic. I still have the glass cyanide capsule he required we place under our tongues should any of us have fudged his procedures. The man is organized, and a ten-page plan for Yomosas was clearly all he and his partner needed to complement the Teutonic-like methodology marching about the Champs-Élysées of their minds. Whatever else a lending institution might need satisfied from a written out company structure would presumably be fulfilled by Chris’ winning personality. Since Jodi and I lack that sort of professional charisma, we hope to let a wordy 50-paged, compulsively detailed plan articulate where our fatted tongues leave off.
Initially, we had taken the aforementioned fathead approach to our farm and from the get-go misinterpreted the very purpose of a business plan as something designed for bank loans or governmental and organizational grants. The thought of mapping out assets, income, and forecasting both seemed needlessly institutional and activated the reflexive (and irrational) rebel gland responsible for the suspension and recoil of every man’s swinging testicles. In other words, I didn’t want to “yessir or no sir” anyone. I’d have just as soon adorned myself in plumed Carnival regalia, glittered up my bosom, and click-clacked into a loan office for a private performance. It was only after we started asking ourselves how we were planning to operate a profitable farm that a business plan fell into its natural, self-serving function. Duh.
I’ll avoid the bore of mapping out the rights and wrongs of business planning, for it truly is subjective. Instead I’ll only comment on what worked for us.
Timeframe. The granddaddy of ‘em all. We followed a standard five-year model. It forced us to turn our hypothetical fancies to realistic (and intentionally conservative) projected income and expenses. Doing so is the sole reason we can shush well-intended but ignorant nay-sayers from raining on our dope-ass parade. “Are you sure you can-” Yes. “Have you thought abou-” Yes. “You do realize that-” Yes, now shhhhhh, butthead.
A five-year model also forced creativity. Do we really want to remain financially stagnant every year? No, so let’s cook up something different every year until we reach a plateau that we’re comfortable with.
Lastly, blocking our goals into yearly benchmarks made the transition into a new industry more manageable and considerably less overwhelming.
Acreage. In our case, deciding how we were going to use our land really informed us as to how much we would need, how much is ideal, and how much our dirty little fantasies were privately moaning over. While land usage might not apply to every business plan, commercial space might. . .
Marketing. Another creative outlet and delight to ponder over. This research identified our demography and afforded us the opportunity to shape how we may best reach them. This one felt almost intuitive for me, but there were a few surprises that we would have taken longer to discover had we not been banging away at our keyboards.
Iconography. Love it. While companies can package logos and icons in a plethora of sizes and formats, it was a pleasure to save some cash and create our own. Not really any research to speak of here (apologies to the graphic designers whose heads have just exploded), but the category got us thinking about our farm identity and how to represent it. Should we get certified organic as we have planned in year three, we’ve got a new bag of logos lying in wait.
In summary, the only reason Jodi and I feel relatively confident about starting something from scratch is because we applied months and months and months of our time researching; and furthermore, the only reason we dropped our lazy approach to startups is because a business plan required our dedicated study. Regardless of whether our actual farm is fulfilling or successful, the process alone has brought us guidance and a powerful sureness that we’ll now be able to apply all future undertakings.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Contact us if you’ve got some life-altering information to share or if you’re interested in anything more business plan specific.
The era of Prague has officially come to an end and Jodi and I have embarked onto a surreal odyssey that will not see its conclusion until at least October of this year. Every day it seems our environment shifts in some unfamiliar way and we are pressed to relearn the normality of things as simple as ordering coffee (yes, there is culture-specific language for that) or not hyperventilating when facing the abundance of North American supermarkets. It’s an adjustment, to say the least, and while some manage their shock by verbally reasoning through it, I’m taking a page out of Jodi’s book and shutting my mouthhole. Next.
Don’t ever be discouraged by the ease in which people present their successes online
Late last year, we were unexpectedly met with good fortune when Jodi’s parents stumbled upon and purchased a busted down truck for $500. The 2008, Ford F-150 would have remained a very large and useless ornament had we independently found it, as Jodi and I are a couple of boobs in terms of auto mechanics, but Jodi’s father and crew of resourceful friends were able and willing to apply their benevolent sorcery to make roar a necessary beast of burden. We’re gushingly thankful for the help.
Don’t ever be discouraged by the ease in which people present their successes online. They had help. In some form or another, hands were extended and hands were eagerly accepted. Anyone who says otherwise is unequivocally full of shit. And that’s magnificent (help, not calculated distortion)! I don’t know how or when “help” became so unattractive that it needed to be routinely scooted behind the curtains of public representation. We’re grateful and indebted to those who have had the capacity and have cared enough to offer support towards a goal which, on the surface, appears wildly unrealistic. I only hope that such charity has been accepted with all due appreciation and humility.
Next steps. Jodi’s still in the Toronto area and I’ve been in Austin, Texas, further detaching myself from reality, for the past few days. When I return to Canada, we plan on trolling Kijiji (Canada’s Craigslist) for tools and equipment that we’ll need by the end of the year. There are nearly six million more people in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) than there are in the entire province of New Brunswick, so with luck, we will have covered the basics before making prisoners of the cats again and puttering east in our new, used pickup (Czech friends, bathe yourselves in the confounding wash of that which has not yet come to pass, the future perfect tense . . . for “My name is [Carlos], king of kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”).
As you may have figured out, our (hypothetical) farm is called Fair Share Market Garden. We chose the name carefully, considering its relationship to our guiding principles, its marketability, and the ease in which it translates into the French(ish) Fair Share Jardin de Marché . . . which we’ll still have to verify is correct.
“Convenience can be destructive.”
Our leading, hard-to-sell principle is the idea that convenience can be destructive. An appalling number of the frills that we employ to make life more comfortable often have an unsustainable byproduct that’s plated over by gild (think, “banana republic” (not the clothing store Banana Republic (although, why on Earth a company would name their business that is stupefyingly inexplicable to me. It’d be like naming our farm “E. coli Acres” or “Radioactive Earth Food”))). Striving to reduce our wants is a central goal in what we are trying to construct, and the phrase “Fair Share” is a nice way of starting a conversation about necessity versus excess. “Market Garden” further suggests a small farmers market operation to illustrate our theme.
As a marketing strategy, the obvious benefit is the familiarity and musical quality of “Fair Share.” A major source of income we’ve planned is through a now popular food delivery system called community supported agriculture or CSA. You’ve probably got a dozen of them in your area. Look ‘em up. In this system, customers invest a lump sum before the growing season begins and then receive a “share” of the farm’s harvest every week. Get it? “Share”? “Fair Share”? I’m a wizard. More on CSAs as this here sally rages on.
Everything we’re publishing, except these gorgeous essays will hopefully be translated to French. By avoiding unnecessary idioms, slang, and complex sentence structure, Google Translate has afforded us an imperfect but free solution to my paralyzing fear of using French incorrectly. As an unassimilated, English-speaking hack in the Czech Republic, I’ve used Google Translate on a daily basis, and I’m wonderfully relieved to see that the oftentimes bizarre translations from English to Czech and vice versa, are simply not present in the enormously widespread French language. “Fair Share Jardin de Marché” is obviously not the best answer to this bilingual pickle, as Fair Share isn’t translated, but the characters fit neatly into our logo, and French Canadians can still pronounce it, even if some won’t fully understand the first part (The Czech equivalent would be “Férový Podíl Zahrada,” which Jodi tells me makes no goddamned sense at all). Anyway, if anyone has a better suggestion in French, we’re all ears.
So that’s our business identity . . . for now.
We’re flying out to Toronto. Today. It’s been a hectic month of saying goodbyes, closing accounts, and selling/giving away piles of junk, but we’ve prevailed! Next stop, Canada.
“Why New Brunswick?” is a question I’ve been asked by two individuals who are from there (which statistically is pretty remarkable, considering that on another continent I’ve met not two but three people from a province of well under a million people). The answer is fairly simple, but I’m long-winded, so get comfortable.
“Why New Brunswick?”
Ocean. The Czech Republic is a land-locked nation. Every summer, citizens pile in their cars and drive ten hours south to Croatia for their saltwater kicks. The rich ones fly or simply bypass the rest of us mongrels to delight on the sunny islands of the Mediterranean (something that I learned when, on a cloudy Bohemian day, a four-year-old student of mine informed me that her Crayon drawing of palm trees and sunshine was not of her home in Prague, but the one “in Majorca, stupid”). After a combined 16 years of living without any massive bodies of water, Jodi and I placed ocean, sea, or Great Lake locations at the top our list.
Proximity. Flying a dozen hours on two-to-three international planes is a pain in the ass. Like, literally. While business class passengers are given heated towels to dab away the stress of spacious seating and personal slaves, the barbarians in economy are left to stew in their own pungence as their sciatic nerves, like screeching newborns, find voice in their sudden discomfort. It’s also obscenely expensive. We wanted to settle some place relatively near Ontario, Texas, and the mosaic of European cultures that we’re leaving behind. What’s more, Jodi’s sister and family are newly transplanted there, and they’ll only be a short drive away. New Brunswick just made sense.
Affordability. I can’t say that any of these criteria are more critical than the other, but cost is a massively influential factor. We could have decided on the sexy British Columbian West Coast, but doing so would mean the difference between outright ownership and indentured service to a bank. We’ll never be rich as farmers, and that’s perfectly fine, but struggling to make ends meet every month? We may as well pull up our bootstraps, ignore any medical issues that may arise, and then get shot in Baltimore. The idea of building a future somewhere only to have it taken away by bankers or bureaucrats is maybe the only fear left in my heart. And it’s American. The New Brunswick economy is consistently not great, but if we’re frugal and a have winter-income contingency plan, which we do, I think we can safely allow ourselves to imagine Wonkaland . . . without all the psychedelics or child disfigurement/killings.
Friends, Jodi and I are moving to New Brunswick, Canada. We’ll be there at the beginning of April or in early March to apprentice with the good people at Ferme Alva Farm. “Ferme” en français est “farm” in English, which might sound redundant, but New Brunswick is a bilingual province (the only official one in fact). That’s right. We’re headed to the Maritimes to scoop up some land and make lovely the Earth.
It’ll be a small gig, three acres for farming and some light animal husbandry, but we hope to pick up about 10 acres in total, maybe more. We’ve got a solid business plan; pretty decent (academic) knowledge of agriculture, which is really more like agricultural science; and a concentrated focus on not starving to death.
“Ferme” en français est “farm” in English.
There are many, many reasons to make the change. Living in Prague, the hub of Central Europe has been . . . informative, and we are grateful for the years we’ve been here. Jodi’s spent more of her adult life in the Czech Republic than she has in her native Ontario. We’ve started businesses here, networked internationally here, found financial freedom here, and we have enjoyed a very comfortable living simply by tapping the unearned social and economic celebrity of speaking English. Here.
But for what? Our hobbies are enjoyable, but shortsighted. Jodi’s become a dedicated runner and an impressively self-taught crocheter. I’ve been writing stories and books and illustrating comics for longer than I care to recall. We drink more wine than we should. We watch too much Netflix. We spend way too much money on Thai and Indian food. Counting how often we’ve danced until the sun came up then staggered home is startlingly beyond the capacity of ten fingers and toes. How can I complain? Our time in Prague has been a series of indulgences. Such spoils, however, have come to beautifully represent the human condition in which we all suffer. We’ve grown fat and sloppy splashing around in an excess that is no longer fulfilling or even satisfactory. The grey season in Prague is long and for too long have both Jodi and I (and tragically, our cats) paced our comfortable apartment with a troubling discontent that neither food nor drink nor social pleasures can soothe. We’re childless. We don’t own property. We don’t employ anyone. Karmically speaking, our contribution to humanity is almost certainly in the negative numbers if one considers and can measure the consumption that is required to sustain our indifference.
I easily left the United States because, among other reasons, I was hopeless and dangerously angry. All the time. Years abroad have thankfully untied those distressing knots. How? I finally grasped that I can’t change a damned thing. Some people can. I’m not a cynic, but he or she must be in the right place, at the right time, with the right message. My personal philosophy on what is “right” is a message that I have failed to effectively articulate. So, we have decided to take our freedom and the little hobbies that pass the hours away and point them in the direction of a larger project: We want to effect change by doing. More on that in subsequent posts . . . .
One might look upon this website representing a yet-to-be-established business as grandiose, and normally, I’d agree, but this site is definitely a horse before the cart strategy, and I can positively assure you that what you see is only the surface of our pomp. I’m goddamned fabulous, but I can’t be if we’re working long hours while learning a totally new industry, buying land, submitting permits, creating internal documents, blah, blah, blah. So here we sit in Prague, hastening our many ducks to row.
Our plane flies for Toronto on the 28th of February, then two weeks in Texas, then back to Ontario, then a long drive to the East Coast.
There. Now you’re informed. There’s a thingy on the right side of your screen if you want to receive notifications when we post a new essay. Please do.