Simon and Heather Toole run Good Earth Farms in the Comox Valley, where they have been providing seeds for their community for the last 22 years. The pair have a passion for food sovereignty and saving open-pollinated seeds. They have experimented with growing many types of food but in the past several years they have started to focus exclusively on growing and selling seeds. They are certified organic, members of the BC Eco Seed Co-op, and continue to expand their farm team as they grow 65 different varieties of seed.
With one acre of land in seed production, the remaining three are dedicated to maintaining natural areas and tree belts. The balance is to keep the natural foliage from impacting the crops and plant new trees where they can around the farm.
It’s been an interesting year for seed farmers, particularly at Good Earth Farms. The warmer temperatures of 2021 had their seeds maturing earlier than usual and gave them the ability to leave them out to dry rather than juggle finding space under covered areas. There were a few positives for them but overall, “It’s just super stressful to be a farmer right now”, says Simon Toole. “There are two things going on with climate change – you’re trying to rapidly adapt but you’re also trying to massively change your operation to wean off of fossil fuels.”
They adopt many practices on their seed farm to mitigate climate change and reduce their impact. Cover cropping and mulching are major components of their crop rotation. Their seed operation is divided on a three-year rotation in three separate blocks because of isolation distances. The three stages include cover cropping, mulching to kill the crop and weeds, and then in the third year, the seed crop is planted.
Cover crops and mulch significantly reduce their inputs and build healthy soil. Their fall rye resulted in wireworm pressure forcing the Tooles to switch to clover on the main fields and fava beans in the greenhouse. Both clover and fava beans have nitrogen-fixing qualities, Toole says “It reduces our fertilizer input; reducing our carbon footprint.”
A difficulty for many Vancouver Island farmers is sourcing good compost and manure. Many farmers rely on organic amendments gettings trucked in from the lower mainland. This can be frustrating for farmers who are trying to reduce their fossil fuel use.
A few years ago the Tooles decided to get rid of their tractor. Toole recounts that the first couple of years without a tractor were tough, paying more in labour costs for broad forking and laying mulch. The system has now, however, brought weed pressure down and things operate more smoothly. Rototilling can be hard on soils, and Toole feels confident their decision to reduce disturbance is the right one. He says, “Both in terms of our carbon footprint and the health of our soil it’s been a real plus for us.”
Good Earth Farms does all markets by bicycle and e-bicycle, towing a trailing behind for their inventory. Any larger deliveries are made using an electric vehicle. They admit it isn’t the perfect solution but say, “We are always looking for ways to find a balance between stress and finances but trying to innovate and look at ways we can reduce our footprint.”
Climate change is top of mind for Good Earth Farms, both how it affects their farm and what they can do to minimize their impact on the climate. Toole says, “It’s a process that we are going through and I wouldn’t say we’ve gotten to where we want to be. Ideally, it would be nice if we get to the point where we don’t have any fossil fuel inputs but that feels a little far away, but it also feels urgent to get there, so we try our best.”
It can be a lot to ask of farmers – to feed our communities and address climate change at the same time. The weight of climate change can have both physical and mental effects on farmers. Toole says, “It tends to be acceptable in farming just to push through. Things have to get done, so you just do it. Both in my personal life and farming life, I would say climate change is a huge fear that lurks there, but I’ve tried to lean into that emotion more and not be afraid of it but rather try to deal with it and process it in healthy ways. That’s been a huge transformation for me and has led to really exciting things happening. I feel for farmers because it’s already a very stressful situation, and now you’ve layered on whole other stress.”