I popped by Puzzlegrass farm to have a chat with our friends Madison & Erin of Puzzlegrass Farm ahead of their growing season.
Best friends and first generation farmers, currently growing on about two acres of land deep in the hills of Naramata, BC since 2020 with a strong focus on organic and sustainable growing practices.
They offer a yearly CSA (community supported agriculture) supply to local restaurants, as well as a stand every Saturday at our local and beloved farmers market that runs from April to October.
The farm hosts 140 varieties of vegetables and a small orchard of apple and stone fruit trees nestled beside their growing apiary.
How did you two meet?
We met on a foggy spring day in an organic vineyard just outside of Penticton. We were both new to Penticton and working in vineyards and spent a day working together.
What led you two to wanting to start a farm? Do you have a background in agriculture prior to Puzzlegrass?
Starting the farm came from a desire to work together on some kind of project. Both of us grew up in cities and had zero experience in agriculture prior to moving to Penticton to work in vineyards.
When we started the farm in 2020, neither of us had ever worked with vegetables but we did have 5 years experience working outside managing and working in vineyards so we felt like it was something we could learn.
As gals raised in the city, we didn’t think a life in agriculture was even a possibility. Manual labor snuck up on us as something we both really enjoyed.
Learning to work with our hands and finishing a day powered by our own two feet is really such a joy. Exhausted in the best kind of way.
For a lot of young people the prospect of owning or having access to land in any capacity has become something of a day dream, has it been difficult to navigate finding a place to grow Puzzlegrass as first generation farmers?
For us, renting land is the only way we can afford to farm. We were really so lucky to have found our spot. Our landlords are beyond generous with sharing their land and just being on board with all our plans. We both feel like in every dimension we end up at Puzzlegrass with Don and Judy.
That said, we are farming on less than 2 acres in a residential area. We have issues with how close we are to conventional farms and face challenges growing food where people want to build their vacation homes.
Another difficult thing for us has been seeing just how many of our friends have had to move out of Naramata and the Okanagan. We are both really lucky with where we live, but we’ve said goodbye to enough friends leaving the Okanagan to know that Puzzlegrass would be in a lot of trouble if our living situations changed.
What are some key practices that you are trying to maintain or integrate into the farm?
I think our philosophy is to leave our little space better than how we found it.
We both believe that following sustainable farming practices should be the minimum. We don’t use any conventional herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers ‘cause YUCK. Neither of us are soil health experts or science folk but we can tell what plants respond to and seem to like and we go with that.
Our vegetables are grown on raised beds. We don’t till but we use something called a power harrow. A lot of people wouldn’t consider a harrow “no dig” but it breaks up and smooths the earth without creating a hardpan and we use ground cover to keep weeds down.
We are trying to get our cover crop system up and running but timing hasn’t been on our side the last couple years with that, so fingers crossed that we get it this year!
We also received a grant for a new compost tea system that we are very excited about. Each year we spread compost for the soil and use seaweed and other organic amendments for our plants. The compost tea is a natural bug repellent so that will be nice too.
What are a couple long term goals you have for the farm?
The long term goal is just to make the farm profitable.
We are still in our first five years of starting our first business and getting to the other side of that feels like all the long term goals we can dream of right now.
We’re also looking forward to the day we have all of our systems in place.
Each Spring we’ve had so many major projects to get underway while also having to meet bed prep, planting, weeding & harvesting deadlines.
This is our last year opening a new plot (thirty new beds) so it is nice to think that we won’t have to do that again (who knows, maybe we’ll miss it!) . This spring we also have to build a fence to keep our neighbors dogs off the farm, make a cutie flower stand for the side of the road, build a new washing station, widen our parking lot and figure out where all the perennial flowers we have ordered are going. A pretty busy couple of months!
What has been one of the greatest challenges with the farm?
Hands down the hardest challenge with the farm is selling everything that we grow. Growing is the easy part. Cash flow cash flow cash flow.
What has been one of your proudest successes?
Our cucumbers. They are the best and so many people think so!
And the CSA. We would like to max out the CSA with 100 members, we got close this year with 80 members, but we are so proud of the community that has sprung up from our farm.
What is your favorite thing to grow and what is your least favorite/most challenging?
We both don’t really like growing Zucchini. They are so easy to plant and make so many little zucchini babies BUT are so scratchy to harvest and their skin is so delicate. Not to mention if you forget to harvest they quadruple in size.
Our favorite crop believe it or not are turnips. It’s a challenge to keep the bugs out but they are some of the first crops off the farm and they always make us so proud.
In the last few years there have been catastrophic weather conditions across BC, winters have been unseasonably long, farmers dealing with mass flooding and a couple summers ago during the heat dome farmers were left to work in 40+ degree heat and smoke, some even losing a whole seasons worth of crops in a matter of days to heat or flooding.
What has it been like for you two to navigate the harsh conditions the Valley has on offer?
Well next time there is a heat dome we won’t be working through it like last time.
We’re not proud to say it but for us, navigating harsh conditions normally means us pushing on and working through them all. We used to say to ourselves “we don’t have a choice, we have to work” but after the heat dome we realized how messed up that was. What major climatic events will mean for us is to just take the crop loss and that’s that.
Aside from shopping locally grown produce and supporting small farmers with your dollar is there anything else people can do to bolster local agriculture in their communities?
Putting in the effort to choose local food when you can really does make a difference for farmers. Buying from them straight up decides whether that farm can exist or not. It takes a little more planning but by picking one vegetable farm and one meat producer, you are helping establish food security in your community and are keeping small farms in existence.
You can follow along with Puzzlegrass and everything going on at the farm in the links below;