Living in Halifax and working farmland in West Hants, Keltie Butler and Michael Coolican wanted to buy a farm in close proximity to the city but they strayed into Pictou County and are into their third year of a “mostly successful” operation.
“We had drawn a circle to mark the area we wanted and we kept looking for an opportunity. We came to visit farming friends in Pictou County, considerably outside our circle, and found a farm here,” said Collican.
It was not a case of immediately falling in love with a gorgeous rural property and they initially rejected their 25-acre farm on Millsville Road near Scotsburn, complete with an aged farmhouse.
“It definitely wasn’t what we thought we were looking for but after a little we began to reconsider. We started adding in considerations like its huge barn and short driveway off a paved road.”
What they originally had in mind was finding an aging farmer whose career was winding down and hopefully, he or she would mentor them as they gradually took over the operation, holding onto their city jobs at the same time.
“That just didn’t happen so we went back to Millsville Road for another look, promising each other that if we could smell the mill, as we had on our first visit, it was a no go.”
They discovered the satellite map they’d been given showing a clear-cut forest at the back of the property was actually 12 years old.
“The wood was in the process of growing back, at least to some degree. As we were walking through the woods there was a sunshower and that was pretty attractive. Also, no mill smell that day.”
Property purchased, their moving truck made a stop in Truro to pick up a walk-behind tractor and they soon began working their own ground with organic farm methods as their guide.
“We first saw the property during a summer drought and noticed the hay was really high in one field. We should have figured it out but we didn’t. That was the first field we started working and we quickly discovered the soil is quite wet so we had to shift to the other side of the house.”
That other side of the house now features a wood-fired greenhouse, a number of metal-framed growing tunnels and row upon row of market vegetables and flowers for cutting. Their crops include cucumbers, beets, lettuce, peppers, green beans, snow peas, swiss chard, kale, carrots, leeks, onions, beets, salad turnips and lots of varieties of tomatoes.
“We grow enough corn for our own consumption but we don’t grow grains or potatoes. We can buy great potatoes from Friesen Farms down the road so we put our labour into other crops.”
On Friday afternoons they operate a vegetable stand on the farm and then truck their produce to New Glasgow Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and to Halifax where they sell to old customers and friends.
“There are people we sell to on Fridays who can’t get to the market and we have quite a few regular customers who are happy to come to the farm and pick what they want.”
Regular customers can buy a credit and shop until they’ve used up their money.
“We find this gives the customer more choice than buying a box of vegetables but the main thing is it seems to work for us and the customers.”
While both Coolican and Butler have to go back a few generations to find a farmer in the family, it was Butler who first had the idea of owning a farm.
“It was something Keltie always wanted and we started working on borrowed land in West Hants. She was putting in a lot of time and I helped out as needed on a part-time basis. After a while Keltie wasn’t satisfied with that. She wanted more land and more control. We decided if you are going to be putting in that much time, you should probably be working for yourself.”
It was Coolican, though, who first gave up his city job for the farm.
“I was working as a consultant/trainer so I had to give that up while Keltie was able to keep her job as executive director of Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia until the farm got really busy.”
Coolican said their few years on the farm have been marked by lots of firsts, from first crops to first hurricanes.
“There is a lot of satisfaction in harvesting your first crops. Not everything may have worked out exactly as you hoped but seeing a good amount of produce is really encouraging,” he said.
With a hurricane warning early this month, Butler and Coolican had to make some tough decisions, particularly about their hoop tunnels.
“The plastic is actually stronger than the metal underneath so we were worried the wind could tear everything down if we left the plastic in place. On the other hand, we’ve gotten three years out of plastic that should last us five so we considered just cutting it all away.”
In the end they gambled and left the plastic in place.
“We’re pretty happy the tunnels survived the hurricane. It is a big saving to us.”
It wasn’t that they did not experience high winds.
“We had poplar trees that looked like high grasses blowing in the winds. The wind seemed to come from the east and then shift to the west and that worked to our advantage. I think a south wind would have been disastrous for us.”
Trial and error is the method most used on Small Holdings Farm.
“We research but then we find things don’t always work. It was great to be able to move seedlings from our house to our new greenhouse but we didn’t account for the fact that the warmth would also allow certain insects to thrive. We had a battle with wire worms for a while. We were really fortunate to have another farm donate some seedlings to replace our losses.”
There is no substitute to getting advice from a veteran farmer, added Collican.
“In our case, Friesen Farms has been really helpful. I can remember a Saturday morning at the market when we were not sure whether our vegetables had frost damage. We didn’t want to throw them out if they were fine but we didn’t want to sell something to the customer that would prove to be poor quality. Henry (Friesen) looked them over and saved all our produce.”
Talking to local farmers, at the market or a farm gate, can also be encouraging.
“Because we’re still so new, if we’re having trouble we're inclined to assume it is something we are or are not doing. After talking to more experienced farmers, sometime we can accept it is just that kind of season.”
The vegetables at Small Holdings are often interspersed with rows of colourful flowers for cutting.
“Probably not something that a lot of past farmers practiced but it gives us another crop and beyond that, perennial flowers are good for the soil,” said Coolican.
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer. She seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you know someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org