COVID-19 motivates Revelstoke couple to start farming

Chris Rubens and Jesse Johnston-Hill started First Light Farm this spring. Here, they’re tending to their tomatoes. (Liam Harrap - Revelstoke Review)
The couple are leasing two plots of land south of the city along Airport Way. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
Looking for weeds. (Liam Harrap - Revelstoke Review)
Among the carrots. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
The couple are leasing two plots of land south of the city along Airport Way. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
The owners said the name of the First Light Farm relates the magical feeling of mornings. (Contributed)
Drone shot of the farm. (Submitted)

Two Revelstoke locals had wanted to start a farm in the area for years, but it took a pandemic to spur the dream into reality.

“COVID-19 really exposed the fragility of things,” said Jesse Johnston-Hill, one of the owners of First Light Farm.

The farm specializes in salad greens. (Submitted)

She said the pandemic highlighted the danger of food insecurity to the area. So, Johnston-Hill and her partner Chris Rubens leased two plots on different properties and planted seeds, aiming to strengthen Revelstoke’s local food production.

On June 29, Ontario reported that 69 per cent of new cases for COVID-19 that day were from migrant farm workers.

The Cargill meat-packing plant in southern Alberta was the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak linked to a single facility in North America. Of the 1,560 cases linked to the plant, provincial health authorities say 949 employees tested positive and two died.

The facility churns out 36 per cent of all beef processed in Canada.

Johnston-Hill said it became apparent with COVID-19 that producing local food not only strengthens the local economy but also provides stability.

The original summer plan for the pair was sailing a boat from Mexico to Salt Spring Island via Hawaii. Instead, the two are picking weeds and planting arugula.

“This feels good. COVID-19 made us commit to farming. We love it,” said Johnston-Hill.

Farming takes up most of the couple’s time, the two only recently went for their first bike ride of the season.

First Light Farm uses organic methods and no synthetic herbicides and pesticides. Johnston-Hill said it’s important to feed the soil, not just the plant.

For example, compost slowly releases nutrients into the soil compared to synthetic fertilizer, which may have to be frequently reapplied.

Johnston-Hill said compost starts an ecosystem by enticing insects to eat the decomposing organic matter and poop, thereby adding more nutrients.

“The soil is alive,” she said.

As Johnston-Hill chats, bumblebees visit the tomatoes and a woodpecker flies overhead. A white tailed deer watches from behind the greenhouse.

First Light Farm focuses on salad greens, providing them to local restaurants, such as Taco Club, Dose Coffee and Craft Bierhaus.

However, starting a farm isn’t easy.

Especially when leasing land, making plans beyond a year uncertain.

This spring was also wet and cold, making planting tricky and delayed. According to Environment Canada, Revelstoke got 75 millimetres of rain in June, 29 mm in May and 20 mm in April.

First Light Farm planted their first crop on May 17, which is weeks later than usual for most farms in the area.

Another set back was a virus that wiped out the tomatoes called Tobacco Mosaic. The disease causes mosaic-looking mottling and discoloration on leaves.

The virus can spread through tobacco, even by workers who smoke cigarettes.

Since Johnston-Hill and Rubens do not smoke, they don’t know where the disease came from. The pair of since replaced the infected plants.

The owners said the name of the First Light Farm relates the magical feeling of mornings. (Submitted)

Regardless, Rubens said this summer is about learning. What works and what doesn’t.

“Farming is at the mercy of mother nature. There’s a lot of banging your head on the wall,” he said.

“Even when you get on top, Mother Nature throws a curve ball.”

Rubens said they hope to encourage others to grow food. He said there are little opportunities in Revelstoke for people to learn farming. To pick up the skills, most people have to leave.

“Getting land is by far the biggest difficulty to farming in Revelstoke,” said Johnston-Hill.

“We want to grow awareness and encourage more farmers to come and learn in Revelstoke.”

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
liam.harrap@revelstokereview.com


 

@pointypeak701
liam.harrap@revelstokereview.com

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