Natalie’s Feast

Two years ago, Natalie Smith and her husband Paul bought 50 acres of land on Roberts Island, just outside of Yarmouth. They had lived in Ontario and Michigan, but wanted something different. The former tech geek who had worked for Motorola and AT&T found herself pulling weeds, growing veggies the local population had never seen, and starting the first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Yarmouth County, along with several other farmers, called The Yarmouth Food Basket Guild. The CSA is now supplying locally produced food baskets for customers in the area, 17 at last count, but for Smith, this is only the beginning.

Photos via Natalie Smith

How did you get into farming?

[I had] a desire to grow more variety of veggies for my own family and wanting to take control of how it’s grown and where my seeds come from.

So where do your seeds come from? Why is this so important for you?

Our seeds come from Hope Seeds, William Dam, Johnny Seeds & Veseys. All the seeds that we have purchased are non Genetically Modified Seeds and Organic. The companies that we buy them from are respected for providing such seeds and have full traceability for their products. This is very important to us.

How did an Englishman and a woman from Guyana end up living in Yarmouth?

The wide world of the internet got us here. We want to make a life balance change and always wanted to live on the eastern seaboard. And Yarmouth had a lot to offer with proximity to Halifax, the US and has a wonderful Acadian culture we wanted to explore. The icing on the cake was finding our wonderful property and new friends!

Was it a culinary culture shock for you?

No and yes. We are keen cooks so we could make great meals out of what we had available to us from what we had grown and specialty items we had brought with us our or from internet shops in the first year, but, the fun in living in different places is to experience culture through food and found wonderful places to experience, lobster, haddock, clams, oysters, fishcakes, rappie pie and the list goes on!

Heh. What do you think of rappie pie?

Not too bad. We are used to shepperds pie. But we’ve had some great ones with wild meats and as each household seem to have their own version, we are getting to try them all!

How did you get involved with the local farmers market there?

The farmers’ market was one of the first places we checked out when we first landed in Yarmouth, almost two years ago in October of 2009. We loved that such a small group of dedicated people would stand around in the wind to sell their produce. We didn’t know at the time that we would aspire to be one of them, but we knew that we would be back to buy from them. A year later, we had decided that market farming was a way to share our passion for food and that becoming part of the Farmer’s market and our Local Food Network Group would give us to avenue to make our living and support our community.

Why start a CSA?

[We wanted to] create a convenient service to our growing community of concerned residences that want to take charge of where they food is coming from and how it is grown, but don’t necessary have the time in their schedules to get to market or farmgates to buy for their weekly needs. For us at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Food Basket, it provides a more economical way for us to venture into small market farming and also to support existing small farms that participate in our CSA by having our members paying us at the beginning of planning our harvest and throughout it we can plan for what crops to plant and how much and all that goes along with that.

Yarmouth Farmers’ Food Basket is also unique in this area as we are make up of 7 small farms currently in the Yarmouth area. Four of the farms specialize in sustainable market garden farming and three of us specialize in production of sustainable, no-horomone, no-antibiotic, grass feed or milk feed beef, chicken and pork. Our eggs are also taken from free-run chickens. We have experienced in this start-up season that we can achieve more by working together to build a better membership base.

How has the reaction been?

Very good. As this is our start-up year and first season, our goal was to keep as low a profile as possible to work out the logistics and basket planning bugs and we have listened to our members and with that information we look to enlarge our membership base by 5 fold in 2011.

How many members do you have?

Our goal was 15 members and we ended up with 17 members. Our goal in 2011 is 75 to 100 members and we will see what happens from there. we know that with our current farmers that are apart of the Food Basket, we can support 250 families.

What do you grow?

At Hilltop Cottage Farm we grow asian green vegetables, lettuces, leeks, onions, beans, carrots, squashes, radishes, heirloom potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and an assortment of cooking herbs. We also harvest from our land, wild blueberries, wild blackberries, mulberries and red currants.

I know you grow tatsoi and shanghai pak choy.  How have people reacted to foods they may not have seen before?

With curiosity at first, but when we explain how it can be used, give them a taste and sell in small batches so that they can experiment that says it all. Also, having an opportunity to add some of them to our CSA members baskets, as most of them are passionate foodies, it has worked out well. Most of these items are also seen at the major big box grocery stores in town and served in some of our restaurants, so we are not so far out there…at least not yet!

What about prices? how do people react to the prices you set for your produce?

So far, we have had no negative reaction. our pricing for local organically grown vegetables is below what you would pay at a organic store and slightly higher than conventional store. For fresh, just picked the day before, it is definitely the best deal in town!

What do you plan on growing next year?

Our list of veggies for next year pretty much will stay the same, but, we are refining our varieties to ensure that we get the highest yield and best tasting ones. As our goal is to provide baskets a full 12 months starting May of next year into 2012, we want to make sure that we choose varieties that do well in the colder months!

Hilltop Cottage Farm is located in Roberts Island, Yarmouth County. You can contact Natalie via email at here. You can also check out the Tri-County Local Food Network.