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Connecting customers with the people who grow their food

Story and photography by Jodi DeLong

It’s a bustling Saturday morning at the Wolfville, NS, Farmers’ Market, and Jeff McMahon has both hands full. When he’s not weighing vegetables, meat or other products, he’s chatting with the steady stream of customers coming to the Longspell Point Farm booth, regular customers as well as occasional visitors arriving to pick up their fresh food order. Some might be only getting a bag of potatoes and some golden beets; others pick up salad greens, fresh chicken or beef, while others seem to buy one of everything.

Market mornings start early for Jeff, his wife Paula, and those who work with them, including various of their four grown children by times. Preparations start a day or two before, with the harvesting of fresh vegetables (depending on the season) or the packing up of tubs of vegetables and meats from the cooler and freezer facilities on the farm in Kingsport, not far from the village of Canning. By the time the market is finished for the day at 1pm, many items have been sold out, but Jeff has managed to find time to chat briefly with pretty much all of his regulars.

Jeff caught the farming bug early. His family came from the Annapolis Valley originally but had travelled as his father served with the Canadian Armed Forces. When they returned to Nova Scotia they settled in Truro and Jeff went off to take economics and sociology at St. Francis Xavier University. “I knew that wouldn’t get me a job,” he says from the family kitchen table at Longspell Point, “but I have no regrets getting that education and growing up a little more.” He ended up back in the Valley, working at LB Meek and Son Ltd., a large family farm in Canning operated by his uncle by marriage Eric Meek and his wife. Farming appealed to Jeff, especially the diversity of the Meek operation, which at the time grew u-pick vegetables and strawberries, chickens, eggs, and beef, as well as outdoor forage for the cattle. While working at the farm, he met his future wife, Kamloops, BC native Paula, who had been on an exchange program between Old College in Alberta and the then Nova Scotia Agricultural College and had a summer job at the farm.

As the desire to operate their own farm increased, the newlyweds headed off to British Columbia to work and save some money before returning to Nova Scotia. On returning, Jeff went back to work for the Meeks for another five years while looking at farms all the while, and eventually in 1990 they found the 145-acre farm in Kingsport that they own today.

 

A change in focus

“We’ve evolved the farm quite dramatically over the years,” Jeff says. “When we bought it had apples, a cow-calf operation, a small chicken quota, and some crops.” He built a state-of-the-art chicken barn in 1996, doubling its size three years later. The barn was necessary to build if they wanted to grow with the industry, but in 2008 they sold their chicken quota and got out of commercial poultry production. Next thing to go was the apple operation: “we had a lot of old varieties, it wasn’t a great fit for what we were doing, and we weren’t doing any replanting,” he says, and they decided to grow more vegetables.

Today, the McMahons raise 1,600 chickens on a small-scale free-range licence; have about 50 head of cattle—mostly Black Angus crossbreds which do fabulously well on pasture and forage rather than grain—and raise a few dozen pigs a year. They grow between 25 and 30 different vegetables and herbs—interestingly, their biggest volume in terms of tonnage is carrots, and they pay other farmers to store these and other crops that they can’t fit into their own on-site storage coolers.

A decade or so ago the farm added milling grains to their listings. Jeff explains: “We grow our own grains to feed our pigs, and then got into growing for human consumption—two types of wheat, rye and oats, which we sell directly to consumers plus do some wholesaling. Our biggest customer is LaHave Bakery on the south shore—it’s a great relationship with [owner] Gail Watson and her team.”

In a time when many producers grow large acreages of one or two crops—be they apples, cabbage, carrots or soy and corn—the McMahons are intentional in how they grow. “We’re very diversified, which has its benefits for the land because we are returning different crops back in the form of green manure, plus the organic matter post-harvest,” Jeff says. The result is that the land is not exhausted by production and has plenty of organic matter returned to it.

 

During the winter months, Jeff grows Asian greens, kale and spinach in a greenhouse heated only by the sun.

Doing things differently

The McMahons have chosen not to be certified organic—primarily because of all the paperwork involved in certification—but they follow organic practices, using neither synthetic fertilizers nor pesticides. They use free-range poultry ration which isn’t medicated nor has any meat products, their pigs are fed their own organic grains, and the cattle are on grass and hay from the farm. The main issue? “All the different vegetables we grow, we’d have to show that we tried to find organic seed—and while we do use organic seed whenever possible—and that makes for endless paper trails,” Jeff says. “We also feel because we’re face to face with our customers at the market, and they’re satisfied with how we do things, that we don’t need to change.”

Not using pesticides can mean insect damage or less than “perfect” produce, but the farm doesn’t lose much of anything to wastage. “Our seconds are well-received by local food banks, and those are also the ones that we eat ourselves. If there is something that isn’t able to be sold or donated, they go to the pigs or the cattle, except for onions and potatoes, which get composted directly.”

For the past four years, Jeff has been growing cool-season greens throughout the winter, in a large unheated greenhouse. There’s no lettuce in these mixes because it’s less robust and tolerant to cold than Asian greens, kale and spinach, which thrive on the cool temperatures and the solar heating. And they’re certainly a welcome addition to winter diets when so many local vegetables available are root crops, onions and leeks, squash, and cabbage and related brassicas.

There’s a great deal of thought put into everything the McMahons do with the farm. Asked why their grass-fed beef is so good, even without grain finishing, Jeff explains, “Not only do we grow Angus and Angus-cross cattle which do well on pasture and forage, our soils are good—the more nutrients that are in the soil, especially an organic soil like ours, the more nutrients that go into the pasture and forage, which makes the meat even better. We also keep our cattle longer until they have a good amount of finish on them before we send them to market.” The busy lineups at the market attest to the success of this planning.

As with most farm operations, there are also crops that Jeff and his family have tried and decided not to do, or changes that they make in the run of a season. Sweet potatoes do well in the Annapolis Valley, but they can be labour intensive and require curing, and they didn’t want to invest in the infrastructure to build a curing room. The family sits down each winter to decide what to grow and to order seed, and this year are looking at growing pole beans rather than bush beans. “They grow on trellises or other staking systems but there are some beautiful snap bean varieties available, and they’re much easier to harvest.”

 

Brigette McMahon helping out at the Longspell Point Farm booth at the Wolfville Farmers Market.

Farmgate marketing 101

For more than 15 years, Jeff and Paula have sold at the Wolfville Farmers Market, which is one of the busiest markets in Nova Scotia. As he noted, selling direct-to-consumers is an excellent way to get to know customers wants, answer any questions they might have, and educate them on how the farm raises food crops and livestock. They offer fresh meats every week plus have vacuum packed frozen portions at the farm, and sometimes bring eggs or fresh berries (in season) from neighbouring farms because they don’t raise these things themselves, and other market vendors don’t necessarily have them.

One of the huge benefits of the market is that everyone gets along, realizing there is enough market clientele for everyone. Plus, not every vendor raises the same things. Jeff says, “I like to think that if we don’t have something, we just send the customer down the aisle to someone else.” He’s proud of how the market as a whole has grown—it’s a huge benefit to the community and the business community, too, bringing customers in from other communities on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings.

Longspell Point Farm doesn’t do any real value-added sales, like bagged salad mixes, preserves and such. They have such a large inventory of offerings that adding something like pre-cut squash, which they do sometimes, adds significant amounts of labour with minimal results. Rules at this market are fairly strict—vendors are allowed to sell up to five per cent of products that aren’t their own—and this also benefits customers as well as vendors.

Not everyone has time to come to market on a weekend or weekday, and for those, the market has another initiative: WFM2Go, or Wolfville Farmers Market to Go. People can go on to the WFM2Go website, order and pay for what they want, and the food is delivered several days later to one of nine pickup hubs around the Annapolis Valley and Halifax Regional Municipality.

There are currently 30 vendors involved in this initiative, and Longspell Point was one of the first to join up. Jeff and other local farmers had started a similar initiative more than a decade previously, but the timing wasn’t right for it to take off. Jeff says, “I have customers who use the WFM2go program because they have young families and are just too busy to come to the market on the weekend, so they pick up their boxes on Wednesday. We’re in our third year and it’s steadily growing—and other markets are looking at what we’re doing, with an eye to doing something similar for their customers.”

The farm also works with Nourish Your Roots, a registered charity that helps students be healthy learners by providing them with education and a connection to local farms. The charity offers a farm box fundraiser program and once a year, the schools involved in the program come to the farm to select and pack their own vegetables from already-picked bins. Jeff says the families who visit really enjoy it, and it’s another way of connecting customers with the people who grow their food.

 

Legacy planning

Depending on the time of year, as many as eight people work on the farm—Jeff and Paula, their son Ben, occasionally Ben’s twin sister Brigette who studies acupuncture in Halifax, (both 31) and several employees. Son Lee, 36, is a carpenter with an interest in the farm, and Morgan, 33, currently lives out of province with her family on a small farm.

Asked about the future, Jeff says “We’ll never be done with the farm—Ben is interested in taking on the farm as we do take a step back, and we have a scenario and a plan in the works. The other kids, we’ve talked to all of them, and they all get along and may well be involved in some capacity or other. It could be that all four end up back here—just gotta get the girls back to the community!”  

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