PORT WILLIAMS, N.S. - A typical day at TapRoot Farms starts at 7:45 a.m. for manager and owner Patricia Bishop.
An ethereal cloud hangs over the farm as I pull in, park and meet Patricia at the farm’s office, where the day begins with paperwork.
Images of fields, weeding, crops and animals typically come to mind when thinking of farming. What people often forget about, says Bishop, is the management that happens behind the scenes.
“We do this every morning Mondays and Wednesdays – we compile the data, print it, and give it to the person assembling the boxes,” says Bishop.
TapRoot Farms’ biggest market is its crop share agreements sold to customers around Halifax, Windsor and the Annapolis Valley.
After this, calling happens – checking produce and composting rotten items – as the boxes are packed. Employees also began working on readying fresh produce for packing. For kale, farm employee Louisa Stacey trims stems and ties several stalks together.
“It smells nice, it’s good work,” she says. “It can get hot in here, but it’s nice and cool today.”
A big freezer just around the corner also comes in handy on hot days, says Stacey, who adds that short breaks of standing in its two-degree temperature for a few seconds can make hot days tolerable.
One the move
By 9 a.m., Bishop is on the move, shifting gears from paperwork to lending a hand to CSA prepping, and spots her 16-year-old son Isaac on a tractor.
"Who knows what Isaac will do, but we've owned this farm since he was two years old. Wow, since he was two - hard to believe it's been that long," she says, beaming with pride.
She steps onto a forklift, buckles in and beeps the horn steadily as she moves crates of produce from one end of the facility to the other.
Rule No. 1, according to BIshop: all items must be on wooden pallets. Rule No. 2, according to me: keep beeping so people always know you’re coming.
It came in handy as I was in the way, heard that unmistakeable beep and moved immediately.
As I move, I look back out onto the greenery opposite the farm and notice, for the first time, the view across the dykes and water – it’s Acadia University in the distance.
Bishop laughs, looking apologetic as she beeps and once again passes on the forklift.
“This is a large part of what I do each day – I manage, and I use this forklift,” she says.
She recalls being carted around her family farm with her father as a kid, and says she never intended to become a farmer herself. And yet, it’s obvious that Bishop loves her job.
This business of farming
Later, we talked about what it’s like to run a farm. She opens up and admits it is not easy, and is a challenge each day with many, many moving parts.
The farm, at one point, had 500 CSA subscribers after launching the business in 2009 but is now down to 300 – a significant drop, says Bishop, adding that the hardest part of her job is setting a fair price for her vegetables.
“Being able to sell our vegetables for a price people are willing to pay, against the cost of production, is really hard. Margins are like non-existent,” she says.
“It’s fairly raw and intense, but real – this is what farming is like.”
Bishop met her husband, Josh Oulton, at Dalhousie’s Agricultural College in Truro. They bought TapRoot in 2004 and are now certified organic.
The couple helped their employees peeling garlic cloves at 10 a.m. as they co-ordinated their schedules and caught up with each other.
Bishop says they’ve devoted the past three years to fighting to stay afloat, as many organic farms have experienced a decline in CSA subscribers.
It’s something she says they’ve taken in stride, but must think long and hard about if the farm is to not only survive, but thrive.
“We’re in a time where we’ll be spending a lot of time sorting out what the future of this farm is, because we can’t carry on like this. It’s not sustainable,” she says.
Connection to Noggins
After double checking numbers, I travel with Bishop to pick up meat at Noggins, her family farm. She enjoys the drives because it breaks up a work day that can, at times, feel draining.
It’s a gorgeous drive as we traverse the Valley, and I ask about her family’s history with farming. The family’s origins trace back to Planters who arrived after the Acadians were expulsed. Timothy Bishop acquired land and built a house in the late eighteenth century – the same house Patricia Bishop grew up in.
At 11 a.m., we plant green onion seedlings with Gerald Stacey and walk through tomato plants, picking and snacking (tomatoes are my favourite fruit) as we go.
We then drive to the farm’s outer fields to pull some weeds in a leek field. There, we meet Horlo Cunningham, who showed me the proper way to pull the weed from the ground.
“You’ve got to grab it firmly at the base, like this,” he said, gripping a massive weed, “and move it around a little, and then pull it out,” he says.
We head back to the farmyard and Isaac hops in the van for a ride to dance class. After yet another trip across the beautiful Valley and back, Bishop goes for lunch with her husband, and I head back to the office.
The many small moving parts make farming a tiring thing – something Bishop says she realizes more and more with each passing year, despite knowing it’s what she wants to do.
“I have become the middle-aged farmer I saw in other farmers when I was younger. I can see and feel this real and deep appreciation for where they were then. Things are now in perspective, and I’m in those shoes,” she says.
Did you know?
TapRoot Farm is one of the first farms in the Annapolis Valley to have donated a significant portion of their land to be kept in trust for future farmers.
Patricia Bishop, along with husband and co-owner Josh Oulton, donated more than 140 acres of land in an agricultural easement to the Annapolis Valley Farmland Trust, a non-profit group dedicated to securing farm land for future agricultural use.
The donation was announced in June, and remains under Bishop and Oulton’s ownership, but will remain in use as farming land in the future even if the surrounding land is developed.
“Farming land is a finite resource – one it’s gone, it is gone. We have to keep what we have for the sustainability of this industry in our area,” said trust chairman and ninth-generation farmer Brian Newcombe.
The trust began acquiring easements in 2013 and has now protected more than 160 acres.
Oulton and Bishop spoke at the announcement about how they were confident their land will remain safe in the trust’s hands.
“We want to put our land into the trust because agricultural land is a precious resource that must be protected in perpetuity... the land needs all of us to stand up and protect it,” a quote attributed to the couple in a prepared statement reads.
Read the entire BACK ON THE FARM SERIES: A collection devoted to a vital industry in the Annapolis Valley:
- Centre Burlington man discovers passion for oldfashioned farming
- Falmouth farmers shift focus to find the right balance
- Eating healthy on a budget not as difficult in the Valley as one may think: dietitian
- Reporter spends a day at TapRoot Farms in Port Williams
- Diversification key to success for Wolfville farmer who took on grape growing, established winery
- Lawrencetown greenhouse grower diversified into grapes
- Dempsey Corner Orchards farmer sees longevity in trying new things
- Coldbrook farmer proudly commits to the 24/7 lifestyle
- Woodville apple orchards lose UPick crop to June frost
- Keith Colwell pushing food security, farming as a career, capitalization of new opportunities
- Acadia University scholars share their thoughts on sustainability in farming
- COLUMN: Tractors, train changed county farming forever