Photo by Michaela Parks
Member Profile: Arzeena Hamir of Amara Farm
BCESC Member Since: 2020
Tell us about your farm:
Located in Courtenay, BC we started the farm in 2012 with a dream to grow healthy food for the community. Growing food for the local community is important to us and doing it in a way that doesn’t impact the land negatively, we want to leave it in a better place than when we found it. We’re growing in zone 7b, actively farming about 4 acres, on a 20-acre parcel including 8 acres of forest on the property.
How did you get into farming?
Both Neil and I have grad degrees in agriculture, but we had never farmed. We worked on other farms internationally and then came back to Canada in 1996 where I worked for the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Project (now known as The Sharing Farm) working as the Volunteer Coordinator and Greenhouse Manager. That project grows food for the food bank and working there I met two others interested in food security, peak oil, climate change and the crisis of the world. We decided to start spin farming- growing intensively in people’s front and back yards, and found about 6 properties in Richmond, farmed on those properties and sold the produce via CSA and at markets.
Who are your mentors? What resources have you found helpful?
Some of my mentors include the folks at Saanich Organics - I have their book, All the Dirt, as a resource for years and it was really inspirational. Also, the work of Jean-Martin Fortier, author of The Market Gardener, has been helpful. For seed saving Dan Jason from Saltspring Seeds was a huge influence early on.
What advice do you have for folks looking to get into farming today?
Our educational background hadn’t prepared us for the hands on work that is required, but it informed us when mistakes happened and we were able to work out what went wrong. Crop planning, rotations- now that was something to learn by doing. My advice would be to “start small”, that was the advice given to me. We want you to be in farming for the long haul and don’t want to burn you out. There is so much that you don’t know that you don’t know and there is no way to prepare you for this. There is nothing wrong with starting in a backyard. I wouldn’t advise taking on more than ½ an acre. The difference between homesteading and backyard gardening is the efficiency of your time. Your time is valuable. Figuring out how to do things quickly and save on labour is probably the biggest thing when you’re starting out. In the beginning, you don’t have a lot of money and you don’t do things as efficiently. Planning for where you want to be and working towards that is good practice.
What inspired you to start saving seeds?
I’ve been working in food security for a long time, since undergrad. I’ve come to understand that many seed companies in Canada are more or less clearinghouses, they don’t actually produce any seed. I began to look at where the seed that we were purchasing from is actually grown and most wasn’t in North America. Working toward a resilient food system does really start with the seed. We have really outsourced food production and we need to repatriate that. In a time when climate change is such a big issue, we know that our seeds need to be adapting and it is even more important now.
Tell us about your current seed operation:
We usually grow 6 or 7 varieties of seed in any one season, though this year we did 12 because of covid. With the worry about the food system this year we ended up increasing our seed production.
Do you have a favourite seed to save?
Claytonia- miners lettuce, is one of my favourite seeds to save. It fills this amazing gap in salad production from Jan-April in the greenhouse. It is extremely self-seeding, I started with 6 or 7 plants and in 2 years the greenhouse became a carpet of green through the wintertime. It keeps on giving with almost zero -no effort, and it is indigenous to this climate, it knows what to do and thrives here.
Can you tell us about the best part of seed saving? Most challenging?
Planting seeds that I’ve saved and watching them emerge is even more magical than regular seed starting. You know that you’ve played a part in the selection and processing of that seed. It’s much more intimate. These are babies that you’ve nurtured through a life cycle. That is a pretty cool part, seeing the full circle.
Our most challenging part is that we’re not in the best climate for seed saving- the fall rains generally come at a time when a lot of seeds are just on the verge of maturing. I have to do a lot of seed saving undercover, in high tunnels so that it doesn’t get rained on or spoiled. The weather conditions are tough.
What seed saving projects are you inspired by right now?
Pretty inspired by the movement to save and grow out true potato seed (tps) I think most folks consider potatoes asexually reproduced- you just plant potato and it grows, but there is a whole movement of folks who are saving seed and developing crosses and whole new varieties that have never been seen.
Fiona Chambers from Metchosin Farm did some breeding and some cool varieties came out- one being a pink-fleshed fingerling potato, excited to grow it out in 2021 and see how it performs as a potato.
I’m inspired by the work Tiffany Traverse is doing, and by the work that is happening with different First Nations seed keepers, who are collecting culturally important plants and saving seeds for that. It is important to work in allyship and recognize how important their work is.
What is your favourite/most used/well-loved seed saving tool?
We do a lot of wet seed saving- tomatoes, eggplants, melon, which require fermenting and the kids don’t love this as much. We have bowls that are specifically for those purposes and when they start showing up on the counter the family knows it’s seed saving time.
Why did you decide to join the BC Eco Seed Co-op?
I love the work the co-op is doing to highlight BC grown seed. I’ve never felt that our farm was big enough to join the co-op and supply them but after growing out a couple of crops on a fairly large scale I finally felt that ready to join. I also love co-ops, having helped to start Merville Organics and I have been President of the Mid Island Farmers Institute. All of this to say that farmers working together is something that really appeals to me.
Can you share any tips or lessons for a home gardener or new seed saver to help them succeed?
Save seeds of something that you love, that you love to eat, that you love to grow. Labelling is also really important, knowing what plants are what is hugely important. Understanding which plants are self-pollinating and which ones are outcrossed so that you know if you can only plant one variety in your garden at a time or if you just need a small gap between plants in order to save seeds.
How has COVID-19 affected the work you do? Have you had to make any interesting changes to your farm or business as a result? What have you learned from it?
COVID-19 has shone a light on our food system in a way that hadn’t been done before and it scared people. It is something to be thankful for, though sadly it took a pandemic. Now people are realizing how fragile our seed system is, especially in terms of supply chains. Without local farmers, there would not be local food.
Seedlings became our second most lucrative crop, offering- onions, potatoes and carrots, and we cut down on salad production. We were seeing lots of new home gardeners and did a seedlings CSA four times- April, May, August and September.
Want to learn more about the farmers who grow your seeds? Find more interviews from this series here.
Interested to see how COVID has affected local seed farmers? Read our Farming in the Face of COVID-19 series here.