Member Profile: Jolene Swain, Wood Grain Farm
BCESC Member Since: 2016
Background: Seed Saver, Biologist, Organic Farm VO, Farmer & Mushroom Forager.
Tell us about WoodGrain Farm:
The farm is as far North as the ALR goes in western BC. We're near Hazelton BC, in the lee of the Coast Mountains, and between the Skeena and Kispiox Rivers. Currently, we grow over 50 varieties of organic vegetables for two local markets; grow, harvest and mill grain on a 12″ granite stone mill; and raise some sheep, chickens and a couple of cows. More of a farmstead than a farm, we operate on a traditional closed loop system, with fertility and nutrients derived from the 60 acres of organic pasture and haylands - the land feeds the animals, the garden, and community in turn. Learn more about the farm and the farming philosophy of WoodGrain farm at: woodgrain.ca
How did you get into farming?
My background is in biology and I spent a lot of years doing field work across Alberta, BC and the Yukon. I really enjoy being in nature and in the forest but was ready to a more settled existence, and a closer connection to food and food systems. I started a research project on pests in organic apple orchards, spending summers on a farm in the Similkameen Valley where I learned more about growing food and organic practices. I saw a lot of potential in organic farming and growing food in communities to address social and environmental issues. I joined Jonathan at WoodGrain Farm in 2015 and have been market gardening since. On the side, I spend a bit of time each year exploring farms across the province on organic inspection tours.
What is the first seed you remember saving?
My first year in the Similkameen Valley I planted some Magenta Orach in my friend's garden where I was staying. It produced a lot of seed, and I put some aside for future seasons. If you’re familiar with orach you’ll know - it’s still coming up year after year on it’s own accord!
What inspired you to start saving seeds?
I believe that how we grow/source food is central to solving a lot of challenges we face socially and ecologically, and it all starts with a seed! As an organic farmer, buying organic, local seeds is important and necessary so that we aren’t supporting environmentally damaging agriculture elsewhere. Seed from plants that are grown under organic conditions are also likely to perform better on organic farms and small gardens!
Tell us about your current seed operation:
Every year is a little different as we explore new varieties and try out different vegetable seed crops. It's a bit of a risky climate for long season seed crops - a lesson sometimes learned the hard way. Our biggest vegetable crop last season was spinach, the tastiest variety I've ever grown (seed that originally came from the co-op via Sweet Digz Farm). Our Certified Organic grain is grown on a small-scale, harvested with a 1940’s Massey Harris Clipper combine and cleaned with an Cockshutt fanning mill. We also grow out test plots of heirloom varieties of grains, with about 40 different types presently in our collection. Jonathan was a baker in his former life, and is very passionate about preserving diversity in grain. Learn more at: woodgrain.ca/mill
What is the most unusual/special/unique seed you've saved?
I was given a Korean Pine cone a couple years ago. I extracted and germinated the seeds, and now have several very small trees planted around the farm. In 20 years, who knows, we might have a crop of pine nuts!
Favourite seed to save?
Brassica species come to mind because they are so satisfying to thresh - the seeds fly out of the pods and I love the the sound of them bouncing and settling into the bins. I also saved carrot seed for the first time this season, the flowers are lovely and the 'bearded' seeds are irresistibly cute (in my opinion) with their tiny little hairs.
What is the best part of seed saving? Most challenging?
Growing a diversity of crops is the best and most challenging part. Each seed is unique in the conditions needed for growing the plant, and then extracting and cleaning the seed. Ideally, one would have all the specialized equipment for each crop, the reality is, at a small scale, there is a lot more work and creativity involved. Most of our seed harvesting is pretty low tech, using fans, tarps and screens, depending on the crop. One of the great things about being part of the BCESC, is being able to share tips and techniques with an incredibly knowledgeable group and, potentially, some specialized equipment.
What seed saving projects are you inspired by right now?
I’m inspired by the folks who are developing new varieties and getting back into breeding. The varieties of seed available have been getting narrower and narrower, and have often been bred under large-scale or conventional conditions. I’m especially inspired by the breeders who are developing new varieties specifically adapted for small-scale, organic production.
What is your favourite/most used/well loved seed saving tool?
Fan and screens are the favourite and most used. The coolest is probably the 1940s Massey Harris clipper combine we use for the grain - see photos at: https://woodgrain.ca/mill
Why did you decide to join the BC Eco Seed Coop?
I started saving seed on a small scale, and selling it at markets in the spring when we had less produce. I received some funding from Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security (seedsecurity.ca) to go to a NOFA (nofa.org) conference and I saw Daniel Brisebois speak about his seed company - he told us not to underestimate the challenges and amount of work involved in seed packets. Packing, design, distribution...The BC Eco Seed Co-op model made sense. I liked the idea of focusing on growing fewer varieties in larger volumes, with the support of a community of local BC farmers, and sharing in the packaging, marketing, shipping, administration aspects.
What is your favourite seed saving or starting resource/book/mentor?
- Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth is a great resource, with technical details that I like as a biologist.
- The Organic Seed Grower by John Navazio is a new favourite that delves deeper into the growing aspects of seed crops.
- CR Lawn (of Fedco Seeds) spoke at the NOFA conference and found him to be inspiring - for more info see his list of speeches and writings here
Any tips or lessons you could share with a new or home gardener seed saver to help them succeed?
Save seeds! Everyone should do it. I’d suggest that you start small and pick a variety or two that you love and want to steward. As you go, keep learning about seed breeding techniques and quality assurance - and have fun, it is very rewarding.