Hearts & roots
Britt and Justin
Words: Michelle Panting / Photos: Janine Kropla
Spend some time with Justin and Britt of Hearts & Roots, and you’ll see they have a good thing going. Engage in conversation with them, and you’ll find it ebbs and flows with an easy rhythm of its own. One of them will pause and the other will pick up and extend that train of thought. Their voices rise, fall and intermingle in the way of two people who are very comfortable with each other.
Another thing that will become clear is how enthusiastic the pair is about spray-free, small-scale vegetable farming. Either one of them can rattle off a list of what they’re growing right now, while vividly describing the taste, texture and appearance of that vegetable. Justin’s been farming on this land with his family since childhood. Britt is a self-identified amateur. However, they both seem entirely comfortable living in the barn they’ve renovated themselves on Justin’s family’s land. The space is expansive, yet cosy, with cement floors meant to be padded upon by bare feet, a mix of brick and wood walls, and a homey hodgepodge of vintage furniture, Ikea storage, musical instruments, items from Winnipeg makers and a ping pong table.
Muddy Water: So this land has been in your family for four generations. Can you tell me a little bit about the history of it? What kind of farming did you grow up with?
Justin: It was a U-Pick strawberry farm for the most part. We grew all sorts of things though. With the strawberry farm we had a petting zoo and a restaurant and my dad branched out into a Halloween festival. There was a haunted forest and scarecrow making.
Britt: You can still sometimes see the leftovers in the bush. You’ll be wandering through and you’ll see a doorframe and it’s like, “Oh God, that’s terrifying.”
J: Yeah, it was an exciting childhood because we did all sorts of things and we farmed all sorts of things.
MW: This must have been a really fun place to grow up.
J: It was so idyllic it was ridiculous. Both sets of grandparents were on the farm almost every day in the summer and my grandmothers worked in the kitchen. So my day from six to twelve years old was wake up, go to the barn, see your grandmas, they make you pancakes, and you go out to the field and ride on the wagon that takes you out to the field. Your grandpa is the one that’s driving that wagon, and then you go out and hoe with your other grandpa and come in for lunch with your whole family. Later you feed your animals - little baby sheep that you bottle feed, chickens and the baby chicks. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
So it was hard when I was doing my MA in English Cultural Studies. The plan was to do a PhD, and then realizing I'd have to leave this behind and possibly not being here until after I retired, I couldn't do it.
MW: I know for me, and a lot of people who moved from the country to the city, that initially there was a kind of rebellion there, a desire to differentiate yourself from your parents. Do you feel like that was part of why you moved to Winnipeg at first?
J: I really loved being in the music and arts scene in Winnipeg. I liked living downtown. I don’t know if it was ever a rebellion, I just had more in common with the people there. My interests were centred in an urban environment, but I still felt an incredible connection to the outdoors and the country. So now I have the best of both worlds, in the sense that I have a lot of connection with the urban community, and my friends are from there, but I still get to live in the country.
B: We get to go to the city and see their shows, and they get to come out here. It’s sort of perfect.
MW: I imagine it can be difficult at times to strike that balance though.
B: That does happen. Winter’s so hard in Manitoba, and being out here you do feel a bit more isolated.
J: But we built a hockey rink on the river last winter.
B: That was a game changer.
J: And we’d have bonfires on the river, play hockey. It’s important to make the most of your environment. And we found that down on the river on the hockey rink, the aesthetic is really wonderful, and you’re also sheltered. That was really the way to make the best of winter and still be able to have people out.
MW: So you’ve been renovating this barn over the past three years, how has the gardening developed alongside of that?
J: We started with some trial gardens. I’ve been working in greenhouses for the past decade, so I had some experience growing plants - mostly herbs and veggies. I’ve gotten experience [with] a lot of different variety, but growing in a greenhouse versus growing in a field is so different. At the same time, I grew up in the fields and then worked in greenhouses, so I learned a lot [in those greenhouses], and now I’m going back to the fields. The trial gardens helped us to see what we like, and so this will be the first year selling.
B: We’ve been growing since we moved out here, but it was mostly just for us. This is the first time growing on the scale of going to markets and selling to businesses.
MW: Which markets have you connected with so far?
B: We’re at the Wolseley Farmers’ Market on Tuesday nights. We’re trying out the Red River Exhibition on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., but they don’t start until the end of July. Then we’re going to be in Elie - they have a farmers’ market on Thursday nights.
J: We have some connections with market stands too, stores that sell seasonal produce, specifically with Crampton's. We have some connections with restaurants, and we’re hoping to sell to them as well. I’m really excited about that and we’re just hoping to have enough produce to give them right now.
B: The fear has sort of morphed. Originally it was like, “Can we sell anything?” and now it’s like, “Can we grow enough for the people we’ve already spoken with?”
J: Especially because it’s our first year, there’s a lot of learning and a lot of trial and error, and it’s exciting.
B: We’re super lucky because the demand is there and the market is there, it’s just about learning.
J: The nice thing about this job is that we’re making a lot of urban connections. It does build a rural urban relationship, which is nice, because both are dependent on each other.
MW: When we were out in the fields looking at your plants, Justin, you mentioned not concerning yourself so much with getting the Organic or Spray-Free sticker, but just building relationships with people so that they know how you grow your food and they trust you. So I can see how having that urban connection helps your business.
J: The spray-free thing is super important to me. Because I've been lucky enough to inherit the land over four generations, it's something that doesn't really belong to me. It's not an inheritance really, because it's something that belongs to future generations. Agriculture's exploitive no matter how you practice it. I mean you're still ripping up the land and doing what you want with it. But [the hope is] to at least do it in a way that recognizes that things are bigger than you, and that you're not going to be here forever and after that hopefully you leave something of value.
MW: Sometimes when I think about the systems that humans have come up with, it’s just so strange to me. Like how was this decided?
J: I think a lot of it has to do with a misunderstanding of what achievement or success is. It becomes completely sterile. No weeds, no insects. Soil is supposed to provide the nutrients to feed the plant, but instead soil is this growing medium, where you introduce the nutrients - water-soluble, chemically derived.
But at the same time, I don’t want to be arrogant on the other side and say that all farmers who don’t farm like me are bad people. Because that’s ridiculous. We’re just in this very strange and perhaps inspiring and interesting moment, where we’re kind of handcuffed in the sense that we need these high yielding, high producing crops, because we have a population that’s exploding. We don’t know how to feed the world, and so unfortunately, we need all these industrial techniques. But at the same time there’s this revolt in the sense that there’s a smaller, communal reintroduction of a type of agriculture that’s not only old but very new at the same time. Because organics does not have to be your great-grandparents’ kind of farming. It can be very scientific. It can still be very well researched. It can still be incredibly efficient. But it can also be a little more responsible.
So I think it’s exciting to see that emerge as a reaction to this world that requires you to have 5000 acres of land to be a successful farmer, a million dollars of machinery, and lots of chemicals. I don’t want to ride a high horse either. Because behind all of that there are human beings who I’ve grown up with and around, and my father used chemicals when he farmed. He was very responsible with it, but still, that was the way you produced a high yielding crop that could make you a living. Luckily, at this stage, there’s a movement within the urban community where people are willing to pay a little more for a small-scale operation to try to do it a different way. And if it wasn’t for that, you couldn’t farm it. You couldn’t produce this type of agriculture if someone wasn’t willing to pay for it. I feel excited about the change that’s coming.
MW: I think there’s also a recognition of the time it’s going to take and the limits there are. Like it’s not possible for us to eat fresh fruits and vegetables here year round.
J: We need to relearn how to eat seasonally. There [are] all sorts of squashes and pumpkins that we’re growing that will keep you the whole winter. And there [are] lots of vegetables that we could store if we had a root cellar. You could do it all year if you had houses that were still built with cold rooms, which is an incredibly efficient way to keep vegetables. It costs nothing - it’s just a room in your basement that’s cold. My parents have one, and we hope to build a root cellar. I’m not saying that everything has to be eaten locally, but there are different varieties that we’re not used to eating anymore that can be eaten locally year round, which is pretty exciting.
B: It means not fresh greens [in the winter] but a different type of food and a different kind of cooking.
J: And those greens that we’re eating [from the grocery store in the winters] taste like paper half the time. You finally get fresh, garden-grown spinach and you’re like, “Holy mackerel! This is unbelievable!”
B: We put dressings and sauces on vegetables and we’re not really tasting the stuff, because it doesn’t taste that good. But when you actually taste it out of the ground, you realize that you could just boil this and it would be delicious. It’s fun and it inspires you to do cooking that’s a little more simple.
MW: Earlier, you were talking about how the urban and rural rely on each other, and that connects in an interesting way for me to what we’re talking about here. Manitoba is so agricultural, but when I go to the grocery store, I have no clue where most of what I buy comes from. It’s funny to me that we live literally surrounded by people who are growing things, but the majority of Winnipeggers still don’t have that connection.
J: And a lot of people I know in the city are not far removed from farms either.
B: That was interesting to me. Coming from Toronto, I didn’t know anybody with any country connections whatsoever, and then moving to Winnipeg, everyone seemed a step away from the farm.
J: And by buying from these farms you’re putting money back into the community. You have this group of people and there’s almost a sort of kindred spirit or like-mindedness.
MW: So when you’re making choices about what to grow, beyond the desire to bring in something new, how do you make those decisions?
J: There are a lot of factors. You want them to be unique and delicious and productive.
B: You want them to be able to work here.
J: It’s also timing. You don’t want to go to a market and have only one thing available. So you have to pick according to dates too. And this is going to take years to master, but can you organize it so that you constantly have a variety of things to offer, that make it worthwhile for the consumer? We’re not looking at doing a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture bin) right away, because a lot of people don’t have the money to do a CSA for a whole year. What we want to do it something like a CSA bag where you have an option of different things to try out.
B: We’re going to call them Garden Growlers. I feel like it appeals to the person that I used to be before I became a farmer. I didn’t really know what I wanted, and I would see all these vegetables and be like, “What am I going to do with all of these?” But if you have a bag…
J: …With a set price, weekly vegetables…
B: You get to try what’s in season with little weekly things, recipe ideas. I think it’ll be a great opportunity for people to try a bunch of stuff that they wouldn’t ordinarily pick up.
J: So when we pick seed, I’m also considering what appeals to us. I like picking heirloom seed, and we try to pick as much organic as possible. If not organic, we always choose untreated. Most seeds are treated to prevent bugs, but then the plant grows with a systemic poison.
MW: [Earlier] you were mentioning a specific variety of broccoli you grow. How would you say it differs in taste from the broccoli you’d buy at the grocery store?
J: It just has a really potent flavour. It’s not bred to ship. That’s one thing when it comes to seed, is that we don’t pick things that are meant to travel long distances or will last forever. Those are great traits for people who are shipping from California to Canada, but ours only have to make it from Elie to Winnipeg and they have to taste really good. So that’s the difference.
B: Before trying the broccoli we have, I’d never had garden-grown broccoli - I’d never even had locally grown broccoli! I’d mostly had frozen, which is not that great.
MW: (laughs) Yes, melt some cheese on that, and now it’s acceptable.
J: Exactly! And broccoli’s not just a vessel for cheese, it actually tastes good.
B: Yeah, it’s incredible. It was just a whole new broccoli world (laughs). I just love it.
MW: What would you say a typical day looks like for you in the summers?
J: Well Britt’s all over the place because she works off the farm.
B: I still have a part-time job in the city; I work for the Winnipeg Public Library. So I work part time in the winter and in the summer, but the library is closed on the weekends in the summertime, so I actually work very little. I’m a little all over the place, but Justin gets up super early and…
J: Works till dark for the most part. Every once in a while you take a day like today where you don’t work as hard. You do some work in the morning, go until suppertime and then you quit.
B: When we first got into this, I pictured it as being very structured. Like, we’re going to get up and then we’ll do this task and then we’ll… But it’s actually a lot more just running around.
J: It’s a lot more dependent. You get up in the morning and you figure out what job you’re doing. We’ll make a list, so it is structured in a way.
MW: It sounds like you have to respond to the conditions. You can’t have the same schedule that you just follow every year.
J: No, ideally, we have a schedule or an idea, and we think about, “Here’s what we want and when”. But then you realize, “This took up more land than I thought”, or “It rained here”, or “This is too wet”. So every morning I take a look at the forecast and I take into account what just happened, and I make a list and go from there.
B: And it’s our first year too, so you learn things as you go along. We’re always changing the plan.
J: But every day is different, which is exciting.
MW: You talk about learning as you go along. What would you say has been a real sticking point or frustration for you?
J: There hasn’t been anything really big, like a disastrous moment. But it’s a steep learning curve nonetheless.
B: It’s always been little things. Like we really wanted to do all raised beds, but then we had problems with that, so we had to make changes.
J: It’s techniques that you’re learning and you hope that next year everything will run a little smoother. Which I think is every farmer’s mantra, “Next year. Next year’s going to be better.”
B: I was thinking a little while ago that farming’s mostly about extension cords and swearing (laughs). We’re always searching for an extension cord somewhere.
MW: You’ve mentioned your dad a few times. Aside from him, is there anyone else you use as a resource for information?
J: A lot of research. I spend time reading to try to figure things out. And there’s still a lot to learn. I’m constantly exploring and connecting with different people to learn from them. But that’s where having an MA, and a university background in general helps. You are accustomed to researching at length, so in the winter, I spend a lot of time doing that.
MW: Would you say that your goal is to eventually do this full time, for both of you?
B: I think so. I still really love my job, so if I ever don’t love it, then I would want to do this full time, but for the time being, I really like the two.
J: Eventually we have ideas of different ways we’d like to branch out the farm. We’d like to have a sort of kitchen here one day, but that’s a long way down the road, and it’s very dependent on how things work out here. And I’d like to set up some more greenhouses, because I have a lot of experience growing herbs, and I would like to get into that again more too. But that’s in the future; that’s ten years, fifteen years down the road.
B: These are all things that would complement each other.
J: And then there’d be more consistency.
B: And then that’s your only job, because you’d be starting so early in the year.
J: But ideally our plan is to work like maniacs from March until November and have the winter months off. Because I like to hibernate a bit; I’d love to spend my time reading and playing music for three months straight. I mean that would be wonderful.
MW: It seems like it would be so cozy in here during the winter.
J: It’s a really nice space. And I’m kind of a binge worker; I just like to go. So I’m not very good at working the fields and then taking time off to read a novel. I want to read a million novels, a bunch of poetry, and then work the fields, work the fields.
MW: It sounds like that’s the university breeding in you.
J: Exactly. You do one thing and you go, go, go for a really long time.
B: But this is all down the line. Right now we’re just working and seeing how it goes.
J: Yeah, survive the year. That’s the goal this year.