Three hundred sixty-five days, more or less — that’s the time it took. When Mitchell Morse and Chris Margetts told their friends they planned to start a farm, no one expected to see it in a year’s time. Because back then Mitchell and Chris were living in the city, in Vancouver, with no land or tools — just an idea, a picture in their heads of how they would start a farm.
Of course, there was also that longing to return to their roots. For Chris, who grew up in the small town of Sidney, not far from Victoria on Vancouver Island, and lived for six years on a llama ranch on the Sunshine Coast, a city allotment garden in Vancouver was never going to cut it.
Farm to Plate
And so they began by thinking about what they wanted on the plate. Mitchell, a pastry chef who’d worked “in all the really good restaurants in Vancouver” could picture the beautiful foods they’d grow and how they would look prepared and served up fresh. They named their venture The Fickle Fig.
“For me the endgame is to have a restaurant in Sidney,” said Mitchell, whose eclectic background includes growing up on a dairy farm, a degree in chemistry and ceramics, time spent travelling the world, and training as a pastry chef. “It’s all about, ‘What do we have? What kind of dish can we make?’ versus ‘We have a dish in mind and let’s go find all the ingredients for it.’ I want to do it all: cheese-making, winemaking, bees, quail, rabbits….”
So, first the farm, then the restaurant. This first year would be all about making something out of nothing.
They began their search for farmland with certain ideas. They wanted a diversified farm, with many kinds of vegetables, herbs, fruit and animals. And they planned to follow permaculture and organic farming methods. They didn’t want to be dependent on tractors or other large farm equipment, and they hoped to minimize the need for outside inputs.
Since they weren’t in a position to own, they looked for a situation that would provide a long-term lease on land. Through an ad on Craigslist, they found a beautiful acre on Salt Spring Island. “This is it,” they said, and prepared to move to the island. But the situation fell through and they were back to searching. Then an ad came up for 5 acres of hay field on the Saanich Peninsula, Chris’ old stomping ground. “Even better,” said Chris. It was near Sidney where they wanted to be.
They took possession of the land — a field of green grass, a lot of rocks and an old shed — in October when it was pouring rain. It didn’t take long to discover (in a repent-in-leisure kind of way) that this former hay field with tractor ruts and deep-rooted weeds would take some intensive labour to restore to healthy, productive soil.
“We had all these great ideas of a no-till system, and eventually just keep composting on top,” said Mitchell. “…We did it by shovel every single row.” But the soil was just so hard and filled with weeds that the roots of the new seedlings couldn’t penetrate the compacted soil. “We learned the hard way, you need a tiller.”
Starting out, Mitchell and Chris both still had jobs which took them through the winter months until they could start farming full-time. They secured a loan for $30,000 with the plan for three initial income streams: a CSA weekly farm box program, a booth at the Sidney Street Market, and a farm stand on the nearby Lochside Trail.
The first year would require investments for plants, animals, feed and tools. They needed to build sheds for goats, pigs and chickens, establish an orchard, and procure seeds and livestock. Many of the crops, like asparagus and fruit trees, would not yield until later years.
To make their investment monies stretch, they thought constantly about how to do things inexpensively. They scrounged whenever possible: salvaged bricks for an outdoor oven, glass doors to make cold frames, food scraps from the grocery store to feed the pigs.
And they designed the farm to require minimal outside inputs. Aside from outside grains for animal feed, they planned a working farm model that used its own manure and compost as fertilizer, and its pasture for animal forage with rotational grazing to maintain the health of the land and the livestock.
Choosing the Name
The name for the farm and the restaurant came after much thought. “We had a big board … and we would just write down ideas every time we got them,” said Chris, “and [Mitchell] popped up with ‘The Fickle Fig’ one day, and I’m like ‘That’s totally it!’” “Fickle” to reflect a willingness to figure out different ways of doing things, to go back to the old methods some of the time, and to not just be “swimming with everyone.” And “Fig” because the cuisine will be west coast with Italian influence.
Vision and Decisions
Now began the creative and daunting task of making decisions: where to put the orchard, the animals, the crops, and where to source the special livestock and cultivars that would make a great restaurant. They envisioned a farm that included temperate as well as subtropical fruits like olives, limes and lemons. Maybe coffee or dragon fruit. And figs. Of course, figs.
“Everything we plant I have a use for in some way; I’ve seen it on a plate in my head,” Mitchell said. Herbs for garnish, vegetables, fruits of all kinds.
For each specialized heritage seed, plant or animal for the farm—heirloom tomatoes, persimmons, medlars, Olive Egger chickens to produce the perfect Italian olive-coloured eggs, Nigerian dwarf goats to produce creamier cheese because their milk is higher in butterfat, golden raspberries for colourful desserts—they spent hours researching breeds, seed sources and suppliers that met their price range, vision and quality.
Fickle Fig produce: Fresh figs, olive, brown and cream-coloured eggs, and an heirloom tomato.
Deer Fencing and Missteps
Coming into farming, even with some family background on each side, has been an incredible learning curve. Could it have been easier with an established older generation farmer to point the way? The early onions, so proudly planted as one of their first crops, were devoured by slugs. But now they know not to group onions in what turned out to be the wettest part of the field. The corn-based biodegradable weed cloth (such a find!) biodegraded too soon and left weeds choking the strawberries.
“Everything we do — when we hit our head — something good has come out of it and we’ve learned a lesson.”
At times their desire to save money cost them a lot in effort and experience. Everyone told them they’d need a good deer fence. Deer posed a huge problem. But with fencing priced at about $1,000 for land they didn’t own, they looked for an inexpensive solution and soon erected a fence with a low-cost conduit pipe and deer block netting. The next day, the deer walked right through it.
“…We had this ‘we were trying to outsmart everybody…. we’re not going to spend $1,000 on deer fence. We’re going to try to do it cheap and easy’,” said Mitchell. After the deer toppled the fence twice, they rebuilt the enclosure with sturdy wire fencing. But all wasn’t lost, because the deer netting company refunded their money on warranty, and they were still able to use the low cost pipes as stakes. “It’s like everything we do, when we hit our head — something good has come out of it and we’ve learned a lesson,” said Mitchell.
One of the most fundamental lessons they learned about farming is that it requires hours of hard work. A typical day might include 12 hours at the farm, and then for Mitchell, several hours spent canning produce afterwards to take advantage of fresh cucumbers for pickles or berries for jam. For Chris, who handles much of the marketing and business end of The Fickle Fig, the evening might include time on the farm’s website or Facebook page to get the word out. Farmers have to be good on the land and good at business too.
Mitchell Morse and Chris Margetts talk about the planning, hard work and adventures that went into starting The Fickle Fig Farm.
A Growing Farm
Looking back now after their second year of farming, they marvel at what they accomplished in the first 12 months — a growing orchard with some 200 fruit and nut trees, two active beehives producing honey, a thriving farm stand, two market booths (at the Sidney Street Market and the North Saanich Farm Market) and an active CSA box program, plus pigs, chickens, ducks, rabbits and goats, and a palette of vegetables. In a year’s time, they took a hay field and began to produce meat, cheese, eggs, fruit, vegetables, herbs and even a few grains. It’s the vision they both saw when they imagined their farming endeavour.
Looking out at their mist-covered farm on a morning in January, Mitchell noted on his Facebook page: “Every morning I’m reminded why we chose this adventure. …It’s moments like this when I feel most connected to everything.”
Since they started the farm in October 2013, The Fickle Fig has expanded to almost eight acres. Mitchell works seven days a week on the farm to maintain the crops and animals, while Chris handles the behind-the-scenes farm business, and works an outside job. Plans are underway to find restaurant space and open their farm-to-plate restaurant in Sidney, the next phase of their food/culinary adventure.
Month by Month – First Year at The Fickle Fig Farm
Broke ground in the rainy hayfield; planned the crop rows; tilled the soil, hauled leaves, shovelled, tilled soil, tilled more soil.
Tilled the soil; purchased seeds; built the tool shed; dug holes for fence posts.
First seeds sprouted; finished the goat shed and 4-paddock fence; five Nigerian dwarf dairy goats arrived, two large black pigs arrived, first batch of chicks; submitted application for booth at the street market.
Planted vegetables; orchard began to bloom; deer fencing went up (and down and up again!); built a movable chicken run; prepared strawberry beds; got two beehives.
Baby twin goats arrived; CSA program began; harvested peas, radishes, herbs, spinach, lettuce, spring onions, broccoli and more; set up the farm stand on the Lochside Trail.
August – farm stand officially opened; harvested tomatoes, goji berries and a full line of produce; planted for fall; canned fruit and vegetables; last Sidney Street Market.
First year at the farm nearly over; continued at the North Saanich Farm Market; picked late berries; made quince jam; two new rabbits; waited for new