I first met Matt and Molly Thurston in 2007 at a talk I gave on food security for the Central Okanagan Community Gardens Society (COCGS) in Kelowna. The couple had just leased some land on a one-year trial basis from a local farmer. New farmers need access to land, but with diminishing farmland and rising prices, it is getting harder and harder to get it. Farming someone else’s land is one solution. I met with them at their home and farm in Kelowna this past summer.
Matt and Molly met at the University of Guelph where they both got their agricultural degrees. Matt was from Oshawa originally, but Molly grew up in Kelowna, so after graduating in 2005, they returned to her hometown. Matt’s first job there was with a landscaping company. Molly joined COCGS, the community garden group, and met one of the founders and organizers, Bob McCoubrey, the farmer they would lease the land from two years later.
So in 2007, Molly and Matt became orchardists, tending the nearly eight acres of mixed fruit: pears, peaches, apricots, plums and apples, including 35 heritage varieties. They moved into a small house on the property. They also added a new member to their family to mark the occasion, Abby the Australian shepherd.
It was a challenging and intense year for the couple, with a huge learning curve. In addition to managing the orchard, they were holding down full time jobs. It helped that they lived right next door to their mentor Bob and his wife Sharon. After the year, they decided to move off-site and bought a house of their own in Kelowna. They continued to lease the orchard for the next several years, with a hiatus one summer to catch their breath. Living off-site had its challenges too, but with Bob’s guiding hand and generous help with irrigation, they managed.
They also tried a few things on their own. They added laying hens one year. “Now we had to water them three times a day,” said Matt. They also cultivated a small market garden, upgraded some of the equipment and drew on the skills they had learned at agricultural college. “We learned a lot just by doing,” said Matt.
“The first time we discussed buying the orchard with Bob and Sharon was in 2005,” said Molly. “But they still thought one of their kids might be interested in taking it over. And, we were only 25, so not totally ready to make the commitment. Our friends were out having fun every weekend and we were working on the farm.”
In 2010, the subject came up again and the couple felt more settled and ready to commit to the long term. Matt was working for Farm Credit Canada by then and Molly had gotten on with the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative. “Our friends and family were supportive then too,” said Molly.
The couple began to craft a purchase agreement with Bob and Sharon. They took their time, all four of them carefully considering various scenarios, coming up with a very creative financing plan. Over the course of six months they worked out a deal that they were all happy with, parts of it in writing (like the new on-site cold storage unit), others on a handshake (painting the house). Without Bob and Sharon’s flexibility, willingness and desire to pass the torch to these young farmers, Matt and Molly would not have been able to afford the land.
In January 2011, Matt and Molly became owners of the orchard that is certified by the North Okanagan Organic Association. While the agreement stated that Bob and Sharon had four years before they had to move from the larger house, they bought a place (nearby!) the moment they got the down payment. The young farmers moved into the larger home that fall and rented out the smaller one. Both homes are over 100 years old, with a carport originally designed for parking a horse and carriage. There’s also an old root cellar on site.
As we sat out in the peaceful, pastoral backyard, sampling some of the earlier apple varieties, I learned that more than 600 people had just flowed through their property a couple days earlier. Claremont Ranch Organics hosted the annual Okanagan Feast of Fields. It was an annual fundraiser for the non-profit group Farm Folk City Folk, but an inaugural celebration for the new owners.
“We couldn’t have done this without Bob. He had already established all the markets, built the relationships,” said Matt. Claremont Ranch sells to a few local chefs and at farm gate, but their primary market is Urban Harvest, a local organic produce delivery company. “A lot of people owe their livelihoods to [owners] Lisa and David,” said Molly.
Matt and Molly seem to have found the right balance. Even though they both still have jobs off the farm, they find the orchard manageable now. They handle most of the work themselves, except for the occasional apprentice, carrying on the tradition set by their friend and mentor.
This article first appeared in BC Organic Grower, Fall 2012, Volume 15, Issue 4.