Lydia Ryall, the 2014 Outstanding Young Farmer nominee for the B.C./Yukon region grows vegetables and pastures a flock of 100 laying hens on her 10 acre certified organic farm on Westham Island off the B.C. west coast.
From a young age, she knew she wanted to be a farmer. She kept her eyes on that goal through a diploma in agricultural production at Olds College, a B.Sc. in agriculture at the University of Lethbridge and a job with Alberta Agriculture and Rural .
Ryall began her farming career in 2009, growing a market garden on a corner of her parents’ South Delta on B.C. lower mainland property. While she liked the gardening part, she wasn’t prepared to take over the family’s 18-acre vegetable greenhouse.
“They ended up having a really big operation,” she says. “They have 100 employees. I just thought they had their hands in the soil less and less. I kind of wanted something on a smaller scale.”
On Ryall’s 10-acre farm the rotation includes traditional crops like potatoes, beets, carrots and broccoli but she also grows a lot of speciality vegetables, such as celeriac, kale, purple cauliflower and several varieties of winter squash. “We make sure we’re growing a few things that customers traditionally don’t find in grocery stores,” she says. “That pulls them to our farm stand or the farmers market.”
Ryall grows 50 different types of vegetables. Aided and abetted by the mild climate and fertile soil of the Fraser Delta, three small greenhouses, one of which is movable, plus row tunnels and raised beds, she harvests vegetables 12 months of the year,
In winter celeriac, leeks, Brussel sprouts, chard and kale thrive outside while hoop houses keep salad greens, radishes, Asian greens, lettuce, spinach and more at the right temperature. Add traditional storage crops such as parsnips, carrots, potatoes, cabbage and beets and it’s not hard to see why her winter CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes are snapped up as quickly as her summer ones.
Her CSA membership, which delivers farm produce direct to consumers, has grown from 25 members in 2010 to 130 today. She added a farmgate vegetable stand in 2013. She sells her produce and eggs from the farm stand and also attends several farmers markets in the area.
Her crops and chickens are certified organic through Fraser Valley Organic Producers. While some farmers agree with the organic philosophy but object to the supervision and fees that go with it, Ryall has a different view. “The money goes to beneficial programs and so I never have a problem paying our certification fees,” she says. “And yes, there’s paperwork involved but I think it pushes us to be better farmers. It’s similar to FOOD SAFE paperwork. You need to be keeping production records and seed lot numbers. It’s just good farming practice. There’s not too much record keeping that we have to do for certified organics that we shouldn’t really already be doing, regardless.”
Her sister, Rachel, works with her on the farm. She also has two full-time, year-round employees, five full-time seasonal employees and up to four part-time employees and apprentices.
From a girl growing up on a farm to owning and managing her own farm, it’s been a journey. Looking back, over the past five years, Ryall says, what she’s learned has been mostly management skills: how to plan and prioritize, dealing with employees, making sure people are working effectively. “You don’t really get taught that at school,” she says.
What does the future hold? “We’ve expanded a lot over the last five to six years,” she says. “Now it’s a matter of trying to finesse the systems we have. Personally, I want to be an effective manager, and I want to be learning more about the soil, what’s going on down below the surface. And then there are some little things like learning more about cover cropping. My goals are not production or marketing. It’s just getting better with what we have now.”