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Cultivating community

Heartbeet Farm’s Kate Garvie highlights the importance of community and values-based decision-making on her farm.

May 3, 2023  By Alex Barnard

Kate Garvie hoists a sweet potato grown through her farm’s short-season trials. Photo courtesy of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.

Kate Garvie proves you don’t have to be born into it to make a home in Canadian agriculture – or develop a budding sweet potato empire.

Garvie came to farming through her environmental studies degree at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. Each semester, students participating in the university’s sustainable agriculture courses would visit four to six farms. 

“I really fell in love with the farms and what they were doing, and the actual people who were farming were just really genuine, kind people,” she says.

This led her to Guelph and a CRAFT Ontario Farming Internship on a new farm, where she confirmed that farming was what she wanted to do. After obtaining a graduate degree in environmental studies and working for a few years on a central Ontario farm, Garvie moved north to Ottawa. 

“I had been working for my friend [on a farm] and it was quite rural,” she says. “I decided that I wanted to have more of a community.”

Through her work on food security with a non-profit, she connected with Katie Ward, a livestock farmer and multi-term president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), who offered Garvie the use of some land.

“It was an easy decision. I knew I wanted to get back into farming and [Ward] had a one-acre market garden that she had been running and then decided to take a step back from,” Garvie says. “So, it was a really easy transition.”

With that land, she started Heartbeet Farm, an organic community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, in 2018. That same year, she met future farm partner David Mazur-Goulet when she was renting greenhouse space to grow her seedlings at his farming co-operative, The BeetBox. 

“We both had our farm names before we met, and they just happened to both include ‘beet,’” she laughs. 

Now, Garvie and Mazur-Goulet work together on Heartbeet Farm, where they grow roughly 40 different types of vegetables and 12 varieties of sweet potato, with plans to keep expanding those numbers and their customer base.

“It’s nice to see old customers and bring new people into eating seasonally,” Garvie says. “People are so excited about vegetables they’ve never seen before and they get jazzed about kohlrabi.”

Political policy
Garvie says she and Mazur-Goulet are values-driven when it comes to making decisions, both on and off the farm.

“Farming is a political act, but it’s also one way that we can have a really positive impact and look at what we’d like the future of the food system to look like. That’s what we’re focused on,” she explains. 

“I worked as a student as an activist fighting against a lot of what’s going on, like about climate change, and that was really exhausting to me. Farming is a more positive way of contributing, I think.”

The challenge, she says, is to make decisions that keep their farm profitable and sustainable while having a positive impact on the community and allowing for collaboration with other farmers.  

After first getting involved through Ward, Garvie spent time as president of local 362 of the NFU while farming in Kanata, where she put these values into play in the broader farming community. 

“Once you join [the NFU], you’re meeting so many like-minded farmers. It’s really policy-driven and fighting for smaller scale farms,” she says, adding that NFU meetings are marked by spirited but respectful debate. “It’s also a larger mix of farmers, [including] conventional farmers as well. I think it’s nice to maintain those connections to all different types of farming.”

Sweet trials
Some may know Garvie for her work trialling sweet potato varieties suited for the Ottawa region’s shorter season. She and Telsing Andrews, who was working on plant breeding, “decided to apply for a grant to look at food security in the region and high calorie crops that are good storage crops so we would have more food security in the winter months.”

Andrews ran a farm called Aster Lane Edibles and volunteered at the non-profit Garvie worked at. When she moved on from the project, Garvie found herself with 60 potential new varieties of sweet potato grown from true seed and a lack of plant-breeding experience. 

“I immediately reached out to the Farmer-Led Research branch of EFAO (Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario),” Garvie says. “Rebecca Ivanoff is amazing – she was super supportive and helped me plan out the project. She even came and helped me harvest some of the sweet potatoes and do the data collection.”

Garvie continues to run sweet potato trials and has begun selling sweet potato slips through her farm. 

“It’s really exciting. When you grow out true seed, you don’t know what it’s going to look like – it could be a totally different-looking sweet potato. It’s kind of like a little treasure hunt,” she says. 

“It’s a very different relationship to the vegetables than you have when you’ve pre-sold them and you need to select the best varieties for reliability.”

Her favourite variety that she’s helped to develop is called Magenta, which has uniquely shaped leaves and shorter vines, making it suited for smaller spaces or intensive farming. The skin is a bright purple, while the interior flesh is white and purple and occasionally includes specks of orange.

“I’m hoping to select more for that [in the future], but it needs to look nice when it’s cooked – because right now, it’s not that pretty,” Garvie laughs.

“People are really excited about growing [sweet potatoes]. They like the idea of trialling something that is brand new and selected for this region.”

Looking forward
As for what’s next, Garvie says she’s keen to dig into a new area and keep growing. 

She and Mazur-Goulet moved their farm to a more rural location – 25 minutes south of Kemptville, 25 minutes north of Brockville – in July 2021, so they’re working to learn the property and expand their CSA into the local area. 

“Because we’re brand new on this farm and it hadn’t been a market garden before, we want to get to know the land better and build up organic matter in the soil – and build the soil, since it’s lacking right now – and increase biodiversity on the farm.” 

Garvie is delighted by the sense of community they’ve already found around their new farm. “We’re really lucky that we moved into an area where a few other young farmers are farming, and the farmers on our road are super supportive,” she says. “We hadn’t bought our tractor yet, so they helped us prep our fields. It’s a nice community to be a part of.”

Despite the move from Heartbeet Farm’s previous location, Garvie says they’ve been able to retain their core CSA customer base, some of whom have been part of the CSA since it began in 2018. She hopes to continue growing the CSA and adding new customers each year.

“During COVID, there was that bump where people were concerned [about access to food]. But we still have the same concerns with climate change about food supply and we need to build our local food systems,” she says. 

“It’s a positive choice that people can make by interacting with their local farmer – positive for them and us and the general community.”

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