uzy Keown and Seann Dory are the couple who run Salt & Harrow, a 32-acre organic vegetable farm in Tsawwassen, B.C. They’re one of seven farms that operate from Southlands Community Farm, one of the largest publicly-owned farm on the continent.
Suzy and Seann sell their veggies at farmers’ markets and through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program where members buy a share in the farm at the beginning of the season, and get their choice of vegetables every week. We talked to them about their farm, their family, and their work.
What does it mean to be a publicly-owned farm? How does that affect your approach?
SEANN: Everything we do is us directly in contact with the customer. We sell to seven farmers’ markets, and directly from the farm. And we’re starting a farmers’ market in the development here, on Saturdays.
Then we have the CSA. We've been doing a smaller version of the CSA since we started, selling to people directly. But it didn't really get going until we moved our farm to the mainland [in 2019] to do the project here at Southlands. And the other thing that made a big difference was the pandemic—it really increased people's interest in supporting local farmers, and making sure that they had a portion of the harvest. When the pandemic started, there was a sharp decline in attendance at farmers’ markets, and a sharp increase in people buying CSAs.
So the pandemic made community-supported agriculture a bigger priority for people?
SEANN: Yeah. There were some people who just wanted to make sure they had fresh local foods, because of what was going on at the grocery stores, and people interested in low-contact shopping. And then there were other people who just really wanted to support local business. I think the majority of people wanted to support their community in the economic downturn.
How common is the CSA approach?
SEANN: It started in Japan. The Japanese word for it is teikei. From what I understand, it was a group of grandmothers—it says “grandmothers” in the literature—who got together and basically hired farmers to grow for them. And then it was picked up in the late ‘80s and early '90s by farms in the U.S. Now it's fairly common and most cities have quite a few, although they’re a small part of organic farms more generally.
SUZY: There are about five just in the Tsawwassen-Ladner area.
Was that always what you had planned to do, selling directly to the consumer?
SEANN: I think that was always the plan. We toyed with wholesale, but it's never something that was attractive to us. In a previous life, we both had long stays in the restaurant industry, so I think connection to the customer is something that we appreciate. We see the same people all the time—they’re coming in, bringing their kids. With Salt & Harrow, for the last six years, we've seen a lot of the same people. Some of them were our CSA members early on. It's great to know that you have community support, especially the CSA. It takes some of the pressure off, knowing that people are supporting you before you plant the seeds.
How many people have signed up for your community shares?
SEANN: We’ll probably have well over 100 this year. I think we're currently at 60, but it doesn't start till June.
SUZY: Last year we had 150.
How does it work when someone signs up?
SEANN: They go to the Salt & Harrow website, pick the share, buy it, and then they’re locked in. We select the vegetables for them every week, and they come and pick them up, either from the farmer or one of the markets. It’s whatever's in season that week.
SUZY: It's usually about seven items, but it can vary up to 11.
What are some of your favourite crops?
SUZY: Peppers, by far. This year we have the chocolate candy cane ones—they have these multicoloured stripes. There’s the Cajun Belle, which is a really common one, but I love them. And I'm all about poblanos.
SEANN: Whatever crop is growing, really. I think my favourite things to harvest are kale and chard.
How did you get into organic farming?
SEANN: I grew up around agriculture, and the only thing I knew about farming is that I didn't want to do it.
"I grew up on a farm too, and swore up and down I would never do it." - SUZY
SEANN: I think there's a whole generation of people that had a resistance to farming. I'm a child of the ‘80s, and farming was not cool. I had been working in [Vancouver’s] downtown eastside for a decade, and I was kind of at the end of what I was able to do there, mentally and physically. Doing that work, I started a project called Sole Food, which was an urban farm that works with individuals with limited resources who are managing addiction and chronic mental health problems in Vancouver's Downtown eastside. And I just assumed it would be one of many projects in my life, but it turns out I really liked growing vegetables. I always thought of farming as huge grain fields and combines. But this was different.
SUZY: I was working with a clinical research organization, and kind of took a hard left and went into brewing. I worked at Vancouver's first organic brewery, Dogwood. We were kind of immersed in farming because we were in the organic sector.
And Suzy, you started farming yourself when you got together with Seann?
SUZY: Yeah. The love got me through the rock-picking years.
Given that you both grew up in the farming world and swore you’d never do it yourself, how do your kids feel about the farm?
SEANN: There's a running joke in the farming community: how do you make sure your kids farm? Don't raise them on one. But I do think it’s rewarding—our middle son likes the tractor, so he might like it just because he likes to drive tractors.
SUZY: No, he told me this morning that he doesn't want to do it because he feels bad for us having to stand out in the rain all the time.
What can people outside of your area do if they want to support local farmers where they live?
SEANN: Most towns have a farmers’ market, and that's a great place to find farms that you want to support.
"Direct-to-consumer, CSA farms only make up like one to two per cent of the overall organic food market. So supporting local food is really important, because it's kind of a niche within a niche."
It can be hard to run a small business. Do you ever grapple with questions of how long you’ll be able to keep it going?
SEANN: Every year, it’s “Do we do this again? Are we crazy?” That's pretty constant. But then the seed catalog comes, and it's got all those pretty vegetables in it.
SUZY: Then it just happens, and you eat all the food you grew, and you love it again. What's that saying? “The winter gives you enough time to become stupid, and want to do it all over again.”