Michelle White and Steve Ross have a serious case of the blues. And life has never been so sweet.
Six years ago, White chose to chuck her career as a financial planner and leap into a life of organic farming despite having no experience or background in the, well, field.
Now, however, she and Ross, her husband of eight years, have completed a successful third season of selling blueberries and putting smiles on faces from Ross Mountain Farm.
“I had a moment where I had to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” White said while giving a tour of the couple’s 3.5-acre property at the corner of Evergreen and Petersen roads in Campbell River. “I left a career and some other short-term jobs and focused on what it was that was going to satisfy my soul and financial requirements and everything. Basically from the inside out, farming answered everything I had questions about.”
Not that she had all the answers about farming. Asked how much the couple knew at the time of her life-changing decision, White said, “Nothing.”
“Zero,” Ross echoed.
Even now, pointed questions about the nature of the plants they’re growing and the prospects for coming years are likely to draw a shrug.
“You have no clue what happens until you actually start doing it,” said White. “This is the only way to actually learn how to do it, is to do it. And if you researched all the things that could go wrong with a crop before you started, you’d never grow anything,” Ross added.
That the couple even has the property to farm was the result of a happy accident following their whirlwind courtship and marriage in 2007.
Ross had worked at the Port Alice pulp mill and serviced its gas contract before relocating to Campbell River and buying the land in 2003. While he and White had “crossed paths” a couple of times, they were officially introduced in January of 2007 and were married in June of that year.
“That’s a love story,” said White.
Each of them had a house at the time they married, but wanted to start over with a new place that would be theirs together.
“So we put both houses up for sale and looked around for a place we could call ours,” said Ross. “The problem was, we found nothing that could compare with this one.”
By 2009 White made her decision to go into organic farming with Ross’ full-fledged support. Although he continues to work full-time off the farm, “He’s been working his ass off ever since,” White said.
It was far more than digging some holes and dropping in plants. Ross Mountain Farm is built on a foundation of research that has included White taking classes in growing food, visiting agricultural trade shows and other farms across Vancouver Island, and, of course, plenty of online research. She is now an organic master gardener.
Her second decision, after committing to starting a farm, was what to grow.
“Blueberries were an almost instant choice,” she said. “We thoroughly enjoy organic fruit and we were willing to travel to get it. Blueberries are very popular and very healthy. We hoped and believed other people would feel the same way we did, and would get it from us if they could get it here.”
The soil and climate conditions on their land also lend themselves to blueberry production.
But while peak blueberry picking and selling season lasts only a matter of weeks, the couple spent years developing and cultivating the .8-acre blueberry field on the upper, level bench of the sloped property.
The first order of business, after White cashed out a retirement account to fund the operation, was digging up the entire area and installing a drainage and irrigation system. Although their house is on city water, they dug a well — “We don’t want to chlorinate our microbes,” White says — and planted a hedge along both Evergreen and Petersen to provide privacy.
But before the hedge rose, their efforts drew plenty of gawkers.
“We’d be putting in the drainage, the irrigation and all that, and people would stop and pull over every day,” said Ross. “‘What are you doing?’ ‘What are you growing?'”
“We were going to say it was a trailer park at one point,” White added, “just to inspire some reaction.”
During berry season, Ross strings thousands of square feet of bird netting across a seven-foot fence surrounding the bushes. A screened canopy at the entrance to the plot was a revelation, serving to allow pickers in and out without having to wrestle with a gate while loaded with cartons or berries.
“It works like a hot dam,” said White. “The birds won’t go in.”
To add more work to the project, White was adamant about the farm holding organic certification by the Islands Organic Producers Association, whose standards are even more restrictive than those of the Canadian Organic Standards.
The application process requires identifying everything that’s happened with the property for at least three years before certification. There are annual inspections, annual fees, reports to file and a full accounting of everything brought onto or sent off the farm.
“We’re actually really proud of that (organic) check mark,” said White. “Because it isn’t just a given. We had to earn it, and we continue to earn it every year.”
She said customers have sought out Ross Mountain Farm because of that certification.
“They’re looking for that product, and we’re happy to oblige,” she said.
The berry plants — there are five producing cultivars and a sixth that was added this year — went into the ground in 2010. By 2013, the farm had its organic certification and the plants produced their first market crop.
“Part of the idea with different varieties is you get early and mid-season ripening,” said White. “If you have a poor spring, a late season, you’re still going to get a crop. Also, the idea was getting fresh berries to the market when everybody’s appetite for fresh berries is fresh — in the spring.”
During peak picking season, White employs up to 15 part-time workers.
Now that the blueberries are well established, the couple has begun to branch out and expand the farm, adding a market garden on the lower slope of the property, as well as a variety of fruit tree, herbs and table grapes.
“We’re trying crops that work around the blueberry season,” White said. “Because when blueberries are on, everything else stops.”
They also have their own honey bee hive and, of course, a website and Facebook page.
“My children said we have to be on Facebook, and they were right,” said White. “It’s a really nice way to communicate with people. For example, if we’re going to put something out at the farm stand, I put it on Facebook so anybody following us knows what’s available that day.
“It works really well.”
And White and Ross anticipate it continuing to work well long into the future, even if the work is difficult.
“Jeepers, working hard is just what I do,” said White. “It’s what Steve does. It’s not a deterrent.”