An interview with Kayla Seyler and Mike Hook of Arcadia Farm.
Describe your business.
We’re a startup permaculture farm. Permaculture means “permanent agriculture”—it’s a set of design principles based on creating a self-reinforcing ecosystem which provides food, fuel, medicine and shelter. It’s a closed-loop system, meaning that the “waste” from one system is the input for another—like animal manure fertilizing plants, which in turn feed the animals; or trees protecting tender fruit from harsh weather, and the tender fruit keeping weeds down around the tree’s roots. We’re focused on grouping perennial food crops—trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and root crops—together with animals in ways that provide for the needs of each plant and animal with minimal work, and no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or artificial fertilizers.
It’s a long process—our fruit and nut trees are still several years away from even producing fruit, let alone enough to sell—but the long-term goal is to grow native, rare and unique foods for chefs and foodies, and raise small amounts of laying hens, meat chickens, pigs, turkeys, and maybe some other poultry, all on pasture. We currently host 10 bee hives on our land and are hoping to find other regenerative farmers looking for a place for a market garden, and rotational grazing of dairy or beef cattle. We’d also like to have a couple of rental cabins, and host on-farm dinners using only local products.
Bigger picture, we hope to work with other regenerative farmers to build a local market for beyond-organic food, and jumpstart a locally-based economy that keeps our dollars circulating close to home, where they belong.
What brought you to the region?
We had been looking for a farm for about a year before we found Arcadia in 2019. We both have work ties to Toronto, so we wanted to be somewhere within a couple of hours of The Big Smoke. We knew nothing about the area before we bought here, but it was love at first sight when we stepped foot onto the property. We were a bit nervous uprooting our lives and moving to a place we knew nothing about, but were quickly put at ease once we started to discover everything the area has to offer. We’re slowly making friends and discovering the little gems in the area, though COVID has put a damper on the exploring and networking.
What makes the Bay of Quinte a good fit for your business?
It seems like there’s so much untapped potential for small family farms and local food here. We’ve talked to a bunch of neighbours with deep roots here, and they’re excited to see our land being farmed again—it’s been decades. There are hundreds of acres around us lying fallow because the owners can’t find anyone to graze it. There are a few farm stands, but nowhere near the density you see in Prince Edward County. The success of places like Opoma Farms, Empire Cheese Co-op and the little hub in Warkworth tells us that there’s a hunger for local food; it’s just a matter of how we can use our skill sets to turn that hunger towards a more self-reliant local food system on a larger scale.
What was the hardest thing about starting a business?
Developing a clear shared vision. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of working in the farm, and forget to work on the farm. As a couple we need to be on the same page, and pulling in the same direction, which we won’t do very well unless we know where we want to go. The big picture, blue-sky dreaming is a start; it’s difficult to turn those dreams into specific, measurable, long-term goals where we both have a clear understanding of why we have those goals. Once that part is figured out, how we get there becomes easier to figure out.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs in the area?
Build a community of like-minded people who are pulling in a similar direction to you. Your success in business is only as good as the willingness of others to help you.
What surprised you about starting a business in a smaller community?
A few things. Mike is an entrepreneur many times over, though used to doing business in the big city. One difference is how generous people are with their time here. Neighbours have lent us so many tools, driven us places to pick things up in their truck or trailer and brought their tractor by to help with big jobs, milled lumber, and even helped us with things like electrical work and mechanical repair. Of course they refuse to take anything in return.
Another is how difficult it can be to find specific things if you don’t have the local knowledge or connections. We find that many businesses do not have websites or social media and it can be really difficult to find what you are looking for, be it custom fabrication products or local products. We spend a lot of time asking other farmers and business owners for tips and information. I guess if you know, you know.
Another is how much socialization is built into a business transaction here—it seems like you’ve got to have a long social chat before, during and after making a sale. We’re enjoying the change of pace.
How have you changed your operations during the pandemic?
The 2020 growing season was our first, so there weren’t any prior habits to change. Selling through a farm stand is socially distanced to begin with. We had planned to tour a few regenerative farms in the area in 2020 to see what they’re growing and how, which we didn’t end up doing this year because of the pandemic. We also haven’t been meeting chefs and restaurateurs in the area for the same reasons… but on the upside, that gives us more time to get the farm systems established and productive before going to market.
What is something good that has come from this difficult situation?
It seems that a lot more people have realized that every dollar spent at a locally-owned and operated business stays in the community, while every dollar spent at a big box store is on a one-way train out of town. We hope the spirit of this lives on post-pandemic.
If you were to have one word tattooed on you, what would it be?
Community, because life is about bringing people together.