Wednesday, February 05, 2014

In Conversation With...Charles Ryan & Jessy Wysmyk

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, January 29, 2014, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Six years ago, Charles Ryan and Jessy Wysmyk  quit their jobs in the city, bought a piece of land on Chapman Settlement Road near Tidnish and became market gardeners. 
With absolutely no prior experience.
“Both of us had been in Halifax for awhile and we didn’t have the kind of jobs we wanted,” Charles says. “We both enjoy being outdoors. Whenever we came up this way to visit my family, who do live close by, we’d see property for sale so we started dreaming about how we might live out here. We knew we had to make some kind of living to live out here so from there, the farming idea came.”
Along came a sweet potato.
“I have a friend who works on a market garden farm in the Brooklyn area and he grew a quarter acres of sweet potatoes,” says Charles. “He said, ‘I made $8,000 off that quarter acre of sweet potatoes’ and I thought that was amazing. If I quadrupled that and grew an acre, that would be good for a year. It’s not quite that simple,” he says with a laugh. “But there was someone doing it and there was potential to make money at it. I thought I could be a sweet potato baron but little did I know… And you can’t sell just sweet potatoes or carrots or any one thing. You have to have a really diversified amount of crops in order to make it.”
The property he and Jessy bought was 28 acres. Charles says they didn’t know what was good land or bad land.
“We only knew what we could afford,” he says. “Which turned out not to be the best land.”
The couple left Halifax in November but couldn’t move onto their property right away. The house that was on the property was a one-room bachelor house with a hip roof. According to Jessy, the house wasn’t livable. 
“The floor was rotten so you couldn’t walk on it. We lived in Amherst and worked at a restaurant.”
They worked on the house in the evenings and were able to move into it in April and began working towards their first summer as market gardeners. 
“We got onto this Self Employment Benefit Program,” explains Charles, “which is a program that, if you’re unemployed, they will support you while you develop a business plan. It’s good. It gives you some breathing room to get going.”
They quit the restaurant, which Jessy calls a big leap, and created a half-acre garden. 
“It was good that we didn’t have to sell a lot of stuff out of it because being our first gardening attempt, it was pretty dismal,” Charles laughs.
What worked?  Potatoes and tomatoes, greens, cauliflower and broccoli, they say. 
While starting their own garden, they also worked part-time at at Nature’s Route Farm part-time, in Point de Bute, a CSA [community supported agriculture] garden. 
“That is a pretty operational vegetable farm,” says Charles. “The couple who run it showed us a lot.  We worked there for two summers while building our farm on the side.”
When Jessy says, “Yeah, that was a pretty lucky thing,” both she and Charles laugh. “If we hadn’t had that opportunity, we wouldn’t be as far along as we are now.”
There is a lot of laughter when they talk about their first couple of years working their land.
Their business, called Wymsykal Farm, is heading into its sixth year. It’s both certified organic and a CSA garden.
“It has its ups and its downs,” Charles says of community-supported agriculture. “It’s a really good program for people who cook a lot at home and who can use all the seasonal ingredients that get produced throughout the season. But people’s schedules change or their habits change. We know this from ourselves. Sometimes we’re into cooking, sometimes we’re less into it. So, it’s not for everybody but we find that for those that do cook a lot at home, as long as the produce they’re getting is good quality, they’re happy. We’ve had good luck in that we have a lot of return customers from our program. This will be our fourth year doing it.”
They have 110 regular customers, which Jessy feels is the number they can manage on their own, without having to hire people to help on picking days. 
Their biggest challenges are the same ones faced by all farmers: the weather and pests. 
“This year we had a decent crop of sweet potatoes,” Charles says, “but a lot of them, the biggest ones, got chewed by field mice. Apparently, they love sweet potatoes.”
But he isn’t giving up on sweet potatoes. 
“That same friend who told me about the sweet potatoes six years ago is now selling rooted cuttings for sweet potatoes so this year we’re going to buy ones that already have roots. That might gain us three weeks.”
Neither of them had to take an off-farm job this winter. 
“We did well enough that we could take a couple of months in the winter and not work,” Charles says. “Which is great because Jessy can’t and it helps that I’m here.”

At this point, their other labour of love, born on January 8, wakes up and asks for lunch.
“You’d think it was planned,” Charles laughs about the good timing of Oliver’s birth in the off-season. He admits they’re not sure how their new baby is going to change things. 
“It’s definitely going to be a change. We’re not sure how it’s going to work out this summer. He’ll be six months old so he’ll be standing up and looking around. Still can’t walk. He’ll be pretty management-intensive. We have a lot of neighbours who have offered to help and we have family close by who can help maybe on market day.”
They are still settling into the new routine that revolves around an infant and his needs but which is harder, farming or baby?
Charles gazes at his son nestled against Jessy and he chuckles. 
“I don’t know. Yeah, they need a lot of attention. But they’re cute and so worth it.”

Charles and Jessy are Wysmykyal Farm in Northport, Nova Scotia.
Their website is: 

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