Alumni Profile: BC Centre for New Farmers Founder Robert Spring

This week, we’re profiling Groundswell alumni Rob Spring and his wife Stacey Spring (and their daughter, lil’ Iris).

Rob and Stacey founded UpBeet Farm and the B.C. Centre for New Farmers to mentor young agrarians in building sustainable organic farms – or, as they like to call it, to “grow new farmers”. We had a chance to interview them about their lives, their work, and their experience at Groundswell.

The Spring 'farmily': Rob, Stacey, and li'l Iris.

The Spring 'farmily': Rob, Stacey, and li'l Iris.

CM: Hey Rob! Hey Stacey! Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves? What was life like before you encountered Groundswell?

Rob: I grew up in the lower mainland, and have had the good fortune to explore a wide variety of passions over the years. I was a competitive video game player; I’ve worked in the film & television industry, and in information technology. I’m also passionate about helping people work through addiction and substance abuse, and have volunteered extensively with local recovery programs.

In 2004 I bought a house on Main St., borrowed money from my family to fix it up, and started to ride the housing boom. I was developing residential real estate during the boom, and essentially got to do whatever I wanted; but I know it wouldn’t last. I gave myself 6 years for that! I was lucky I had the money at the right time and in the right place.

Then I reached a period of  - “now what?” This coincided with my mum getting really sick. I took care of her until she passed away, and that’s when the transition to the farm life really started.

Before that I thought I’d live and die in the city – that I’d always be here, wandering from job-to-job, interest to interest. Who knows what would happen! I’ve never had a problem making money, and at this point I was flipping houses on the Eastside. When my mum became ill and passed away, I inherited her farm – 300 acres of pristine land in the Nicola Valley.

It took several months before I realized what I’d been given; that this was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to do something really good. And not just for us, for other people, too. We realized we had so much we could share, and that it wasn’t just something we had to do, but something we wanted to do.

Stacy: I grew up in Langley with no farming background. As a kid, my mum reminded me that my dream as a little girl was “mum, I’m going to own a farm, you’re going to do all the cooking and cleaning and I’ll tend to the fields”. That’s the most I had thought about it back then, but I’ve always been interested in plants, nature, and the world around me.

As a teenager, I was very interested in health, movement and cultivating my body and mind. I was drawn to yoga, meditation, clean eating, and a more holistic relationship with the world. I travelled and flailed a bit in my early twenties – and then I found massage therapy. I did that for five years; it’s one of those passions that, although I’m not technically working as one, I am one – it’s in my hands and my body, and it taps into that early interest in health and wellness that captured me in my twenties. 

Shortly before Rob’s mum died, I was contemplating change and pursuing work in nursing. Losing her really change our life – tenfold. We wanted to become worthy of the gift she left us. We hummed and hawed on it for a long time. Sometimes we were like: “Screw it – should we just sell it and travel? Do we really want to invest in this farm? It’s such a big undertaking!” But it always came back to the gift – that we just couldn’t sell it. Now, it’s become a real passion, but in the beginning we just simply couldn’t sell that land and let go.

We slowly started learning more, and getting in touch with likeminded people. We’re both alumni of UBC Farm’s Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture, which taught us both a lot about the nuts and bolts of farming. Now, I say to myself “even if we didn’t have this land, or it was taken away from us – we’d still be pursuing this dream”. It’s allowed me to explore my love of plants and horticulture, and to gain knowledge that I’ve really wanted for a long time. In my 20’s, I chose to follow the body and health route, and it’s great to now be able to develop this passion.

Now, after having our daughter and taking the practicum, the importance and the urgency of what we’re doing has become a lot clearer, too.

You’re both quite passionate about food security and sustainable agriculture – why? What’s so important about this? What’s this sense of urgency that you speak of?

Rob: Oh man – there are so many different factors putting our food systems in jeopardy! Even if we worked our whole lives we'd only be able to address a few; the one that spoke to us the most was the need to “grow new farmers”.

The majority of farmers in B.C. are over 65, and retiring quickly with nobody to replace them. Why? Because you can't make a ton of money – at least, right away - with highly sustainable, local practices that steward, rather than manipulate the environment you’re working in.

For us, farming has to be ecosystem oriented, chemical free, and organic. First because we’re part of a water system that can’t be polluted, and second because those practices are unsustainable in the long run for both the farmers and the environment. We’re talking small scale farming that goes even further than just “organic”, here.

The problem is that people can’t start that kind of sustainable agriculture without a lot of help, both in terms of resources and community support. So, you get more than 70% of small scale farmers having jobs off the farm just to make ends meet. Farming at a hand-tool-level, without importing tons of equipment, compost, or equipment – it’s very labour intensive. That’s what we call slow farming.

So, there are two main issues here. The first is that farmers are retiring. By doing so while remaining on their land and without mentoring a new generation of farmers, they put it out of production. Or, alternately, they sell it to people who don’t farm, but who do the minimum amount of work needed in order to remain on land that’s zoned for agricultural purposes. Neither helps our food security very much.

The second is that, without providing a safety net – in terms of mentorship, guidance, and resources – budding new farmers simply won’t try. Who would take out a $100,000 loan for an endeavour with a high rate of failure for the first three years? Let alone without a community for support and mutual aid?

This is why we founded the BC Centre for New Farms – to help people start farming, to experiment, to learn from experience, and to succeed in their endeavours.

Stacey: Our food systems are changing. There’s no better example of this than the “cauliflower epidemic”, when they were priced at $10 a head! It’s now undeniable that climate change is affecting our food supply, and most people simply have no idea how to grow their own food or even access to opportunities to learn how! Instead of saving seeds like we used to, people are having their seeds shipped in!

We want to change this, and not just by going “organic”. We’re happy with it, but we want to take it to the next level and reconnect local farmers and communities with engaged younger students – to “grow new farmers”. If we can make and reuse as much as we can, without importing chemicals or equipment, we’ll be one step closer to saving our food systems and building community with new farmers.

Young farmers, owing to startup costs associated with farming, typically only have access to the most isolated plots without other farmers, business or practical mentorship, etc. You lose a lot when you send young farmers to those parts of the province, and solely because of what they can or can’t afford. You need land and community to build food security.

Community doesn’t just mean a “social life”, but a local culture that goes beyond the individual. Young vibrant people wanting community and farming – well, it starts with us. It benefits us as much as it benefits other people too. We’re the first project here. We want to work with others who know things we don’t, and share what we know with them. In the process, we build a community network of engaged young farmers committed to protecting our food systems.

How would you describe your time at Groundswell? What did you find most valuable about the program?

We had a vague idea of what we wanted to do, but no real route to get there in terms of setting up a non-profit, how to present it in a clear way, or how to communicate our ideas in a way that had impact. We knew how to speak to farmers – but not everybody else. They’re just as much a part of the conversation on food security as we are, and Groundswell really helped us bridge that gap.

Groundswell gives you the space and mentorship to work through the gaps in your ideas. It gave me an enormous reach into wider social impact communities – we’ve been blessed to meet some very interested people in the non-profit and cooperative world who continue to support us in what we do.

The Groundswell community is so beautifully varied and wide, much more than we ever thought it would be. In fact, we now have so much support from the community that we can’t keep up with it all!

How would you advise new farmers who support what you’re doing?

Well, they could come and talk to us! If someone really wants to get into farming, they have to get their hands dirty – and beyond just their backyard garden. There are a ton of resources for finding work on local farms; while they might not pay well, you will definitely find out if you like farming or not!

Entrepreneurship is very difficult. You’ll fail a bunch of time before you succeed, but you have to realize that this is an integral part of the process. There are lots of things we’ve not done well. We’ve remained and succeeded because we’ve persevered; and farming is probably the most profound microcosm of that principle. The plants will tell you whether you’re succeeding or not. Real quick. If you listen.

In farming, and specifically in sustainable agriculture, there is so much beyond your control. That’s where the humility comes in – knowing that there are forces greater than yourself at work. Mystical or practical, that’s it.

Entrepreneurship is about taking risks, being willing to fail above all else in order to succeed. Keep the dream alive and persevere. That's how you know you’re committed.

Where are you now?

Right now, it’s the foundation. In construction, you have to start with the bottom and make sure that the foundation is strong. That’s what we’re trying to do – increasing our education, and learning 99% of what we need to know by actually doing it.

While we have the opportunity, and while Iris is still young, we’ll finish our educational goals and establish the basic structure. Once she’s no longer an infant, and once that infrastructure is in place – we’ll be able to invite people to join us in the way we really want to. Not just as guests, but as participants. We’re on schedule for Summer 2017 to start with our first applicants for the B.C. Centre for New Farmers.