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Yukon farm forced to close — for now

Garret Gillespie and Heidi Marion knew they might be planting more seeds than they could hope to grow.

Garret Gillespie and Heidi Marion knew they might be planting more seeds than they could hope to grow.

The proprietors of the Wild Blue Yonder Family Farm knew they were taking a risk when they expanded their operation last year, moving from an eight-hectare rental plot near Carcross farther up the Tagish Road to a 90-hectare mortgage property, where they hoped to raise vegetables and cattle for local consumption.

After a devastating 2005 season, when the entire Wild Blue Yonder crop failed without a single vegetable sold, Gillespie and Marion knew they needed a bumper 2006 crop to pull through.

But even if the spring hadn’t come late, and even if a sudden caterpillar infestation hadn’t destroyed many of their crops, and even if they’d quadrupled production from 2005, Gillespie and Marion would still be selling the farm.

“Various things have not worked out the way that they were hoped or planned,” Gillespie said Thursday.

“There are issues with fertilizer, a tractor cacking it, the need to fork out for a new manure spreader, seven acres of lost vegetables, poor hay yields.

“Basically the whole thing adds up to us being out of time. We had to perform within a certain time frame, and we’re not.

“What we’re doing here is more a case of damage limitation. We could probably keep going, but that would mean coming up with a huge investment.

“We’re not prepared to make that investment on our own.”

They laid off their farm manager at the beginning of August.

But even though the Wild Blue Yonder farm has failed under its debt load, Gillespie and Marion still believe their organic approach to farming is healthier than conventional methods.

“Some people are saying that because they’re selling out that means that organic farming doesn’t work in the Yukon,” said Marion.

“That’s not what we believe to be the case, and we’re the ones who have lived through it.”

Organic farming means more to Marion and Gillespie than not using chemical pesticides, feeds or fertilizers.

For them, it’s a way of life that also means selling locally and using fossil fuels as little as possible.

For three years, the couple nurtured their organic project on Crag Lake, before their landlord sold the property, forcing them to move.

They were under the gun to close the deal on their new property in early 2005, and didn’t do any soil sampling, trusting the previous owner’s testament to the ground’s fertility.

But the previous owner had been raising hay and horses for at least a decade, using ammonium nitrate fertilizer that wrecked the soil, according to Gillespie, who has been farming since he was a child in Ireland.

They struggled through the 2005 season, promising to pay out their clients, such as the Alpine Bakery, the Cranberry Bistro and more than 50 members of their community-supported agriculture program, the following year.

In 2006, Wild Blue Yonder was making good on its promises, and even saw its client base grow.

But when they crunched the numbers midseason, they didn’t have the cash flow to meet their needs, and they weren’t willing to assume any more financial risk.

“This is a money pit and we’re shoveling everything we’ve got in it,” said Gillespie.

“Before we know it, we’ll have nothing left of ourselves.”

Gillespie insisted that it wasn’t their refusal to use ammonium nitrate fertilizer that cost them the farm.

“Out of the last 16 years, I’ve probably spent 10 of them spreading huge quantities of artificial fertilizer and spraying chemicals and all that kind of stuff.

“I’ve got the experience to know what would help and what won’t.

“There’s nothing that would have saved our skins this year, really.

“We could have put chemical fertilizers in our hay, but we would have been putting off the task of building up the soil for another year.

“Nothing would really be getting better that way.”

The reason they’ve put the farm up for sale is as simple as it is common: debt.

Wild Blue Yonder owes “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” including its mortgage and the $75,000 bank loan used to cover the 2005 losses.

To make the farm fly, Marion and Gillespie would need to make a major investment in rebuilding their soil.

“Right off the bat, if we’re to continue, we need to find $40,000 in cash to buy a new manure spreader and loader,” said Gillespie.

They can’t scale back their operation by eliminating the costs of keeping cattle because they need the cattle to produce the one thing they use to fertilize: compost.

“That would be like killing the golden goose that lays the brown eggs,” Gillespie said with a chuckle.

He wouldn’t give specifics about how much money they owe to various agencies, but said their bill payments total about $10,000 per month.

The asking price for their 90 hectares is also a secret, for the time being, while local realtor and farmer Karla DesRosiers helps them determine a fair price.

“If we can get over the idea of selling it as a farm it will likely sell as a rural residential lot, basically,” said Gillespie.

“People are forking out huge sums of money for a large area of land just to plunk a house on it.”

But Gillespie estimated the farm’s worth, including the 35 head of cattle, “in the ballpark” of $750,000 when he and Marion put their money down in 2005.

For now, Gillespie and Marion will retain the Wild Blue Yonder brand and some of their farming equipment.

They’ll finish the harvest season and prepare to wrap up farming operations in October.

Options open up from there.

Marion and Gillespie have decided they can’t farm the land they’re on without a joint venture partner or an unlooked-for act of philanthropy.

They don’t want a government bailout. Even though Ottawa just cut them a $20,000 cheque as a supplement to farming income across Canada, they’d like to see more government support for farmers wishing to convert to organic.

But Wild Blue Yonder will continue to evolve, perhaps during an upcoming visit to farmers who use horses rather than tractors for farm energy in Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been talking about getting away from tractor use for a number of reasons, fossil fuel use being the primary one,” said Marion.

“I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours driving tractors and I’m sick of it,” added Gillespie.

The only thing Marion and Gillespie are not willing to do is make farming recreational, rather than professional, by taking day jobs off the farm.

“Farming is what we love to do,” said Gillespie.

“It’s quite nice to hear people’s dismay and sadness that we’re putting the place up for sale, but it doesn’t mean that we’re done.

“We’re cutting our losses and inviting change.”