Cultivating Gratitude at Small Holdings Farm

Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios

In mid-May, a thunderstorm pelted hail and heavy rains along the North Shore. When the storm started, Keltie Butler and Michael Collican were in the fields at Small Holdings Farms in Scotsburn. At first, they were excited by the weather phenomenon; then the intensity of the storm picked up and the gravity of the situation became very real. Hail and heavy rain created a flash flood in the fields. Water channelled in the pathways of their freshly planted field beds, washing out row upon row of carrots, beets, spinach, kale, and arugula and flattened their early crop of spring flowers. The marbles of ice that fell from the sky wiped out much of their early-season work. But just as any farmer knows that your livelihood is reliant on what mother nature dishes out, they went to their fields after the storm moved on. They didn’t just look for what was lost, they surveyed for what survived.
Despite the setback to the start of the season, Keltie and Michael are celebrating their biggest harvest at Small Holdings.
At Home went to the farm to ask Keltie and Michael about what it is that gets them growing, how they continue to cultivate gratitude at the farm, and for a few favourite recipes to share when setting our own tables and giving thanks this fall.

Keltie’s greatest joy is bringing people together to enjoy what they grow at the farm. Late summer crops still flourish after lots of August sunshine.

AH: Tell us a little about Keltie and Michael and where you found your passion for farming.
K: I came to farming as a consequence of falling in love with food or more specifically, with the ability of food, to gather people together. It was a roundabout path. In my early 20s, I had the great fortune of living in several different places from South Korea to Toronto. I worked with youth, with new Canadians, and with families seeking refuge. As you can imagine, there were cultural and language barriers for us all. Sharing meals and cooking was how we came together, how we cared for one another, and how we celebrated. Learning to grow food, and becoming a farmer, seemed the next step for me.
M: When Keltie and I first met, she had already aimed herself towards becoming a farmer, working on other farms for the previous few summers. I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be lovely to have a partner who was a farmer, particularly as I had just begun setting myself towards growing some of my own food. Keltie was soon looking for a plot of land to grow on, an opportunity to lead her own small operation and I found her a piece of land that hadn’t seen a plough in more than a decade. After going to see that land, Keltie got serious about finding a more suitable option—ha! Ironwood Farm in West Hants was willing to barter for the use of some of their land, and so Keltie set out to do a small CSA into Halifax. The plan was just for me to help set up the camp area where we would stay for the summer, but it turns out farming is an ‘all hands-on deck’ type situation. It was exhausting work, but by the end of the season I was all the way on board, and we were looking for a place to land long-term.

AH: Why was the philosophy of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) important to you.
M: At some point, early in the life of our farm, we coined a motto, “Step one, grow vegetables. Step two, sell said vegetables. Step three, how are you doing with steps one and two.” This was both to keep us from getting too carried away with the prospect of goats (or other wild ideas), but also to remind us that it isn’t enough to grow the vegetables, people need to be willing to buy them. We had found the traditional CSA model (a pre-packed weekly box for each CSA member) we had run in Halifax to be unnecessarily stressful. Filling a food box with delicious vegetables is very doable in August but doing the same thing in June has its challenges. Once we heard about a CSA model from Waldegrave Farm (Tatamagouche) that offered free choice, we were on board. Having CSA members sign up in February and March is an amazing shot of confidence, and funds, heading into what always seems to be a rollercoaster spring. And with our CSA model, folks who are excited by a bumper crop of radishes and spring greens can start in late spring, while others can wait for the summer vegetables to start filling up our harvest tables. Over time we have seen how the CSA both lets us better get to know our customers, just as they get to know the farm and the seasons that provide. Having folks out to the farm helps to narrow the gap between the foods we eat, and the stories that carry them.

It’s Thanksgiving every week at Small Holdings Farm. Once the gardens starts to produce, Keltie and Michael serve up a weekly lunch for staff, family, and friends. Seated at the table are friends Kimberly Dymond, Matthew Connor, Xander Connor, staff 2021, and Baillie Lynds, staff 2020.

AH: How do you bring gratitude into your every day?
M:
Sometimes the every day brings rise to gratitude, but more often than not, gratitude falls on the heels of the thankfully not-every-day. What I mean is, the day after a hailstorm, our gratitude grows tremendously for a simple cloudy day. We have yet to learn how to be grateful for a hailstorm that washes out freshly seeded beds, but that hailstorm unfailingly reminds us to be grateful for everything else that has conspired such that there is anything that might be lost. We remind ourselves often that our labours have played only a minor role in both the successes and the failures of the farm. We work hard to tend to the soil, disturbing it as little as possible, feeding it only good things that it can recognize, but all of that pale in comparison to the centuries and millennia that have come before, the rain that has fallen, the winds that have blown, and all of those who have tended this land in some fashion long before us. It certainly seems that if we’re not careful we could really mess things up, but we are much more the beneficiaries of the soil’s abundance than its providers. So long as we’re willing to pay attention, the farm regularly offers as many reminders to be grateful as we can bear.

A posy of farm-fresh flowers for the table.

AH: I know you had a hard start to our season with a big hail storm. How do you find gratitude when faced with the challenges of farming?
K:
So often, when something has gone wrong, our support network appears. When a hail storm comes through, your community cannot “fix” that damage but they can—and they do—seize that opportunity to show they care about you. Following the hail storm this spring, we were the beneficiaries of many acts of kindness. Farming, with so many factors being out of your control, invites many such opportunities.

AH: How do you cultivate a culture of gratitude with the people you work with, and do you feel gratitude returned to our from your community?
M: We do our best to share both the bounty and the challenges of the farm. People will sometimes remark on how beautiful the vegetables we bring to market look, and compliment us on what good growers we must be. I often respond by pointing out that we’ve only brought the crops that turned out! They should see what was fed to the pigs!
K: I remember one Friday this spring, just after the aforementioned hail storm, as well as lock down in Nova Scotia. It was early in the season for us, harvests were spring greens and perhaps radishes and green onions. I was setting up for a small number of our CSA members to come by for no-contact pickup in our driveway. There was a lot on my mind and quite a weight on my shoulders. I rushed to get things set up and to step away. But, I wasn’t quite out of sight when the first CSA member arrived, followed by another and another. So, with masks on and standing at a distance, we greeted one another. Each CSA member asked how we were and shared condolences for the hardship of the hail storm. I asked about their lives—how their winter was, their children, and what they were looking forward to this spring. Soon, when asked “how are you”, I didn’t respond with a sigh but rather found myself smiling beneath my mask and saying, “Good! Good, we are good.” This is what happens each Friday afternoon at CSA pickup—and at the farmers’ market on Saturday—the worries of the week fade away as the enjoyment of greeting familiar faces and sharing our harvest fills the space.
M: Our new staff are often unfamiliar with the approach to farming we follow, and so the learning curve is steep as they are quickly introduced to the wide variety of vegetables and the many ways each of them needs to be tended to. We make a farm lunch for our staff once a week, where we do our best to feature as many foods from the farm as we can. In our earlier years, we often found ourselves missing out on some of the most popular vegetables, as we prioritized selling them to customers over saving some for our plates. We’ve learned though that something is missing if we can’t share our own delight in the fresh new cherry tomato recipe or the fennel that we added to last night’s salad.
It’s the farm that reminds us to be grateful, sharing its bounties and its challenges engenders gratitude from our staff and our customers, and they, in turn, share their own ups and downs, stories of celebration and hardships. It is wonderfully fulfilling to be able to play a small part in so many people’s lives.

A simple sprig of Queen Anne’s lace dresses up the tablesetting using mismatched pieces of china.

Farm-to-table at the farm

It doesn’t get any more farm-to-table than having your table at the farm. Each week during the growing season Keltie and Michael prepare lunch for their summer staff to give thanks for the energy and care that they bring to the farm every day. Because they have different crops throughout the season, we asked Keltie and Michael to share a few recipes that celebrate what they currently had growing in their garden when we went to visit.

Roasted Root Vegetables

Roasting these fall vegetables brings out their sweetness — and the rainbow of colour can’t be beat.

INGREDIENTS

beets
carrots
salad turnips
parsnip
sweet potato
onion
garlic
olive oil
salt

This is really less of a recipe and more of a method of cooking.
Any combination of fall veggies will do. We focused on root vegetables
in this case, but broccoli and cauliflower are great in the mix as well.

METHOD

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Prepare your veggies by cutting them into similar-sized pieces such that they cook at the same time. I like about 1.5-inch pieces and find they take about 45 minutes to cook. I don’t peel anything for this but that’s up to you and your household tastes. I love the skin of sweet potato in the mix. For the onion, I tend to chop in larger chunks as it cooks more quickly, and I don’t want it to burn. For the garlic, simply crush a clove or two for each baking sheet of veggies.
  3. Once chopped, toss the veggies with olive oil and salt—and then lay them out on a baking sheet or multiple baking sheets. The key is that you want just one layer of vegetables—don’t overcrowd the baking sheet.
  4. When your oven is up to temperature, slide the baking sheet(s) into the oven and set a timer for 20 minutes. At 20 minutes, toss the veggies around on the baking sheet and then bake another 25 minutes or so.

Enjoy hot from the oven.

Roasted root vegetables give a burst of colour and flavour.

Fennel Salad

INGREDIENTS for DRESSING
3 Tbsp lemon juice
½ tsp sea salt
black pepper
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

INGREDIENTS for SALAD
2 large fennel bulbs, thinly sliced on a mandoline
2 local apples, thinly sliced on a mandoline
¼ cup fennel fronds
If you are nervous about the fennel flavour, cut back on the fronds as they are a much stronger flavour than the bulb
1 cup chopped walnuts
2-3 Tbsp local honey

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a mason jar, combine lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Top with a lid and shake to emulsify.
  2. Thinly slice the fennel bulbs and stalks as well as the apples. Chop up the fennel fronds. Combine in a large serving bowl.
  3. In a hot pan, toss the chopped walnuts to toast. Once toasted, turn off the heat but leave the pan on the burner. Now add a big spoonful of honey and allow it to melt, coating the nuts. Add a dash of salt.
  4. Add the dressing to the serving bowl and toss. Top with the warm nuts.
  5. Taste and add more lemon juice and/or salt if needed.
Fresh gardens greens dressed up with nastursiums and Keltie’s go-to salad dressing.

Small Holdings Farm Salad Dressing

Great with any and all seasonal salad greens, here is our go-to salad dressing…

Combine in a mason jar the following:
3 parts olive oil
1 part apple cider vinegar (balsamic works also)
1 squeeze of mustard *optional
local maple syrup — in Michael’s words, “more than you think”
pinch of salt and pepper
Put the lid on the jar and give it a good shaking to emulsify. Taste, add more vinegar—or some lemon juice—if it needs a bit more tang. We often make half of a 500mL jar and use it over a week or more, storing it on the counter.

This next recipe for Cherry Tomato Confit comes from a lovely New Glasgow Farmers’ Market customer of ours. She is a regular for our cherry tomatoes, often buying four boxes a week. Last fall, Michael asked her how she liked to eat/prepare them. She told him of “cherry tomato confit” and shared the basics on how to make it — cherry tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs like basil
or thyme if you have them, and a dash of salt, all in the oven at 350° F for 30 minutes. Michael recounted the recipe to me on the way as he remembered it–which was a bit foggy.
The following week, Michael asked for a refresher on the recipe, and she gave him the basics once again. This next week, she arrived at the market with a copy of her recipe for us–and the recommendation of doing a double batch at a time (4 pints) as it is simply so delicious, and tomato season will only last so long.
So, here it is, the recipe for cherry tomato confit …

Cherry Tomato Confit

INGREDIENTS

2 pints cherry tomatoes
1.5-2 cups olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
½ cup basil leaves and/or 3 fresh thyme sprigs (optional)
1 tsp coarse salt

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Place the tomatoes in a single layer on a baking dish or roasting pan, preferably one in which the tomatoes fit snugly such as an 8×11-inch baking dish for 2 pints of tomatoes.
  3. Pour the olive oil — as much as is needed to completely submerge the tomatoes — over the tomatoes. Add the garlic, basil, and/or thyme as well as the salt. Cover with tightly fitting aluminum foil (or the lid of the baking dish) and bake for 30 minutes.
  4. When the tomatoes are done, the oil will be hot. Uncover and let the tomatoes cool completely in the oil.
  5. Gently transfer the cherry tomato confit, including the olive oil, garlic, and herbs into a 1-quart jar or other airtight container. Cover and stash in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. Each time you scoop some out to serve, be sure the remaining tomatoes are still submerged in oil, adding fresh olive oil if necessary.

Cherry tomato confit is delicious alongside cheese and crackers or scooped up with crusty bread. It is also delicious tossed with pasta, or piled atop grilled fish, chicken, pork, or veggies. The infused oil is delicious itself and can be used in a vinaigrette or as a “finishing oil” atop fish, vegetables or soup.