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Agriculture alumni are committed to preserving organic farming in N.S.

Aurum Award 2024 winners Patricia Bishop (BSc (Agr)’99) and Josh Oulton (DipTech'96) own and operate TapRoot Farms in Port Williams, N.S., which is organic certified and focused on regenerative agriculture.
The Oultons sit close together on the back of a pick up truck on a sunny spring day at the farm.

Posted: May 24, 2024

By: Emily MacKinnon

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more idyllic scene than TapRoot Farms on a warm spring day. The sky is blue with cotton ball clouds, birds are chirping, green shoots are sprouting all around and the sheep are quietly grazing as Patricia Bishop (BSc (Agr)’99) and Josh Oulton (DipTech'96) survey a crop. Jenny, their new puppy, skips along behind Bishop’s bright pink boots.

Bishop and Oulton bought this land — all 144 acres of it — in 2004. The couple has spent the last 20 years working in lockstep with temporary workers from Jamaica to plant, grow, harvest and distribute certified organic produce. The result is a bustling farm operation that grows over a hundred different crops of fruits and vegetables, and humanely raises animals for meat and fibre. It’s a lifestyle Bishop and Oulton, both descendants of legendary Annapolis Valley farming families, are deeply committed to.

“As locally grown food gets harder to access, we are losing the ability to have a secure food system, and losing the flexibility to sort out solutions that will make food more affordable,” Bishop, who has a degree in environmental sciences, says.

And food security and sustainability are Bishop and Oulton’s raisons d’être.

Patricia Bishop and Josh Oulton portrait for Aurum Awards video Watch the video for 2024 Aurum Award recipients, Patricia Bishop and Josh Oulton.

It starts with the soil

“We’ve been feeling the impacts of climate change over the past number of years,” Bishop says, referencing long dry spells followed by weeks of torrential rain and wild temperature fluctuations, like 2023’s polar vortex. “It’s really important to have a regenerative system of agriculture and healthy soil that can rebound.”

Oulton, who has a diploma in farming technology, has long made it his mission to revitalize TapRoot's soil. “I’m trying to create a healthier soil biology,” he explains.

“If I feed the soil, it can feed us back. I’m hoping to create a soil that’s full of life and just grows all kinds of great food.”

Community-shared agriculture

And bountiful great food has become a given at Bishop and Oulton’s farm. So much so, that in 2009 TapRoot launched its community-shared agriculture (CSA) program, which Bishop describes as a partnership between a customer and a farmer. CSA members pay a fee to cover all or part of a farm's operating expenses for an upcoming season. In return, each week members receive a portion of the farm's produce.

Bishop and Oulton’s model offers year-round or seasonal shares. Depending on the time of year, TapRoot’s CSA boxes might include perennial produce like apples and blueberries, or year-round offerings like basil and cabbage (two of Bishop’s favourites).

Bucolic as it sounds, Bishop and Oulton are aware that cost is a barrier for many folks when it comes to accessing farm-fresh goods. Oulton remembers a woman who came to Noggins Farm Market to fill up her bags with “seconds” — soon-to-expire, free produce. “She just gave me this big hug; she was so happy to have that food,” Oulton remembers.

It’s a tricky balance for Bishop and Oulton, who staunchly believe local, organic produce is integral to a sustainable food system, since there is little to no transportation cost, and it nourishes both the natural environment and our bodies.

“It's real that people can't afford organic food,” Bishop says. “But it's also real that organic food is part of the solution to building resilient communities and resilient bodies and a resilient Earth.”

Sustainability is wearable too

Bishop also wanted to offer folks a way to reduce their carbon footprint through the clothing they purchase and wear. “The use of natural fibers is declining because synthetic fibers are cheaper,” she explains. “So, we thought, why not start growing textiles?”

So, they planted flax and got some sheep. The fibres from both are spun into linen and wool respectively, which can then be used to make clothing.

From Jamaica to Nova Scotia

The day-to-day operations of a farm require many hands, and the labour just isn’t available in the Valley. When locals came to help, Oulton says they simply didn't understand all that goes into farming, especially the physical requirements. A neighbour had some Jamaican workers helping with their harvest, and they came to TapRoot at the end of the season. “I remember thinking, ‘wow, these people aren't temporary farm workers. They're professional farmers,’ ” Oulton says.

That experience planted a seed that blossomed into 20 years of friendship. Some workers have been coming to TapRoot since then, and others are newer recruits. Most stay between six and eight months, living in a house on Bishop and Oulton’s property, and doing the heavy lifting of planting, weeding, watering and harvesting.

There is a mutual respect between Bishop, Oulton and their farm workers, which Oulton says is borne of empathy. TapRoot is well known for their commitment to the fair pay and treatment of their Jamaican partners.

The Oultons stand together in a greenhouse amid rows of newly sprouting plants.

Next-gen farming

Bishop and Oulton are celebrating 20 years of marriage this year and have raised three children on their farm. A lot has changed in those two decades, from farm technology to the crops themselves. But Bishop and Oulton both say they hope their kids will choose careers in agriculture if that’s what makes them happy.

“The work of primary production, whether it’s the fishery, forestry or agriculture, is the basis of everything,” Bishop says. “We are in a crisis when it comes to how we value the work that’s required to provide us with the things we need. If you value local food, then you need to purchase local food. Because that is how you’re going to have a local farm.”