by Jo Barnes –
Kids never listen to their parents; it’s a common complaint. In the case of one local farmer, we’re glad he didn’t.
Shawn Dirksen, owner of Northstar Organics, chose not only to carry on with farming like his parents and grandparents, but finds his work and those who collaborate with him all deeply satisfying.
“I grew up on a farm in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. My parents encouraged me to get out of farming!” laughs Shawn. “But it’s what I want to be doing.”
The toil and tenacity needed for farming is something that Shawn comes by honestly. His parents raised him on a farm and his grandparents who emigrated from the Ukraine also worked the land. This is also not his first foray into farming.
“My partner Julia and I bought the farm in 2016. Before that, I leased a one-acre plot at Haliburton Community Organic Farm,” shares Shawn. “I was also farming on Lasqueti Island for seven years. I had a small farm there with a greenhouse and small field crop.”
Situated off Bear Hill Road in Central Saanich, Northstar is nestled amid tall fir and cedar trees and bordered at one side by a swale where ducks and Canada geese peacefully paddle through the waters. It’s not just a sleepy little farm with a barn and token chicken coop, but a vibrant 10-acre organic operation, boasting a half acre of greenhouses, six acres of field crops and two acres of berry crops. A dizzying diversity of produce is grown including salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, kale, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, sprouts, squash, eggplant and fruits like blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.
It has taken a lot of effort to get to this stage. “It was a three-year transition to become organic,” says Shawn. “In 2019 we became officially certified by Islands Organic Producers Association.”
The process of getting established involved knowledge and experience gained from others.
“Haliburton Community Organic Farm was really great,” shares Shawn. “There was very little starting capital needed, and it provided a great introduction to the organic farming community.”
Farming organically is personal for Shawn. Pesticides were used on the farm where he grew up, and he saw their effects.
“My father became acutely sick a couple of times from pesticide use at our farm,” comments Shawn. “I didn’t want to work with toxins.”
Daily farming means a variety of tasks: a thorough understanding of processes and approaches is needed. The soil represents numerous living organisms, and its relationship to the environment is constantly in process. It means digging in both physically and mentally. It’s here that Shawn’s education and abilities come into play.
“I earned my BioChemistry degree from University of Waterloo and worked in labs across Canada,” says Shawn. “My degree gave me an understanding of soil, and a study of chemistry involves making dilutions.”
The daily issues of temperature, plant growth, seeding, watering, pest control and construction are welcome challenges for this farmer.
“It’s satisfying to engage in this kind of problem solving,” shares Shawn. “I like the engineering challenges such as figuring out a system for raised beds or a good way to irrigate land. These things are exciting to me.”
As well, farming provides the opportunity to work with like-minded people towards the objective of producing healthy, tasty food. Currently, Shawn has five part-time workers, but in the summer up to 20 part- and full-time employees will share the work of the farm.
“Farming is a giant process and takes a lot of planning and coordination. It’s a collection, a whole bunch of people who are working very hard to make it all happen,” he says.
And plenty is happening at Northstar Organics. Produce is grown through the year. Even in the heart of winter, there is produce offered such as winter salad greens and spinach.
“We grow year round. We are at market 52 weeks in the year!” states Shawn.
The farm’s bounty is enjoyed at numerous restaurants like Boom + Batten, The Union Club, Nourish Kitchen & Café, Spinnakers and grocery retailers including Lifestyle Markets, SPUD, and The Local General Store.
At the heart of this farming enterprise, however, is a commitment to nourishing and sustaining the land and sharing the bounty from it.
“I enjoy really fresh tasty food and people appreciate that I think,” says Shawn. “It’s deeply satisfying.”
And we’re sure his parents would agree.
*at press time, Northstar produce continues to be sold through various markets such as Moss St. and Esquimalt, SPUD and Oceanic Market Garden. Links to Local Line and The Farm Hub, (through which local farmers can sell their produce) have been added to
Photo by Janis Jean Photography.