NiAGara Farm Heroes and Agvocates: Elva Tammemagi of Rhizome Farms

Elva Tammemagi of Rhizome Farms

The set of wheels parked in the driveway of Elva Tammemagi’s St. Catharines farmhouse isn’t your typical farm vehicle.

It’s not a pickup truck or dually. Heck, it isn’t even a car. Instead, Elva gets her homegrown veggies and CSA baskets where they need to go by bike.

But using pedal power to move her produce to and fro isn’t the only surprise about this newbie farmer in her second year of growing vegetables using organic methods.

Elva, 25, wasn’t raised on farm. She didn’t even grow up in rural Ontario. Elva is a city slicker — a Toronto girl — born and raised but one who found her calling back to the land rather than a concrete jungle after university.

“Most people who grew up on a farm want to leave and move to Toronto,” Elva said. “I grew up in Toronto and wanted to move to a small town.”

In hindsight, all signs may have been pointing to a farming fate, or at least one sign in particular. As she led a walk around her pristine parcel of land that once belonged to her Estonian grandparents, Elva admitted she got dirt under her nails at an early age. A photograph of her wearing only a diaper, her small body covered in dirt as she devoured a cherry with a basket of more of the bulbous fruit waiting next to her was foreshadowing at its finest.

“I remember when I was a kid, we’d be washing potatoes in the sink and eating cherry tomatoes from the land,” Elva recalled.

After the death of her grandparents, her family hung on to their brick bungalow, renting it and the land, including the cherry orchard that once kept a young Elva amused. About three years ago, the family stopped renting and Elva, who graduated with a degree in international studies, saw that as her opportunity to make a place she once loved to visit a place to now call home.

And work.

“I found there was this really strong sense of community and lots of really passionate people,” Elva said about St. Catharines and Niagara.

Elva Tammemagi uncovers some of the young garlic shoots
she is growing on her farm.

But she didn’t start sowing the seeds for her own farming career before getting the lay of the land first, albeit on someone else’s farm.

Elva signed up to be a WWOOF-er in 2009.WWOOF, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on  Organic Farms, provides people interested in organic agriculture with the chance to work as a volunteer on farms. She went to a farm on Salt Spring Island in BC for a month before heading to Cape Breton’s Wild Roots Farms in 2010, a place that affected her so greatly, her own farm’s name, Rhizome Farms, is an homage to it.

“That probably had the strongest impact on me as far as inspiring me to farm,” she said. “A lot of people there were in the midst of soul searching and healing and we all formed this tight bond.”

It’s also where Elva said she healed from a trying episode in her own life, a healing connected to the process of growing, harvesting and working so closely with the earth.

“I kind of knew if I had the opportunity (to farm for a living) I should try it,” Elva said. “A lot of my friends were like ‘Go start a farm already so I can WWOOF on your farm.’ “

Elva admitted she is “lucky and privileged” to have a place for her career to take root without having to put up a huge financial investment first. Still, that doesn’t make her any less determined to make Rhizome Farms a success.

She found a mentor in Laura Sabourin of Feast of Fields biodynamic vineyard and orchard in St. Catharines and she set about growing her first crop of vegetables last year when she moved to the farm. It was supposed to be mostly a trial run but when Elva connected with Dig at Brock, a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing campus gardens, she found herself selling her vegetables at the university’s farmers market.

And they sold well. What leftovers she had, Elva donated to local social organizations, including The RAFT, a youth drop-in centre in St. Catharines.

This year, she is adding a CSA to her repertoire, so people hungry for heirloom vegetables can have weekly shares of the fruits — and veggies — or her labour. Pick up is at the farm or she’ll bike baskets to a bus stop and meet shareholders there.

Her favourite crop to grow: “Tomatoes. I really love them because there are so many shapes and sizes. And kale,” she said.

Elva hopes to grow the size of her harvests as she grows more confident in her abilities as a farmer. Those old cherry trees have been replaced with young fruit trees that will one day bear peaches and plums. When her parents move from Toronto to join her at property, tending them will be her dad’s hobby.

Elva also takes suggestions. “I’m always interested in people encouraging me to grow new things. I’ve had customers ask that I grow wheatgrass this year so I’m going to try that,” she said.

No matter what, her feelings about farming as a way of life for her are unwavering. Nothing confirms it more than a visit to the big city that reared her.

“I went there a couple weeks ago and remember feeling I had a great visit but I was happy to come home to St. Catharines,” Elva said.

“I would say I love (farming). I wake up in the morning and feel very passionate. It’s like ‘Sweet, I get to go to work. I get to work outside.’ It’s like that quote, ‘if you pick something to do in life that you love, you’ll never feel like you’re working.’ “

Editor’s note: Elva has some volunteer help using a car to deliver some of her CSA baskets. 

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