Rural Innovator Rebecca Sooksom

There’s not a lot of downtime in Rebecca Sooksom’s life. Between her work in rural development, running an organic farm, and raising a dance-mad 13 year old on her own, this purposeful parent still finds time to teach Sunday school and helped establish a thriving community garden. We spoke with Sooksom about how she juggles it all, and the challenges she faces with so much on the go.

So, tell us about the community garden project.

My church [John Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Truro, NS] had this half-acre of land that wasn’t really used for anything because it was too wet to mow. There’s a huge deer problem in Truro that prevents many people here from having a garden, so we wanted to create a deer-free fenced in space. We put together a committee five years ago, and planted some vegetables in raised beds as a test to see if they’d help with the drainage, and it worked.

Then we got a grant from Select Nova Scotia to hold a community supper. We invited people to come and talked about the garden, and got a mailing list together. We applied for other grants to help install underground piping to help with drainage, and to put a 6½-foot deer fence around the garden, and had a lot of help from church members and local businesses too. We divided the land into plots, and in that first year we had 20 families gardening there. Some were church members, but most were not. Some were in low-income situation, others just wanted to garden without losing their crops to the deer.

You were pretty much the perfect person to be involved in this project, right?

Well, I work with the Department of Agriculture, and right now I’m regional services coordinator, but when I started the garden I was running a project for new farmers — helping them build their farm from the ground up. So yes, this fit my skillset really well. In my department we have a focus on rural agricultural development, and do a lot of support for 4H and other organizations. I also run my own certified organic farm growing strawberries and garlic, which is why I’ve stepped back from the garden now that I’ve got it up and running — I was there for inspiration and start-up really.

Why did you start doing what you do?

I grew up on a farm, did my bachelors degree in agriculture, and have always had jobs working in agriculture. When I did the research on my master’s thesis I went to the Philippines to look at the adoption of modern technology there, as the majority of the population are farmers. After that, I went to work in agriculture in Thailand with the international development organization CUSO for four and a half years, then stayed for another five.

In both the Philippines and Thailand everything about agriculture is intricately linked to community development, so you just absorb it naturally. Then you come home where the linkage isn’t as strong but you can see how it’s still connected.

What does this work bring to your life?

I love it and can’t imagine working in another field. I’ve heard people describe farming as an incurable disease, and I do feel that way about it, you just can’t help doing it.

You care deeply about organic farming too, right?

Yes. I grew up on a conventional farm and had no problem with pesticides, but when I was at university a couple of things happened to change that. My mom had always been sick when I was growing up, and she started working with a homeopath who told her that she should try organic foods, and at the same time they started offering a course in organic horticulture at the agricultural college. Initially I signed up because my mom was interested.

It wasn’t the idea that pesticides and fertilizers are going to kill us all that inspired me to be an organic farmer, it was the holistic nature of organic farming. How it works with ecology instead of against it. I was intrigued by the complexity of it. I am related to, and have a lot of respect for, non-organic farmers but at the same time that system is pretty reductionist. It breaks things down to their lowest levels, like we need this so we’ll use this pesticide or this fertilizer, instead of trying to make the farm work as a whole.

Why is the work that you do important?

Because farmers are usually the backbone of rural communities, and we have a lot of people starting farms here in Nova Scotia. When I started this project I was astounded by how many young people were moving here to start farms who had never farmed before. They were drawn by the price of land here and are supported by the fact that we probably have the strongest buy local movement in the country. We have the highest number of farmers markets per capita, and people here really want to support local. In that sense it’s a great place to start a farm.

What I love the most about organic farming is the emphasis it places on soil health. Soil health is measured by the nutrients in the soil and things such as soil structure — having lots of complex particle aggregates, and soil biology — the beneficial soil dwelling organisms we can see, like earthworms, and the bacteria and fungi that we can’t. Some farming practices promote good soil structure and biology and others destroy them. I’ve noticed significant improvements in the soil health of my farm in the five years I’ve been managing it and it’s the accomplishment I’m the most proud of. There is emerging evidence improved soil health has positive effects on climate changeby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, storing carbon, and making farms more adapted to weather extremes.

What does your daughter think about what you do?

Well, I think she finds my full-time job really boring, although she has come to certain events and helped out. She isn’t super keen on the farm work, but then neither was I when her age — it’s hot, dirty work, so I get it. I do pay her for helping me with the farm, because my parents always paid me for that. However, I don’t tolerate whining when she is doing farm work. If she does I send her inside and she doesn’t get paid. And she doesn’t get paid for household chores.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about finding purpose?

I know that church isn’t for everyone, but it can be such a powerful community. When I moved home from Thailand my church was so supportive, I thought, “Why doesn’t everybody go to church just to get this community?” I don’t know how people find community outside of a church, mosque, or another religious organization. That’s been a really powerful way for me to to connect to my purpose.

What do you think you have in common with other moms?

Having to nag my child every single day to do her chores. It drives me insane, but I’m sure this is the same for most parents! It’s the emotional labour of having to remind her all the time. It would be nice to be able to mentally file that away and not have to think about it anymore. Having to remember and remind is work in itself!

What’s been hardest about what you do?

Well, there’s not much time for me in all this, I’ve definitely neglected and damaged my own health by trying to do too much. A few years back my dream was to be able to quit my job and farm full-time, so I pushed into a new form of production too quickly in order to have more produce to sell. The stress of trying to do that was too much and made me sick. In the end I couldn’t give up work anyway because deer ate most of the strawberries I’d planted. It’s been a hard few years. I have a lot of support from my family and church though, and things are getting better.

What other moms do you admire?

I definitely admire my own mother — she is always pushing herself to do new things. She had five of us, and was really young when I was a kid, but was always there. She made my lunch every morning, even through university.

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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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