When Debbie Scott’s husband asked her if she wanted to buy a farm, her answer was a vehement, “No Way!”
She’d grown up on a dairy farm and her grandparents operated the berry farm on the neighbouring street. She’d wanted a different life and to make her point, she avoided visiting her in-laws for the longest time. Yet somehow, she knew her husband Derek would talk her into it – and he did.
The Scott’s moved to Oldfield Orchard with their three young sons in 1986. Today I’m sitting with Debbie on her patio, chatting about her life on the farm.
“The beginning was a real struggle,” she said. The orchard they bought was infected with anthracnose canker; the trees were all dying. They had no choice but to take on the arduous job of protecting the trees as long as they could and to diversify their product line. Derek kept his regular job for the first five years to help make ends meet and spent all his off hours working on the farm. Gradually the rolling landscape transformed from an orchard into a food-safe berry farm.
“We’re an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) farm. That is, we don’t spray our strawberries like my parents and grandparents did. We pay people to crawl around in our fields to check the leaves, check the roots… and they’ll tell us if we have aphids in something. Then we release the ladybugs. They come in sacks from California. When you’re spreading them, it’s the eeriest feeling ‘cause your walking along with this sack in hand and you put your other hand into it and then you scatter the bugs as you walk down the aisle. They are crawling all over you. They are in your hair. They are in your clothes. It’s gross having bugs crawl all over you.”
“We were very fortunate,” Debbie added. “A professional agrologist (P.Ag) took us under his wing and held our hands through some of our different challenges with his knowledge. He has become our best friend. And even though he’s retired, he’s here every morning at seven o’clock for coffee during the week.” And she can’t say enough about the farming community – a community that cares – a community that shares their knowledge and experiences. It’s the community that came out to help clean up and repair their roofless barn damaged by a tempest of a wind storm. “If we don’t all work together, you’re at battle all the time and it just doesn’t work.”
Debbie moved from selling apples in their garage to selling a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables from June to October in a standalone building along Oldfield Road. She personally trained her staff on how to sort all the produce brought in from the fields, one berry at a time. Her motto was simple: “If it isn’t A+, don’t put it out.” She knew her customers wouldn’t come back if the quality wasn’t there. Eventually she expanded to include baked goods using recipes handed down to her by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Fruit pies were baked twice a day and always sold by sunset.
Ultimately, however, I believe it is the Scotts’ generosity to the community in which they lived that people will remember the most.
It began the summer after bought the place. Debbie and Derek hosted an event called Taste of the Islands, where farmers from all over Southern Vancouver Island and adjoining islands came to Oldfield Orchard. They set up booths among their apple trees, handed out samples and sold their goods. The Scott’s provided the amenities and a concession stand.
They hosted this event for three years, but found it taxing to organize, particularly as summers were also their busiest season. So, in October of 1990 they simply opened up access to their fields and allowed people to come and pick their own pumpkins. This was long before “u-pick” became popular. They set up a little stand where they sold hot and cold hard-pressed apple juice. “So many people came out for it and so next year we expanded it,” Debbie recalled.
That was the start of the annual ‘Oldfield Orchard Octoberfest’, which continued to run for over 20 years. The Boy Scouts cut the corn maze and manned it. The 4H Clubs took over their barn with animals and various displays. The Sea Cadets set up and operated the haunted house. Saanich Historical Artifacts brought old vehicles and equipment to showcase around the place. They had hay rides and games for the kids and of course, there were always plenty of pumpkins for the picking and loads of fresh fruits and vegetables alongside homemade pies and jams for sale. “So it wasn’t just us, it was a community effort to put it together.” It took hundreds of people to run and oodles of visitors to make it a success. And each year, the Scott’s donated a large portion of the proceeds from this event to local charitable organizations.
One Debbie favorite years was when they started the “Streets to Field” program. It’s something she and Derek did out of their hearts and it’s a story Debbie loved to tell.
“Derek was driving into Victoria one afternoon, delivering some wholesale goods somewhere and there was this young man standing on the side of the road with a sign stating that he needed money for food. So Derek pulled over in front of a honking bus and told the kid to get in. “Where am I going?” He asked. And Derek told him, “You’re coming to my farm, you’re going to work, I’m going to pay you and you’re gonna buy your own damn food.” The kid got into the truck and once he was at the farm he asked if his friend could come. Word got out and we ended up with 10 homeless youth in total the first year. Awesome year.”
Derek helped each of the kids open their own bank account, a first for some of them. They were all up at dawn, seven days a week and after a full day of working outdoors, they crashed early, exhausted from their day. On Sunday’s the girls left the fields ahead of time so they could help Debbie prepare a “family” dinner while the boys did all the clean-up. And after the word had gotten out about what they were doing, various meat markets and fishermen donated their produce for the Sunday meal. Every payday the whole group would go out to dinner somewhere. “It was, I think, my funnest year we ever had,” smiled Debbie.
One of the boys stayed to work on the farm for four years. Three of the kids ended up off the streets permanently. Others were off for long periods of time, some even returned to their homes for a spell. Regardless of the outcome, Debbie and Derek had made a difference in the lives of each and every one of those kids.
“I love what I do. I really do,” Debbie exclaimed. “I have met so many people through my stand. I’ve been here for so long that I’ve seen kids grow up and have kids of their own. And I loved talking to the old ladies, most of whom have passed away by now. Their stories about the history of this place were amazing. And my staff – they are all friends. It’s been like that all the way through. We’re a great team that works together; we get along and help each other. We’ve always made it fun. We don’t socialize a lot but it’s fun.”
After thirty-one years of farming, the Scott’s are ready to retire, having sold their farm in the process. Debbie doesn’t know what her next chapter will hold. Perhaps it will include more golfing, something she and Derek do daily during their annual winter escape to sunny Arizona. She’ll have more time to spoil her grandchildren. She has five and another one on its way. I feel however, that whatever Debbie’s next adventure will be, it will be vibrant and full of fun because that is the type of energy that radiates from her.
When I first approached Debbie about meeting with me to talk about her years at Oldfield Orchard, she very characteristically said, “But we won’t talk about anything negative, right?” “Absolutely,” I replied. Thank you, Debbie, for your time and for sharing your stories with me.
An abridged version of this piece appeared in Black Press’ Pearl Magazine Aug/Sept 2019 edition.
Photos courtesy of: http://www.oldfieldorchardandbakery.com/