When Debbie Scott’s husband asked her if she wanted to buy a farm, her answer was a vehement, “No Way!”
It didn’t matter that the farm belonged to her in-laws, or that the property was an orchard and not a dairy farm like the one she’d grown up with. She stubbornly refused to even visit Oldfield Orchard for as long as she could because somehow she knew her husband was going to talk her into it. And he did.
That was thirty-one years ago. Today Debbie and I are sitting together on their patio, chatting about her life on the farm. She has a story to tell and I love to listen – an incorrigible combination.
Debbie and her husband Derek moved to Oldfield Orchard with their three sons in 1986.
“The beginning was a real struggle,” she recalls. Imagine the shock they felt when they discovered that all their apple trees were dying, some faster than others from anthracnose canker. That was not what they had signed up for. To save the farm, they had no choice but to diversify. And that required an incredible amount of effort on both their parts. For the first five years, Derek worked two jobs to help make ends meet.
“We were very fortunate,” Debbie adds. “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 they learned from other farmers, all helping each other and sharing their experiences and knowledge. “The farming community is like that,” she explains. “If we don’t all work together and if you’re at battle all the time, it just doesn’t work.”
Gradually the Scott’s transformed their orchard into fields of berries. Debbie moved from selling apples in their garage to selling a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables 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. Debbie’s 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.
But what made Oldfield Orchard really special was the bakery. Every day they stocked their shelves full of freshly made fruit pies, pastries and jams. The baking was done in a huge on-site kitchen and the recipes were Debbie’s, handed down to her by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. The pies in particular were all gone by the end of each day.
The farm became known as Oldfield Orchard and Bakery. And their barn was affectionately referred to as a ‘Petting Zoo’. Families with small children could come to the farm, feed and pet the animals and then take home garden-fresh produce for their dinner tables.
Diversifying their product line was not enough. Like other farmer’s in the area, the Scotts’ adapted to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a practice that involves the use of natural pest control mechanisms. Debbie explains it this way, “We pay people to crawl around in our fields to check the leaves, check the roots… and then they’ll tell us if we have aphids in something. So instead of spraying the strawberries like my parents and grandparents generation, we release ladybugs. The ladybugs 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.”
Debbie and Derek also found ways to give back to their community and engage them in fun events. Their first venture was ‘Taste of the Islands’. They invited all food producing farms on southern Vancouver Island and adjoining islands to set up a booth among their apple trees. There they could hand out samples and sell their goods. The Scotts’ provided the amenities and a concession stand. They did this for three years, but found it taxing to organize, particularly as summers were also their busiest season.
After Taste of the Islands, 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 recalls. And 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 Scotts’ donated the proceeds from this event to local charitable organizations.
There was one year – the year of the huge wind storm – that stands out for Debbie. The tempest left their barn without a roof and a wake of debris everywhere. It was in the middle of October and, “I don’t know where all these people came from, but all of a sudden there were all these people here and they’re all cleaning up and they’re tarping the barn… all these people came out of nowhere …” Debbie is visibly moved and so am I. Her farming community had come out to generously help their neighbour. It’s what the community does. It’s what Debbie and Derek had done for years.
One of their best years occurred when they started the ‘Streets to Field’ program. It’s something she and Derek did out of their hearts. It’s a story Debbie loves 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. So Derek pulled over in front of a honking bus, told the kid to get in. ‘Where am I going?’ asks the kid. 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 ten homeless youth in total the first year. Awesome year.”
For every kid that showed up, Derek drove them to a bank and helped them open up an account. On Sunday’s the girls helped Debbie prepare a ‘family’ dinner while the boys did all the clean-up. And after the word had gotten out about what she and Derek were doing, various meat markets and fishermen donated their produce for the meal. Every payday the whole group would go out to dinner somewhere. “It was, I think, my funnest year we ever had,” smiles 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 but in the absence of continued support, unfortunately they were drawn back to the streets. Regardless of the outcome, Debbie and Derek had made a difference in the lives of each and every one of those kids.
Thirty-one years after declaring ‘No Way’ to her husband about purchasing the farm, Debbie has mixed emotions about leaving. The farm has been sold. The last day that her beloved stand will be open is Labor Day.
“I love what I do. I really do,” she exclaims, quietly wiping away a tear. And this is from a lady who is at work before 6:30 in the morning and doesn’t return to their home until 5:30 at night, seven days a week. “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.”
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.
Oldfield Orchard and Bakery’s reputation for responsible safe food production and extraordinary fruit, vegetables and pies are what made me stop at their fruit stand years ago. And I’ve been a repeat customer ever since. It’s been a long journey for Debbie and Derek Scott to finally sell their farm and retire. While I’m happy for them, I’m also a bit sad. Like others in the community, I will miss them.
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, “There is no need to.” And I don’t believe we did. We had a fun time instead.
Thank you, Debbie, for your time and for sharing your stories with me.
Photos courtesy of: http://www.oldfieldorchardandbakery.com/