Matt and Selena Lawrence are the founders and operators of Forest Valley Acres. Opening just last year in 2023, they have been honing their craft in order to provide fresh lettuce to their community on Vancouver Island, BC. In this interview, Matt shares the story of how they turned their dream farming business into a reality, and candidly shares about the challenges they’ve been learning from along the way.
To start, tell me the story of Forest Valley Acres – How did the farm get started? Did you have any experience with Hydroponics or soil farming before this?
I grew up on a hobby farm. Chickens, cows, meat birds; a pretty big garden. It was a great education, and I loved it, but becoming a full time farmer never seemed like an option. Instead, I got into building houses. I ended up working in Alberta and met my wife Selena. We were both from Vancouver Island, and wanted to move back, but it was so expensive. Even with some savings, the property values were outrageous.
We wanted to get a farm, so we were looking for big acreage, but there was nothing. Land was being used for hay, or sitting vacant. Our goal was to buy property that we could utilize as much as we can, better provide services for the valley. One thing we love about Vancouver Island is the residents. They love local produce, and will support local farmers over everyone else. We wanted to be a part of that.
We had to figure out what could make us enough money to secure a property and start paying the bills pretty quickly. I knew food production would always be in high demand, and it’s not the most brutal lifestyle. I was also thinking about factors like shipping costs going up, carbon footprints, and clean energy.
So, we found AmHydro online. Right away it seemed like a great system for maximizing space in a greenhouse. That’s one way we could bring our goal within reach, by using land as efficiently as possible. We also knew that with a controlled environment farm, we could provide our neighbors in the valley with something they don’t normally have – fresh, locally grown lettuce in the middle of winter. So we decided to go for it.
I think a lot of people make it that far – realizing what a great idea a hydroponic farm is – but they struggle to turn that dream into a reality. What steps did you take to bring the vision to life?
Well, I knew that if we were going to make any money, we would need to figure out how to actually sell produce. One of the first things I did was find a company that markets produce to all the local grocery stores. They told me “If you grow lettuce, we’ll sell everything you can grow.”
It took 3 months to write a business plan. With our goals a bit more defined, we started looking for a property that could support a hydroponic farm. The perfect place popped up in April 2022, and after a bit of a bidding war, we were able to take possession in May.
We had already been talking to our AmHydro rep, Rudy, for a few months, and once we had the property we started the process of getting the system up here. We got the parts for the greenhouse from a company in Quebec. With my carpentry skills and my dad’s experience working with steel, we were able to build it all ourselves. There were some setbacks along the way, but by the beginning of 2023, we were up and running.
What was it like to start working with AmHydro? How has your experience been?
I actually came across AmHydro because of a farm I found on YouTube that had built their own system using AmHydro parts. It was really inspiring. I called up AmHydro because of that and got in touch with Rudy. With me having zero experience, it was so helpful to have someone to talk to. We picked out one of the all-in-one “Get Growing bundles” because it had everything we needed to get to the next stage.
We were told that if we bought the package, we’d have a lot of support. That sounded nice, but I didn’t really know what it meant. As soon as we received the system though, I found myself talking to Rudy all the time. He was constantly sharing really useful advice and making time to walk me through anything I needed help with. That ended up being as valuable as the equipment itself. I still talk to Rudy all the time.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in this journey?
I would say two things. First, learning to control the climate to provide an optimal environment for lettuce. CEA is incredible, but it actually takes a lot of intentional effort to make adjustments depending on what’s going on outdoors.
The second thing is actually moving the produce we grow. I was told that if I could grow lettuce here on the island, it would sell here, there, and everywhere. That ended up being a bit of an overstatement. Having a great and novel product doesn’t excuse us from the reality of competition and having to break into the market.
Tell me more about that first part. How have you had to adapt the system for your local conditions?
The thing about Vancouver Island is that we truly have four distinct seasons. All of the climate control tools are really powerful, but it’s not about setting it and forgetting it. You’re constantly monitoring what’s going on outside, and then using your tools to counteract and balance the effects of the natural climate.
We had a lot of trouble with the heat in our first summer. Even with our cooling equipment, it’s a struggle to keep a greenhouse temperate when it’s 35 or 38 degrees outside [95-100 degrees fahrenheit]. Lettuce would grow really fast in some stages, but slow down in others. We had to develop a system that was based on monitoring the size of plants, not just transplanting every two weeks regardless of the size.
Even our seeds were being affected. They were arriving without climate control, and were getting overheated. There’s this thing called thermodormancy that more or less kills off your seed if it reaches a certain temperature.
But the great thing is that you know other people have dealt with these challenges, and you can learn to deal with them too. Getting a handle on visual assessments has helped immensely as we’ve gone through the months since then. I know we can’t use the exact same procedures in fall and winter as I did in the summer, but I know that I can watch the crops and see how they’re performing.
And how about your business model? It sounds like your original marketing plans didn’t exactly pan out like you hoped.
That’s true. We put all our eggs in one basket, and quickly learned that we needed to diversify. The marketing company has definitely been valuable, but we’ve been adding on to those efforts in other ways. The Farmers Market has been a great way to get our name out there. As people have gotten to know us, we’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback, especially as people have learned that we’re growing right on through the winter. People simply haven’t had that before. We’ve also gotten independent grocery stores, restaurants, and we’re even talking to the school system.
What’s some advice you would share with new growers – or people who are inspired by your story and interested in starting a farm of their own?
There’s a lot! First, patience. Have patience. Don’t try to do too much at once. You’ve got to start somewhere, but you also have to grow your business over time.
Really nail down the market research. I know AmHydro is really big on that, and you all impressed it on me. But even still I feel it’s something we could have done more of.
You can never just sit still and watch it grow. You’re constantly adjusting, watching the weather, watching the plants, figuring out how to adjust the environment to battle the environment outside.
I’d also say you really need to get reputable seeds! Make sure you can get your seeds in a matter of time where they’ll still be good once they get to you.
Finally, stay on top of everything. It’s really easy to let the bookkeeping slide when you’re out in the greenhouse, you can easily lose track of time. And once you get behind on something, it tends to compound. Stay on top of inventory, bookkeeping, and be in constant communication with your market. You don’t always get the straightest word from everyone, so it’s best to get multiple sources.
With hydroponics there’s no one right way to do it, and every environment will have its varietals that grow best. Everything is specific to your environment. Research, research, research. I’m still learning a lot, but this system really works, and getting to make a living growing clean and healthy food for my community is really rewarding.
Thank you so much for your time!
And good luck as you all continue to grow.