family background/ Andrew is a fourth-generation farmer who manages the family farm with his brother, Timothy, and uncle, Stephen. He is married to Hope and is the son of Mark Stirling.
hometown/ Centreville, Nova Scotia
role/ farm manager
business/ Stirling’s Mountainside Farms
What were some of your early farm challenges?
My older brother, Timothy, and I graduated high school and started farming right away. We would visit other farms, and it was a lot to take in and see how much farther ahead other farms were. Those experiences were overwhelming for me and my brother when we’d come home from the IFTA (International Fruit Tree Association) tours and not be able to make changes to our farm immediately.
You can’t just pull everything out and replant. You need cash flow and you need some orchard in production. I think a big focus for us was to really find out what wasn’t paying the bills and what wasn’t making us any money, and start to pull out those acres first.
Why start an on-farm nursery?
We started growing our own trees and we feel like we’ve saved some costs, although we’ve definitely made mistakes in the nursery game as well. Now we’re doing a lot of bench grafting, growing some really nice 1- and 2-year-old trees. Because of this, when we’re planning a new block, we’re starting out with a tree that we want right from the beginning.
The first time my brother and I used our nursery trees, my uncle and my father insisted that we plant 16-foot rows. We begged them to put in 12-foot rows. So, on the outside of that block, they let us put in four 12-foot rows.
It wasn’t very long after that they recognized the advantage of higher-density plantings. Because of that trial, we’ve been planting quite aggressively and we’re up to 100 acres of high density with all of our own homegrown trees.
What varieties are you focusing on with these plantings?
We’ve had a big push into Honeycrisp because it does pretty well in Nova Scotia. With the cool nights it colors up and stores really well. Besides that, we’re growing Gala and Amber Rose and pulling out those Macs, Spartans and Empires.
We still have some Spy and some processing blocks, but that stuff we’re starting to cut down along with our older blocks as the young orchards are really coming on.
Did your family have a transition plan in place?
I think there’s a lot to be learned with succession planning and transition from generation to generation.
We kind of had a struggle between the first two generations where maybe the older generation hung on too long and didn’t give a fair chance for that next generation to step in and take hold of the farm and make mistakes and start to grow.
The third generation, which would be my father’s generation, learnt a lot from that experience and because of that, he let us get involved at a young age.
How did you navigate that transition?
I got an opportunity to work at another farm for three years, and I think that proved a lot to my father and uncle that I was able to run a farm and make it work.
While I was working there, my brother was slugging it out here on the family farm. At that time, the family realized we wanted to farm and get involved at a young age.
We’d proven that we could do it, so they asked us to buy into the farm. I made the decision to come home, giving a year’s notice and working another harvest before leaving. My brother and I got a farm loan that season.
A lot of credit goes to my uncle and my father for letting us buy into the farm at 30. I think their father continued farming till he was 87, with full control of the farm. I’d say my father and uncle learned from that.
Now we have the opportunity to invest in young plantings and some newer varieties and to have that paid off before the next generation wants to take over. Having a solid succession plan for our children will be a big part of mine and my brother’s future.
What advice do you have for other young growers?
My father and uncle gave us the opportunity to travel and go see other farms to learn and set some of our own goals. Because of those experiences, my brother and I had ideas about what systems we wanted to work toward.
When we came home from those IFTAs and those meetings, we worked toward making that opportunity happen even if it wasn’t as fast as we wanted to. Now that effort is paying us back in our crops.