Starting a farm…for the third time.
Although this is our second farm business (we owned Skeeter Farm in the Fraser Valley from 2009-2012) it’s the third property that we have farmed and thus the third time that we have undergone various “start-up” activities and experienced the growing pains associated with them. The first two sites were located in BC, and needed different investments (of both our time and capital) to get them operating as market garden vegetable fields.
If you’ve been following along with our blog and/or Facebook you’ll know that the majority of our year so far has been dominated by farm set-up activities including clearing land and field restoration, putting together hoophouses, installing our irrigation and creating a water source and building the various coops and shelters needed for the turkeys, chickens and hogs. Seeing as we only arrived in Ontario on March 4th, 2013…we think we’ve come a long way so far (and have the grey hairs to prove it!)
The past four months have been crazy to say the least and I highly doubt we would have accomplished what we have if we hadn’t already had some farm experience under our belts. We have now, in our career as farmers, set up five hoophouses, three irrigation systems and have restored three different farm fields from fallow or overgrown conditions. With some farming experience also comes a personal expectation that we should be reasonably successful in our endeavours, and at least as well if not better than we have done in the previous seasons.
This round of setting up a farm has not been without its challenges though, and in many ways it feels like we are learning it all again for the first time. It turns out that growing food in Ontario is a different ballgame than what we’re used to. It’s been humbling so far, to say the least…
We never worried too much about pest attacks at our previous farm, as we had some pest pressure, but grew enough area and diversity of crops that it was never really an issue. I’m just going to come out and say it…the pests here are ravenous! Between the flea beetles that seem to find their way into every nook and cranny in our row cover (we have to row cover all Brassicaceae crops here…kale, broccoli, mustard greens, choi, etc), the cucumber beetles who have eaten every single squash and zucchini that has tried to grow in the past month (the cucumbers in the hoophouse seem to be surviving…hurrah!), the army of snails that have been slowly sucking the life out of various plants and the gigantic flea beetles (not sure if that’s what they are??) that have found their way into our flower beds…it seems like pest management will be one of our major focuses as we get through this season.
We take an integrated approach to pest management by using traps, picking bugs off by hand, covering crops and most recently we’ve been talking about spraying neem oil to try to control the cucumber beetles. We’ll keep you posted on how that goes…
The other thing that has been rather challenging this year is our access to irrigation water. We had an excavator out to dig a well in early June and were delighted to find a seemingly good source after a couple of test digs.
We have since installed our irrigation system, which is an all drip system…about as efficient that you can get. We were elated to finally be able to water our veggies as our field is quite dry, despite the wet spring, and the first few crops that we tried to harvest were jam packed with flavour and rather tough (i.e. needed to have been irrigated). After irrigating for about a week on and off we found that we have almost no natural recharge and our water source is now going dry. Merd.
After a few gloomy days spent observing the the water dry up we started to look at some other options to get us through the year. One was drilling a well (which is a little out of our budget this year and would require bringing the farm onto the grid). The other is to haul water a couple times per day to fill up the source, which is the option we’ve settled on. (Please note that the livestock’s water has not been affected…as we were already hauling in potable drinking water for them).
In the meantime, between the bugs and the lack of irrigation water, some of our crops are not looking so hot…namely, the plants in the squash family, our usually fantastic, delicious salad green crops, and some of the flower bed. On the upside, things in the hoophouse are growing like mad, the onions and leeks are doing well, but could use a drink soon, potatoes are all up and looking great, and it looks like we’re going to get a great crop of beans coming in a few weeks. Most other things are growing, but slowly.
Also on the up and up, the animals are all doing great and are happy to be out on their summer pastures. They’ve brought a lot of joy to the farm this season and we are always happy to take a break from the veggie field to hang out with them and enjoy their antics. We’ll have six new piggies joining us next week and are eagerly awaiting the first egg from our laying hens…more on that at another time.
We’re starting to refocus our veggie farm plans for the season to try to nourish what we have planted in the field with the little water that we have (and not expand any more growing area). We’re also looking forward to the later season crops, growing winter veggies (they don’t require as much water after they get growing) and expanding our sprout and microgreen production, which has been really catching on at the markets.
If we’ve learned anything farming on three different properties in two different provinces, it’s that there are always pluses and minuses. At our first farm it was heavy clay soil, mosquitos and thieves in exchange for soil that held nutrients and water and grew beautiful veggies. At the second it was soil that drained too quickly (and thus we had a hard time germinating some crops) in exchange for land that we could work early in the spring, abundant water and other infrastructure provided by our landlord. At the farm now, it’s bugs and lack of water issues but on the other hand we have a secure piece of land with great potential that we can farm and invest in for the long term. If I had to choose between the three, I’d pick where we are at now (but move everyone from BC out here!!)…Over time, we can work to improve the growing conditions of the site, install the infrastructure that we need to make our farm more efficient and productive, work to build natural soil fertility and organic matter, build up the natural predator populations that help keep pests at bay, and we’re hoping (fingers crossed) that our lack of water will not be an issue next year if we manage to capture the spring run off, which we were too late for this year.
Pat has coined our motto for the year which is to “Just grind it out” (I assume this term comes from some team sport he’s played). Anyways, for us now it means to just keep trying and do what we can do even if it’s not what we expected of this season when we first arrived here.
So that’s it for now. Pat has promised to write a more uplifting post about the Bobolink soon (a threatened bird which we have in spades at the farm).