Posts have been quiet on the gardening front for the past two seasons as we have been adding other components to the farm operations and transitioning the field gardening to wooden raised beds.
In keeping with our mission to promote farmland as a community resource, all components of the farm have been introduced keeping in mind the long-term plan for the farm, which is agritourism.
The three-year plan is to open a farm B&B that offers authentic interactions with farm animals and food production. We will be targeting a couple of our square timber outbuildings as rustic accommodations and converting the stable to a venue for on-farm workshops. The addition of a hammock tent camping option and other lodging variations, such as yurts and cabins, will allow visitors to experience a connection with the land at their own level of comfort.
We have been transitioning from field rows to wooden raised beds. Although a mammoth undertaking in terms of cash outlay and investment in time, it solves a number of issues and offers extra advantages to our small scale of gardening:
- Raised beds eliminate the need for tractor farming. Once prepared, they will only require light turning or loosening with a broad fork. This is less disruptive to soil structure and organisms.
- The containment of the soil means that amendments can be better controlled and measured. Amendments and fertilization can also be fine-tuned to suit the particular crop in that bed.
- Weed pressure is less since the paths between the beds can be permanently planted in clover (beneficial) and will not need to be weeded or mulched. Ever. Again.
- Soil is kept high, dry and warm, thereby allowing us to begin planting spring crops weeks earlier since we won’t have to wait for our low fields to dry up to run the tractor tiller. We can also choose to cover select boxes to bring tender crops further into the fall. Season extension is key to successful northern gardening.
- The wooden boxes provide a ready-made structure for hooping and covering plants, trellising, and labeling beds. With a cordless screwdriver they can be converted to cold frames, hot houses or shade beds.
- Materials such as row cover, plastic mulch, tunnel covers and drip irrigation can be reused and handled more easily by a single worker when dealing with 8′ x 4′ dimensions. Many of the farm’s damaged field materials have been recoverable, e.g. a 200-foot length of row cover with rips has a lot of salvageable, box-sized rectangles.
- A lot of gardening is about psyching yourself for long tedious tasks, such as harvesting and weeding. Beds are rewarding in that you can finish one in minutes and check if off. I also find it easier to engage volunteer help when you can assign a box or two. Weeding field rows is daunting, just sayin’.
- Aesthetically, arrangements of vegetable growing boxes and clover paths have curb appeal on a tourism oriented farm and can be more easily groomed. They can also be attractively interspersed with beds of flowers to provide colour, pollination and cutting flowers for market.
- To the uninitiated, plants, weeds, paths and rows are not easily distinguishable. If you’re going to set the public loose on your gardens, boxes make it simple.
Raised beds make sense given our scale of operations and our intention to make the farm a public place.
The introduction of goats has been a game changer. We not only love them as friendly engaging creatures, but their byproducts (kids, milk, manure, visitor attraction) have enhanced both our range of farm offerings and the ever important addition of fertility to our soil. We have relied on other manure sources in the past with mixed results and we are stoked to be able to control this input produced on our own farm.
We free-range our turkeys and meat chickens on pasture as well. As with our garden formula, the poultry operations have evolved to provide a better quality of life for the bird as well as an improved system for optimizing on their contributions (manure deposited directly on the gardens and bug control).
We started out à la Joel Salatin (Polyface Farm), which entailed raising poultry from day old chicks in what is basically an upside down playpen which is moved to a fresh spot every day.
Since we are small scale and do not really have “pastures” in the wide open spaces sense of the word, we encountered a number of problems. One was hauling heavy tractors over uneven terrain, which was hard on the labourer, the tractor itself and inevitably required some jiggling to make sure that there were no gaps at the bottom of the tractor.
The second was that it was hard to manage feed and water while bent over leaning into the tractor. If birds were reluctant to move forward or needed to be removed for injury or disposal, some unlucky person had to climb in and crawl to the back of the tractor. Usually the smallest or most agile intern 🙂
As the birds grew bigger, it required more tractors to house them while providing adequate space. Bigger birds make bigger messes and we were faced with either more moves per day or dirty birds. Birds also like to roost, which keeps them clean and dry, so we rethought the housing.
We now raise them in the greenhouse in a tented pen until they are hardened somewhat. They then go outside into a hoophouse with perches and an electric pen surrounding it to keep predators away. This gives them a roosting area, overhead protection (owls, eagles) and a larger area to graze. We let them out of the enclosure for part of the day and it’s amazing to see how they forage and range over large areas. When they’ve exhausted the grass supply, we set the pen up in a new location. There are still some refinements to be made, but all in all it’s nicer for everyone. Cleaner, happier, better fed.
Pigs are happy to have a warm dry house and a large area to root in. They are intelligent animals and when bored will get up to no end of mischief, which they have the sheer size and stubbornness to enforce. We house them in the “pig condo” which is a plywood structure on skids that can be moved with the tractor to a fresh location every few weeks. They are enclosed in an electric pen and will respect it as long as long as it’s plugged in. Experience has taught us that they have some kind of pig sensor that allows them to detect when the breaker has tripped and they are quick to take advantage and go AWOL.
Pigs, in addition to providing endless entertainment and delicious food, perform a vital service on the farm as part of the field recovery team. We clear a section, leaving them a few trees, and then wait for them to overturn the soil and uproot all of the shrubs and vegetation in their search for delicacies. When they’re done, it’s simply a matter of pulling a few stumps and tilling it for next year’s garden. Everyone wins.
We have yet to make the leap to breeding our own pigs, but it’s the next logical step if we wish to expand. It’s also important to complete the cycle on the farm so that visitors get the whole picture.
To supply our endless need for nutrients, we are exploring the possibility of a community (farm community that is) composter and vermiculture operation. This would involve a collection or delivery system of some sort and some infrastructure as well. We have an outdoor wood-burning stove that could heat a concrete composting platform and a worm bed in the large greenhouse. Red wiggler worms and composting kits are another potential farm product.
In the past, our operations have included helping hands in the form of farming interns and farmstay students from abroad. Their contributions are highly valued. Not only do they perform the million and one tasks involved in a farm operation but they bring fresh outlooks, new knowledge and valuable feedback. We have not hosted this past year since operations have been largely reduced in order to transition the garden, but we are already in the interviewing process for a 2017 incubatorship position (intern or interns who have their own project and exchange labour for a place to set up business).
The biggest change will be a move from CSA (veggie basket subscriptions) to an online farm store. This hybrid will offer more flexibility to members and farmer and yet include many of the elements that make CSA a great marketing model. Members will still subscribe and have weekly pickups at the farm; however they’ll be able to tailor their orders to suit their family’s eating requirements and habits. Our community has a lot of people who live alone and would appreciate the chance to buy in smaller quantities.
From the farming end, we’ll be able to post what we have in the quantities we’ve produced, which covers both the crop failures and the unintended bounties, both of which are inevitable when you partner with Ma Nature in business! For the adventurous eaters, we can still put together baskets.
Pre-ordering also allows us to market free-range eggs, wood-fired pizzas, sourdough, home-made soups, goat milk soaps and other products as time allows and the growing season waxes and wanes.
All in all it’s an exciting line-up for us and we can’t wait to bring you Wellspring Gardens, the next generation!