Member Profile: Fiddlehead Farm
This is the full version of the member profile that appeared in the recent September/October edition of the Ecological Farmer in Ontario newsletter.
1.) Please tell us a bit about you and your farm.
We are Heather and Steve of Fiddlehead Farm in Prince Edward County. We run an eight-acre market garden producing veggie boxes and running farmer’s markets locally, as well as in Toronto 11 months of the year. We have six amazing crew members who are a mix of full and part-time employees on hourly wage.
We grew up in Montreal & Toronto and came to farming in our mid-twenties. With the help of parents, we were able to purchase a farm in 2012. Steve had spent a few years WWOOFing, interning, and completing the Fleming Sustainable Agriculture program. I spent the first two years working off farm, continuing to learn from other farmers, and then joined Steve full-time, full-year, on farm in 2014.
2.) Where do you farm, and why are you there?
Our farm is in Prince Edward County, and it’s a kind of natural in-between location for family in Montreal and Toronto. Moving down from Ottawa, it was right in the middle of all our social networks. It’s in a very touristy area, which helps support city luxuries like fine dining, independent shops, and lots of other small businesses. They in turn also attract lots of folks like us who believe in making the world a better place, and it’s got a whole different vibe from some of the other rural townships we visited when property hunting… this feels so much more like home!
“The County” is a little blip on the climate zone map, so we can add a month on either end of our growing season compared to the rest of eastern Ontario. Unfortunately, it’s a bit drier too… It is in the east, where land prices are way lower than the south-west. Finally, we’re in a corner of the county where there weren’t major farm stands to compete with, we’re closer to the 401, and property values were lower as it is a quieter “ward” – although we’re happy to be part of changing that!
3.) What are your short-, mid- and long-term plans for your farm?
Short-term we want to take a holiday this winter, provide year-round employment for at least some of our staff, and better balance out our workloads. We need to reduce our summertime stress levels, and want to do some re-visioning as we’re just coasting out of our start-up five-year plan.
Medium-term we want to make sure we can use farming to meet our life and business goals. For life, that means fixing up our 1845 house, having leisure time, and being able to spend quality time together, too. For business, this means building up our soils, improving our efficiency, adding to our off-season capacity, and creating meaningful year-round jobs for employees. We want to reduce the endless training cycle of seasonal workers at our end and to creative viable long term farming careers for our employees.
Long-term we want to be able to feed people in a sustainable system that balances ecology, economics, and society. This sees us farming with minimal waste, incorporating poly-orchards into our produce offerings, and successfully feeding people 12 months of the year with a relatively stable work flow.
4.) Heather — you have a M.Sc. in Landscape Ecology. How does this training play into your life as a farmer?
For now, it doesn’t feel like it has a role in daily life… yet I think it really does play a role in our underlying approaches to farming. Steve also has a Masters (in Political Science) and I don’t know if it’s the studies or our personalities but people seem to comment on our “business sense.” I’m going to chalk some of it up to a slightly more mature entry into farming, and most of it I’ll attribute to attending numerous workshops – like holistic management, growing forward, and endless local farm tours. We’ve also had a pretty hardline approach since the beginning: either the farm pays for itself or it doesn’t happen. That being said, we’ve heavily re-invested our “wages” back into the farm over the first five years, living off one person’s draw.
My background certainly got me through the first few winters farming as I was able to find work. I had a lot of fun tackling data management over at Vicki’s Veggies with Tim over a few winters, building a cost of production-driven employee tracking system. That itself was a huge boost to developing my “business” sense.
5.) You are trying out different mulches this year, with the idea that you might conduct a trial with the Farmer-led Research Program (FLRP) next year. Can you talk more about your motivation to experiment with mulches, and how you are conducting this informal trial?
There’s been a lot of confusion around so-called biodegradable plastic mulches, and we got caught in the midst of it. Bryan and Shannon at Broadfork Farm do a great summary of the issue in an ACORN newsletter also posted on their website: http://broadforkfarm.com/2015/08/05/the-case-of-the-unapproved-biodegradable-plastic-mulch/
Basically, biodegradable black plastic mulch is an amazing solution to the age-old problem of balancing the benefits of mulch with practical and efficient ways to use it. In 2015 the Canadian Organic Standards were clarified to specify that despite being biodegradable, the mulch would have to be completely removed after use to be permitted in organic systems due to the presence of a plastic polymer. If you’ve ever worked with it before, you’ll know that is almost impossible as it partly biodegrades within a season, and tears up into shreds. There was a memo extending the permitted use until 2017, but we’re left with figuring out how to replace it.
So this year we ordered two other mulches to try alongside our classic black biodegradable mulch that we’ve become so attached to. We put three different mulches on three rows of tomatoes to get a first glimpse at how they compared. We’re comparing the classic black biodegradable plastic mulch, some reusable thick landscape plastic mulch, and some paper mulch. It’s just a little demonstration – since there’s no controls, randomization or replication… basically it was the quick and dirty version to get an idea of things. First impressions are that the woven landscape fabric held up the best and is reusable while the paper mulch came apart easily and sections ripped out in the wind when wet. We want to take ecological footprints into consideration as well. Over the winter we’ll take some time to design a proper experiment by thinking through a research question and hypothesis, designing an experiment to test that question, and then draw conclusions.
6.) What gets you excited about participating in the FLRP next year?
Since coming to farming I’ve found that farmers are always trying to learn and share their knowledge, which is great. Sometimes I feel that we never really “know” things though, we’re just constantly trying out different approaches. Other times, information is presented as facts, but some learning venues were harder for me to grasp. I finally realized the issue when Steve was watching a video one day on pseudoscience vs. science. It was an aha moment.
Pseudoscience sets out to prove ideas, while Science is a careful attempt to DISprove your ideas. You never really “prove” any one answer, you only disprove competing hypotheses. That way in Science the door is always open for another explanation to come along and explain something better. It ensures the system can “learn”!
I’m really excited to participate in the FLRP because I feel like I have a grounding on both sides of the fence (research and farming) and there’s so much out there for us to learn. It is so simple to build some basic experiments and it is something I’ve not yet made time to do within the hectic farm startup life. I think there is a lot that we can learn.
7.) What has the impact of the drought been on your farm operations/yields this year? Have you seen any mitigating effects by the mulch trials so far?
At first, we were thinking ourselves lucky as we’re a market garden and we have an irrigation system. However, the system was not designed to handle this much water moving through it. Our irrigation pond, which typically runs out sometime in August was dry by early June. We got a second gas pump, and 500m of 2” piping to try to refill the pond from the marsh at the back of our property. We’ve spent a lot of time troubleshooting the system ourselves in addition to devoting one staffer full-time to irrigation, which is a huge cost, but thankfully she has embraced the challenge. The marsh water levels were far below normal when we got there, and by early August there was no more standing water (just muck). As I write this we’ve just gotten permission from a neighbour to try and run lines about 750m through his cattle pasture over to a lake, and if we can pull that off we’ll save our season, our staff, and our winter CSA. I’ve stopped speaking or thinking in “what if’s” as a basic attempt at sanity. 😉
The mulched beds have performed better overall as they are able to make better use of the water we’ve been giving them. We generally see better wicking of moisture and fuller saturation of the beds. They stay moist to the touch for several days longer than bare beds. It was a great year to try them out!
One challenge that evolved over the summer is that voles and field mice have been seeking sanctuary under the mulch and munching into the drip lines for water. We’ve have to do some patch work with the system running to make sure the lines weren’t flooding sections of the mulch. These days the leaks can be spotted by looking for patches of green weeds next to the mulched beds.
8.) Have you had any “ah-ha” moments this season dealing with the drought?
There’s a huge difference between triage and production. A little water can keep a crop alive, but it takes a lot more water to keep them producing. We’ll need a way bigger reservoir to keep our vegetables producing if we have any more years like this one. Reducing the size of the garden to ensure that our land can “produce” the water needed to irrigate is an important consideration.
The drought has forced us to think critically about how we irrigate. We are hyper aware of the time, resource, and maintenance issues tied to our irrigation system as a result of this season. We entered 2016 wanting to upgrade and improve our system. At first that meant bringing in more overhead and reducing drip lines, largely from a time and footprint view of the materials involved. This year has pushed us to look more creatively at future solutions to address the major holes in the system, namely lack of capacity to move sufficient water in drought.
Moving to a solar electric pumping system emerged early since we are spending a hour of labour to cycle our pumps as the gas tanks empty, and a solar pump on a WiFi hookup could run itself with a text from our phone. Increasing our reservoir to allow us to survive extremely dry seasons is the another. Simplifying the system so that it is easier to water sections of the garden without switching each line on and off is the next challenge to think about. We like to build our infrastructure to survive the worst case scenario. This year has been a good case study.
8.) You are representing EFAO at the Organic Science Research Conference in Montreal in September. What are you hoping to learn or gain from the conference?
It’s so hard to tailor research to be useful to farmers and then get that research to them. Having worked in a research lab and also been a farmer I know it’s a tricky world to navigate. Research gets published in a scientific format in journals that are often physically inaccessible, as well as being overly technical. If we’re lucky, it gets interpreted by journalists who mostly interpret correctly. On the other side of things, it’s easy to get lost in the concrete reality of farming and trying to think about science in season seems daunting, let alone tiptoeing around experiments and protocols as we work long days and are mostly desperately trying to keep things alive. There’s always something getting lost in the weeds, desperately needing transplanting, or drooping dangerously… at least at our place!
9.) What does the future of farming look like from where you are now?
Labour is a key issue on farms, and as we’ve moved from interns to staff on hourly wages we’re always dreaming about how to make it better. We see ourselves spending copious amounts of time training each year, and building a returning staff base feels like a far more efficient use of our time. We see that as requiring a new role on farms – rather than interns on minimal stipends or full-fledged owner/operators there needs to be a middle ground. Returning career farmers, with experience and expertise, could share the responsibility of farm management and production with the farm owner and should be compensated accordingly.
Starting a farm makes you realize how much of a jack of all trades you really have to be, and master of most. The trick is to recognize which bits you’re not good at, and to delegate or hire others to complement your skills. We’re lucky as our skills complement one another as a couple, but that’s not to say there isn’t ample work around to share the responsibilities of managing the farm with staffers.