Broadfork farm: Being intentional, keeping it simple, and innovating!

This week we had the pleasure of stopping in for a visit with Shannon and Bryan at Broadfork farm in River Hebert, Nova Scotia.

With 4 acres of tillable land and less than 1.5 acre in actual production, Shannon and Bryan make a full time living growing organic vegetables and cut flowers and working 5 days per week (Sunday and Monday is their weekend). The farm basically follows a bio-intensive model except on a 7 year crop rotation including 4 years of green manure.

The thing that stood out to me was their desire to keep it simple. Specifically, the fact that they only one off farm marketing trip per week to the Dieppe, NB farmers market, and have no employees at the farm (except a helper at market on saturdays). They also sell to a couple of restaurants that either pick up at the farmers market or at the farm. The decision not to have employees is based on their desire for freedom and flexibility in their schedule… plus they both have had farm management roles in the past and have learned that managing employees is not what they enjoy doing.

Part of their success in keeping the farm simple is their willingness to adopt innovative techniques or to literally create them when needed. Here are a couple of photos to illustrate what I mean.

Shannon and Bryan are magnificently lazy… amongst other things, they do not like weeding. 😉 In addition to using landscape fabric to block weed, they also use a 2 inch ‘mulch’ layer of compost and plant directly into the weed free compost. I personally wonder about the long term impact on soil phosphorus and potassium levels in a system that would receive such large doses every year (which is not the case at Broadfork Farm, given their long crop rotation.)
To reduce the labor needed to spread compost, they had this self loading compost spreaded built by a local machinist.
This self loading compost spreader allows then to spread compost efficiently without needing 2 tractors or a front end loader. The spreader is capable of spreading a light dose but takes 3 passed to apply the 2-3 inch layer required for the compost mulch weed management technique.
The self loading compost spreaded drops te compost directly on the bed top without flinging it all over the place like a traditional manure spreader. One challenge Bryan noted was that the compost bridges if it is too moist. This could be addressed by the addition of a second set of beaters, or perhaps larger fins on the beaters.
Notice the overhead sprinklers in the caterpillar tunnels… a nice touch I don’t see often. Also notice that the tunnel is filled with foliage and flower crops for bouquets; a crop mix that tends towards the highly profitable crops which is a key strategy in making a full time income from the farm.
Sorghum-Sudan Grass (SSG) and forage pea green manure that will be mowed or rolled for the cucurbits that will be strip till planted next year with a landscape fabric mulch. We don’t often see SSG used in a green manure mix. I love the look of the frosted killed SSG with the peas just starting to climb up and dominate… I wonder what it will look like in a month! The SSG isn’t as tall as I would expect… late planting? Cooler maritime climate?
The use of silage plastic for occultation is so key for getting the weed seeds to germinate prior to planting crops!

Oh… and they have no internet or cell phones. I love it!! Talk about being a stand against the current IT addiction that is prevalent today! Instead, they use the local public library’s wifi 5 minutes away and have taken great advantage of the ability to schedule posts ahead of time to maintain an active presence on social media without bringing internet into their home.

All of these elements point to how intentional Shannon and Bryan are about building a farm that fully supports the lifestyle they want to live. From the very beginning Shannon and Bryan have been very specific about what they want to create with their farm. They mention the Everdale Farm Business Planning course as having been very helpful in starting out the farm with a clear plan of what they wanted and what they didn’t want. Building on that, Shannon and Bryan have made a point of finding new tools every year to stimulate the reflection and discussion of what they want and how they want to guide their farm.These range from holistic farm planning courses, to RRSP retirement planning questionnaires, to ‘backcasting’ (rather than forecasting)(ie, reverse engineering the next steps based on what your desired outcome is).. to name a few. The point is that every year, they make the time and space to reflect, discuss, and make choices about the direction the farm is headed in.

Broadfork farm is a wonderful illustration of many of the principles laid out in the 5 Pillars of Lifestyle Farming

Now, your turn….

What outcomes do you want to produce on your farm?

Where could your farm be simpler? Where might you be making things harder than they need to be?

What would a truly satisfying lifestyle look like for you?

3 ways for organic vegetable farmers to take full advantage of the fall to build a solid marketing system for next year.

As summer fades into fall, it can be easy to be tempted just coast through the remaining weeks of CSA deliveries and farmer’s markets. We can fall into the trap of thinking we are too tired to think about his kind of thing, that the die are cast for this year, that we just need to keep our head down and focus on the fall harvest…

With the rush of summer behind us, fall is actually a fantastic time to focus more of your energy how to better serve you customers and build a solid marketing strategy for the next year. Herein lies one of the key shifts I propose to you: to see your marketing efforts as a means of being of service to your clients. So often I meet small scale organic farmers who fundamentally see marketing as something dirty, sleazy, or ‘sales-y’. Alternately, there is this discourse called ‘they owe us… we work our ass off growing amazing food and saving the planet… food prices are artificially low due to the influence of agri business not having to pay for the ecological and social hidden costs of industrial food production’.

I’m not here to have a philosophical discussing around these issues…

My question for you is: are either of these mindsets useful for you in building a sustainable organic vegetable farm that fully supports the quality of life you would love to live?

Seeing marketing and sales as a means of being of service to our clients empowers us to play full out towards our goals! The fact of the matter is that your farm produces amazing delicious organic vegetables and that there are people out there who would would love to eat them! Whatever marketing efforts you do are fundamentally an act of service in connecting people with your farm.

Marketing is everywhere, it is everything we do, it is how we communicate about what we love, and about the change we seek to bring into this world.

Here are three things to keep in mind this fall so be of maximum service in your marketing.

The empathetic marketer

The key to being an illuminated marketer is to put yourself in your customers shoes and really understand getting to know them. This is actually one of the greatest strengths of small scale organic farmers, we actually have the opportunity to personally know our customers, and we actually care about them…. So let’s make the most of this!

Often we have a sense of what we think our clients are experiencing, but there’s nothing like actually talking with them about it. Over the course of the next weeks between now and the end of markets, get in the habit of discussing the following questions with your clients… and keep note of your observations!

Who are they? Do they have children? What is their income level?

What ‘problem’ are you solving for them? What stories do they tell themselves about buying their vegetables from you? What do they value about your farm? What do they care about in the world? What are their hopes? What are their fears?

Take notes on your conversations, including the specific words that they use to talk about why they love your farm. What you learn from these conversations will be invaluable this winter as you plan out your marketing activities for next year.

A great side effect of these types of conversations is getting to know some really wonderful people even better and building relationships.

Go out with a bang!

This is simple, the way you end the season will influence how people remember you and how likely they are to want to be your customer next year. Of course fall doesn’t have as full a diversity of crops as summer, but this is a time to really pay attention to displaying and presenting your products in a way that highlights the abundance the fall harvests.

What else could you be doing to provide maximal value to your customers from now till then end of your market or CSA season? Potlucks, community activities, recipes? Use what you are hearing in your conversations with customers see how to wrap up the season in a manner that leave a great impression on your customers.

Enroll people for next year, right away!

There’s no reason to wait till next winter to get people to sign up for next year’s CSA program. Starting 4 weeks before the end of the season, offer a means for members to sign up right away!

This same principle applies to your farmer’s market customers too. Find ways to get their email addresses so you can touch base with them next spring to let them know when you’ll be starting market. This is the time to be doing this… not in the middle of winter.

Another approach for market customers is to offer a market subscription program… essentially a hybrid between CSA and farmers market. In its simplest form, People pre-purchase a certain dollar value that they can then use at market in exchange for a certain % discount. Even if the amount they commit to is minimal, it serves to help get them in the habit next summer of shopping at your stand.

The key here is to get your clients to engage in some act that will increase the likelihood of seeing them next summer!

As you put these principles into action, constantly be asking yourself: How can I provide the greatest value possible to this person right now!?

Go make a ruckus!

Orchard Hill Farm visit: Horse powered organic no-till, draft horse drawn root lifter, and an amazing soil health.

On our recent journey back east from BC, we had the pleasure of stopping off for a visit with Ken and Martha Laing at Orchard Hill Farm in southwestern. Orchard Hill Farm is where my spouse Jolianne and I worked in 2009 during the summer after graduating from university. This is where we learned to farm with horses, and learned to live and work together as a couple 24/7. It was wonderful to be able to return to OHF after all these years and see the evolution of the farm (and show our son Milo our roots!)

Ken Laing with his latest apprentice… Milo, our 4 year old son!

Having taken their semi-retirement when their daughter returned to the farm to take over the vegetable portion of the farm, Ken and Martha now spend their time in the caribbean… just kidding, Martha is loving her time with her grandchildren and Ken has launch full steam into organic no-till research and is launching a custom grazing operation on 60 acres of the farm… yup, real farmer’s retirement!

This year Ken is running a randomized plot replicated experiment to compare different no-till approached to growing spring grains. OK… it’s important to note here that we what we’re talking about here is not really no-till, but rather reduced tillage. The point here is to find ways of managing crops that nurture soil health by reducing the amount of tillage.

In this trial, Ken is looking various winter-killer green manure mixes for the no-till planting of oats and barley in the spring: Buckwheat, oats/barley/peas mix, daikon, oats/barley/fava bean mix, and sorghum-Sudangrass (Sudex). As a control, he is comparing this to fall plowed hay field.


Strips of various green manure mixes for no-till planting of oats and barley mixed grain crop in the spring.
Me driving a home made no-till cereal seed drill used for planting small grains directly into cover crop residues, designed and built by Ken Laing at Orchard Hill Farm.


One thing I noticed was that there seemed to be fewer earthworms in plots growing the sorghum Sudan-grass. I took a quick look online and did I not see any mention of this. Have any of you noticed this on your farms?

This approach is also used to establish multiple successions of green manures without having to till it as much. For example, a sequence such as: rye (killed with roller crimper at milky stage in june) -> Buckwheat (killed with roller crimper in august) -> Oats and peas (frost killed).

Another no-till crop establishment technique Ken is playing with (yes, playing… if you could see him managing the farm… it’s like a kid in an amusement park!) is the classic rolling/crimping of cereal rye at flowering to kill it and create a mulch for a no-till crop…. in this case a plot of squash and one of soybeans.

Roller-crimper used to kill cereal rye prior to no-till planting of soybeans or squash.

The results for the squash have been sub-optimal for the past 2 years for reasons Ken is still searching for. After the first year, Ken suspected that the rye residue was immobilizing nitrogen, but additional fertility at planning the second year failed to correct the situation.

Organic squash and soybeans, no-till planted into roller-crimped cereal rye.

On the other hand, the soybeans look great and have fewer weeds than back in the day when Ken was growing soybeans and cultivating them! There were tons of pods, though they were filling out a little slowly. Who knows..? Looking forward to hearing back from Ken regarding yield when he combines them in the fall.

No-till planted organic soybeans with rye mulch still providing great weed control in late august.

Finally, I wanted to share these pictures of a horse drawn, single row root lifter that Ken built. He says 2 horses pull it fine for a shallow rooted crop like leeks or celeriac, but that 4 horses are necessary for lifting a deep rooted crop like parsnip. For carrots… it depends on how many rows need to be lifted and how long the carrots are.

Home made draft hose drawn root lifter.
Close up of horse drawn root lifter for harvesting carrots, parsnip, leeks, celery root etc.

The main challenge that Ken notes regarding implement a no-till approach in an organic system is that due to the challenge of controlling weeds without tillage, it ends up not really being no-till but rather an alternating of tillage and no-till. The result is that the benefits of no-till are not fully experienced. According to Ken’s nephew who is a conventional no-till farmer, the soil actually gets harder and less well structured for about the first 5 years of no-till.

How do we implement no-till on organic vegetable farms? Some of the techniques that excite me in this domain are the use of occultation using silage tarps and the use of deep mulch ‘living soil’ method .

What about you? How is your soil doing?

Are your tillage practices in line with your life’s intentions and purpose for the farm?

Where do you see an opportunity in your system to shift your tillage methods so as to foster soil health?

I love how dedicated our community of farmers is to implementing the changes our world so dearly needs. Remember, you play such a critical role in building the world we would love our children and grandchildren to inherit! You are part of a movement that is way bigger than just your individual farm….. Oh, and let’s not forget to have fun too!

Power to the playful!

Using budgeting like a GPS to guide your small scale organic vegetable farm or market garden to financial success… aka PROFITS!!!!

Money isn’t everything, but is sure is a dang useful resource!!

There are so many reasons we farm: to bring about a change in society and our environment, because we love being our own boss and working out doors, to create a wonderful environment to raise children, to grow vibrant nourishing food for our communities, etc. What an amazing set of life’s intentions this is!

And ultimately…. we need to make money from our farm or market garden so that we have the resources necessary to bring all these wonderful intentions into reality.

Your farm is a business! It’s amazing how profitable small scale organic vegetable farming can be when the key business systems are in place. You can make a comfortable full time living from organic vegetable farming!

The financial GPS

One key practice is making a budget and then actually using it to make decisions throughout the growing season. It’s a bit like a GPS, you can’t just enter your destination and forget about it, you actually have to look at the map and use the GPS to navigate to road to where you want to go.

Similarly, the real utility of a budget is to help you make decisions on how to use your money during the growing season. I see too many people make a budget and not take a look at it again till the following winter when they close their books and find out how much profit they actually did (or did not) make.

Instead, keep your bookkeeping up to date and every month (or every  weeks, depending on the size of your business) compare your actual results to you budget forecasts.

Are you reaching your sales targets for each of your sales outlets?

If not, what action could you take this week to boost your sales? Are there any new outlets or clients that could be explored?

Are you there any expense categories where you are spending more or less money that you had planned?

Given what you are observing, what could you be doing to adjust your spending so as to reach the goals that you have set for yourself? Notice we often have a tendency to want to buy the larger format of material so as to get a better per unit price. With an up to date budget, we know exactly how much money is left in each expense category. For example, if we need screws but our hardware budget is almost empty, we can just buy what we need rather than going for the 1000 screw box. Alternatively, we can look and see if there is another expense account where we actually over budgeted and thus can redirect some money to the hardware expense category and let ourselves loose on the mega-huge box of screws!

It’s amazing how much power we actually have over how we spend our money. Yes, there are some expenses that are non-negotiable, but you have much more agency than it may at first seem like.

Mid season re-budgeting

Another practice that is useful is to revise your budget forecasts in mid-August or early september. Now that you know the actual incomes and expenses for January through July or August, enter them into a new version of your budget. Next, take a fresh look at the coming months. What are you expecting in terms of income and expenses?

With this refreshed mid-season budget forecast, you now have a much clearer picture of how the fall will shape out, what sales targets you need to be hitting, and how much money you actually have to spend.

I know… you’d rather be out in the fields with your hands in the soil… and you probably have more urgent things to do… but budgeting is one of those quadrant 2 (non-urgent, important tasks) that will free up so much of your mental space and enable you to run your farm or market garden with clarity and focus.. and have FUN doing so!

What would it be like farm without worry about money?

Would it be OK with you if money got a little easier?

There’s never been a better time to master the energy of money than right friggin now.

Go make a ruckus!