Have you ever wondered how you might set up a farm in you had unlimited financial resources?
I had the pleasure of visiting la Ferme de Quatres Temps (FQT) last week. FQT is unique in that it was started 4 years ago by a local multi-millionaire who wanted to set up an experimental farm with the aim of both showing what was possible and at the same time disrupt some of the current barriers to the development of the diversified farm model in the province of Quebec.
The farm includes both a mixed livestock component as well as an 8-acre market garden designed and managed by Jean-Martin Fortier. Jean-Martin is the co-founder of Les Jardins de la Grelinette, author of ‘The Market Gardener’, and all around visionary and innovator in the small-scale local organic farming movement.
As part of their mission, the farm offers annual tours for farmers to showcase the latest innovations. Visiting Ferme aux Quatre Temps is like going to Disneyland in the sense that it’s like…. wow, this is how a small scale farm would be set up if we all had unlimited access to capital! At the same time, it is intensely useful to visit FTQ and take note of approaches and principles that can be implemented even on an average budget.
Now in their third year of commercial production, the farm grosses approximately 700 000$ with a farm crew of 12 people. The products are primarily sold via their stand at Jean-Talon market during the spring, summer, and fall as well as to about 20 restaurants throughout the entire year including in the winter months.
I love how this farm demonstrates many of the principles of the 5 Pillars. The fact of working for a millionaire owner who has heavily invested in the farm had meant that there are well-defined outcomes that JM and the team are aiming for (aka Pillar 1) … both in terms of specific sales targets and in terms of the inovative mission of the farm. To reach these targets, careful planning has always been the foundation (Pillar 2)… from the design and layout of the farm, to the crop planning process, to the weekly team planning session. Finally (and what is most inspiring about visiting such a farm) solid production systems (Pillar 3) are well implemented (Most notably the weed control system, the harvest and post-harvest system, and the Information Flow system).
**Please note that all amazon links here are ‘affiliate links’ meaning that I get between 4 and 10% of the sales depending on the type of product. Of course, this does not affect which products I talk about in the blog…. it’s just that if I’m going to put links anyways, I might as well generate some income while I’m at it!
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I just love visiting farms! Each one is so unique and it is so interesting to observe how each person chooses to build their farm as a reflection of their interests, personalities, and vision.
While on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, I visited River Run Farm…. yet another fascinating example of thinking outside the box. River Run Farm is in fact two farms in one. Having started out as a partnership, the owners realised that their friendship was more important and decided to each run their separate but parallel farm businesses. The 2 farms operate on the same land, sharing equipment and infrastructure, but marketing separately and each managing their own production in separate designated fields on the farm.
During out stay, we were hosted by side of River Run Farm operated by Noah and his partner, Ana. I was really impressed with what Ana and Noah have been able to develop in just 5 years. Here are some highlights that stood out to me.
Weed free organic vegetable fields
The first thing that jumped out at me what that they really nailed the weed control in their fields. The fields are properly tilled before planting to eliminate grasses and perennial weeds so that crops are planted into nice clean fields. Next, crops are cultivated regularly using scale appropriate, horse drawn cultivator units including finger weeders and beet knives mounted on parallelograms. I also noticed that they were thoroughly composting their manure (from the horses and cows) in regularly turned windrows that we covered with landscape fabric. Great job River Run! 🙂 Next on the horizon at River Run is looking at how to do all this using reduced tillage and even organic no-till. I look forward to seeing where they take this given what great results they have achieved in just 5 years.
Amazing mid-summer lettuce production
Coming from Quebec, it was quite surprising to see what beautiful, lush, huge lettuces were being harvested in the height of summer…. one advantage of farming in a cool coastal climate. I really appreciate how Noah and Ana have chosen to focus on crops that are well adapted to their eco-zone.
Noah and I (you can almost see those amazing lettuces)
Wow, talk about a beautiful place to farm!!
Chickling vetch green manure
As part of their commitment to excellence, Noah is working to integrate the systematic use of green manures and cover crops into their vegetable rotation. As part of this, he planted a trial plot this year testing out a dozen green manures to see what does best in his climate: Forage peas, Austrian field peas, hairy vetch, chickling vetch, sorghum Sudan grass (Sudex), barley, chickpeas, and lentils. All this to learn which green manures fit best in his system and which might be added to his current standard green manure mix of fava bean, oats, phasilis, and clover.
We went out and dug some soil profiles in the green manure test plots to take a look at the root development… and wow! The chickling vetch really stood out in terms of amount of active Rhizobium nodules and root mass. I was particularly interested to note that it seems to have both a sturdy tap root AND a good amount of fibrous roots as well… Tap root to penetrate the soil, fibrous roots to stabilise the soil structure and feed the soil microorganisms with plenty of root exudates.
How are you using green manures on your farm? Have you seeded your fall green manures yet? What are the best systems you have found integrate the use of green manures systematically in your vegetable crop rotation?
We’re on a trip… as you may know. We’re currently in Oregon, working our way north through Washington to BC. Along the way, we are connecting with local farmers, trading information, and forging friendships.
I have been completely humbled by the hospitality and generosity of the farmers we have been meeting along this trip. It is heartwarming to see the enthusiasm with which farmers welcome us into their homes…. and totally randomly, I just go online and look up the local farms and reach out via email… so far i have had 100% positive responses.
What I love about visiting farms (apart from geeking out with fellow farmers) is meeting people who think outside of the box and experiencing the paradigm shift of seeing something in a different light.
Here are three farms we visited last week that each have their own particular paradigm smashing perspective.
Valley Flora Farm: Langlois, Oregon
Located up a peaceful valley along the Pacific coast in southern Oregon, Valley Flora farm is a gem of beauty and unorthodox family farming.
The fact is, Valley Flora Farm is in reality three farms in one… one for each member of the family… a mother and her two grown daughters. Betsy settled here about 30 years ago and currently farms greenhouse on hoop house crops (Solanaceae and Cucurbits in summer. Greens in winter); Abby came back and settled on the farm in the early 2000’s and intensively grows top quality salad mix for the local restaurant and wholesale market (I mean.. really nice greens! (Probably about 1 acre); Last but not least Zoë came back to the farm in the late 2000’s and grows about 5 acres of mixed vegetables for a 100 member CSA, a thriving farm stand, a couple wholesale accounts, and ½ acre of you pick Strawberries; Zoë does most of her farming using draft horses though she also has a tractor for certain tasks.
What marked me the most was the unconventional family farm model that allows these three women to collaborate while at the same time do their own thing. The products are all marketed under the Valley Flora Farm brand, and Quickbooks just takes care of distributing the money to each business each month. Collective expenses are distributed proportionally to gross sales of each business.
Together and seperate… at the same time. And laughing, and loving.
Thank you for welcoming us!
Cully Neighborhood Farm/Slow Hand Farm: Portland, Oregon
Josh Volks is a veteran small farmer, author, teacher, consultant, innovator, and inventor…. and the owner of Slow Hand Farm.
We visited him at his latest farm right in the heart of a residential neighborhood in Portland…. ½ acre farm in partnership with Cully Neighborhood Farm.
Our visit coincided with on of their on farm CSA pick up days for their 65 member CSA. The thing is… everyday is a pickup day, since this farm is run 2 days per week… literally, I mean the farm only operates 2 days per week. In total the two owners and a handful of employees work the equivalent of 6 labor days per week. (Ie 48 person hours per week total labour input).
It is a nice example of how farms are here to serve us as tool to accomplish certain personal goals or life’s intentions. For some people this means full time, for some people this means part time so as to create space for other interests and goals.
Full Plate Farm: Ridgefield, Washington
Located just north of Portland Oregon, Full Plate Farm is another great example of taking a unconventional approach to using farming to build an incredible lifestyle… cause that’s ultimately what it’s about… putting in place the element to live the life of our dreams!
The farm is Danny’s business; Michelle is an artist and college professor. It is important to note that this is by choice and not be economic necessity. There is this ideal of working with our spouses, but this is only ideal if that is what both people want. (actually, this is something that all three of these farms have in common.
The next unconventional element of FPF is that they grow 3 acres of field vegetables and 2 high tunnels for a 90 member winter only CSA. The CSA starts in November and runs through the end of March. The delivery are every second week allowing Danny to have a week off in between for travel, family, and farm admin. Most of the crops are actually harvested directly from the field all winter long in this mild, rainy coastal climate… although he is moving more towards bulk harvesting carrots and storing them in the cold room to reduce field loss to rot.
What I find interesting is the wisdom of choosing a winter CSA model rather than fighting with a fairly saturated summer CSA market and dealing with poorly draining fields in the spring.
Danny mostly does all the farm work with the help of a part time employee 1 or 2 days per week. Oh… and Danny only works 4 days per week so as to be able to spend time with his three children and take family trips… In fact when we were visiting, they were getting ready for a 1 week camping trip… in JULY!