Another season starts!

Three weeks into the season
With a new farm tan and soil on my hands the next season has begun. This summer I’m in Burnaby, just outside of Vancouver, where I’ve landed a job at Common Ground Community Farm a small 1 acre property that grows fruits and vegetables and is home to, two cats, one dog, eight chickens, two goats and thousands of honey bees.

I have to thank the Vancouver Urban Farming Society and the listserv* they host for finding my first paid gardening gig. It may have only been a few words sandwiched in between advice sought for boron application and offerings of tomato seedlings but it was enough to get me in touch with Dave Carlson and set up a meeting after we arrived in New Westminster where we are housesitting. A quick tour of the farm and I suddenly find myself three weeks into the season! With salad deliveries set up for next week and more CSA planning to do before the boxes start going out to householders in June. The garden is also just around the corner from Earth Apple Farm and Urban Digs; two small scale organic farms it’s heartening to ride past on my daily commute. I saw aerial crop dusters last week and it was a tad depressing but to be expected given we are surrounded by industrial estates and conventional vegetable and cranberry production.

With Dave off-site for much of the day I currently set my own work schedule and it’s given me time to reflect upon The time I spent last year in Quebec at Chelsea Gardens. While I wasn’t exactly paid, the room, board and small stipend combined with a full season of farming experience was invaluable and has given me confidence when it comes to planning, planting, seeding, harvesting etc. There is still plenty to learn and of course many, many weeds to pull but after a grey and chilly winter in Revelstoke it’s great to be working outdoors again.

* List server, a small program that automatically sends messages to multiple e-mail addresses on a mailing list.

Happy Harvesting

Harvested zucchiniThe first harvests of the year were some of the most exciting times on the farm. Harvesting is the culmination of all the planning and preparation that has taken place and is typically rewarding and delicious.

It also marks the beginning of a new phase on the farm where harvesting becomes a big part of the daily workload as the seeding, planting and bed preparation finish up although weeding still remains; a constant chore of farm life year round.
When to harvest
Among other things this can depend on:

  • Weather – Heavy rain is not ideal harvesting weather as it affects how well the vegetables will store.
  • Time of day – the earlier the better for greens such as lettuce and mizuna, while fruits such as beans and tomatoes are reputedly sweeter if they are picked in the afternoon.
  • Readiness of produce – Is the produce at its optimum for tastiness? Parsnips are sweeter after the first frost while cilantro that’s left too long in the ground can start to taste bitter.

How much to harvest
Sometimes it was a matter of harvesting everything we could such as when the garlic was ready. At other times we only ever harvested what was needed to fill the weeks CSA boxes, restaurant orders and predicted market sales such as when picking chard leaves. A few things to consider:

  • How much is needed
  • Length of time the harvest can be stored
  • Consequences of delaying the harvest (there’s no point in delaying picking arugula if it will become bitter before the next harvest or not picking peppers if there will be a hard frost tomorrow)

How to harvest
Each vegetable has a slightly different way of being picked. Typically fruits such as tomato, eggplant, capsicum, chilli, zucchini, squash, watermelon and rock melon were cut from the plant with a clean slice of a sharp knife. The root vegetables such as carrots, beets, rutabaga and parsnip were all grasped firmly and pulled although there’s always the odd casualty whose top twists off leaving the root in the earth to be dug out and added to the farmer food pile. Leaves such as chard or kale can be cut or neatly torn from the plant while our beans just needed a sharp tug and the ground cherries and tomatillos were ready when they easily came away from the bush.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of picking fruit from a vine or bush or pulling roots from the ground. Post harvest processing (washing, packing, drying and bunching) is just as important but that’s for another post.

 

Installing Irrigation

The summer of 2012 in much of Quebec and Ontario was hot and dry so setting up the irrigation system early in the season was a major priority. A new well was sunk at Hendrick Farm with just enough capacity to cover our watering needs. A typical rainfall year in Chelsea sees 772.2mm of precipitation but drought hit and by August we’d only had 320mm so the system needed careful management to ensure the well didn’t run dry.

  • Planning – an irrigation plan was essential; different crops need different sorts of watering. Most crops are happy with overhead sprinklers but those that are susceptible leaf mould and similar diseases such as solanacae (tomatoes, potatoes and  eggplant) or cucurbits (melons, squash and cucumbers) do better then water is applied with drip tape.
  • Components – selecting according to price, availability and re-usability. The total cost of the system was about $3000 however most of the components can be re-used next year.
  • Installation – connection to the well, digging ditches to run lines underground and reduce the risk of them being run over and damaged.
  • Management – Moving irrigation lines, checking timer programming and electrical connections took about an hour each day. The installation of electric timers meant sprinklers could be set to turn on and off when we weren’t physically in the fields.
  • Pack down – Freezing conditions in winter mean any irrigation piping needs to be packed up and stored until the spring. While the overhead sprinklers were simple, pulling up the drip tape meant navigating through overgrown pumpkin and melon beds but it all came up. Labelling the length of piping to be stored was essential for re-using and planning the following year.

What did we learn? Irrigation, for the most part, isn’t that fun but it’s here to stay as part of any modern farmers skill set and without it the harvest

Focus on Inner City Farms

On a recent visit to Vancouver I took the opportunity to catch up with Camil Dumont, a founder of Inner City Farms (ICF), one of the urban farms that has sprung up there over the past few years. While the city is known for its milder than most of Canada climate, more recently it has been building a reputation as a hub for true local food with the number of community gardens and small scale urban horticulture start ups rapidly increasing. As consumers become more aware of the environmental and ethical issues associated with grocery shopping there’s a growing niche for organisations such as ICF  “We harvest and provide the same day, grow all in our own city and mostly offer an opportunity to support social and ecological values tied to food citizenship when we offer our veggie shares. Not many others provide this package.”

Initiated by a group of five friends who were motivated to garden and grow their own chemical free food but lacked viable land due to inner city apartment living, they approached friends and family in more suburban areas with ample lawn space that could be converted into vegetable patches. After turning their first sod in 2009 the group soon realised they would easily grow more than they could eat and ICF was born. In their first year 6 yards underwent conversion with sod being replaced by composted growing beds; three years later they work at 20 different sites which total just under an acre in area.

Word spreads fast and they get more offers to convert front yards than they can handle so each proposed site is assessed for orientation, soil quality and presence of invasive species before any decisions are made. Homeowners need to have the right attitude towards the project and establishing and maintaining good relationships with them is essential, as Dumont says “It’s not for everyone, a farm no matter what the size is a working space and it won’t always look like nice straight perfectly weeded vegetable rows.” Due to changes in ownership or householder priorities they have had to return several sites to their original lawn covered state but overall the majority of the land providers are happy to host ICF.

While they haven’t had any major issues with theft or vandalism, attributable to the neighbourhoods they choose to grow in and the fact that their gardens are owned by someone, the group does flout the law on a daily basis as what they do is technically illegal. There’s a host of council by-laws they break but luckily, as policy slowly catches up with the changing world that is urban agriculture, a no enforcement policy in place so Dumont and his team can continue to work without the threat of fines.

Besides fruit and vegetable production, ICF also places importance on improving access for people with low or no income to fresh produce “They are often the people that can benefit the most” says Dumont and with this in mind, ICF donates a huge weekly box of veggies throughout the season to Oppenheimer Park Community Kitchen where it’s used to cook dinner as part of the DECK project. In the current food distribution system, organic food is simply priced out of reach for many people and as part of bridging this gap Dumont has plans for a sponsorship system where companies and individuals can sponsor vegetable deliveries via local charities.

On the business side of things, ICF follows the CSA model where shares in the harvest are pre-sold in the spring and members are entitled to a box of fresh veggies each week for the duration of the season. Initially ICF had just 9 shares available and this has consistently increased to a whopping 65 with restaurant orders gradually being added to the mix. Key aspects of their approach to minimise capital input have been to:

  • Sell produce directly to the consumer.
  • Hire big equipment, like a roto-tiller or sod cutter, only when required.
  • Exchange produce for use of front yard space.
  • Exchange labour for access to greenhouse space.
  • Exchange labour for additional products (currently sprouts from Food Pedalers  are included in the CSA boxes).
  • Good planning so wastage is minimised.
  • Avoid cultivation of delicate greens such as lettuce and arugula eliminating need for refrigeration.
  • Maintain a small scale operation so produce is always harvested on delivery day eliminating the need for storage space.

Profitability has continued to improve and ICF was able to pay a salary for the first time in 2012 with a ute purchase planned in 2013 to replace the trusty farm Corolla.

All five co-founders are long established Vancouverites and this has definitely been a factor in their success as connections with their sprout supplier, soil testing lab and commercial customers had already been established through friends and family. Dumont’s advice to anyone who wants to start urban farming is “Go for it! We didn’t know a lot when we started” and with plenty of hard work, persistence and passion they have managed to build a thriving business that grows great food and supports their community.

Note: All images from a great short film produced by Fire and Light as part of a fantastic series about urban farming in Vancouver; well worth checking out.

Fermenting fomenter

A bonus for me as an intern last year was a copy of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz and over the summer it was my little bible for fermenting just about anything I could get my hands on. Katz delves into the historic significance of fermentation, something that is practised by most cultures around the globe, as well as briefly examining the science of live cultures. He also looks at the health benefits of live cultured foods and why ferments have gone out of fashion as our food system increasingly relies on mass production and standardization.

All the fermented foods we find commonly are listed, with recipes for sauerkraut, sourdough, beer and wine featured, but there’s also a host of lesser known cultures such as amazaké (sweet Japanese rice drink), injera (spongy Ethiopian flat bread) and kombucha (sweetened tea fermented with a SCOBY – symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast) covered as well. A basic list of resources is included for obtaining cultures that won’t just happen to be hanging around like the koji mould, Aspergillus oryzae, needed to make miso. Experimentation is strongly encouraged and fermenting can be a pretty exciting process; flavours develop over time, you can taste as you go and if you’re like me and don’t really follow recipes that strictly, every jar tastes different.

Over the course of the season I mostly used lacto-fermentation, one of the simplest fermentation methods (vegetables + brine + time) that can be ready in less than two weeks, for a few batches of kimchi and innumerable jars of mixed vegetables. Just before I left Quebec we put a batch of elderberry wine on using elderberries found on an urban forage – thanks to the Gatineau council for planting elderberry in public spaces we were able to harvest just enough for the recipe – but there are many recipes I plan to try in the future.

I found fermenting to be an easy process with tasty results and I’d encourage anyone whose ever thought about it to give it a try; it can be as simple as filling a jar and letting nature go!