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.


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.

Farm City

Making better use of urban spaces has been an inspiration for me since I first visited Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane in 2004. There are many community gardens around the world that either allocate members their own plot to work or simply have a one size fits all model where everyone contributes and works a common area. In urban environments of the western world, it’s much rarer to find an individual who has taken the step from gardening, growing vegetables and maybe raising chickens, to farming, where more livestock are involved and butchering them for human consumption is definitely on the agenda. Significant barriers to people include time (livestock need regular and consistent care), resources (animals also need food), and access to land, since it’s not always easy to find a bare block that can be used with the blessing of the land owner.

Novella Carpenter had gardening in mind when she rented an apartment in the heart of Oakland, a city with nearly 400,000 inhabitants, on the west coast of California. She transformed an overgrown city block into a food producing oasis and then wrote a personal account of her experience growing fruit and vegetables while raising bees, chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, rabbits and finally two pigs on an almost abandoned site adjacent to her apartment building. It makes for an absorbing and entertaining read as armed with a can do attitude, plenty of enthusiasm and a shoestring budget she learns how to keep poultry alive amidst dog attacks, get her rabbits to breed like rabbits and dumpster dive enough food for her ever growing pigs. Novella’s approach reminds me of my own where if it sounds like a good idea you should try it and you’ll figure out everything else you need to know as you go along. City raised bacon anyone?