To cultivate a field

This time of year, we farmers are in quiet attention. Watching the weather and our soil, waiting for the best time to start our work. Too wet, our machinery gets mired in mud and damages our soil. Wait too long and you will spend much of the season chasing after the weeds.

The word we use for preparing our fields for growing crops is cultivation. It is only April 1st but I have been cultivating fields outside the farm all winter long. Field and cultivate are two words of multiple meanings. A field is an open area; it is also a course of study. To cultivate is prepare an area for growing crops, but it is also to improve by labour, care, and study.

What I love about farming and gardening is the potential duality of it: the work is physical and intellectual. I spend the winter making plans, researching, studying--looking for ways to improve farming techniques and systems and then I spend the growing season putting them to action, observing how my decisions play out in real life conditions.

This winter, I spent a lot of time thinking how I do things, trying to figure out how I can improve and make the gardens healthier and more productive. But a farm business is not just a field. It’s a business. There are financial and marketing plans to consider. It is also a collection of people working towards common goals and an art. So although I rejigged my farm systems, read a lot about insect ecology, and tweaked my website and accounting, the most important part of my winter was spent reading books about how to work and how to live. It could not have come at a better time.

I wrote about this in a New Year’s journal post, about a speaker I saw in December, who blew me away with her deep search to improve both her farm and her and her family’s quality of life. She shared a photo of the books on her nightstand. I took some of these and some books on my own reading list and set up my field of study: how to cultivate better work and life skills and habits to improve my well-being and hopefully, the well-being of the people who work with me and the farm itself.

 Books for being a better farmer

Books for being a better farmer

And now I have a plan to set into motion along with my crop plan, my systems, my marketing that can be summarized to these points:

Work less, but deeper.

Work and rest need one another.

Choose your tools carefully and use them wisely.

Structure and commitment give room to freedom, not restrict it.

And finally, the guiding question: Does this enrich or impoverish my personal and business values?

Work less, but deeper

A few weeks ago, I spent time reviewing the hours I spent farming for the last two years. At peak season, I was clocking in 60-70 hours of work. It was a reality check, seeing those numbers on my spreadsheet. It was unsustainable and I vowed to work better, not longer.

Therefore, I made plans on how to support myself and my team better in those busy times. I have created set hours for us. I made solid, well-thought out plans to provide structure, so when I’m tired and flying about, the road is laid out for me clearly. I also forced myself to admit the ways I can sometimes fritter away time, which ultimately leads to me losing my free time to rest. I tried to cultivate new habits.

Work and rest need one another.

I have strived to make time to rest and recuperate, but never understood really, until reading further, how rest actually contributes to your work. Rest is not meant to be a passive thing. Active, but different, work happens in our brains and bodies while at rest. However, when you work to exhaustion, that activity nosedives. My sleep, hobbies, wanders, and daydreams make me not only happier and healthier; they make me a better farmer.

Choose your tools carefully and use them wisely.

When I first started farming, I had this hoe. I had read about it in a book and purchased it for the spring. And I could just not figure out the best way to utilize it. “But the book said it was the best,” I said to myself, trying a number of times to make it work. Meanwhile, I kept borrowing my friend’s tool, which worked great. The next year, the weird hoe sat unused and I purchased the the same one my friend used. The following year, I gave away the weird one. It wasn’t the right tool for me and trying to use it was a waste of time and energy.

There are many equivalents off-farm to this: softwares, record keeping systems, social media tools. Especially the later I examined closely and had to admit: Facebook wasn’t working for me. So I’ve deleted my business page. A continuous theme also across my reading: use social media with care. This wasn’t a warning from Luddites. It was a matter of neurology. Of addiction that is specifically written into these programs. Deleting all of my social media profiles was not an option: the are still good tools for storytelling, sharing news and events, and for being part of distant communities. However, a saw can cut wood and it can also cut you, if your not careful. Use mindfully.

Structure and commitment give room to freedom, not restrict it.

I have a weekly calendar above my desk where much of my waking days are now scheduled. I used to cringe at this sort of thing. I made it through the worst of school by keeping a tight schedule, but wasn’t part of being an entrepreneur about fighting for the freedom of my own schedule and commitments? Parkinson’s law is also on my board above my desk: work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Working from a structured schedule, from past experiments, I knew worked, but hadn’t been rigorous with it. I also had over-scheduled myself and hadn’t supported myself with healthy ways to rest and de-stress. This year I hope with finite hours and tasks balanced with active rest, I actually had the chance to succeed.

Does this enrich or impoverish my personal and business values?

After narrowing in on what are my key values, I needed a simple decision making tool to run choices through. Does this enrich or does this impoverish was a sentence written in one of the books and it clicked. There are so many exterior forces that impinge on decisions. Being someone that generally likes to make others happy and satisfied, I have trouble saying no if it means disappointing. While I think there are times in people’s lives to say yes to many things, that is not the time for me. I did that in my 20s and had a diverse array of experiences that I value very much. But now, I realize is a time of focus, slowing down, thinking deeper, speaking less and observing more (yes, the irony of this long journal post does not elude me).

So I will report back. Tell you how we do with these plans. Stay tuned to the journey.

Farmer Researcher, p3

 locally grown sweet peas
 locally grown sweet peas

I have sweet pea dreams. Colourful, giant blossoms with scent that carries for miles. I love their names and the stories that go with them. I love that somehow there is always a elderly, charming, flower obsessed British man that has created the varieties and grown the seed. But I hate to break it those chaps, I want in on their game.

A very long term goal of mine is to get into flower seed production. A gateway to that for me is seed variety trials. I dabbled a bit last year and decided this year to make it official. And of course, I had to do sweet peas first.

Talk to any flower farmer across Canada and your going to hear a similar complaint: where are our local seed houses for flowers? Much of the flower seed being produced and used by cut flower growers across Canada is grown internationally in place like the Netherlands, Israel, and various South American and African countries. Much of this seed is for outfitting large scale, corporate farms that use conventional methods of production and the varieties are selected for the climates of the countries where the seed is originally grown. Because of this, there is a knowledge gap in the performance of varieties in other locations.

Lastly, Canadian flower growers have a difficult time accessing seed, bulbs/tubers and other plant material and, therefore, are lagging behind flower trends and tend to pay higher prices due to currency exchange.

 sweet pea variety trial

There is an exciting revival of small scale Canada seed houses catering to the revival of local cut flower farms. These seed houses import interesting plant materials, but it is still being produced in the countries mentioned above. Many of our most interesting sweet peas are coming out of New Zealand and England. Which ones would do best growing in Ontario with our conditions, with our types of farming methods, for our uses and if we could figure that out, what one's could we raise for our own seed?

Luckily for me, I have 4 flower farmer friends (Floralora Flowers, La Primavera Farms, Harris Flower Farm and Wendalane Farm) that are willing join me on this crazy mission to try and figure out what are some of the best blush and white varieties for Ontario growers. I'll be acting as the "mother" site, growing all 10 varieties and each of their "satellite" farms will be replicating my results growing 3 varieties each.

Sweet pea extravaganza!I can't wait to be swimming in the ocean of them all!

 sweet pea variety trial

Thank you to Lauren Kolyn for the beautiful sweet pea imagery from 2016 featured in this post.

Farmer Researcher p2

More farm nerdery ahead...

 Beneficial insects

I saw this book at the EFAO tradeshow during the conference last winter. I almost passed it by. I'll admit, I judged it by its cover. The word "bugs" I thought worked well in an alliterative title with "beneficial," but it came off unscientific to me--or at least a signaled a gardening book for novices. Boy was I wrong. This book changed my world.

If you really want to see a irritable ecological farmer, ask them how they deal with pest pressure. Barriers, trap crops, and releasing beneficial insects like lady beetles are typical methods. Most producers not using insecticides must plan for a certain amount of damage, which becomes "seconds"-good enough for processing, but not appropriate for direct to consumer sales, where damage can be seen and judged unworthy aesthetically. Its especially true for flower farmers; there's not a lot of room for flower "seconds". Most people want the perfect blossom because their expectations for flowers are shaped by conventional, greenhouse produced blooms. A nibble here and there on a petal is kinda unacceptable. So that leaves field growers like me in a tough place.

One crop where this is particularly apparent is my dahlias. Last year, "annihilation" might have been slightly too strong to use, but not too far off for some of the damage I've seen from tarnish plant bug and cucumber beetle. Below are some examples from other growers of the damage that can ensue.

 tarnish plant bug damage on dahlias
 cucumber beetle damage on dahlias 

Those insect jerks!

Dahlias are a very important crop for a flower farmer. Difficult to ship, perishable,  and high value, they are key for locally based farmers. And in 5 years of growing them, I've never had a crop I felt really proud of and thats mainly due to insect damage. I was determined to do a research trial after last season to try methods of control, particularly looking at trap crops.

Trap crops involve planting something your insect pest particularly likes to eat, as a distraction to your cash crops--and then typically, then you kill them.  Something about this didn't sit right with me. I'm not above killing insects when necessary, but wiping out large swaths (and potentially harming other non-pest insects) did not appeal to me. And reading more in the beneficial insect book, I started to understand why.

Insects communities have similar population dynamics to other predator-prey systems you read about years ago in biology class. Basic premise: as prey populations rise, predator populations rise with it and take down prey until the population sink again. A constantly circulating wave. When outside forces affect one part of the community, the cycle gets out of flux and problems ensue. Its the same on the farm. For every native insect pest, there is are parallel predator insects to act as controls.

For cucumber beetle and tarnish plant bug, one of them is the tachinid fly, a parasitic fly that lays eggs on the head of its prey or inserts them into the hosts body. The eggs hatch and kill its host. But they need the host to reproduce. Therefore, in order to encourage one of the natural predators of my pest insects, I couldn't kill them because I could be killing my new predator populations.

I am no biologist. I don't even have a hard science degree. But I did decent literature review for my trial--trying to understand better the life cycles of the insects involved, their behaviours, how they interact with plants and the habitats they need to live in. I emailed with agricultural scientists in the US and Canada. And I spent a long time talking through my ideas with the staff  at EFAO's Farmer-Led Research Program. I didn't want to run my trial like all the others. I wanted to trial a system to see how I could effect those population dynamics and use my new-found knowledge of of pest behaviour to guide my planning process.

But there was a catch. Insect trials, I come to find out, typically use a lot of land and include multi-farm trials. Makes sense when your variables can fly. Lucky for me, I got approval to be one of the first farms to run a demonstration site focused on beneficial insects and pollinators for the FLRP. Hurray! That means there won't be a control for comparison for 2018, but hopefully the data I collect on insect population levels and observed damage, can inform other, more detailed research trial of this nature.

My research protocol isn't ready quite yet, but when it is, you can find it on the EFAO research library. But I'll give you a quick preview for what I hope the trial will entail: I am hoping to use a succession of flower crops (phacelia and alyssum) as a way to attract and maintain beneficial insect populations (who also feed on pollen and nectar), while also planting a succession of winter squash variety as  a decoy buffet particularly for the cucumber beetles.  If all goes to hell in a hand basket, my backup is what I felt like I had to start doing anyways--wrapping my precious blooms in individual organza bags. Insert a wide-eyed terrified emoji here. 

I have one more journal post to share about the other trial I'm doing this season. Stay tuned.

Farmer Researcher, p1

WARNING: Extreme farmer nerdery ahead!

 foliar spray

People often ask this time of year what I'm up to. I think my new reply should be: its research preparation season.

During the 2017 season, I was lucky to participate in the Farmer-led Research Program with Ecological Farmers of Ontario. I'm a big fan of EFAO--they host excellent workshops, help farmers like me to run farm tours, etc, and organize one of the best conferences where every year I am impressed by the knowledge, openness and general geekiness of it all.

The Farmer-led Research Program allows their member farmers to apply to receive funding and support to run their own, on farm research trials. For someone like myself who has been endlessly tempted to go back to school to do research, but doesn't have a strong, hard science background and who can't sit for more than 1 hour before getting antsy and wanting to go outdoors, this is the golden ticket. With a curious and skeptical mind, I get to try and solve some on-farm issues or test some organic methods that people recommend, but there's not always research to back it up. With staff support, we craft a trial format and method that suits me and the farm, but can also yield scientifically and statistically meaningful results.

One thing thats big in the organic flower and vegetable world is foliar sprays--applying amendments in a liquid form to plants to provide nutrients or ward off or treat disease. You can spend a lot of time and money on foliar sprays, but I wasn't sure how much of an effect they actually had. So I applied and ran the trial, looking at if seaweed sprays would make my sweet peas longer and if chamomile would protect my lisianthus from fungal wilt diseases.

 measuring sweet peas, farmer researcher

Not a surprise, being a "field" trial--the experiment and results were complicated. Last season was a cold, wet one. Not very ideal for fungal diseases or a regular farming schedule. I also was not happy with the sweet pea varieties I chose. However, here's the results in a nut shell: the sweet peas grew a bit longer with the seaweed spray and the chamomile spray appeared to have no effect. These results should be reproduced on another year to be more conclusive, but I think I derived some bigger picture conclusions from it:

Its not always about the efficacy, its about the time.
With my mechanical backpack sprayer, it takes a long ass time to spray my plants. Even with a positive trend in growth with the sweet peas, I wouldn't do it because all the time it took does not match the gains. A lot of farming is actually weighing the time vs the projected outcome. With a lot to do, small gains are often not worth it unless it is something that compounds and grows over time. With something like a foliar spray that is so temporary (its like a vitamin boost for plants, it doesn't build soil over time, etc), not worth repeating for me.

 sweet pea foliar spray farmer researcher

Interventions are all about the timing
With farming, you constantly have resituate your mind in time and space. Most of life we lead ourselves to believe A--->B---->C: a linear line, one thing completed leads to the next. While we could have a philosophical debate about this in general, I can say for certain, that linear timelines don't work for farming. Its an ever-shifting, interlocking systems of circles that don't have a specific arrival point on the horizon. I think the best of farmers watch closely, take in observations, and try their best to follow patterns that already exist and make small nudges to perhaps steer a process in a direction they believe might be more beneficial. The question is: when to make a nudge?

This year, with my left over liquid seaweed, I'm going to go back to a method I used to use when I was an urban farmer: presoaking my trays of seedlings with water and liquid seaweed. Young seedlings are very fragile when transplanting. A lot of the time, transplanting is a traumatic process--torn roots, broken leaves, a new environment that is not climate controlled. In tough times, I've seen plants just sit, relatively unchanged until they can get over the shock of leaving their trays and being out in the field. In that time, in their weakened state, they also have to set out new roots to feed themselves and form the relationships with microorganisms to extend their reach for food. By presoaking, I'm theorizing that they get the boost when they really need it, where they need it. 

 sweet peas, foliar spray, farmers researcher

The importance of timing was also extremely apparent in my use of chamomile spray as a mild antifungal spray for lisianthus. After seeing there was no statistically positive results in the trial, I went back to my reading.

I did not have my plants tested, but feel fairly confident that they have fusarium wilt. Doing some reading, trying to see if there were better ways of treatment, I ran into a major barrier: fusarium wilt can be seed born and is most definitely present in soil. So how would a foliar spray help? It was so after the fact.

 The effects of fusarium wilt aka so long lissies!

The effects of fusarium wilt aka so long lissies!

What I needed was: 1) clean seed (or a way to test/treat my existing seed. And more importantly... 2) I needed good genetics: varieties of lisianthus that had already been bred to resist this fungal disease. 3) Finally, I needed a way of treating the soil. Most organic farmers, reading the later, would immediately feel their hackles raise. "Treating the soil" can often mean fungicide drenching of the soil in conventional agricultural settings. Micro-organism genocide, not to put it lightly. But there were other ways to reduce wilt fungal populations. I'm still reading, but mustard, rape, and radish cover crops seem to reduce fusarium populations in the soil. These cover crops also have other beneficial properties, so I'll be incorporating them into my cover crop mixes this season. I am also on the hunt for the best lisianthus varieties to trial in 2019, which varieties seem to have the greatest resistance and if possible, pre-testing seed and soil mixes for presence of pathogens before even planting.

What works for humans is not necessarily right for plants
Last November, all of the farmer researchers got together to share their results, pitch new ideas, and generally discuss their projects. During a session I got to meet an interesting, biodynamic wine grape grower. She was looking for treatment methods for mildew infections in her plants--also fungal based. We were talking about sprays and a light bulb flashed in my mind: chamomile is used as a antifungal for humans, but we really have no idea of its efficacy on plants and whether there is collateral damage, killing beneficial fungal organisms. Whoa. Chamomile, as antifungals go, is pretty innocuous, at least compared to other chemically derived products, but what did I know? Even if it was working the way I hoped, killing the fusarium fungal organisms, what happens when you have a "hole" in an ecosystem? What rushes in?

This kicked off a series of deep thinking sessions this winter about creating farm ecosystem balance and how to reassess farm priorities, that continued with me into my new round of research trials.

But I'll save that for next time. Stay tuned for part 2 and what will be happening on the farm this season.

 Will it be farewell to the back pack sprayer?

Will it be farewell to the back pack sprayer?

This post will not include photos of breakfast sandwiches

Today was one of the sorts of days no farmer really talks about—at least to non-farmers. Especially farmers don’t blog about it or take photos of it or share it on social media.

 On a farm, there are ten thousand annoying, frightening, boring, frustrating, infuriating, screaming moments in a season. Yes, people write about the hard times—hail storms, crop failures, death of animals. Somehow I think sharing this and all the thousands of rosy, sunny days is so much easier. But you know something, I want to see more people saying, “Man, I just had a bull shit day.”

 I just had one of those days. I weigh carefully what to write about, what to share, what to crack a joke about. There’s a strange pressure I think we farmers feel to present the most beautiful, moving, and challenging moments and not to complain because there is an image of our lifestyle to uphold for the masses working in the office cubicles many of us left behind. Yes, I love being outdoors, doing physical work, being around beautiful flowers. But I deal with my fair share of stress and disappointments—and most of it isn’t romantic.

 Today I brought some parts from my irrigation in to be fixed. Thought it was fixed. It wasn’t. I wasted a whole day to have nothing solved. Its not the guys at the shop’s fault. It’s not mine. It’s faulty parts and who knows what. I also am fighting with a computer slower than my desktop from the 90s. Oh and recently I had a really shitty auto repair bill and my car insurance bill came just came in.

 Boring and sorta annoying right? But that’s my life—at least today.

 There’s few things that get my goat: people not being considerate or not listening, feeling stuck and wasting time. Those are some of the top ones—and spinning my wheels, especially dealing with things I don’t fully understand—auto, irrigation, machinery, technology—really tests my patience.

And sometimes my patience fails. I have enough to give it a good ol’ girl scout try, but there comes a time when I say, screw this and this day, I’m going home. I am done.

 Today was one of those days. I came home. I made myself breakfast for dinner. I wrote. I am going to watch Netflix and try to get up the enthusiasm to seed some flats. My life today.

 And you know what? I want to see more people’s days like mine. All the sunshine, flowers, and perfection is too much for me after a while. It used to stress me out—why didn’t my farm look so perfect, the flowers so long? Why are the farmers always so clean and I am covered in filth? Why were all their posts about how much work they accomplished that day and why did I feel so behind? Beware this social media pitfalls my fellow farming friends. Social media helps people construct the image they want to project. That’s cool, but I want some more brutal honesty without a moral in the end of it or a positive spin. I want more farmers to stand up and say “this sucks!” and end it there. Because that’s how it is sometimes. That’s real life. I don’t want to hide it any more.

 So enjoy this, social media, and no, you don’t get a photo of the delicious breakfast sandwich. I ate it all already. So there.