ICE LAKE – A personal field day hosted by the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) introduced participants to the principles of organic farming. The three owners of Forks Farms, Peggy Bailey and Eric Blondin, and Linda and Chuck Wilson of Our Garden, shared how they work with the land and deal with the challenges posed by growing on Manitolin Island.
Three Forks Farm is a certified organic farm that produces mixed vegetables and fruits, garden seeds and chicken. The Wilson family has been organically growing, harvesting, storing, preserving and marketing food for over 30 years, producing a range of natural and relish jelly, pickles, vinegar and oil from herbs, fruits and vegetables grown or forage on their land. Both farms are located in Ice Lake.
While every farm is unique, they aren’t any different either. Similarities are found in their key messages of diversification, organic growing methods, healthy soils, natural pest management, experimentation, collaboration, access to water, knowing your market, and preserving biodiversity. Farmers also face similar challenges.
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is one of the challenges. Mrs. Bailey and Mr. Blondin touch on this issue by not working in the evenings and Sundays, and by dividing tasks. Mr. Blondin looks after the market garden and Mrs. Baillie takes care of the seed production. Three Forks Farm also has two full-time employees, one part-time employee working on the farm, and three part-time helping out with the markets. They are trying to hire people who have a real interest in farming.
The Wilson family tries to downsize to make things easier as they get older, and they have a succession plan for when they’re ready to retire.
Pests and predators are a big problem everywhere on the island. Willsons uses row covers and mulching to help control pests. They use fencing, nets, scarecrows, noise makers and other low-tech methods to deter large pests that include birds, rabbits, and deer.
Both farms use a fence of some sort. Three Forks fenced 10 acres of the 100-acre area with high tensile electric perimeter wire fencing for deer. “We have extreme pressure from deer here on the island, and even with a high-tensile fence, we have deer that manage to get through,” said Ms. Bailey.
In the past three years, they have lost $30,000 worth of crops to deer and some seed crops this year. “We’re just trying to get better and find better ways to manage,” she added.
Two cattle dogs protect chickens from predators.
All brassica crops (turnip, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, etc.) at Three Forks Farm are grown under insect nets for the life of the plants due to the diamond moth. “We use insect nets as the first level of protection because we do not use insecticides or pesticides,” said Ms. Bailey. “Everyone wants to eat the cup.”
They also grow cucumbers only for market production in greenhouses due to cucumber beetles and hanging nets at the entrances. They sometimes buy beneficial insects and let in bees as well.
Biodiversity plays a major role in the success of both farms. Walk the public trails of Ravenswing, the name the Willsons gave their farm, and you’ll pass through healthy woodlands, meadows, wetlands, and a restored apple and pear orchard. You’ll also find thriving blueberry and chokecherry trees.
Three Forks Farm doesn’t look what many people think a farm should look like: there are plenty of wild and beautiful pollinator areas. “This is important to us,” said Mrs. Bailey. “It’s not a well-kept and decorated farm but that’s really important for the biodiversity of the farm, improving habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators as well.”
Healthy soil is critical to farming. Three Forks use buckwheat, peas, and oats as cover crops. It discourages weeds and makes other nutrients more available to plants for the next season. “It is better to have your soil covered with plant life for the health of the soil than to have it bare with nothing to grow in. Planting things in it feeds the soil microorganisms which in turn will help feed the plants in the future. We try to cover the crops when we have time.”
The chickens that Mrs. Bailey and Mr. Blondin raised under the artisanal chicken program also help in soil fertility. Chickens spend most of their lives outdoors in chicken tractors that are moved weekly. “They have a lot of food here and they love it,” said Mrs. Bailey. “We’ve certainly seen a significant increase in fertility in the areas where the chickens have been.”
Ms Wilson said the island is facing challenges in terms of soil, adding that she is very fortunate to have good soil. “There are rich glacial deposits of it. Glacial soil is the best soil. It is rich in nutrients.”
The Wilson family has yet to amend their soil. “We grow intensively on a small plot of land. Lettuce is our signature crop that we sell in the summer markets but it pulls nitrogen from the soil. So how do we amend? We use compost.”
Both farms use Meeker’s Magic Mix locally produced. Three Forks also uses the spent grain from Split Rail Brewery, applying the spent grain directly to the fields as an experiment. “We are happy to add some organic matter and some fertility,” said Ms Bailey. “It works for us and helps them too.”
Recently, the Wilson family began to grow crops. There are trails full of alfalfa, which not only add nutrients to the soil and shade the soil, but have the added benefit of rabbits eating alfalfa instead of a crop of lettuce.
Ms. Bailey said Mr. Blondin and Ms. Bailey worked on other people’s farms before they started their own, and that has been helpful, as has the support that comes from organizations like the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO).
“We all eat every day,” said EFAO’s Alison McClell. “I think it’s really important how this food is grown. I think agriculture and agriculture have huge potential to possibly mitigate climate change. Agriculture has a huge impact on climate change. There are a lot of things we can change to make agriculture more climate-friendly so that we can have a more future future.” sustainability.”
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