Life and thoughts from a small-scale organic farm . . . and its farmers

This is a blog that explores ideas around the growing of food and community at Glen Valley Organic Farm.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Crop Planning: Transplants vs. Direct Seeding

Last week I received a request from fellow blogger and tweeter Eden Balfour to explain how we decide whether to start particular crops indoors or to direct seed them into the field. Here's a quick overview.

The first factor determining whether we start transplants indoors concerns how early we can get a crop and what the overall outcome for a crop will be. For example, we start alliums (onions, shallots, leeks) indoors in February. This family needs a long season and is photosensitive, meaning its plants respond to daylight hours to bulb up. It needs to be well established before solstice in order to take full advantage of the season's daylight.

We can get earlier crops of almost everything we grow by doing early plantings indoors. We do this for brassicas (cabbages and broccoli), lettuce, fennel, squash, tomatoes and cucumbers. Many of these crops are seeded every week in order to have a continuous crop or to ensure we have a plant ready to go in the ground when the weather is right. Squash, for example, does not hold well in transplant pots. We seed our crop three times over three consecutive weeks to ensure we have at least one set of healthy plants when the weather is right for transplanting.

In another example, we previously only direct seeded corn. But due to the low spring temperatures, we often didn't get proper germination or an early crop. By doing transplants this year, we found that we could get an early crop of sweet corn with no gaps in the bed space from poor germination. This helped to make the most out of every inch in the bed.

The second factor we consider is the cost of the seed. In the past, we did early fennel plantings indoors and later plantings were seeded directly into the beds. But the cost for 10,000 fennel seeds is now over $300. We weren't getting the germination we desired doing direct seeding and the weeds out performed the fennel in many instances. By doing all of our fennel as transplants we make the most out of our seeds, thus reducing some costs, while getting a better crop in the end.

The third factor concerns weeds. For the vast majority of crops, if you can transplant them, you have a better chance of staying on top of the weeds. We don't use plastic mulch on crops other than cucurbits (squash, cucumbers), so being on top of weeds is crucial. By transplanting, we are able to give the crops a head-start.

Crops such as spinach, dill, cilantro, rutabagas, radishes, turnips, beets, parsnips and carrots are all best done as direct seeding. They generally germinate well and for most, because of their taproots need to have an undisturbed growing environment. For spinach, dill and cilantro, the volume being seeded every week means that direct seeding is most efficient.

When direct seeding, bed preparation is of particular importance. Being able to prepare a bed in advance (up to two weeks before seeding) gives weeds an opportunity to germinate. Prior to seeding, the bed can be weeded (hoed or with a tractor-mounted basket weeder). Alternatively, a few days after seeding, the bed can be flame weeded (i.e. scorching the weeds with a propane torch). This allows the crop to emerge into a relatively weed-free bed, thus having a head-start over future weeds.

The main advantage transplanting provides is control over the crop and generally earlier crops, plus some cost savings in seed. The main disadvantage is scalability (i.e. finding efficient ways of doing transplants for larger crops/operations) and cost of start areas, whether a growing room with artificial lights or greenhouse space.

We have done all of our transplants in plastics trays in the past. This year I tried experimenting with soil blocks, which help to hold plants for longer and reduce transplant shock. What I found, however, is that we will need an entirely different setup to make soil blocks work. We'll try more in the future, but they won't necessarily work for everything and will take more space, time and care to do successfully.

So, if anyone has any other transplanting tips, I would love to hear them. Please share!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Grassroots Marketing and Inspired Visions

Given my activity on Twitter, I've started to get inquiries from promotional companies asking me to send out Tweets and write blog posts about products they are hired to promote.

Some of these inquiries are for small events; others are obvious examples of greenwashing.

Overall, given my background in Communication (academic and professional) prior to farming, I am curious and skeptical when I get a phone call from a promotions firm asking for my help in spreading word about a film.

So, when Collective Eye from Portland called last week asking to help spread the word about a new documentary about bees, I needed convincing. What I found was inspiring.

First, the documentary: Queen of the Sun: What Are The Bees Telling Us? This is a documentary that examines the disappearance of honey bees and looks at solutions to the current dilemma facing bees, beekeepers, farmers and all those who eat. These solutions are found in nature and sustainable agriculture, not in the lab or through a technological fix. The film sounds informed and inspiring while the visuals appear stunning.

Second, the promotions firm: Collective Eye. Actually, it's a small distributor for films that deal with social, political, environmental and spiritual issues. They're doing interesting work by contacting non-profits and farms with missions related to their films' content to help get out word to a target audience.

In some instances, this type of marketing makes my skin crawl. I see people unwittingly tweeting about products that are obvious greenwashing for companies. At the same time, I know that with social media, this type of marketing is increasingly prevalent. It's done well in some circumstances, and not in others.

I felt comfortable promoting Queen of the Sun. It's an important and inspiring examination of a problem we need to understand. If you see it, let me know what you think -- have I unwittingly helped spread word about a stinker? Based on the reviews I've read, I don't think that'll be the case.

Queen of the Sun: What Are The Bees Telling Us? premiers in Vancouver at the Denman Cinema on June 24th-30th.

Animals, Agriculture, Fertility and What We Eat

What if your vegetables came from animals? If you're eating organically, this isn't too far off the mark.

It occurs to me regularly that our system of organic farming involves a significant amount of compost that, of course, comes from various livestock operations. In order to grow, we need soil fertility. Keeping our soil healthy and rich requires nutrients.

As required under organic guidelines, we use compost made of manure from organic livestock. The vast majority of our compost comes from off-farm operations, including chicken, goat, duck, turkey and mushroom sources. In addition to this, potting soil mixes often use blood meal and bone meal and fish fertilizer is used on transplants to keep plants alive when planting is delayed.

As a result, the veggies you eat from organic farms, depend on livestock operations in a fairly direct manner. I often wonder how this sits with our customers, particularly those who are vegan or vegetarian for a variety of reasons related to animal treatment. I've wanted to discuss this issue for some time.

The need for fertility
All systems of agriculture rely on the use of some inputs of nutrients and organic matter for the sake of fertility. When we grow and harvest a crop, we are removing plant matter from the fields. With it, we remove organic matter and nutrients that went into the plants' growth.

Animal manure is an obvious source of fertility to be added back into the soil. It is rich in nutrients, organic matter and, in an agricultural context, it is readily available.

Through the process of composting, bacteria breaks down matter and brings the temperature of the compost pile to a temperature that kills pathogenic bacteria. The compost is turned regularly to ensure all parts of the pile reach this temperature.

Alternatives to animal compost
There are alternative fertility sources for agriculture. The most widely used in our current system of agriculture is chemical fertilizer.

The macro nutrients required for growing are manufactured or mined from various chemical components. Nitrogen is produced, in the form of ammonia, from the air using natural gas (nitrogen comprises 78% of the air we breath). The process is comparable to the manner by which lightening fixes nitrogen (fields become quite lush in the days after an electric storm).

Phosphorus is made through a process that uses sulfur, coal and rock phosphate. Potassium is mined in the form of potash and then granulated.

These processes are, obviously, energy intensive, using non-renewable resources. Moreover, this form of agriculture focuses on feeding the plants, not the soil. It does not add organic matter back into the soil and, over time, leaves soil lifeless -- organisms cannot live in soil without nutrients and organic matter.

An alternate form of building soil is through the use of cover crops (green manures). Legumes such as peas and clovers have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that grow on their roots and fix nitrogen. By turning these crops back into the soil, this nitrogen becomes available to a future crop.

By growing grain crops, organic matter is returned to the soil and there is evidence that these cover crops can help break disease and pest cycles in vegetable production. Grain crops do not fix nitrogen, although they provide a variety of other benefits, including weed control, water and soil conservation and the maintenance of soil microbial activity.

A limitation of cover crops is that they would require a significant portion of land being taken out of production at any given point in time in order to build the soil. And, ultimately, these crops will not build all of the nutrients required for production.

We use cover crops over the winter to help prevent soil erosion as well as throughout the growing season to build soil, control weeds and maintain nutrients in the soil. They are an important part of our agricultural practices.

Finally, there is an option of using human waste -- although not an option for organic growers, where the use of human waste is prohibited by organic standards. But sewage sludge is used in some conventional systems. This has challenges, ranging from the concentration of certain metals (like copper and lead) to the transfer of pathogens if the waste has not been treated properly.

There are a variety of innovative uses of human waste (as in biosolids -- that sounds better, doesn't it?) and this is an issue that needs further discussion. Simply stated, in our current system we take one of the most concentrated sources of nutrients and dump them into waterways where aquatic life is threatened by the resulting algae blooms. We are throwing away a source of nutrients that we cannot reclaim later.

The role of livestock
Given the above limitations, livestock remain an important component of organic production systems. Indeed, livestock waste is used in a variety of organic and conventional systems in a variety of manner -- some more sustainable than others.

But it also remains a fact that in our society we eat a tremendous amount of meat. It seems problematic to me that our over-consumption of meat (and its impacts in the form of resource allocation, greenhouse gas production, etc.) should form the backbone of a "sustainable" food system. Nonetheless, I think animal husbandry is a crucial part of sustainable agriculture.

In our current systems, we have more animal waste than can be used in agricultural systems. Animal waste leaches into our aquifers in the Lower Mainland (contaminating our water supplies) and runs off into rivers, lakes and oceans, causing algae growth and dead zones as algae decomposes and robs the water of oxygen.

There must be a balance.

A New Urban Diet?
This has lead me to think of cultural solutions, including the reduction of meat consumption. This isn't new, but it is contentious. From my perspective, those who spend most of their days in offices do not need the high calorie food provided by our dairy, egg and meat agriculture in the quantities available.

A sustainable urban diet might use fewer animal products. A vegetarian diet might be more appropriate for most people, most of the time.

The animal products we enjoy (milk, cheese, butter, eggs, meat) might be better celebrated in connection with their rural origins.

For example, cheese was traditionally a means of preserving milk for the months when animals finished their lactation cycle. Cheese could be eaten in the off season as well as transported to more distant markets for some additional income. It was not a daily staple for anyone other than the rural dwellers who made the product.

Easy to say for someone who farms? Perhaps, but a new urban diet has to take into account that staple foods must come from lower on the food chain if we are to achieve anything resembling a sustainable food system.

What this means for farmers is that they need to produce less livestock and animal products. It also means producing livestock based on what inputs can be produced at a closer distance; at the moment, all of our feed is brought in from the prairies and overseas and, in conventional systems, uses chemical fertilizers to grow and then fossil fuels for transport.

In the end, we need a better understanding of how much livestock production is needed to produce an equitable and sufficient diet for the population. This may involve re-scaling agriculture; we have an increasingly number of studies showing the higher productivity of small-scale, organic production. The urban farming movement will play a significant role in this discussion as well.

Otherwise, until we see a repopulation of rural areas in the form of small farms, we must rethink our menu and means of producing our food.

Animals, Veganism and Agriculture
In the end, I think livestock is a crucial component of sustainable agriculture. But this animal husbandry must be done an smaller scales (i.e. no 500 hog feed operations or 20,000 layer hen barns) and in coordination with the many other crop production systems that can make use of compost.

In this light, I think a close relationship with animals that respects them as living beings, but also as part of a nutrient cycle is important. I don't anthropomorphize livestock, but I do recognize that as living beings they feel pain and have a quality of life that must be measured and nurtured.

The animals we raise on our farm provide some food for us on the farm (milk and meat from the goats, eggs and eventually stewing hens from our chickens), but also provide some of the nutrients we need to grow our crops.

We rely on animal compost as a part of our farm's fertility plan. I respect that various choices people make about their food. When discussing agriculture with others I often think that we arrive at the same point (e.g. vegetarianism) but for different reasons (e.g. compassion for animals vs. environmental concern).

There is usually a lot of overlap in the ideas that inform our choices. And in that spirit, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please feel free to share your ideas and comments in the comments section below.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

When life gives you rhubarb, just add sugar

Rhubarb season has been a blast thus far and with strawberries just around the corner, nature's perfect culinary combination is about to blast onto the scene.

Rhubarb really is an amazing spring food. It is hardy, arriving in the garden before much of anything else. Its root has been used medicinally for millennia (for chronic diarrhea and hemorrhoids, if you must know) and the stalk increases appetite and acts as a mild laxative. That makes it the perfect spring cleanse food! Just don't eat the leaves (in case you felt inspired). They're toxic.

Of course, rhubarb is unpalatable to most people without the addition of sugar. The plant didn't even come into common usage in Europe until colonialism brought cheap sugar to the masses (yes, colonialism and slavery underwrites much of the history of our modern culinary traditions -- even to this day). But I digress.

By mid-June, when the season has been slow to pick-up, we know that after a month of rhubarb and before the strawberries arrive, you might be looking for some new ideas. Here are a few of our favorite recipes (as provided by

Stewed Rhubarb with Added Spices

When stewing rhubarb, add chai spices (cardamon, star anise, cinnamon and ginger) or citrus rind and juice.

Stewed rhubarb is great on its own, with yoghurt and/or with granola. And it's best with rich custard -- don't forget to pick up some eggs and heavy cream for a heavenly spring treat (I think the custard negates the spring tonic aspect of rhubarb . . . if you care).

Rhubarb Sorbet

1.5 lb rhubarb, cut in 5 cm pieces

25 mL water

175 mL sugar

5 mL vanilla

1 egg white

Puree rhubarb with water. Add sugar and cook until rhubarb is tender (about 5 min), stirring frequently. Remove from heat; add vanilla and food coloring. Cool to room temperature. Beat egg white until stiff but not dry. Fold into rhubarb mixture. Pour into 2.5 L baking dish (23 cm square). Freeze until firm around edges (about 1 h). Turn into chilled bowl; beat until smooth. Freeze partially (about 1 h more); beat again. Freeze until firm (about 2 h more). Makes 8 servings (125 mL each). If you have an ice cream maker, use it to freeze the sorbet.

Rhubarb Frozen Yogurt

2 Cups Stewed rhubarb

1/2 Cup Plain yogurt

3 Tablespoons Granulated sugar

2 Tablespoons Orange juice

In food processor puree stewed rhubarb until smooth. Blend in yogurt, sugar and orange juice. Freeze in icecream maker or cover and freeze in shallow metal pan for 3 to 4 hrs or until almost firm. Break up mixture and process in food processor in batches if necessary until smooth. Freeze in airtight container for 1 hour or until firm.

Fish with Rhubarb Sauce

2 c rhubarb cut into small pieces

1/2 c tomato sauce

3 Tbsp olive oil

2 tsp sugar

1/2 c water


1 lb fish

Wash rhubarb well. Peel off the hard skin.

Cook all ingredients except fish together in a pot for 30 minutes, until rhubarb is cooked thoroughly.

Add cut-up pieces of fish and simmer until fish is cooked.

Chicken Smothered In Rhubarb

3 1/2 pound chicken, cut into 10 serving pieces


1 tablespoon flour

1/4 cup olive oil

1 pound rhubarb, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

2 medium onions, julienned

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 bay leaf

Fresh thyme sprigs

1 cup white wine

3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Garnish: 2 cups cooked white rice, warm, 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

In a mixing bowl, toss the chickens with Essence and flour. In a large heavy pot, heat the olive oil. When the oil is hot, brown the chicken for 6 to 8 minutes on each side. Add the rhubarb and onions. Season with salt and pepper. Stirring constantly, wilt and brown the onions, scraping the bottom of the pot to loosen any brown particles, for about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, herbs and wine, cover and reduce the heat. Stir occasionally and cook for about 45 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Stir in the parsley. Arrange the chicken on a platter and garnish with Essence (eseence of emril) and parsley and serve with rice.

Baked Chicken And Rhubarb

3 lb. chicken breasts and thighs or 1 whole chicken cut up

2 c. diced rhubarb (1/2-inch pieces)

1/3 c. sugar

1 1/2 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 1/2 c. water

2 tsp. lemon juice

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

rice for serving

Combine cornstarch, sugar, rhubarb and water in a saucepan. Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture boils. Cook until clear and thickened, about 2 minutes. Add lemon juice. Cool.

Place chicken in a shallow baking dish. Brush with butter and sprinkle with salt. Bake uncovered in 375 degrees oven for 30 minutes. Spoon rhubarb sauce over chicken. Sprinkle with spices. Return to oven and bake 20 minutes longer. Serve immediately with sauce spooned over chicken. Serve with hot cooked rice. Yields 4 to 6 servings.

Almond Rhubarb Coffee Cake

1 1/2 c. packed brown sugar

2/3 c. vegetable oil

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla

2 1/2 c. flour

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda

1 c. milk

1 1/2 c. finely chopped fresh or frozen rhubarb

1/2 c. sugar


1/3 c. sugar

1 Tbls. butter, melted

1/4 c. sliced almonds

Beat brown sugar, oil, egg & vanilla until smooth. Combine flour salt & baking soda; add to sugar mixture alternately with milk. Beat until smooth. Stir in Rhubarb & almonds. Pour into 2 greased 9-inch round cake pans. For topping, combine sugar & butter; stir in almonds. Sprinkle over batter. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30-35 minutes or test done.

Need more ideas? Check out for more rhubarb ideas than you ever thought possible.

Monday, June 13, 2011

It's better to sell out than throw out

The months of May and much of June can be odd times at the farmers markets, particularly for small farms. It often happens that by the end of the first hour we are sold out of our most prized veggies of the day. It often leaves people to ask, "Why don't you bring more?"

In fact, a few people have taken the time to explain to me the following impacts of us selling out:
  • It reflects poorly on the market when customers arrive and can't find produce;
  • We're only thinking about ourselves and not the people we need to feed (who consequently can't get our produce); and
  • People who have never been to the market before will arrive, find no selection, and never shop at a farmers market again.
Admittedly, most of these comments are offered in the spirit of direction, not of discussion. As a result, I very rarely get a chance to explain the marketing strategy of a small farm at the farmers market. While most of those offering me instruction likely don't read my blog, I will nonetheless take a moment to explain our objectives at the market.

First and foremost, we want to sell out. One of the first things my farmer mentors taught me was that it's better to sell out than to throw out. Some extra produce at the end of the day gets donated to local charities who pick up leftovers at the market. Some goes back to the farm for us to eat. Some ends up on the compost pile. None of it earns us an income. We never like to short customers on orders, but we also have to be realistic about what we can grow considering all factors such as weather and past sales history.

Second, we often don't have more product. As a small farm, we often take what we have. And the market is busy. Yes, we sell out of 144 pints of strawberries in an hour and we couldn't pick more before the market. Of course, if I could bring enough produce to sell everyone exactly what they wanted, I would. But the beauty of the farmers market (for the farmer) is that sometimes I only have a half-case of spinach and I can sell it along with everything else I have that week. The beauty (for the customer) is that the creative chef will be surprised by what arrives on a given week.

Third, produce doesn't keep. When we don't have refrigeration and automated misting machines at the market (a la grocery stores), it makes it difficult to hold produce through a four hour market, especially on a sunny day. Strawberries or raspberries picked ripe won't last. For heat-sensitive produce, we bring what we know we will sell in the cool, early hours of the market. The best farmers markets start early in the day and don't last more than four hours.

Fourth, we plan based on sales of the previous week. When we sell out of chard after the first hour of the market, we increase what we harvest for the following week. We also watch weather forecasts for each market day and have to decide whether sales will increase or decrease because a market falls on a long weekend. If sales of a product were rotten one week and then the same product sells out the following week, we're something left baffled. It's a tough guess at times, but we try to send what we think we can sell.

So, that's a bit of the logic behind the farmers market. Ultimately, we also have to keep in mind that we're one small farm and we can't feed everyone. Rather, we try to support markets and encourage other small farms so that we will have a diversity of farmers at markets, able to meet the needs of our customers' menus. I remain confident that a multitude of small farms can meet much of our society's food needs.

An efficient food system, in my ideal, means little waste and a diversity of growers -- including traditional farmers, urban farmers and gardeners galore. If we can do this by selling and using everything we grow rather than by throwing out surplus produce we're onto a good thing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

When the Spinach (and Weather) Doesn't Cooperate

Last week I promised NOW BC, a Vancouver co-operative buying club, that we would have spinach available for them this week. This morning, when we should be harvesting to fill their order, there is no spinach.

Our first major planting of spinach started to size up last week. I was sure we would have enough for harvesting this week. But the spinach had already been in the ground a long time through the cold, wet spring. Then, with a blast of hot weather last week, it didn't look like the spinach would hold for long. We had to harvest what we could for weekend markets. The rest of the planting hasn't sized up. Moreover, after seeding the current planting we had to wait almost three weeks before seeding our next planting due to intense rain in the past months.

All of this means that the spinach people are expecting to receive tomorrow won't arrive. NOW BC can't secure spinach at the price we offered (spinach is wholesaling for the price NOW BC would have retailed ours for).

In some ways, this is the price one might pay for trying to work with a small farm: small crops and inconsistent supply. At the same time, the larger farms around us have no crop at the moment. When we can't get into the field to use our human-powered seeding equipment, other farms certainly can't get their tractors in to do larger seedings.

What this more accurately highlights is the difficulty of predicting crops while avoiding waste. Knowing whether the spinach will hold in the field (or size up adequately) in order to include on a price list is a gamble more than an art or science at many times. Often we avoid listing products with NOW BC simply because it's easier to guess that we won't have the supply than to try and promise that we will. If a planting is too large, it can go to waste if not enough marketing outlets exist to take it; too small, and someone gets shorted on their order.

This makes it even more challenging for home delivery services. To get a commitment from a farmer (or even wholesaler) that a product will be available can be tricky. When products don't show up, it leaves the delivery service with disappointed (and sometimes angry) customers and a precarious business model.

I offer this overview not to provide excuses, but in order to give some insight into why the world of food production and sales (particularly of fresh produce) is tricky. To provide abundance, there is always waste when extra produce isn't sold; just-in-time delivery often results in short orders -- whether working with small farms or the world's largest produce companies.

This spring has been particularly difficult for many farmers in the Lower Mainland and we're only just beginning to get a full perspective of the impacts. Our spinach is one small example. Such an explanation doesn't help consumers find a replacement. Hopefully it does help to build some understanding of the pressures we're all under.