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BEYOND THE GROWING PAINS
Organized Organic Growing and Marketing at Sunset Gardens
While many people have set out to become successful organic vegetable farmers few have had as much success as Norbert Kungl of Walton, N.S. While admittedly there have been what Kungl calls "growing pains" on the farm they are now much less frequent. Presently 13 acres of vegetables are under cultivation with almost all common vegetables being grown and many uncommon ones. Kungl attributes his success to his constant goal of getting the farm organized from growing through to marketing and learning from his past experiences. We had the chance to visit him on a beautiful September afternoon at his hideaway on the south shore of the Bay of Fundy and ask him a few questions about Sunset Gardens.
Our intent is to have our beds grouped, with five beds belonging to one block. The beds are 30 feet wide by 200 feet long. We rotate between the blocks. We plan to have some in green manures, others with light feeders and others with heavy feeders. It is flexible but within reasonable limits.
I use rye for a winter cover crop. Where I keep it for the spring, I sometimes seed common vetch in the rye. The main green manures are vetch and perennial forages such as alfalfa and the various clovers. I am trying to switch over to annuals.
I use fish bone meal leftover from the fish filleting process at National Sea Products in Lunenberg. It is dried ground and pelleted. It has a high phosphorus content. The maximum amount that we would apply to a field is about 40 kg N/ha applied on a preplant basis. We plant our crops in that and then rely on the mineralization process to use up some of the organic matter we have accumulated through our rotation. In dry years such as this past year we irrigate the vegetables which also helps keep the mineralization process going throughout the season.
For pest control we use floating row covers for physical control of pests on all the cole crops. It has proved to be an absolutely essential step for us. Ever since we started here we have always had terrible problems especially with flea beetles. Any young cole crop that was transplanted or would come up as seedlings would be set back severely so the floating row covers have proven to be essential. Ever since we implemented them we have had very few problems. Towards the end of the vegetation period we have to take off the floating row covers. This allows the broccoli for example to develop a dark green head. The light reduction from the row cover is enough to prevent the broccoli from developing a dark green cover in the head so we have to take it off. Another problem on some of the leafy crops like kale and collards is that if the plants get big towards maturity and we have a wind you can get mechanical abrasion of the leaves. So once these crops are well established we have to take the row covers off. Another reason for that is the economics of it. The row covers are quite expensive and I am trying to get three uses out of them in one season so the cost of them is spread out over three crops. After the row covers are removed we are prone to the caterpillars such as the cabbage looper for example. This year in particular we had major problems with fall armyworm which seemed to like the Chinese cabbage in particular. Once the covers came off wherever we sprayed BT we seemed to be fine for these problems.
We have one of the backpack propane flame throwers. It has a 5 inch wide flame spreader. We used this for carrots and seeded onions. I think it works fantastically. If you adjust your management to properly accommodate the benefits of the stale seed bed with the flame weeding it does wonders. If you prepare your seedbed about 7-10 days before you seed, then flame before the crop emerges you are well ahead of the game. On research trials on my farm this past summer with onions we had excellent weed control where the seedbed was prepared about a week ahead of planting and where the flaming was done just before the onions poked through the ground. Right along side this trial we had another test with carrots that was not prepared a week before but only a day or two before seeding. Weed control was very obviously not as successful. There was still dramatic differences between flamed and unflamed plots but it was not as good as the other plot.
We do quite a bit of hand weeding and we have a couple of hand operated roller hoes. I use a roller hoe rather than a wheel hoe. It has five star like wheels with an oscillating hoe, a U shaped thin blade of metal. Depending on the angle of how you hold it, the stars will break up the crust and the U shaped swinging hoe just slices off a piece of the soil. It is very efficient you can get very close to the row without throwing dirt in the row. You can slice off the soil just on the edge of a plant without risk of damaging the plant or covering them. They were work well if you have the right soil for it. They do not work in very heavy clumpy soil and they do not work well if you have too many rocks or sods in the ground. Soil preparation needs to be very good if you expect them to work very efficiently. We also have a Farmall Cub tractor that has been widened so that the track will fit over a 60 " bed. With that machine we have a belly mounted cultivator that is hydraulically operated. We had crop shields mounted on it this past year so that I can go much closer to things like the carrots and onions. They are small and tiny little crops when they first come up. Weed control was rather good in most of the fields in 1994.
In 1986 we started producing by basically just borrowing equipment and we plowed up a piece of old sod to plant our crops. We didn't really have a market for our produce so we helped established a farmers market in Windsor, NS. Its our nearest small town which has a population of about three or four thousand. That's basically what we stuck with for the first two or three years. We just went to that farmers market and eventually we developed a few extra private customers that would call us and order vegetables for the winter. More than by coincidence than careful planning we got to making deliveries to a chain store. The reason I started that was because I needed to work off the farm to make ends meet. I was working at a hydroponic greenhouse and through that greenhouse I had access to one of the supermarket chains. Along with the stuff from the greenhouse I sent along all the produce I could get from our fields here and as a result established a bit of a retail market through grocery stores. Once I stopped working for that greenhouse I started going to the Halifax city market. That was really a big turning point for our marketing success. That was the spring of 1991. We had a greenhouse then already, so that from May on we had crops to sell at the Halifax city market. We really hit a vacuum, a big vacuum. At the time we were five years into our production and all of a sudden things had fallen into place. We had the quality, much better quality than in previous years because of our soil building program such as planting clovers. We also had good production that year. Our farmers market sales have continued to increased every year since then. We also changed grocery chains. Another chain offered us more support in dealing with its individual stores and that has turned out to be a great success as well.
We also started them in 1991. We now have four buying groups. One of them is a cooperative which buys the food in bulk and they split it up amongst their members. The other three are serviced by taking individual orders every week. Each order is packaged separately and I charge a two dollar handling fee per order.
I like the farmers markets as it is an excellent opportunity to get consumer contact and response as well as meet new customers. I think the combination of buying groups and farmers markets is the best. The buying groups are valuable because not everyone can go to the market or get there every week and with the buying groups they can get all their fresh vegetables regularly. The main advantage of dealing with the chain stores for me is that if I have surplus production on the farm that I can't sell through my regular channels I can sell it through the chain stores. Even if I dropped my price at the farmers market or for the buying group they wouldn't be able to absorb it all. If I give the chain store some advance notice of my predicted surplus production for that week I can usually market it through them. Right now I market about 35% of my produce at the farmers market, 10-15% through the buying groups and the remaining 50% through retailers which includes several restaurants and health food stores and the chain store. The three markets together provide good stability, it seems to be working for us.
Copyright © 1994 REAP Canada
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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