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Beyond the growing pains

 

Organized organic growing and marketing at Sunset Gardens

 

by Roger Samson

 

While many people have set out to become successful organic vegetable farmers, few have flourished as well as Norbert Kungl of Walton, Nova Scotia. Kungl's Sunset Gardens has been in business for only eight years and already has 13 acres of common and speciality vegetables under cultivation, and is selling its' produce through four buying groups, farmers' markets and several retailers. However, Sunset Gardens didn't achieve this success without its' fair share of what Kungl calls "growing pains" on the farm. But learning from past experiences, and having a constant goal of getting the farm organized from growing through to marketing is the driving force that is making the business prosper. Sustainable Farming had the chance to visit Kungl this past September at his hide-away on the South shore of the Bay of Fundy and asked him a few questions about Sunset Gardens.

 

 

How do you organize your vegetables? Are they established in a set rotation?

 

"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's flexible, but within reasonable limits."

 

What cover crops do you use?

 

"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."

 

What else do you use to supply fertility?

 

"I use fish bone meal left over from the fish filleting process at National Sea Products in Lunenberg. It's 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 irrigated the vegetables which also helped to keep the mineralization process going throughout the season."

 

What direct measures do you use for pest control?

 

"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 severely set back 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 take off the floating row covers. This allows the broccoli, for example, to develop a dark green head. 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 is spread out over three crops. After the row covers are removed, we are prone to caterpillars such as the cabbage looper. This year in particular, we had major problems with fall army worms which seemed to like the Chinese cabbage. Once the covers came off wherever we sprayed BT we seemed to be fine for these problems."

 

What about weed control, I believe you have had some experience with propane weeders?

 

"We have one of the backpack propane flame throwers. It has a five inch wide flame spreader. We use 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. The weed control was obviously not as successful. There was a dramatic difference between the flamed and unflamed plots."

 

What else do you use for weeding?

 

"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 work well if you have the right soil for it. They don't work in very heavy, clumpy soil, and they don't work well if you have too many rocks or sod in the ground. Soil preparation needs to be very good if you expect them to work efficiently. We also have a Farmall Cub tractor that has been widened so the track will fit over a 60 inch 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're small, tiny, little crops when they first come up. Weed control was rather good in most of the fields in 1994."

 

On the marketing side, what was your first strategy when you decided to begin organic vegetable farming?

 

"In 1986, we started producing by basically 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 establish a farmers' market in Windsor, N.S. 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 the 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 so from May on we had crops to sell at the Halifax 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 of planting clovers. We also had good production that year. Our farmers' market sales have continued to increase 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."

 

What year did you start the buying groups?

 

We 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 $2.00 handling fee per order."

 

 

Ideally, how would you like to see your vegetables go to market?

 

"I like the farmers' markets because they're 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. 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 still 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; 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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